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Education as key to overcome inequality

D+C - 29. Oktober 2018 - 12:50
Social activist assesses the situation in Zambia concerning education and unequality

How does education relate to upward mobility?
In a society with more educated people, there are more enterprises and innovation, with more individuals working to find solutions to society’s problems. Moreover, education helps poor people move up to a higher social status. Educated people suffer less discrimination and have more choices in life. In Zambia, we have compulsory subjects in the curricula of primary and secondary schools. Students are taught the basic knowledge, skills and behavioural patterns they need to surpass social barriers, climb the social ladder and have an impact on society.

How good is the government-run school system?
It is not good. Zambia is not anywhere close to the top 20 countries with the best education systems. Our education curriculum is considered to be among the best in Africa, but the public-school system is undeniably bad, nonetheless. According to Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank, developing countries are 100 years behind developed countries in terms of educational standards. A good education system requires an appropriate budget. We do not have that. Zambian parents typically prefer to send their children to a private school.

What are the shortcomings of the state schools?
Well, they do not foster the abilities of vulnerable students, such as children with disabilities, for example. Gender disparities persist, and the quality gaps between rural and urban areas are huge. Some children do not go to school because the distance is too far, and there is no adequate transport infrastructure. Though the government is committed to providing free basic education, hidden education costs – including for books and school uniforms – persist, and so do examination fees. These costs matter in a country where the majority lives on less than the purchasing power of one dollar per head and day. Most public schools lack la­boratories, libraries, furniture and computers. The teacher/pupil ratio is still unacceptable. There are not enough teachers, but the student numbers are growing. A good education system starts with adequate resources, trained and motivated teachers and classrooms and textbooks for every child.

But Zambia’s public schools don’t have these things?
No, they don’t. When the policy of free basic education was introduced, the budget did not increase as it should have. As a result, children and adolescents are not learning fundamental skills. Nearly 90 % of children between six and 14 years do not become proficient in reading and math. Masses of poor children – especially girls – drop out of school.

What private schools exist in Zambia and who sends their kids there?
There are commonly two types of private schools in Zambia: profit and non-profit. Non-profit schools tend to serve poor people. They have a history of producing mediocre results. The reason is that they lack funding. Most poor people send their children to so called “community schools”. They are private, but charge only low fees. Nonetheless, some poor people cannot afford to send their children there. There are also expensive, profit-making private schools, especially international private schools. They cater to the privileged few – families of politicians, business dynasties, foreign diplomats and the expat community of Indians, Whites and Chinese. Some of the expensive schools comply with both the Zambian and international curricula, or they simply stick to the British one or that of another rich nation.

How important is the English language in school – and in professional life?
Very important. English is the gateway to global interactions. One out of five people in the world speaks or at least understands English. In Zambia, moreover, English is an official language. We have 72 languages and therefore English is critical in schools and public life in general. In professional life, English is a critical skill. This language dominates politics and business, but also technology, science and the general media. I haven’t come across a website in a local Zambian language. In our entrepreneurial and digital era, professionals can enter a global workforce right in front of their computer and phone screens.

To what extent does proficiency in English depend on the family a person is born into and the schools they are sent to?
Well-off families tend to be highly proficient in English, while poor people struggle. Among the rich, children are exposed to an English world via internet, international television stations, music and movies, and they read books. The schools they go to include English among other languages, such as French, as mode of communication. The rich even tend to send their children to schools in foreign countries where they cannot even use their indigenous language. On the other hand, poor parents are keen on schools teaching English at an early age.

What language do you use in Sun-spring Charity School, the community school you started?
We use English, but we start with Nyanja, a Zambian language. It is what the local children speak when they first come to school. The children of poor parents hardly speak English. Accordingly, our top goal is to gradually build their English skills and proficiency.

How does income correlate with formal education?
Income typically reflects the skills and knowledge a person has acquired, as well as the choices he or she made. Employment opportunities and incomes depend on the level of education someone attains. For instance, most women in Zambia have no or only little formal education, and their chances of finding formal employment are small. Mostly they are stuck in the informal sector and discriminated against. Professionals with solid formal skills, by contrast, have good incomes – for instance as doctors, lawyers or accountants. Those who drop out of school before graduating from higher secondary school after grade 12 will encounter many barriers. According to reports, an extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10 %.

