Posts Tagged ‘Illiteracy’

South Asia – 2: Three Deprivations

October 25, 2009

Our recent poll eliciting the ten most unacceptable things in South Asia today is open to another interpretation – it tells a tale of three nested deprivations.

The first deprivation is absolute – characterized by people existing below a level that is unacceptable in any self-respecting society. We had identified the dimensions of this absolute deprivation some time back – lack of an adequate amount of food, water, hygiene, housing, and education. All these are attributes that are associated with an inadequate income.

The second deprivation pertains to the inadequacy of rights – the right to physical safety, dignity, justice, and employment based on merit. This pertains only partly to inadequate income. It is also related to the imbalance of power. (more…)

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Education in Pakistan: Ten Big Questions

March 31, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

This is an edited version of the submission made on behalf of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP) to the Pakistan Conference organized by students at Harvard and MIT. The questions are intended to stimulate discussion; supporting arguments can be found in the listed resources. A number of the resources pertain to India reflecting the generic issues common to the two countries.

The Big Questions

1. Why is Pakistan still half illiterate?

The lack of political will or of money are not convincing answers. There is not enough political pressure to make education a high priority issue for governments. Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education as is necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies based on oppression.

2. Can NGOs fill the gap?

The arithmetic does not support this contention. The issue of scale is important. The problem is too large and growing at a rate faster than the capacity (physical and financial) of the NGOs to eliminate it. The only effective solution is reform of the public education system.

3. Is illiteracy the main problem in Pakistan?

All management and decision-making has been in the hands of the educated and it has been abysmal. Blaming the illiterates reflects either the ignorance or the callousness of the literate.

4. Why are the educated increasingly bigoted and intolerant?

The content of education and the style of pedagogy are both problematic and need attention. A literate individual taught to accept falsehoods and prejudice unquestioningly would be more dangerous than an illiterate person. There is a difference between education and indoctrination.

5. What is the problem with the content?

In the worst case, the content has been subverted to promote ideological objectives. In the best case, it is oriented to the job market and is overly information and skill oriented. The humanities that inculcate critical thinking are considered a waste of time and poorly taught. The product is either an unthinking ideologue or technician. The technician could be very competent but not likely to be innovative or flexible.

6. What is the problem with pedagogy?

The pedagogical style rewards memorization and suppresses critical thinking. This can be by intent, by self-censorship motivated by fear of persecution, or by capacity constraints imposed by very large class sizes.

7. What is wrong with philanthropy in Pakistan?

NGOs set internal goals like doubling the number of students enrolled in five years and celebrate their achievement even though such goals have no relevance to the scale of the problems they wish to address. In unequal societies, philanthropy is primarily a vehicle for feeling good not for effectively solving problems. Charity is laudable if the objective is to be charitable. It should not be conflated with problem solving.

8. What is the ideal role of NGOs?

NGOs have a vital and critical role to play but it is not one of filling the resource gap. NGOs should be experimenting with new content, pedagogy, incentives, and financing mechanisms to be mainstreamed into the public education system. They should be acting on behalf of citizens as a lobby to raise the political priority of education and presenting effective models for reform of the public education system.

9. Can the existing problem be solved in the traditional way?

The resource gaps, especially in teaching capacity, are now too large and the vested interests too entrenched to allow traditional approaches to succeed. Recourse to modern technology (Internet and mobile phones) is needed to leapfrog barriers of state resistance, mass illiteracy, and low incomes. Note that mobile phone is a technology that will scale to the magnitude of the problem and become more functional at the same time. By 2020 almost every individual is expected to have access to a mobile phone and the ability to afford it. Experiments have confirmed that illiteracy is not a bar to the acquisition of knowledge and information.

10. What is the bottom line?

Access to education and control of content are as much political issues as social or financial ones. They need a political strategy spearheaded by NGOs and backed by technological innovations overcoming state resistance, capacity constraints and income limitations.

