Author Archives: Roving Bandit

A rare non-ideological argument against for-profit schools

To [Samuel] Abrams, the problem with for-profit operation of schools is not that businessmen are making money off the provision of a public service such as education. Textbook publishers, software developers, and bus operators all make money from schools and should, he said, but they are all providing a discrete good or service that can be easily evaluated. “School management, on the other hand, is a complex service that does not afford the transparency necessary for proper contract enforcement,” he said. “Without such transparency, there’s client distrust: parents, taxpayers, and legislators can never be sure the provider is doing what was promised; and the child as the immediate consumer cannot be in a position to judge the quality of service.

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Top 10 Must-Read Articles on Education & Development

What should you read first if you’re a new policy advisor in a Ministry of Education? Here is my response to a couple of recent emails along these lines on the CGD blog.

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Does it help to be African to study Africa?

For sure there is tacit local knowledge, but how you define “local” matters. Ken Opalo writes:”As a social scientist, my knowledge of Kenya is largely informed by my experience as a Nairobian. Over the years I have had to learn a lot about the rest of Kenya, in much the same way an Australian would. In doing so I incurred a lower cost than a hypothetical Australian would, for sure, but the cost was not zero. And who is to say that I would necessarily be able to articulate a research agenda on whatever subject in Malawi better than a Southern Californian?

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The right to education is a right to learning

Kishore Singh, the “UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education” is totally freaking out that apparently the government of Liberia is planning to outsource all of its primary schooling to Bridge International Academies. “education is an essential public service and instead of supporting business in education, governments should increase the money they spend on public educational services to make them better.”Kishore is of course commiting Mike Munger’s unicorn fallacy. The public primary school system in Liberia was frankly pretty rubbish, even before the Ebola crisis hit, and there is no evidence that just spending more money is likely to improve things.RTI did a baseline for their early grade reading intervention project in 2008. They found that children in Grade 3 in Liberia could read 28 words per minute. To put this in perspective, in the US children are considered to be at risk if they can read fewer than 70 words per minute at the end of Grade 2

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Tom Kane on Education RCTs

“If our goal is to change behaviour and drive policies towards more effective solutions, what we have done so far is a complete failure. People who are running the What Works Clearing House don’t even have a theory [of how evidence would affect policy], or to the extent that they have a theory, its been proven wrong. … We’re just deluding ourselves if we think the 5 year, $15 million studies are having any impact whatsoever.”That’s Tom Kane (somewhat echoing Lant) on the Education Next podcast. His preferred alternative to the RCT+systematic review approach though has nothing to do with crawling on any design spaces. Rather it’s doing much more quick turn-around quasi-experimental research using the multitudes of outcomes data now being collected in the US for teacher and school accountability purposes

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What’s the single biggest growth opportunity that no-one really tried?

Paul Collier and Astrid Haas just wrote an IGC blogpost “Why Kampala holds the single biggest growth opportunity for Uganda.” Single biggest? Well indeed, the first rule of blogging is HYPERBOLE, but then the first rule of reading blogs should be a heavy dose of scepticism. Second, I’m reminded of Michael Clemens’ presentation on The Biggest Idea in Development That No One Really Tried. Might migration (the kind that Paul apparently thinks is harmful for poor countries) hold a bigger growth opportunity for Uganda than better urban planning in Kampala?At present, around 1% of Ugandans live and work overseas (roughly 400,000 of a population of 37.6 million). This 1% of the population send home 4% of Uganda’s GDP in remittances.

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The reductive seduction of OPP (Other people’s problems)

Courtney Martin has an interesting post at the Development Set about the “reductive seduction” of other people’s problems. Problems we know something about (gun control in America as her example for the Americans) seem complex, political, and intractable, whereas problems we know less about (rural hunger or girl’s secondary education or homophobia in Uganda) seem more straightforward.Which reminds me a little of the difference between statements from leaders on education in their own country and in other people’s countries.Here’s Julia Gillard on education in Australia:”We need a commitment to transparency and accountability. It’s my strong view that lack of transparency both hides failure and helps us ignore it. It feeds a culture where all the adults involved – the teachers, the principals, the community leaders and the members of parliament – avoid accountability. And lack of transparency prevents us from identifying where greater effort and investment are needed.

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Applying behavioural insights to impair life chances

David Halpern, Chief Exec at the Behavioural Insights Team (aka “Nudge Unit”) has a new blog up about how behavioural science can be used to improve people’s life chances.”Why is it that a Kenyan market seller spends half her profit on money lenders rather than saving a tiny sum each day to escape such debt? Or why does a low income family in the UK or USA spend twice as much on a stove (cooker), bought on expensive hire purchase, than a middle class family?”The thing is, as we know from Branko Milanovic, the country that you are born in matters more for your life chances than everything else combined. “A proper analysis of global inequality today requires an empirical and mental shift from concerns with class to concerns with location,”So what does the BIT have to say about the movement of people? As Matt points out, the Home Office is currently paying the BIT to find ways to convince illegal migrants to voluntarily leave the UK. That is, to support the Home Office in its agenda of shutting down the single best way that exists of improving someone’s life chances.