Do careers and upward-mobility depend on belonging to specific clans or families?
Yes, family connections matter very much. The rich keep getting richer, while the poor are stuck in misery. Nepotism is commonplace. It’s a cancer eating the very fibre of society’s wellbeing and undermining values of equality.

What are the chances for the future life for your students?
Our students at Sun-spring Charity School have better future prospects:

  • First of all, we believe in the power of human rights, of which education is a fundamental principle. It is central to achieving all other rights and fighting poverty.
  • Second, preschool and primary education is necessary for children to develop cognitive abilities and become rational thinkers.
  • Third, we do not only focus on literacy and numeracy, but prepare our pupils for lifelong learning and development prospects. We agree with Frederick Douglass, the African-American social reformer of the 19th century. He said: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

What challenges are you facing?
As many other non-profit organisation, we have some funding problems in an ever changing donor and volunteer world. But we are taking innovative approaches to fund­raising. We must be resourceful to attract skilled and motivated teachers, without whom we cannot provide a good education environment – and good opportunities – to our pupils. We want to contribute to social justice. We do our best to mobilise local and international stakeholders to prevent that children are left behind.

What has to be done by whom to reduce inequality?
Inequality is a global problem. It affects every­one, and women are generally at a disadvantage. However, governments are primarily responsible for reducing inequality. They must raise awareness, adopt policies and allocate funds to public services. Citizens, independent organisations and businesses have a critical responsibility too, by adopting a culture geared to inclusion and equal opportunities in daily life. The Zambian government has committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as to related aspirations of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Now it must live up to the promises.

Frank Masanta Jr. is a community leader and social activist in Zambia. In 2011, he started the Sun-spring Charity School in Ng’ombe, a disadvantaged neighbourhood. He is also the head of the school. It has pre-school and primary school classes for more than 100 boys and girls.

Facebook page of Sun-spring Charity School:

Kategorien: english

Fear of exclusion

D+C - 29. Oktober 2018 - 12:22
Non-extreme poverty is a major problem in Lebanon, and state agencies do not help

I did not enjoy watching the movie “Capharnaüm” by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. I recommend it, nonetheless. It won this year’s Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has been showing at cinemas in Lebanon since the end of September.

The film tells the story of 12-year-old Zain, who grows up in a Beirut slum. He lives in a small run-down apartment with his struggling, dispirited parents and numerous siblings. Every day is a fight for survival. The question of Zain going to school does not arise; he must work for a grocer, who pays him in kind.

When his sister is forced into an arranged marriage, Zain runs away from home and starts a life of his own. He makes friends with a migrant worker from Ethiopia, who takes him into her poor home. Labaki holds up a mirror to Lebanese society. And what we see is an ugly, cruel, bleak world. Solidarity is rare. The state only makes its presence felt when people are deported, put on trial or thrown into prison. I found the movie hard to watch because many scenes in it were all too familiar from daily life.

Slums and beggars – children, women with babies, old folks at crossroads – are common in Beirut and other Lebanese cities at any time. People sell flowers, paper tissues, chewing gum or just sit around listlessly. “Capharnaüm” challenges us, the viewers, to consider our attitude towards the poor people around us.

Back on the street, outside the cinema, I could not help wondering: Should I give this child beggar money? If I do, will I not support the behaviour of irresponsible parents or the “children’s mafia” that lurks in the background? Might it not be better to hand out food? Bananas and water? What should I do?

Some scenes in the film and situations on the street highlight just the visible side of poverty in Beirut – the side that no one can ignore. But there are many more facets. In the socially diverse district of West Beirut, where I live, I am surrounded by people who struggle for survival daily, without begging or talking about their problems.

Um Bashir is an example. She is a 40-year-old widow. Every day, she and her unemployed son sit in a doorway selling newspapers. Every coin she earns is vital.

Then there is 13-year old Hammudi, who works from morning till night for a car mechanic instead of going to school. His parents get 20,000 Lebanese pounds (LBP) – the equivalent of about € 12 – for his week’s work.

And there are the young men who deliver crates of water to my door every few days or pack my shopping at the supermarket checkout. They all depend on the tips I give. But I am under no actual obligation to give tips. No one would call me to account or be outraged if I failed to do so. But there is an unwritten law that requires me to give something. The “haves” give to the “have-nots” or to those with very little. A “have” should always have a few dark-green thousand-pound notes at the ready. A thousand Lebanese pounds is worth € 0.57.

