Monday, June 15, 2015

On pianos, trees and development

An apologies to our readers for my absence during this semester. Family matters have kept me away from most of my professional commitments. But I am back, and happy to see that Michael Dowdle's has done a good job at keeping the blog alive!

In a beautiful autobiographic post on Law, Development and Music, Michael draws on a very personal experience to ask why, "in law and development, when looking at 'the Global South', we focus far more on what nations are not doing then on what they are doing." While Glenn Gould's piano led Michael to this question, Mahatma Ghandi's beautiful tree has led James Tooley to the same question.

On a mission to investigate the failures of educational systems in developing countries, Tooley accidentally bumped into private schools for the poor. These were often located in slums or poor neighborhoods; run by people who belonged to the community; and despite the fact that they charged fees, there were financial schemes to assure that the kids from the poorest families as well as those who were slightly better off were able to have access to education. 

Tooley finds these private schools in India, Nigeria, Ghana and China, as he report in his book entitled The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People are Education Themselves. The title, as the reader comes to find at the very end of the book (p. 220), comes from a speech: "When Ghandi spoke at the Royal Institute for Royal Affairs in London on October 20, 1931, (...) he said the British came to India and uprooted 'the beautiful tree', he was referring to the beautiful tree of a private education system serving the poor as well as the rich. Instead of embracing this indigenous private education system, the British rooted it out, and it perished. And this left India more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago."

The finding that there are private schools by the poor to the poor is interesting in and of itself, but Tooley's book gets even more fascinating. Tooley conducted standardized performance tests to compare the performance of the students in these private schools with those attending the public school system (which is the focus of many educational policies for development). In all countries except for China, students attending these low-fee private schools were getting a better education than their counterparts in the public system. 

The Chinese exception is explained in this nice summary of the book: "The logic seems to be somewhat different in China, where private schools are closer in performance to Government schools, but cater mainly for children in remote rural villages; parents are reluctant to send their children (especially their daughters) to distant Government schools. Their rationale is therefore slightly different to that in Africa and India – where the existence of private schools seems to be at least partly a function of perceived shortcomings in Government provision." (Click here for the full summary).

While Brazil (or any other Latin American country) is not featured in the book, last Friday I had a chance to visit Rocinha, the largest slums in Brazil. This sprawling favela with an estimated population of 100,000 people today has nothing less but three private schools. As far as I could assess, the schools follow the same model described by Tooley: low fees, organized by the poor and serving the poor. 

Over the weekend, I had a chance to talk to a law professor who is actively involved in the Association of the Residents of Favelas in Rio, and I asked her about the schools. She said that they were a common phenomenon. I asked if they were providing higher quality education than Brazil's public schools. Her answer was negative. She said that Brazil's public schools had very well trained teachers who could provide a much better education to the kids. The problem that private schools were solving is that they were dependable, unlike public schools, where there are recurrent strikes that can last for months, unforeseen closures, and all sorts of problems with transportation to get kids to and from schools. For working parents, specially single mothers, it was hard to find last minute alternative solutions to these problems. So, private schools were a tradeoff: kids get a worse education, but parents do not have any uncertainty about whether they will have a place to leave their kids or not. If this account is correct, the logic for these schools in Brazil would be very different from the logic in China (and probably the results about performance would also be inferior). 

In any event, this book (and the understudied phenomenon of private schools in Brazilian favelas) seems to suggest that we have much to learn about  creative and interesting solutions adopted by developing countries and specially how the poor people are managing to help themselves without counting or foreign aid or their national or local governments. Tooley showed that instead of looking at the education that poor kids were not receiving (public education) we should look at the education they were manage to guarantee for themselves. Following Michael Dowdle's call and Tooley's example, I think we should start looking into other instances of the same phenomenon. I am sure we will be surprised with what we will find.


  1. Welcome back, my friend. You've been missed.

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