Resources

  1. International Coalition for Educational Reform in Pakistan.
  2. Elite Dominance and Under-investment in Mass Education (Indian States).
  3. Annual Status of Education Report 2008 (Rural India).
  4. Are NGOs Relevant?
  5. On Philanthropy.
  6. The Subtle Subversion: the State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan.
  7. Producing Thinking Minds.
  8. The Problem with the Educated Middle Class.
  9. Technology and Education: Internet; Mobile Phone.
  10. The South Asian Idea.

Dr. Anjum Altaf is a member of the advisory council of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan and a contributor to The South Asian Idea, an experimental e-learning resource for college students in South Asia. Contact: thesouthasianidea@gmail.com

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More Numbers on Poverty and Education

October 11, 2008

I met a person the other day; he had educated his servant’s daughter who was now a physician in Los Angeles. “If everyone did that,” he said, “we could take care of the problems of illiteracy and poverty in our country.”

Right or wrong?

Let us see how we can do a very rough back-of-the-envelope calculation to see if the proposition is realistic.

Suppose the population of our South Asian country is 100. (Readers can multiply this by a scale factor to transform the hypothetical example into one that applies to their country. For example, if the population of Bangladesh is 150 million, the scale factor is 1.5 million. Relevant numbers in the example can be multiplied by this factor for the analysis to apply to Bangladesh.)

On average, we know that in South Asia about 25 percent of the population is very poor (below the official poverty line) and another 25 percent is ‘near poor’ (with enough for subsistence but not enough to afford a good education). So that gives us a set 50 people who are poor (from which we will derive the demand for assisted education) and 50 who are not poor (from which we shall derive the supply for assistance in education).

Demand Analysis

We start with a population of 50 poor people. We know that about 40 percent of the population of a South Asian country is comprised of children below the age of 15 years. This reduces our demand pool to 20. Now let us further restrict our need assessment to children between the ages of 5 and 15 and let us assume that this subset is half the size of the set of children below the age of 15. This gives us 10 children whose education requires external assistance. This is our rough estimate of the demand side.

Supply Analysis

We start with a population of 50 non-poor people. Let us assume an average household size of 5. This gives us 10 households in our potential supply pool. Of these we can assume that 6 are not rich enough to afford servants. So we are left with 4 families who are not poor and can afford servants. Now assume that half of these are rich enough to have servants and also have the extra income to afford to spend on educating them. That leaves us with two families. This is our rough estimate of the supply side. 

Matching Demand and Supply

Our rough calculation leaves us with a demand of 10 and a supply of 2. A private household based initiative can take care of 20 percent of the problem. This is significant but not enough to solve the problem of poverty and illiteracy in South Asian countries.

What Have We Done?

Essentially, what we have done is to take a very simplified look at two population distributions. The income distribution tells us the number of poor and rich people in the country. The age distribution tells us the number of people in various age groups. We combine these to arrive at our rough estimates of demand and supply.

A better analysis would use the same two distributions but in a much more careful and sophisticated way.

How the Context Makes a Difference

This analysis was for a country in South Asia and our assumptions reflected that context. The assumptions would be very different if our context had been a country in Scandinavia, for example. We know that both the income distributions and the population pyramids in Scandinavia are radically different from those in South Asia.

A private initiative to take care of the education of poor children could well be feasible in Scandinavia. Of course, as we know, the state has already taken care of the problem there.

Follow up

I would appreciate if readers could check the analysis and let me know if the rough conclusions make sense or not. Let me know if I have made any mistake in the assumptions or calculations.

Readers should also look at the two distributions for various countries and note the essential differences across countries. Comparisons between South Asian and Scandinavian countries should provide much food for thought. Note the key differences and speculate on the main reasons for the differences.

Information on Population Pyramids is available here.

Information on Income Distributions is available here.  Choose a country and then look under Income Distribution. The data show the percentage of total income earned by the richest and poorest sections of the population and also the number of people living below the poverty line.

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Why Numbers are Important?

October 10, 2008

Half the illiterate adults in the world, about 400 million, live in South Asia; over 40 million children do not go to school; and half the children who do enroll in Grade 1 drop out before completing five years of primary education.