The UNDP estimates that roughly a third of Lebanese are poor and live on less than four US dollars per day and person. Around 200,000 people have to get by on less than two dollars a day and are thus extremely poor according to the World Bank definition.

There are marked socioeconomic differences from one region to another. The situation is particularly difficult in the north and south of the country.

Those who dropped out of school and have no professional skills are particularly affected by poverty, regardless of their religious affiliation. However, groups that are disadvantaged by Lebanese law are also disproportionately poor. Palestinians who have lived in Lebanon for decades are denied equal access to state education. They are banned from entering certain professions and from owning property. They are also granted only limited access to the welfare system. Anyone born into a Palestinian family in Lebanon has a hard start in life.

Syrian refugees stranded in the country with no work or residence permit similarly live from hand to mouth. What is more, many Lebanese are hostile towards them because, as cheap labour, they compete for job opportunities with local people.

No safety net

Even those who have a job and a regular income that covers the daily expenses, including the children’s school fees, are not safe. Because of the poorly developed welfare system, a serious illness of in the family can cause a sharp descent into financial ruin. Not even the middle class can take good health care for granted in Lebanon. Newspapers regularly carry horrifying reports of people in need of emergency treatment being turned away at hospitals because their family cannot pay up front. The revelations always prompt an outcry, but the fuss quickly subsides.

Poverty in Lebanon is more visible, more pervasive than in Germany or elsewhere in western Europe. It is also more menacing, desperate, merciless. It can strike when least expected. It is accepted as one of the country’s many decades-old unsolvable problems. The weak Lebanese state is not held responsible. “Ma fi dawleh” (There is no state) is an exclamation commonly heard in Lebanon. Just as the state is deemed incapable of solving the waste crisis or getting to grips with power and water shortages, it is not expected to act in support of vulnerable people.

On the contrary, the state is seen as a champion of the rich. Many politicians are also well-to-do business people. Responsibility for social problems is left to charitable organisations, religious organisations and private individuals, who get involved as volunteers. Each religious community looks after its own.

I wonder if it is because poverty is so ubiquitous in Lebanon that people seem to want to distance themselves from others and send out signals that they are not poor. Is that why prestige is so important, why exaggerated importance is attached to expensive clothes and cars, why people boast about their children going to a prestigious private school or studying abroad?

Education is the surest road to social advancement. Parents work their fingers to the bone, taking on multiple jobs so they can afford a good education for their children. For the young generation, the next step is often to leave the country. Many are convinced they can only build a secure future abroad.

Mona Naggar is a journalist and media coach. She lives in Beirut.

Kategorien: english

Education for social advancement

D+C - 29. Oktober 2018 - 11:49
Quality education for all helps to overcome social inequality

As a driver of growth, good education has long been a focus of development policy. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted by the UN in 2000, prioritised increasing enrolment rates. By contrast, the follow-up agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), emphasises the quality of education. Where gender disparities are large, moreover, better opportunities must be provided to girls. Gender equity was also part of the MDG agenda.

Another decisive issue is whether an education system facilitates upward mobility or cements the status quo. If all children, regardless of their family background, get the same opportunities, social mobility is strong. Whether children move on from primary school to secondary school, however, does not only depend on their school performance. What matters too is school fees, the distance from a child’s home to the next secondary school and the family’s general economic situation.

Fabian Könings from the University of Jena and Jakob Schwab from the German Development Institute (DIE) have identified other key factors. They examined social mobility over generations in India, Peru, Ethiopia and Vietnam. The researchers considered five issues with a bearing on children’s success in school:

  • the time they spend doing housework and child labour,
  • their health,
  • the time it takes them to get to school,
  • how many siblings they have and
  • their cognitive abilities.

All of these factors are related to poverty. The study shows that children from poor households have a 20 % lower chance of graduating from secondary school than children from middle-class households. The main reason was poor children’s lower cognitive abilities, which accounted for 15 % of the disparity between their grades and those of their middle-class peers. The ratio for child labour was 12 %. For a large number of siblings, it was eight percent.

“Girls are a bit less upwardly mobile than boys,” Könings said at this year’s conference of the Poverty Reduction, Equity and Growth Network (PEGNet), which took place in Cotonou, Benin, in October. The authors also found that the number of children in the household only had an impact on girls. The revised version of the unpublished study will consider child marriage and children’s own educational aspirations.

