Education is The Key, But to Whose Door?

By Henrietta de Crespigny

Thinking about human rights and education brings to mind so many salient thoughts, theories, treaties and agreements. Mostly, it brings to mind the common phrase “education is the answer to everything.” It is tempting to proceed with a neat list of all of the examples of education programs that are improving literacy rates around the world, increasing graduation rates amongst the rural poor, of those deprived of an education due to their being born in a certain country, a certain sex, race, socio-economic background or marital status. However, I want to focus on the next step for these graduates – when education is useful and when it is not, and the relevance of “education.”

When we talk of education being “the answer” we must ask ourselves, what problem are we seeking a resolution for? (This may seem like an insult to what I am presuming are my liberal, progressive-minded readers – hear me out). “Poverty” is clearly not the problem. “Poverty” is a measurement of a state of living; it is the product of a complex array of circumstances that lead a people to that standard of living. It is these circumstances; war, famine, drought and more, that are the problem.

For a simple example, let’s say;  x + y = poverty.

In this instance, the variables “x” and “y” represent conditions that produce the outcome “poverty”. Thus, it is not the sum itself we need to be focusing on, but the variable conditions that lead to reaching this outcome of poverty.

Now, a variable is changeable ad infinitum, which means that any equation trying to change the outcome of our “poverty” sum by necessity must be equally varied.

Now let’s say, a + b = prosperity (which we will define as a society where the human rights of all are guaranteed, and let’s also admit that this is largely correlative to wealthy nations)

The variables “a” and “b” are aimed at contributing to a prosperous society, one where the human rights of all citizens are guaranteed by the state. In our current world, this also means the state has sufficient economic power to provide such human capital services.

Take Liberia for example, a West African nation recently ravished by 17 years of civil war. Liberia ranks in the bottom five of the worlds’ poorest countries (based on International Monetary Fund and World Bank figures, 2012). The nation is considered by economists as a “traditional society”, belonging to the first category of the Rostovian economic model (a system that describes the major historical stages of economic growth of a country). This system names a number of catalysts for progression into a more prosperous country – we can consider these to be the variables “a” and “b” that help a country “takeoff” towards prosperity.

Primary amongst these variables are enhanced investment in physical environmental structures (irrigation systems, canals, etc.) and increased adoption of technology. This facilitates the development of more productive commercial and exportable agricultural products. This, coupled with change in hierarchical social structures, act as preconditions for economic takeoff. So, it would seem that “a” and “b” need to comprise of initiatives that enhance the ability of communities to begin to create revenue-building schemes that will contribute to the nation’s wealth as a whole. This generates an increased ability for the state to support human capital (health, education and nutrition) in the long term, thus diminishing their reliance on international aid for this provision.

So, how does education fit with these factors if literacy and numeracy don’t feature as a listed catalyst? Now we’re back to the initial discussion; what problem are we applying this “fix-all” to? In Liberia, the problem is the inability of the state to provide the most basic services to their citizens; health care, education and nutrition. One popular response from the international community is to provide these services directly. An example is the provision of pre-determined education packages developed by international aid agencies that are dropped into poor countries, reminiscent of the bags of rice dropped during the ’83-’85 Ethiopian famine. Then, the international community was criticised for giving Ethiopians rice because the positive effect of the rice provision in stemming the effects of the famine were outweighed by the detrimental effects it had on political stability, which in turn made the famine worse. I wonder, is this blanket approach to education programs committing a similar mistake?


The goal is not to provide Liberians with education, or Ethiopians with rice,

it is ensuring that Liberia (and other countries) can provide education and rice to their citizens themselves.


Back in Liberia, it was at the moment when the classroom fell silent following the teacher’s question, “Now, what other words begin with “B”?” that this fear came to rise. This question was preceded by the teacher asking the student, Bendu, what her name was and what letter it started with, which a year of [insert large aid agency]-sponsored education had taught her. This was in rural Liberia where millions of dollars are currently being spent on teaching rural Liberians the English alphabet and basic numeracy skills – this program in particular targeting youth and young adults. This is an example of an internationally approved “a” and “b” variable that donor agencies hope will help achieve prosperity.

The goal is not to provide Liberians with education, or Ethiopians with rice, it is ensuring that Liberia (and other countries) can provide education and rice to their citizens themselves. The international community’s goal should be to help facilitate this, not to replace their role entirely. Of course aid agencies have long been aware of this. Enter the “vocational skills” element of these pre-determined aid packages (a relatively recent addition to traditional education-based programs). Aimed at increasing the livelihoods of beneficiaries to help stimulate their economic prosperity, they aim to lead to a sustainable increased quality of life.

In Liberia, adult women and men that participate in [insert large aid agency’s name]’s vocational skills training program are given the opportunity to partake in one of four training programs (in either; hairdressing, mechanics, tailoring or baking).