Is this a problem and, if so, how is to be addressed?

This is not a post about the state of education. It is about the importance of numbers and their relevance to the arguments we make and the solutions we propose.

Some people say that governments have failed in their duty to provide education to citizens and therefore non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should step in to fill the vacuum.

Most of the time such discussions are carried out without any reference to either the scale of the problem or the scale of the proposed solution. They are what are termed ‘hand-waving’ arguments.

As soon as one looks at a few relevant numbers, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

Take Pakistan, for example. The total number of schools operated by NGOs today is less than 5,000 and the total number of students enrolled in such schools less than 500,000. On the other hand, just the number of children dropping out of the primary school system every year is about 500,000.

So, can the NGO strategy be physically scaled up to take care of the education problem? Forget the stock of existing children out of school; can NGOs put in place 5,000 more schools every year just to take care of the new dropouts.

It is unlikely, but suppose someone answers this question in the affirmative. Then the argument would need to be taken to the next level to discuss the costs involved. What is the cost being incurred by NGOs to teach one child? And how much new financing would be needed to do what NGOs are proposing to do? What would be the source of this finance?

We have come a long way from the ‘hand-waving’ argument. Now we understand the scale of the problem, the level of response needed if the problem is to be addressed by an NGO-led strategy, and the amount of financing that would be required to do so.

We are well on the way to a standard problem assessment and feasibility analysis of a proposed solution. Just by asking a few questions and collecting a few numbers, we have reduced the risk of embarking on an infeasible strategy.

The objective of the post is to highlight the importance of such an analysis as part of argumentation about public policies. This is not an argument that says that NGOs should not set up schools. Every child that is fortunate enough to benefit from education could have his or her life prospects changed. But looking at the numbers can make us realize that NGOs can help a limited number of individuals but they cannot resolve the crisis of education in South Asia.

For an example of a similar analysis applied to the energy sector, see Giant Leaps And Small Steps For Energy Technology. The article asks what is the central reality that has changed over the decades? Answer: The scale. “As world GDP grows from $50 trillion to $80 trillion in 20 years, new supply equal to France’s total energy consumption will be needed each year. This is the central challenge of our era. A Manhattan or Apollo Program just won’t cut it.” 

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Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?

October 6, 2008

By Anjum Altaf

This is the edited text of the keynote presentation at a conference on education reform in Pakistan hosted by The Citizens Foundation USA in Milpitas, California, on August 30, 2008. Participants included the leading NGOs involved in education in Pakistan – TCF, HDF, DIL, CAI – as well as donors represented by USAID.

Sixty years after the creation of the country half of Pakistan’s population is still illiterate. This is a major problem but it is not the major problem. It is only an outcome of the major problem.

This distinction is important because the identification of the problem defines the nature of the solution. If we think of illiteracy as a major problem caused by the inattention of the state we will immediately think of a course of action in which all the NGOs get together, construct schools, and deal with the problem one school at a time. I will argue that this will send us off on the wrong track.

Think of it this way. If you go to a physician with fever and rashes, the physician does not treat you for fever and rashes. The fever and rashes are not the disease; they are just the symptoms of a disease. And the disease is unidentified till there is a diagnosis which is the real job of the physician. Only when the underlying cause is identified can the appropriate treatment be prescribed. And this prescription will be very different depending on whether the fever and rashes are due to malaria as opposed to chicken pox.

The social scientist is the physician of the social system and his/her real task in this case is to identify the underlying cause whose symptom is 50 percent illiteracy in Pakistan. Before we begin to address that question we should also clarify that just as illiteracy is not the problem, the 50 percent of the citizens who are illiterate are not the problem. They are not the ones holding back the development and prosperity of the country. Blaming them would be akin to blaming the patients and the victims.

The fact of the matter is that Pakistan is a grossly mismanaged country. And the ones who have been in charge of mismanaging the country are its literate, not its illiterate, citizens. Let us grant for the moment that it is part of this mismanagement that is manifested in the illiteracy of half the population. So the question we have to ask is why the literate managers have failed to impart literacy to the still illiterate citizens?