Personal aspirations

Leonard Wantchekon, a professor at Princeton University in the US and the director of the African School of Economics in Benin, points out that other factors influence children’s social mobility apart from the economic situation of their parents. He did research on three generations in Benin, beginning with the first generation to ever attend primary school. He found examples of upward mobility both in the second and in the third generation.

There were also cases of downward mobility. Typical reasons were that people avoided financial and social risks and therefore failed to grasp educational and employment opportunities. Other reasons that explained lower incomes in the third generation included mental health problems, a negative outlook on life and little self-reliance.

“Aspirations and effort play a big role,” Wantchekon emphasises. He himself is a perfect example of successful social mobility: his grandfather belonged to the first generation in his village to attend school, his uncle was a railroad manager, and he himself became a professor of economics at an elite American university. Wantchekon argues that the education of grandparents leads to grandchildren setting themselves ambitious goals and accepting risks.

61 % without formal education

School-enrolment rates in Benin have increased dramatically in recent years (see article by Janina Meister in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2018/07). Most children, however, do not continue after the mandatory six years of primary school. Only 16 % of Beninese boys and girls attend secondary school and only three percent pursue post-secondary education. Sixty-one percent of people have no formal education at all.

Andreas König, the country director for GIZ in Benin, points out that, as elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the educational system of this small Francophone country is hardly linked to what kind of skills and knowledge the labour market demands. Only three percent of the secondary schools are vocational schools. According to König, many graduates end up working in the informal sector. In his view, the greatest challenges are the poor quality of schools and the inadequate funding for vocational education. He believes that Benin will have a hard time of living up to the UN principle of not leaving anyone behind.

Women and girls face particular obstacles. There are large gender disparities in education across most of sub-Saharan Africa. In response, the government of Benin has been emphasising the education of girls since the 1990s. It has undertaken measures like awareness raising, gender-equity training for teachers and special competitions and prizes for female pupils.

In 2007, a programme was launched to exempt girls from paying tuition in junior high schools (seventh to tenth grade). Since 2010, it has been in force nationwide. Leonie Koumassa of the African School of Economics has studied its impact.

According to her, it has had many positive outcomes: significantly more girls are enrolled, the number of years that girls spend in school has increased and fewer of them dropped out. Moreover, girls are now setting themselves more ambitious career goals on average.

Koumassa was surprised by a side effect of supporting girls: “More boys went to school, too.” One reason may be that families had more money at their disposal after the girls’ tuition fees were waived. According to the researcher, the fees ranged from about € 14 to € 30 per year, depending on the region. Moreover, families also have to pay for stationary, text books et cetera. “For poor families, this is a lot of money, especially if they have many children.”

At the same time, the policy has some weaknesses. The government did compensate schools for the funding gap caused by girls no longer paying tuition fees. While it paid reimbursements, though, it only did so at the end of the school year and not in full. Financial bottlenecks were the result. More students, moreover, meant larger class sizes. “It’s not uncommon to have 50 children in one class,” Koumassa says. According to her, additional teachers were not hired. Classroom space is insufficient as well. Overall, the quality of instruction has declined, and so has pupils’ performance. Given Benin’s fast population growth, problems are likely to intensify.

Koumassa wants the government to improve its generally sensible promotion of girls by investing in infrastructure and teacher training. She emphasises that greater gender equality in education will have a bearing on other areas, including children’s health and nutrition. Just like better education, that would also contribute to the country’s sustainable development.

Katja Dombrowski is a member of D+C/E+Z’s editorial team. The studies discussed in her essay are still unpublished, but the results were presented at the Poverty Reduction, Equity and Growth Network (PEGNet) conference on “Improving the quality of education and learning outcomes in developing countries” in Cotonou, Benin, in October. It was organised in cooperation with the African School of Economics (ASE).


Kategorien: english

Social anthropologist has studied a Swiss bank’s financial analysts

D+C - 29. Oktober 2018 - 10:55
Monday, October 29, 2018 - 10:30Hans DembowskiEthnographic study of a Swiss bank’s financial analystsStefan Leins is a social anthropologist whose research focuses on stock-markets’ analysts. His book should be required reading for all economics students at university. Too many economists fail to consider that markets are human made and therefore similarly prone to failure as human beings are.

The methods of ethnographic research were developed by western scholars to study exotic cultures. They serve to discover how people see the world they live in, what norms they apply and what roles they play and expect others to play. Relying on those methods, social anthropologists have made valuable contributions to development studies.

