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Saturday, July 26, 2008


"Development" is the word used to describe the efforts of rich countries to help poor ones. I don't believe in using the words "developed" and "undeveloped" to describe countries. It doesn't fool anybody. The fact of the matter is most of the problems in those poor countries are due to the actions of well-meaning and not-so-well meaning foreigners. Whether by malevolence or incompetence, many of these efforts fail to help anyone. Peace Corps is generally an exception to this. Tanzania has requested math and science teachers and the Peace Corps is supplying them.
That's how it should be. Here are some examples that, unfortunately, are more typical.

1. Well-digging in Tabora (central Tanzania, Africa)

In the Tabora region, fetching water is done by women. As the well is several miles away from the village, the women spend most of the day fetching water and bringing it home. A foreign development agency got permission from the village elders to dig a new well closer to the village so the women wouldn't have to walk so far to get the water. The project was completed and the women began using the new well. After a few months, the women began complaining that the water was making their children sick, so they went back to using the distant well. A technician was sent to check the water from the new well and nothing was wrong with it. After a while, the truth got out. The women spread the rumors that the water was poisonous because fetching water from the distant well was an important part of their daily routine; it was their main time to socialize and main opportunity to get out of the house. The new well did nothing to help because they did not see fetching water over long distances as being a problem. Had the women been consulted instead the the village elders (all men), a more appropriate project could have been started.

2. Rice in the Phillipines

In a particular part of the Phillipines, aid workers introduced a new improved variety of rice. The rice was planted and the yield was 3 times higher than the local variety. However, the cash income of the villagers actually went down. What happened? In that area, the people grow rice for food and make baskets from the rice straw which they sold for cash. More rice meant more time was spent harvesting rice and less time making baskets, which was their main source of income.

3. Literacy in Singida (Tanzania, Africa)

In the last years of colonialism, the British instituted a voluntary literacy program in Singida, a dry region in central Tanzania. The program was a success; literacy was greatly increased. However, one villager was less enthusiatic about the results, saying

"Literacy does not help us with our most basic problem, which is the lack of rain."

These examples illustrate the problem of development. Even with the best of intentions, it is practically impossible for an outsider to know, let alone do, what is best for the people living there. These examples could be classified as incompetence. Malevolence has been much more common. Space does not permit me to mention all the examples. For a more thorough treatment, read Confessions of an Economic Hitman, The White Man's Burden, and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

I will give a brief synopsis of Confessions of an Economic Hitman: It tells the story of an American who has the job of convincing the governments poor nations to take loans by promising fantastic economic growth. When the growth doesn't occur (which is part of the plan), the debt is used to extract various concessions (what is really wanted) from the debtor. The Mafia refers to this business as loan-sharking.

Then there's the so-called World Bank. First of all, almost all positions of the authority at the World Bank are held by people from the world's wealthy nations. Can it honestly be expected that they will act in the interest of the world's poor nations? Most of the World Bank assistance is in the form of loans, to which all kinds of restrictions are attached. It is quite telling that no nation has achieved prosperity because of World Bank loans.

Then there's "foreign aid," most of which never leaves the donor country. It goes straight into the account of some contractor or corporation which is tasked with building a dam, electrical plant, or whatever fancy gadget that looks impressive but isn't really going to help the average person living there.

There are countries which have moved from poverty to prosperity: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Georgia, Costa Rica, among them. None of these countries got substantial IMF, World Bank, or other such assistance. They became wealthy through good governance, commerce, and most importantly, by not letting outsiders interfere with them.

Giving desired assistance to countries that request it is good, but very rarely can good can come from foreigners trying to impose change from the outside.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Education Reform

I complained about school pretty much nonstop while I was in it, and now that I am a teacher, I see even more that I dislike. Nonetheless, education is important and it is useless to criticize without proposing alternatives. Here are a few of my ideas:

1. Less grading

In real life, some things have to be properly almost all the time (e.g. landing an airplane) or they just need to be done well enough. Evaluating everything is not really necessary. Grading also wastes time and encourages cheating.

2. Fewer assignments

Matching, multiple choice, fill in the blank: these are objective and easy to grade but do not require much thought. A smaller number of meaningful assignments will be more instructive than a continual flood of busy work. All assignments should involve a tangible result: writing an essay, drawing a picture, building something, etc.

3. Exit test

It is completely possible to graduate from high school (in the US at least) without having learned much. You can't drive a car legally without passing a test; so a high school diploma should be issued until you can demonstrate a certain minimum set of skills. An exit test would clear out the ambitious students and give the underachievers a reason to study.

4. More opportunities vocational training

There are jobs beside doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. All jobs are important and can be rewarding. So why all the emphasis on academics?

I teach upper-level math at a high school in Tanzania. The students are generally hard-working and motivated, and the administration are supportive. My only real complaint is the laser-like focus on academics when about 1% of the students who begin primary school here will make it to university. The first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, chose education as one of the priorities of the new independent nation he lead. In regard to reform of the existing colonial education system, he said:

"We should not determine the types of things children are taught in primary schools by the things a doctor, engineer, teacher, economist, or administator need to know. Most of our pupils will never be any of these things."

"It [education] must not be aimed at university entrance."

And yet the current education system is largely geared toward university entrance. I would interested in finding out how much control donor agencies like the World Bank have in the content and structure of Tanzania's education system. I will try to teach math as best I can and encourage my students to pursue their ambitions.