The two explanations that one hears all the time are lack of political will and lack of money. But these are not convincing explanations. Why is political will needed to spread literacy? Who in the country is opposing the spread of literacy? Why does political capital need to be expended for this cause? There is no satisfactory answer.

And why is there a lack of money for education? There seems to be a lot of money for everything else from the making of nuclear bombs to buying F-16 planes to building the highest water fountain in the world. Why is it education that is starved for money? Once again there is no satisfactory answer.

The only plausible conclusion seems to be that spreading literacy amongst the illiterate has a very low priority for the literate managers of the country. And so we push back the question further to ask why that priority is so low?

Let me try to present a hypothesis with a few examples. Take the tribal sardars in Balochistan. The population of Balochistan is only 10 million and only half of those are ethnic Baloch. We know that a number of Baloch sardars have earned millions of dollars for the use of natural resources on their lands. So why have the sardars not used this revenue to educate their tribesmen?

When you pose that question almost everyone in Pakistan is quick to inform you that the sardars do not wish to educate or otherwise develop their tribesmen because they want them to remain dependent.

Leaving aside the politics of Balochistan within Pakistan, we can conclude from this that there is at least one type of political-economic system in which the rulers are positively not interested in educating their constituents.

Have I picked an outlier, the only such system of this type in the world ruled by backward tribal sardars? Think again. Recall that in the American South before the Civil War many states had passed laws making it a crime for slaves to learn to read and write and for others to instruct them. The punishments included flogging for slaves and heavy fines for the teachers.

Why was this necessary? Because if the slaves had been able to read the Constitution they would have noted that it began with the statement that all men were born equal and, one presumes, they would have been curious to know why the equality did not apply to them.

So we can begin to believe that there are indeed political-economic systems, especially those based on oppression, where the rulers do not wish the ruled to develop the ability to think and question because that questioning would lead to a questioning of the legitimacy of the systems themselves.

Do you believe that such things just happen by themselves without conscious thought? Once more you will have to think again. Most people in the subcontinent are familiar with the name of Lord Macaulay made famous by his 1837 ‘Minute on Education’. Here is what he said in a remarkable speech in the British Parliament on the Government of India Bill in 1833:

“Are we to keep the people of India ignorant in order that we may keep them submissive? Or do we think that we can give them knowledge without awakening ambition? Or do we mean to awaken ambition and provide it with no legitimate vent?”

What happened in India later is a fascinating digression but I will not get into that here. The point to take away is that the decision to educate or not to educate the subjects is a political decision, that education policy is an element in the political calculus, and that there are some political-economic systems, of which I have provided three examples, where the decision of the rulers is not to educate the ruled beyond the minimum that is necessary for the functioning of the system.

Of course, not all systems are like that. Here in the Silicon Valley you have a sub-system that puts a great premium on learning and that even pays you to acquire more knowledge. Why? Because this system is part of a globally competitive environment in which it would die if it didn’t remain ahead of its competition. So, one can conclude that it is the needs of a political-economic system, not good will, that determine its attitudes towards education.

Note that one cannot even generalize from the Silicon Valley sub-system to the US as a whole. You might agree that the US does not really want its citizens to learn more than it feels necessary about the Iraq war, for example. And it does not strongly enough wish the same kind of thinking to be taught in inner city schools as it does in the schools of Palo Alto. Do you attribute that in the richest country of the world to lack of political will or lack of money?

So, here is the first major conclusion: Education is a political issue; political-economic systems are in general inimical to enabling their citizens to think; they enable only as much thinking as is necessary for the survival of the system; and systems differ in how much thinking-power they need to survive.

You can even apply this perspective to attitudes towards the education of women within families if you think of a family as a political-economic system. When we see the issue in this perspective we can understand better why education has such a low priority in Pakistan for the managers of the system. They sense a very low need for innovative thinking that is satisfied by a handful of elite institutions whose teaching methods have never trickled down to the vast majority of schools and colleges. On balance, the dangers posed by critical thinking far outweigh its benefits to the status quo.

