Primary Education is Critical for Growth

For the last six months, I have been working for a chain of low-cost private primary schools serving low-income and slum communities.  The business model is innovative – by standardizing as much of the practice of building and operating a school as possible, Bridge has essentially created a “school in a box.” This is my first experience working in education, so the learning curve, as always, has been steep.  But the world is complex and the systems that govern it are highly interconnected.  And, as with philosophy and math, the root cause of so many problems can be traced back to education.

In the Philippines, I worked with a microfinance institution that served the poorest of the poor – mostly women – in the Visayas region.   The women often used the loans as working capital for small businesses, selling projects in a little store connected to their homes, raising pigs, small-scale agriculture, trading, etc.  Most had large families with many children, and found it difficult to provide for them.  Very few had graduated from secondary school, even fewer from post-secondary.  But with each additional year of schooling, average family size declines by a not-insignificant amount. This could be in part due to greater awareness of family planning, a better understanding of the economic implications of having a large family.  Education provides more skilled employment opportunities, reducing the reliance on manual labor and farming – both jobs that benefit from an extra set of hands.  The Philippines is a heavily Catholic country, so maybe more education makes people less deferential to the higher power’s influence in their life.  Whatever the reason, more education means smaller families, higher income, and greater opportunities for the fewer children being raised.

In Kenya, where I live now, corruption is a cancer at every level of government, a parasite debilitating the country, stifling social and economic progress.  In the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, Ghana, corruption has the same deleterious effect.  The scourge is so systemic that a cynical population resigns itself to voting for the politician who is best at playing the game, rather than the one who will change it.  (In the Philippines, however, the most recent president, Noynoy Aquino, has made admirable strides in the fight against corruption.)  And ignorance enables corruption.

What I mean by this is people not understanding the scale of the problem, and who is specifically perpetrating it.  When literacy rates are low in certain areas, how can the populace be truly informed in their decision-making?  Politicians can make false promises with little accountability, and offer small tokens in exchange for votes.  People end up selling their support for a fraction of what is taken from them in the form of graft.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Education, to my mind, is the bulwark against corruption.   The corruption-education problem might be a chicken-egg situation, but one thing is true: an informed populace makes informed decisions.  A middle class with more to lose from kleptocracy will demand better governance.  When people understand the importance of investment in growth, yet watch their politicians literally steal money from the public coffers, they will refuse to stand for it.  And this process relies on everyone with a stake in the future of their country to have at least a basic education.

Family planning and anti-corruption are just a few reasons why education is so critical to economic growth.  Give children the tools to take control of their own fate, and the chips will fall into place.  Get them while they are young, and teach them the skills to be, if not successful financially, at least informed enough to make decisions in their best interest.  This, to me, is why education is so critical.

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