In recent decades, however, the ethnographic methods have been increasingly applied to study specific knowledge communities in western societies. The approach is particularly interesting when the communities concerned are highly secretive. The greatest challenge is to get access to such communities. Stefan Leins, a Swiss scholar, managed to get the permission to study financial analysts who work for a major Zürich-based bank. His book “Stories of capitalism” was published this year by Chicago University press.

According to economic theory, market decisions are based on rational calculations. Investors are supposed to process all available information, diligently assess risks and potential benefits, and then make choices that they expect to deliver maximum returns. A bank’s financial analysts are meant to excel in the first two categories and then give advice to both individual investors and their bank’s wealth managers.

To do his research, Leins joined the team of financial analysts at the bank he studied. The management and his colleagues knew that he was researching their culture. He got profound insights, but – as is typical of ethnographic research – he conceals which institution he worked and does not name the people he observed.

One thing he leaves no doubt about it is that an analyst’s work is subjective. This profession relies on a host of diverse sources of information, including academic studies, company reports, business media, share prices and other stock market information. They have hierarchies concerning what sources are most reliable or particularly interesting, but there is ultimately no clear hierarchy of exactly what data are essential and how they are to be interpreted.

According to Leins, the analysts he worked with do not assess a given set of information that they deem to be crucial. What they do, is to develop a narrative about how they expect specific financial assets to perform. They then support that narrative with the data that fits their hypothesis, leaving out data that does not do so. In Leins’ words, “numbers do not tell stories, numbers are used to enrich previously constructed stories”. Finding relevant facts and figures in various information sources is called “data mining”.

I used to work as a business journalist. What Leins describes looks a lot like how journalists work. I think a big difference is that the financial analysts have more time to focus on a single story and obviously draw on more sources to develop their narrative. What they have in common is that neither journalists nor financial analysts provide the kind of diagnosis that medical doctors do when dealing with standard ailments. Predicting how shares of a private-sector company will perform in a multilayered and ever-changing economy is more complex than treating a broken bone or appendicitis, for example.

Leins points out that analysts’ work is legitimate. In his eyes, “the economy needs narratives because they make the unknowable future accessible”. The author leaves no doubt that financial analysts do their best to predict the future, hoping that their narratives will work out well. The point is that this hope is more an issue of faith and intuition than of rigid data analysis by applying standard methods.

In several ways, moreover, the bets financial analysts make are opportunistic. The most important examples are probably:

  • They tend to shy away from deviating too far away from what they perceive as the consensus opinion. This attitude gives them considerable protection. If the advice they give later turns out to be wrong, they can always say that everybody got it wrong.
  • Moreover, the narratives financial analysts develop have to fit the worldview and expectations of the people who receive their advice. After all, the analyst's job is to convince these people.
  • Ultimately, financial analysts serve as animators who stimulate others to invest. They need narratives that promise good returns, whereas messages of doom are worthless.

The insights are not new. Observers of financial markets basically know these things. Leins confirms them based on his personal experience. It is one thing to suspect that a certain profession ticks in a particular way, and another thing to read an empirical account.  

The kind of professionally motivated and inevitable opportunism is an important reason for the financial crisis that started on Wall Street 10 years ago coming as such a surprise. Many observers knew that problems were brewing up, but they also kept reassuring one another that the problems could somehow be controlled. It is interesting to note that the crisis shattered public trust in banks, but did little to change their business models.

Leins has written one more study that shows that financial markets are not driven by anything like the laws of nature, but by human expectations. One of the great challenges financial analysts face is that market data do not speak for themselves. Analysts must not only take into account what is happening on capital markets, but also consider how other market participants will interpret those trends. Anticipating others’ interpretation is at least as important as determining what the underlying economic truth is. Even if an excessive stock-market bubble is building up, it may be sensible to keep buying shares, provided that one manages to sell them right before the bubble bursts. To follow an irrational collective trend may thus be rational for an individual investor.

Leins’ book allows us to take a look at what is going on inside a bank. Economists, who like to construct models based on the irrational assumption of human behavior being entirely rational, would do well to consider Leins’ work. Their discipline is a social science. Many of them think it is more precise than other social sciences, but it is not, as I have argued before.

Leins, S., 2018: Stories of capitalism – Inside the role of financial analysts. Chicago: University Press.

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