"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

7.06.2010

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.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Linda @meowtree said...

I have this same question. I remember once being asked 'how is this scholarship/school fees sustainable?' The person reviewing the program meant economically sustainable, I think. And I remember thinking there must be other meanings to the word 'sustainable' that are being totally missed here. Can't education be seen as an investment? There is so much good that comes from having an education. At the same time, in so many places, people are well educated but there is no work, no jobs. Or you might be substituting government (tho maybe sometimes govt isn't supporting education anyway)... I haven't come to terms with what I think about this ... or about most other big complicated questions like this.... I wish someone knew.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 9:02:00 AM

 
Anonymous Dave A said...

Would it reduce accountability to the students/parents paying the fees? Almost certainly. I think the biggest risk of an outside organization paying school fees is that it reduces accountability of service providers (the school) to the recipients (the families). At least with school fees in place, the schools have to offer something that is valued by *some* parents. If they didn't, they would go out of business.

Having a government body pay for schools would maintain some amount of accountability, if there's any between the government and the people. But even then, it's diluted. For an NGO or donor to come in and pay school fees, you would need to establish some other accountability mechanisms. In any case, it all gets muddier.

But I have to confess that I don't know much about this area. Maybe someone has some research on the relationship between school fees and educational quality? Off the top of my head, I know another complicating factor would be accounting for the opportunity cost of sending children to school.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 9:20:00 AM

 
Anonymous Scarlett Lion said...

I have no statistical data to back this up, or frankly anything other than repeat experience, but I find the donor imperative to only build schools rather than paying fees or teacher salaries infuriating. I drive my beautifully constructed schools without a student in them all to often. The physical classroom itself has always seemed like the least important part of this equation. If there's a teacher, a blackboard, students, and a mango tree, that's all you need.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 10:13:00 AM

 
Anonymous Scarlett Lion said...

I have no statistical data to back this up, or frankly anything other than repeat experience, but I find the donor imperative to only build schools rather than paying fees or teacher salaries infuriating. I drive my beautifully constructed schools without a student in them all to often. The physical classroom itself has always seemed like the least important part of this equation. If there's a teacher, a blackboard, students, and a mango tree, that's all you need.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 10:14:00 AM

 
Blogger Roving Bandit said...

There are good reasons for donors to focus on capital (schools) and not recurrent costs - when the projects ends the school is still there...

However - *cough* conditional cash transfers *cough*

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 1:57:00 PM

 
Anonymous Jane Reitsma said...

Your post explains exactly why children and families should not become dependent on an outside source paying school fees- because donors can change their mind and stop sponsoring the children for various reasons...

I think it is much better focus on improving the parent's ability to pay the fees by focusing on improving opportunity for work (various social enterprises are doing this). Isn't it much more empowering for a parent to be able to take care of the needs of their own child?

New schools are not necessarily the solution if they create another dependency on outside funding. But if someone wants to help a school directly, what about helping to improve the resources of an existing school? And what about the possibility of improving access to solar electricity and the Internet for all community members to benefit from? This would improve the education of the children and business opportunities for parents.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010 11:26:00 AM

 
Blogger Maureen said...

I don't know, I think I have to agree with you--that in all the trials and challenges those in that situation face, it seems like school fees are just a thorn in their side that would simply be better if removed.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010 1:01:00 PM

 
Blogger texasinafrica said...

Of course, we all know that the ultimate solution to this problem is a taxation structure that allows government to pay for the schools. But getting there just seems impossible in a place like this.

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link. I should've noted more clearly that these are approximate average fees - the costs at the best schools can run significantly higher, but of course that's out of reach for the vast majority of the population.

Friday, July 09, 2010 8:57:00 AM

 
Anonymous Charlotte said...

I work for an international NGO, and I have to say that paying school fees would not be my choice for how to address this issue. In large part because of the larger market effects. Let's say my NGO has the funding to pay school fees for 10,000 kids for five years. This could provide clear incentive for the schools to raise fees. If they currently charge $30/year for students, why not charge $50 if they know we have the money? (I've been to DR Congo, and I know they could use the funding.) This has a direct impact on every child we are not supporting, whose families will no longer be able to afford education. And after our program is over, it could likely happen that fees will stay higher, hurting the younger siblings of the students we've supported. NGOs have seen too many examples of causing harm while trying to do good, and thus are very cautious of stepping directly into markets like this.

The approaches we'd likely take are those described by you and other commenters. Work directly with schools to provide administrative support/ teacher training, so that they can afford to lessen the fees (this also means that we can reach an agreement with the schools on where that money goes; if we just pay school fees we have no say over the use of that money). Or work with families to provide employment opportunities or cash transfers (ideally, we connect our work with some sort of sustainable income generation. For example, if we can help smallholder farmers connect with the market, buy better inputs, increase their productivity and get out of debt, then they can pay for educating their children themselves later on.)

Friday, July 09, 2010 9:38:00 AM

 
Anonymous Charlotte said...

By the way -- I completely agree with you that building schools is NOT the best use of money. Education consists of teachers with a curriculum interacting with students -- that can occur under a tree if need be. Way too many groups build a building, stick the word "school" on the front and somehow think someone else will take care of hiring and paying teachers, coming up with educational materials, etc. Oh, and you better make sure before you start building that the Ministry of Education thinks this is a good idea, not try to figure that out afterwards. The MoE in places like Congo is very weak, but unless you plan on setting up an entirely parallel educational system, you need to work with them. (and, from the perspective of my NGO, I can tell you that setting up parallel systems = very bad plan.)

Friday, July 09, 2010 9:58:00 AM

 

Post a Comment

<< Home