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Battle poverty with an 'education army'

By Eric Claus - posted Thursday, 3 February 2005


World leaders, rock stars, billionaires and other celebrities got together in Davos, Switzerland recently at the World Economic Forum, but the key talking point wasn’t economic growth, it was poverty. Regardless of whether you like Bono, Bill Gates, John Howard, Angelina Jolie or Bill Clinton - that has got to be a good thing.

Numbers get thrown around comparing the money spent on weapons and war to the money spent fighting poverty, and it becomes clear that weapons and war are much more important to the industrialised nations than fighting poverty. In for special mention is America, which spends far less of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on aid to developing countries than most of the developed nations, and far more on weapons and war. Bill Clinton, who knows a little about politics, says the reason is because nobody ever lost an election because he didn’t give enough money in foreign aid. It’s hard to disagree.

I suspect that one of the reasons politicians, and the people who vote for them, don’t push for more foreign aid is because they doubt if they always get value for money. Stories abound of African dictators buying chalets in Switzerland with aid money, Imelda Marcos’ 800 pairs of shoes and rebel warlords hijacking convoys loaded with food and medical supplies, so that they can trade them on the black market for weapons. We also hear about “foreign aid” that never leaves the country: Western governments paying western construction contractors to build roads and dams in developing countries. Tony Blair has pledged ₤50 million for mosquito nets to help fight malaria in Africa. I wonder if any British firms make mosquito nets?

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Following the tsunami, the industrialised nations opened their wallets. Was that because they could see the suffering, or because they figured the Red Cross, Oxfam and the other relief organisations would use the money wisely? John Howard alluded to this in Davos, when he said, “There is no absence of compassion, but there is evidence of a hard-headed view that resources allocated should be properly used”.

A possible scenario for fighting poverty and getting value for money would be the development of an Education Army. This is a variation on the proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. Many poor countries have a shortage of teachers and teaching facilities. When the education is substandard or relatively expensive, parents don’t send their kids to school. When aid organisations like VAE Volunteer Teachers Kenya do send teachers, attendance increases and parents support the schools. An international Education Army could provide teachers and boost the general level of education in poor countries on a scale that would get Bono and even Bill Gates excited.

The Education Army provides value for money in two ways. First, it is hard to imagine dictators buying Swiss chalets with teachers or teachers being traded on the black market. Second, educated countries are rich countries. Not surprisingly, a list of the nations of the world with years of education and per capita GDP, shows that the richest nations have the most education. Put another way the most educated nations have the highest per capita GDP.

For example, Ghana has an average of 3.9 years of school and a GDP per capita of $2,015 per year, Mexico averages 7.2 years of education and $8,800 per capita per year and Australia averages 10.9 years of education and $26,600 per capita per year. Investing in 2,000 Education Army teachers and 2,000 local teachers for 20 years, in Ghana, would cost about $300 million per year. Assuming 1 per cent of the kids taught by the Education Army, became new local teachers, this investment would raise the years of education for the whole country by 0.15 years per person. That is a seemingly small number, but it is 3 million education years. That would mean an increase of about $100 per capita assuming an increase proportionate with other countries with similar levels of education. The result for Ghana would be an extra $2 billion per year, essentially in perpetuity. An excellent return on investment.

A program that paid for itself with this type of return would be more enthusiastically supported in the developed countries than the current system. It would also give Bono, Bubba Clinton and Billy Gates a working program to promote that had long term goals, rather than the current methods which just seem to be asking for more and more money to be thrown at poor countries with no end in sight and no indicators of progress.

The Education Army would have other benefits for the developed countries besides setting the path to reduce poverty. With more affluence in the developing countries there would be less reason to produce drugs, less reason to exploit the environment for short term gain, less reason for people-smuggling, possibly even less reason to become a terrorist. Benazir Bhutto wrote last year, “Without a war on poverty, we will never defeat terror”. It also would put people from the rich nations in the middle of the developing countries and give them a feel for how much of the rest of the world lives. They would then share that experience back home. That sort of understanding would be very valuable for the general population in the rich countries.

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Possibly the best reason for an Education Army would be to show poor countries that the rich countries don’t want them to stay poor forever. We could show the poor countries that we don’t just go around the world taking the raw materials and cheap labour of the poor countries and giving nothing back. Perhaps these are the reasons that never lost anybody an election, but they are also the reasons that put Clinton, Blair, Bono and Gates at the same table trying to make the world a better place.

Why an Education “Army?” Because the armed forces are very good at training people and very good at mobilising resources to far away places. Soldiers would not have to be turned into teachers, but many soldiers are very well suited to teaching, as they are already experienced trainers. If the core of the new Education Army was from the existing armed forces, the organisation would be set, and there would be a body of people who knew how to train people, who understood bureaucracies and who were used to living overseas in uncomfortable places. The work would not be easy, but it might be more rewarding than getting shot at. New teachers would be recruited for work in the Education Army, just as soldiers are recruited for the existing armies. The developed countries could work together just as they do in NATO and other military alliances. The approach would be voluntary on both sides. If a country did not want any teachers from the Education Army, there would be no pressure to accept them.

An Education Army to battle poverty. It might be the first time an army moved in to a foreign country, and both sides won.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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