Bridging the Gap: Education, not Money!

Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony

Many readers in St Lucia may have noticed their absentee PM has been roaming the globe. He stopped by in Mauritius in the Indian Ocean to deliver a 10-minute speech at a conference whose theme was “Bridging the gap as we accelerate towards achieving internationally agreed goals,” while on his way to South Africa to deliver another speech. The delegation comprised the Prime Minister, his personal assistant, Mr Calixte George Jr, and the Minister of Education for Saint Lucia.

The title of Dr Anthony’s speech was “Not money but education—valuing human development in the face of financial crisis.” Mauritius is a long way to travel to deliver 2,500 words; that’s one word for every four miles of air travel, one-way, depending on the route taken. Although the Prime Minister, in his speech, referred to the common heritage shared by Creole speakers in Saint Lucia and Mauritius, it must be remembered that almost 70% of the population of Mauritius is of Indo-Mauritian descent. Their Creole language, spoken by most, differs significantly from Saint Lucian Creole in that it is possessed of a pronounced Indian influence, which is entirely lacking in Dr. Anthony’s home tongue.

In fact, things Indian are an important factor in Mauritian daily life. Rajiv Gandhi, India’s sixth, and youngest, Prime Minister, who took office at the age of 40 after the assassination of his mother, might have taken issue with Dr Anthony’s “borrowed” theme from Sir Arthur Lewis: “Not money but education”. Rajiv once famously remarked that only 15% of government money intended for India’s poor ever reached them. Most of it leaks out in bureaucratic incompetence or corruption—fattening the wallets of those who are already well-to-do. When he was Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi dismantled the “License Raj” of government quotas, tariffs and permit regulations on economic activity.

 

He also modernized the telecommunications industry, the education system, expanded science and technology initiatives, and improved relations with the United States. Sadly, in many nations of the Commonwealth, the privileges of power include the right to live high on the people’s money.

It is surprising that Dr Anthony chose not to recall the words of Rajiv Ghandi that “only 15% of government money intended for the poor ever reaches them,” as this remains the prime reason for the failure of educational initiatives worldwide: the money disappears on route, and without money, there can be no formalized state-run education with salaried teachers, school buildings, equipment and other facilities. Dr Anthony’s cry of “not money but education” is an empty sound bite, good for the hustings—if he is wangling for a more fulfilling job than being the prime minister of a small island state—but utterly impractical as a goal for nations striving to provide education for their peoples. In 2005, The Planning Commission of India estimated that only 27% of government transfers actually reached the poor. Such embezzlement makes many programs more regressive than progressive. In the area of employment, India’s biggest social venture, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, is supposed to guarantee 100 days of paid employment to rural Indian households, with no eligibility criteria other than being an adult willing to work.

The Mahatma Gandhi Venture has something in common with Dr Anthony’s own programs on his tiny island, but the scale of the Indian project is enormous: in 2010-2011, the central government allocated US$8.9 billion, or 3.6% of government spending, to the program. It is the largest “workfare” as opposed to “welfare” program in the world, and it is plagued with corruption. Theft from the materials’ budget is somewhat limited; by law, materials costs may constitute at most 40% of the total, and in practice they are even lower. Theft from the labor budget is significant. The statutory wage set by the government is 100 Rupees a day. The laborer works for 5 days, but instead of paying him Rs.100 daily, the official pays him only Rs.90, keeping the remaining Rs.50 for himself. This form of corruption is called ‘underpayment’. In addition, the official also reports to the government that the laborer worked for 10 days rather than 5, and pockets the additional Rs.500. This is ‘over reporting’.

Work done by ‘ghost’ workers—people who don’t exist—is also considered over reporting, as would any collusion by workers and officials to extract payments from the government for work that is never done. Underpayment directly hurts workers, and hence we might expect workers to complain if they are underpaid. Over reporting does not directly hurt workers—in fact workers are probably unaware of it—but it does hurt taxpayers and increase the overall fiscal burden of the program.

Projects under the supervision of persons already entrenched in ministries, who “resign” their posts, pick up their gratuities, and enjoy their fat pensions only to begin a new life as Project Manager are prone to massive corruption and a hemorrhaging of funds on a grand scale. It is not the lack of funds that is the problem; it is the misuse of funds that scuppers education in many states, large and small.

Dr Anthony went on to mention that “we have achieved a global enrolment in primary schools of about 90%” and explained that the 10% who miss out may be “extremely poor by way of resource, or impact from the state”—whatever that means—”have many complex familial and societal realities”, “be affected by disability”, “be in some socio-cultural minority”, “be affected by war or climate-related disasters”, “be without a voice politically”, or “live in remote and isolated circumstances.” What Dr Anthony did not mention was the most important fact of all: the reality behind the statistics, which is that 10% worldwide might be 90% of the population in a particular poor, badly managed country that is unable to survive rampant corruption or misuse of funds, particularly funds donated by overseas benefactors.

Corruption and misuse take many forms. Government ministers and public service officials are ideally placed to award and grant favors to close relatives, siblings, friends and friends of friends. Project managers enjoy inflated salaries that far surpass their qualifications or responsibilities. Public Service Commissions may reject applicants as being under qualified for lucrative posts, but their appointments, especially if they are siblings and in-laws of high government officials, may be confirmed by Cabinet conclusions. Once a handpicked project manager or financial controller is in place, transparency and accountability go out of the window.