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The Political Economy of Education in Uganda

This post was first published on the CGD Views from the Center BlogUganda goes to the polls in 30 days to elect its next president, but there is little sign so far in the public debate on education of the need to shift focus from inputs and enrolment to actual learning outcomes.I was in Kampala last week piloting a survey on school management (more on that later), and spotted in the Daily Monitor a feature on the candidate’s campaign promises on education, reading as follows:Yoweri MuseveniOne primary school per parish (to reduce average walking distances)Continue to increase the budget allocation for text booksKizza BesigyeIntroduce compulsory universal primary educationIncrease remuneration for primary school teachersAmama MbabaziRecruit and train new teachers with the aim of reducing the teacher-student ratioBuild more schools and classroomsThat’s zero mention of actual student learning outcomes from any of the leading candidates, and a complete focus on spending more money and providing more of the inputs that have been showntime and again to bear little relationship with improved learning outcomes.NYU Professor David Stasavage published a paper in 2005 exploring how the introduction of elections in Uganda in 1996 helped lead to the removal of school fees in 1997. He also published a follow-up in 2013 noting how elections focus politicians on those things that are easily visible to voters. Fees for tuition at public schools are very visible to voters, and so one of the first things democratic politicians address. School quality is much less visible to the average voter, leading to much less focus on teaching and learning by politicians.All of this suggests that one way to improve student learning is to get citizens and politicians more focused on learning by better measurement and spreading of the insight that despite high enrolment, student skills are very poor.

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Are good teachers ‘born’ or ‘made’?

There’s a strong argument for “made” from Elizabeth Green. “Russ: But there is a view out there, and you talk about it at some length in the book, that some people believe great teachers are just born and not made. And that there is a certain ‘it’ quality that teachers have that make them more effective in the classroom in all kinds of dimensions. What do you think of that argument, and why is it an important argument in the debate? Guest: I think that that argument is embedded in the way we talk about education policy, teacher policy.

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Finding my religion

A lifelong atheist, I went to church again last Sunday, for about the fourth or fifth time, which I think is enough times that I’ll probably stick with it (and enough that I feel confident talking about it in public without worrying that I’ve accidentally joined a cult). So despite not believing, I’ve always been curious about religion. Clearly most human beings do believe in something supernatural, which is interesting and worthy of some thought. I was struck a few years ago by Alain de Botton’s book “The Consolations of Philosophy” how my modern liberal ethics and values are not in fact rootless, but deeply rooted in centuries of philosophy, and how us modern liberals are missing something that the church provides – people who’s job it is to be a kind of very practical applied philosopher, translating all this history and helping people to live better and cope with difficulty (Alain then made this argument himself explicitly in a follow-up book “Religion for Atheists”).

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Do Books “Work”?

It might seem obvious to some of you reading this that it might be possible to learn something from a book. But as a recent review for RISE by Paul Glewwe and Karthik Muralidharan found, researchers have actually so far failed to show rigorously that there is any improvement in test scores in developing countries after handing out textbooks to schools. There have now been four different Randomized Controlled Trials showing no improvement (and for four different reasons).So when might books “work”? A new paper from the World Bank proclaims to answer just this question: “When Do In-service Teacher Training and Books Improve Student Achievement? Experimental Evidence from Mongolia.”Their answer, somewhat disappointingly, seems to be “when it happens in Mongolia”.

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No, Rwanda didn’t “fiddle” its poverty stats

A couple of weeks ago, France24 ran a story featuring accusations by Belgian Professor Filip Reyntjens that the Government of Rwanda had manipulated its poverty statistics. The truth, to my relief*, is somewhat less exciting.What seems to have actually happened, is that Rwanda quite resonably decided to update the methodology for calculating what the poverty line should be, but then found that the new methodology led to an implausibly high poverty line, and so decided to (slightly arbitrarily) “adjust” the new methodology, resulting in the final poverty line being almost exactly what you would have expected it to be had you simply updated the original poverty line for inflation.It took me a while to figure all this out, as the original criticism and rebuttal by NISR weren’t entirely clear, and it was only in Filip’s reaction to NISR’s rebuttal that I grasped his (mistaken) point (here’s also the Rwanda EICV4 Report and EICV3 Report). How is poverty measured? Rwanda has followed a fairly typical process – set a poverty line by first defining a minimum quantity of calories needed, second working out how much it would cost a poor person to buy that many calories, third increasing that amount by 40% to account for some basic minimum non-food spending needs. Then to get your poverty rate, just calculate how many people spend less than the poverty line.What was the disagreement about?

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Why Germany is probably doing more for Syria than the UK

How do you compare the good that the UK is doing with its whopping 0.7% aid budget, against the good that Germany is doing by accepting large numbers of refugees? A smart (German) friend asked me if there are any numbers on the size of the remittances we might expect to see from Syrian refugees in Germany to Syria. Of course, remittances are far from the most important reason for accepting refugees, but they do allow for a nice easy cash sum with which we can make a comparison to aid flows.The UK is spending somewhere between £200 million and £400 million on Syria this year. For comparison, whilst Germany is ramping up aid spending, it is still less than 0.4% of GDP overall. But in terms of numbers of refugees, Germany expects to take 800,000 this year (compared to just a few thousand in the UK), though fewer than that have been documented so far, and not all will be Syrian.

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