Now, back in Bendu’s community, with a population of 500 where this “hard skills” program was taking place, Bendu’s sister, Wonkehmi, was training to be a hairdresser under the program. When I asked her trainer, Zokaya, what business was like and how many customers he had in his salon per day, his reply was “only two”. This was two customers per day at $1.50 per visit. Zokaya was training 10 women to become hairdressers in a community where there was almost no market for these services. The cost of his imported tools and products (enough for 10-15 customers) totaled at least $10, invoiced to [large aid agency]. This seems like a crazy waste of donor dollars, and it is. But, [large aid agency] was instructed that it is important for communities to have autonomy over these education programs because they are in a position to know what their community needs. The hairdressing program was a result of popular vote by the village because hairdressing was seen as a prestigious occupation.

But what, you might ask, is the alternative? The paternalistic imposition of western aid programs that are often lambasted as a neo-colonial reinforcement of local and global inequality? Or allowing communities full autonomy to choose hairdressing over, say, the provision of increased farming technologies, subsidized fertilizer and development of physical environment structures – a much less glamorous option. We must ask the same question that any businesswoman or man would ask, what is the cost benefit analysis of traditional education programs?

The tendency for black letter education programs to reflect the importance that the global wealthy place on things like literacy, numeracy and having a vocation is seemingly a natural reaction. Those in donor countries have full access to most human rights and social capital (education, health and nutrition), so surely they should just implement the model that ensures these things to those without? What this fails to recognise is why the global wealthy have these things. The “why” is the variable, and we’re back at “x” and “y” and “a” and “b”. The global wealthy have learnt from their “x’s” and “y’s” and developed their own “a’s” and “b’s” to match accordingly. In trying to help reverse the effects of “x” and “y” in nations living in poverty, donor nations should resist providing the “a” and “b” model (literacy, numeracy, vocational training) in place on their home turf. The West’s “a’s” and “b’s” are a result of having gone through the full Rostovian cycle, and as such their models don’t consider the idiosyncratic conditions of countries still at square one – traditional societies.

So, if “a” and “b” need to look different from the model in donor countries, how does education help? This is where my argument comes full circle and I support the notion that indeed, education is the answer. But it’s about the right kind of education. There is certainly difficulty in ascertaining who is best placed to decide on the kind of education that donor agencies implement. It is easy to see how aid agencies can be criticised for implementing neo-colonial programs that reinforce Western values.

However, as Amartya Sen points out in his seminal work, Development as Freedom, “It is easy, too easy, to sermonise about the dangers of paternalism… from the comfort of… our safe and sanitary home.” Those of us living in the rich world have benefited enormously from a paternalism now so thoroughly embedded into the system that we don’t even recognise it. We are forced to learn things by the State. It means we can demand standards and services from our government, because we know what a government is, because we’re literate, because we’re forced to be (or else suffer living in social reclusion). We finish high school, or trade school, or university because we understand that our livelihoods will depend on it, because those before us have shown us that these “a’s” and “b’s” will guarantee our prosperity.

The reason Bendu doesn’t know what other words begin with “B” is because her livelihood doesn’t depend on it. Just as her sister will probably forget the hairdressing skills she learnt last year when it becomes apparent to her that she cannot make a living off the $3 market demand for her and ten other trainee’s services. Just as I don’t recall the calculus I learnt five years ago (see rudimentary equations above). If the Rostovian growth model is based on the success of grown economies the world over, then there should be little hesitation in donor agencies scrapping the concern they have over paternalistic projects if it means bringing states up to the next level where a self-sustaining model will guarantee the provision of social capital.


Donor countries and development agencies must continue to see education as the answer, as the key,

but so long as the key is specific to meet the needs of each country.


It’s already happening, albeit slowly. The World Food Program (WFP) has developed programs in Liberia that work with rice farmers to help increase their rice yield. This allows surplus rice to enter the local and regional market, bringing profit from sales back to the communities which is then used by farmers to send their children to school. The project does not rely on literacy programs, as most farmers participating in it have not had access to an education previously. Rather, it teaches practical hard skills that are immediately applicable and beneficial in their local community. Increased revenue then creates literacy and numeracy as a product – by affording school fees for the next generation and pressurises local government to ensure quality education services are provided.

Teaching farmers how to harvest local timber for use in canals and irrigation systems to help increase yields is another form of education, one that is having greater results in terms of enabling rural communities to facilitate the growth of human capital. And yet it is considered an agricultural project – as seen by the controlling agency (WFP). If education is the answer to everything, donors are more willing to pour money into education projects – one of the largest sectors. By broadening and diversifying traditional education projects, more donor money can be funneled into these projects with more robust effects on long-term prosperity.

Donor countries and development agencies must continue to see education as the answer, as the key, but so long as the key is specific to meet the needs of each country. That is, the key must be sculptured to match the door it’s trying to open. Sometimes that will see education as imparting knowledge on improved rice growing schemes, or wheat manufacturing for a super grain with higher nutritional value. This will actually provide women and men like Bendu and her sister with a useful tool to improve their livelihoods, and those of their children. It will help foster a truly grassroots development operation, setting off the Rostovian takeoff the global rich have so benefited from.

Henrietta de Crespigny is a law student at Monash University and works as a development officer for YGAP. She has formerly worked for Plan International in Haiti, Lawyers Without Borders in the US and Liberia, African Development Corps,