A family becomes a dynasty, a dynasty a clan that owns and rules a whole ministry, and thus an entire segment of society. Dr Anthony turned his attention to poverty: “There is the poverty of scarcity of resources . . . of exclusion from the world . . . of not knowing or not knowing how to . . . of the absence of voice, conscience and spirit. Indeed, poverty in all its senses is an aberration of our humanity.” An aberration of our humanity? Timothy 6:7 reminds us: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” Job 21: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.” Is not poverty the essence of humanity? Surely it is the removal of poverty in all its forms that is a welcome aberration to the normal human condition; not poverty itself. Dr Anthony recognizes that “the temptation to cut or reduce expenditure on education is everywhere, in our capitals and in the organizations we have created to transform our societies and our countries.”

He does not, however, seem to realize that if only one dollar in every seven, according to Gandhi, is spent correctly on a project, then the greatest reward for a nation and its people would be to make sure that the other six dollars were spent correctly as well. Corruption cuts meaningful, progressive investment by 85%. Eliminate corruption and you effectively increase the value of your investment at least six times over, without having to increase expenditure. We must learn to use our money wisely, efficiently and correctly.

While Dr Anthony’s claim that “at all levels, financiers and stakeholders must be persuaded that education is central to the success of all other investments” may well hold some truth, the more important point is that the elimination of corruption and fiscal abuse is central to the success of all investments. If we cut out the waste, we need not invest more. Dr Anthony offered five “value propositions” to back up his claim that education is “central to the success of all other investments.”

1. “Education is the gateway for empowering people to deal with these global challenges.” While there is certainly some truth in this sound bite, it is misleading; it is making the best use of an education that empowers people to deal with global challenges, not the education per se.

How many bright young people do you know who go off to study for a B.A., progress to an M.A. and then even gain a PhD in their chosen field of study, only to turn their backs on their knowledge, refuse to use it, and instead end up as politicians? At the other end of the scale, how motivating is it for a young person to gain numerous “A-levels” only to be told that there are no jobs? Jobs mean money; education must lead to monetary rewards, not just slips of paper that cannot be eaten. There are too many young people who have worked hard to make a success of their lives, studied to pass exams, and dreamed of a bright future only to find that all that awaits them are dead-end jobs that offer no chance of using the knowledge or skills they have striven to achieve.

2.Dr Anthony called for the Commonwealth scholarship program to continue to support the demand for further education globally. The Commonwealth must realize that its more developed countries are going through hard times too. When grants and scholarships for their own students are being brutally slashed or eliminated altogether, it is extremely difficult for governments to justify paying for the education of students from other countries. The Commonwealth no longer enjoys any support amongst those who have to pay for its schemes. Of course, Dr Anthony was preaching to the converted. A significant number of the 800 conference delegates would have had its education paid for by Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

3. “To leverage funding towards education, you must generate at the national level, strong political capital. Simply remember that political will tends to come much easier in the face of political fears.” This welcome admission by Dr Anthony confirms that politicians tend to be willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power in the face of threats to their own political well-being.

Dr Anthony goes on to say: “School feeding programs can support farming communities with incomes while keeping children in school healthier and attentive. School constructions and renovations create jobs. Put another way, the budget spending in all other ministries could support education-related initiatives, and therefore should.” Members of the Commonwealth audience were eager to discover how the government of Saint Lucia is supporting farming communities through school feeding programs, and how the budgets of all other ministries is supporting education, but no elucidation was forthcoming.

4. “Education makes immediate impacts on societies and economies. Education must be technology-driven and relevant.” The first part of this statement is patently false. Education is a long-term investment. There are no quick returns.As for education being technology-driven, well, we are back to the question of money again. Dr Anthony’s premise of “education not money” is simply not relevant or applicable. Nowhere in his speech did he mention that providing a nation with education is more important than simply handing out money to the uneducated, which may be what he meant to say. Indeed, in his own country, he seems to be following a policy of handing out cash and subventions to less educated, less qualified segments of society as a quick fix instead of providing education for the people. Instead of negotiating with publishers and booksellers for lower prices on textbooks, he is handing out money willy-nilly to parents in the hope that they will use the cash to buy books and not bread or rum.

5. “Education is priceless.” Priceless means “worth more than can be calculated in terms of money.” It does not, of course, mean that education does not cost money. It means that no price is too high to pay for a good education. The title of Dr Anthony’s speech, “Not money but education”, through his use of “but”, is misleading. This is not a matter of choice. Education is first and foremost a matter of money; money for teachers, money for materials, money for schools. In fact, money for everything. And where is this money to come from? Dr Anthony misses the point of education completely. Education is a means to an end; it is not the end in itself. Unfortunately in many parts of the Commonwealth, societies are overflowing with “educated” people who have no intention of using their education, their specific skills, for the good of others.

And even more tragically, societies worldwide abound with young people who leave school to enter an almost non-existent job market where the lucky ones may be the well qualified who end up in dead-end jobs. By cutting out wastage, abuse and corruption, we can increase the value of our investments seven times over without spending an extra penny!

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