at the end of the day
I'm in a Congolese city called Butembo for a bit, continuing my research on the role local organizations play in providing public goods in fragile states. The work is going fine; for the first time ever (I'm no longer a grad student and I have research funding! Happy day!), I have a fixer/driver. We are jetting around town in a white Land Cruiser collecting data and doing interviews faster than you can say "conditional cash transfers." It's going faster than I expected, which means I may be able to add an additional site to this study. Butembo's interesting because it's ethnically homogeneous (more on that later), pretty much free from conflict, very prosperous, and almost completely free of expatriates. In other words, if you need a control case in the eastern DRC, this is the place.
As this project is a continuation of previous research, I'm asking questions about service provision that I have asked over and over and over and over again. And you know what? Despite all our theories and ideas and the fact, as Easterly is fond of saying, that we really have no idea how people escape poverty, I'm increasingly convinced that one thing is clear: school fees are the enemy.
In Butembo, about 75% of the population (of between 600,000-700,000 people) live on less than $2 a day. School fees, on average, run $25-35 for primary school and $30-50 for secondary school per year. Per child. For a family that has three, or five, or ten children, the burden is enormous and insurmountable.
There are almost no well-organized, large aid projects that pay school fees for children in the eastern DRC. Outside of some child sponsorship programs (most of which are inactive in the DRC for the very simple reason that they can't guarantee to donors that the children won't become displaced or die), the international NGO's typically don't touch it. There are good reasons for that; they tend to focus their energies on reconstructing schools destroyed in the war, getting teachers better training in modern pedagogical methods, and other very needed areas - including offsetting school administrative costs so that fees can be lowered.
School fees are necessary here. Although it technically owns and runs most of the schools here, the government is incapable of managing them, which is why the churches have taken over their "management." Under the agreements that govern this arrangement, the government is supposed to pay teacher salaries, construct buildings, and provide classroom furniture, books, and other necessities.
It doesn't. Which leaves the churches doing everything and parents paying directly for the entire cost of their child's education.
Or, more often, leaves children not being educated at all.
And it leaves me wondering if maybe we'd be better off just paying the damn school fees. Taking that burden off of families so they can spend their money on medicine, balanced diets, or better sanitation at home. Would doing so create dependency? Yes. Would people in this city have a better chance to make it? I don't know.