Now, of course, there are occasions when populations rebel against this kind of oppression. We can think of the warlords in China, the Tsars in Russia, and the capitalists in Cuba as the equivalents of our Baloch sardars. Their populations under Mao, Lenin, and Castro rebelled against the oppression and were able to win universal literacy for themselves.

But does this stop education from remaining an instrument of politics? No, the politics just moves up to the next level – that of the content that comprises education and literacy. So, the Chinese were made literate with the Little Red Book, the Russians with Marxism-Leninism, and the Cubans with the Socialist Man. The object was to concede the hard-won right of citizens to learn but to ensure that they thought in a particular, state-sanctioned, way. Many would call that indoctrination, not education.

The second major conclusion is that literacy is important but the content of that literacy is even more important. Let me give you an example from closer to home. Ashis Nandy, the leading political psychologist in India, recently got into a lot of trouble for writing an article in which he laid the blame for the ethnic cleansing in Gujarat on its educated middle class. Remember that this ethnic cleansing is alleged to have been incited and encouraged by Narendra Modi, the very literate Chief Minister of the state.

Related to this, Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, a leading scholar of ethnic conflict working in Mumbai, asked a very profound question: Why is that the educated middle class is more bigoted than the illiterate masses? And he had a very simple answer: because it is educated.

Think about this. If you take the mind of a child as an empty vessel and make the child literate while filling his or her mind with hate and lies what will you get? You will get a literate young person who is infinitely more dangerous than an illiterate one.

So, if you teach numeric literacy in a school by asking how many kar-sevaks it would take to demolish 7 mosques in 3 days if one kar-sevak can demolish one mosque in two days, you will certainly achieve literacy, but at a very heavy cost to society.

Of course, this political use of education is not confined to India. The curriculum wing of the ministry of education in Pakistan retains very tight control over what is to be taught in public schools in Pakistan. An analysis of the content is available on the web in a report prepared by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. When you see it you will be convinced that this is indeed not education but indoctrination. And, of course, you are quite well aware how some others are being made literate in the well-funded madrassas.

So this is what we mean by the term “beyond literacy”. Education is not pouring propaganda into empty minds but enabling those minds to think for themselves. And thus we have a twin struggle: first to ensure that our citizens obtain their basic human right of education; and second that the education they get enables them to think for themselves.

Once we have diagnosed the problem and placed it in its political context only then can we begin to think how we can get from where we are to where we want to be. The first part is obviously a political struggle. We have to mobilize the citizens to demand their right to a good education – no one is going to give it to them as charity. But this also requires us to see the role of NGOs in a realistic perspective – the arithmetic does not support the conclusion that NGOs on their own can fill the gap left by the omissions of the state.

NGOs are doing a commendable job in changing the life chances of the proportionately very few people they are able to touch. But all the statistics confirm that the overall gap in Pakistan is widening despite the heroic commitment of the NGOs. NGOs need at the same time to act as awareness-raising groups to mobilize citizens around their rights and as pressure groups to force the state to discharge its responsibility to its citizens.

Second, we must contest the struggle over the content of education and the pedagogy of critical thinking, aspects we have ignored to our detriment by allowing ideologues to capture and enfeeble the educational arena since the time of Zia ul Haq. Here again, NGOs have a vital role in the evolution of new content and learning methods that they can experiment with in their institutions. But here we must realize that the conventional approach to improving the quality of education is no longer possible. Quite apart from the opposition of the state and of those who control educational institutions today, there is no way we can get the thousands of trained teachers we need in the schools and colleges spread over the rural areas, the small towns and the secondary cities of Pakistan. We have to think of a way to leapfrog this limitation.

Here we have an opportunity provided by the emergence of technologies that did not exist even a few decades ago. Recall that Ayotallah Khomeini toppled the Shah by using cassette tapes to educate Iranians about the oppression in the country. We may disagree with the political content of this education but here we only want to note the leverage provided by new technology and the weakening of state controls because of it.

