In a previous post we had discussed whether illiteracy was the cause of poverty. A number of readers have enquired whether poverty can be the cause of illiteracy. We explore the argument in this post.
At one level the proposition can come across as valid. The poor would not have the income to afford education for their children and would, by necessity, keep the latter out of school. The very poor would need to supplement the household income with the earnings of children giving rise to the prevalence of child labor. The very, very poor would not even have enough to afford the upkeep of their children and be forced to give them up to madrassas providing free care.
This line of thinking would lead one to conclude that countries with widespread poverty would have widespread illiteracy.
How then would one account for the very wide variation in literacy rates across groups that suffered from more or less similar levels of poverty at one time? If readers look up the data they would note that Sri Lanka and Pakistan must have had similar per capita incomes at some point in the past. Yet today Sri Lanka has over 90 percent literacy compared to just about 50 percent in Pakistan.
In India, Kerala has the highest literacy rate while being nowhere close to the richest among the states. So it is clearly not poverty alone that holds back literacy.
The flaw in relating illiteracy to poverty is that there is no overriding necessity for primary education to be available on a fee-for-service basis. Why should parents have to pay for the basic education of their children? Why shouldn’t parents be paid to have their children educated?
Two arguments can be made for this point of view. First, literacy is a fundamental human right and it should be the obligation of the state to make it available on a priority basis out of general revenues. Second, it has long been known that social returns to basic education are very high (i.e., the gains to society from educating its population far exceed the costs of the education because of the increased productivity of labor). Therefore rational societies should invest public resources in educating their citizens.
So the question is why did some societies (East Asian countries, for example) do so and others still don’t?
We can think of an interesting case that can provoke a lot of thinking. Balochistan is the most lightly populated province in Pakistan with about 10 million people. Of these only about half are ethnic Balochis. It is well known that some Balochi tribal chiefs have had an income in the millions of dollars as payment for the use of natural resources extracted from their lands. The question is why have these tribal chiefs not used this income to provide basic education to their followers?
We will let readers answer this question. But one conclusion should be obvious – there is more to illiteracy than just poverty or lack of resources or lack of political will. Surely it should be clear that some societies have an incentive to educate their citizens and others don’t.
The real clues to the continued prevalence of illiteracy would be found in thinking through the incentives. The low political priority to educate citizens in some places is a story waiting to be told.