Since that time digital technology has made remarkable inroads. The cell phone has now penetrated into the remotest villages and reached amongst the poorest of the citizens. And if you in Silicon Valley continue what you are doing the digital content that would be available on cell phones tomorrow cannot even be imagined today.

It is this democratization of access to information not subject to state control (recall the attempts to ban dish-antennas a few years back) that holds out the biggest hope for the future. It would be technological forces supported by civic action that would be the driving force of this transformation. Our job would be to find the content that would take advantage of these technological opportunities. So the ball is very much in our court.

On our part, we have started a modest initiative to provide content in a thought-provoking format for college students in South Asia. It is still in an experimental stage seeking to find the right mix of content, format and complexity. We hope to turn this into a major e-learning platform grounded in specific nodes in South Asia with the content transferred to local language blogs. I invite you to take a look at this initiative, to provide your inputs, and to participate in the experiment to see if we can really make a difference in the sense that I have outlined in this presentation.

I think we can and I am excited by the challenge. If we pool our strengths – mastery of technology, familiarity with content, and motivation for civic action – we can make our presence felt and make a decisive contribution to the cause of education and liberation in Pakistan.

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See endnote 25 in Vidya, Veda, and Varna: The Influence of Religion and Caste on Education in Rural India by Vani K. Barooah and Sriya Iyer, 2004. See also, The Constitutional Mandate and Education, 2005.

Is Poverty the Cause of Illiteracy?

September 6, 2008

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.

For the contrary argument, see Is Illiteracy the Cause of Poverty?
See also, Is Overpopulation the Cause of Poverty?

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Is Illiteracy the Cause of Poverty?

August 18, 2008

It is often argued that illiteracy is the biggest problem in South Asia and also that illiteracy is the reason for poverty. What is the evidence for such assertions?

Let us start with a couple of concrete examples:

Over the past fifteen years, the proportion of the population living under extreme poverty in Pakistan has risen from 13 to 33 percent but illiteracy has declined during this period. Therefore, the explanation for the increase in poverty in Pakistan cannot be attributed to illiteracy.

India has a considerably higher literacy rate than Pakistan but the incidence of poverty in India was comparable to that in Pakistan for many years.  The recent trend in poverty reduction in India cannot be attributed to a sudden increase in literacy.

This is not to argue that illiteracy does not matter. Clearly a literate work force can be much more productive than an illiterate one everything else remaining the same. And literacy can contribute positively to the quality of life of an individual for which reason it is considered a basic human right. But the fact remains that there is not sufficient evidence to establish that illiteracy is the most basic reason for poverty.

Similarly, there is also no obvious link between poverty and the lack of democracy and human rights.  The most dramatic reductions in poverty have been in East Asian countries under non-democratic governments much criticized for their human rights records. By comparison, poverty reduction in democratic India has been much slower. Once again, this is not an argument for authoritarian governance; there are many other unrelated benefits of democracy. The point is that there seems no direct link between the lack of democracy and the incidence of poverty.

A closer look at the evidence might suggest that the causes of poverty have less to do with literacy or democracy and much more to do with economic and political policies.

The evidence of the impact of economic policies on poverty reduction is quite impressive. East Asia is a well documented example where the number of people living on less than one dollar a day has fallen almost two-thirds, from 720 million in 1975 to 210 million in 2002 almost entirely because of the rapidity of economic growth. India has also begun moving in the right direction after key economic reforms have relaxed the stifling grip of the ‘license Raj.’

On the other side are countries like Pakistan where ruling groups allocate the bulk of national resources to defense, foreign policy adventures, fomenting domestic strife to manipulate political power or in stifling business to protect vested interests. It is not surprising that foreign and domestic investors are reluctant to invest in such countries. Without investment, there is little job growth; and without job growth little prospect of reduction in poverty.

The political and economic choices of such ruling groups are not directly influenced or constrained by the illiteracy of their populations. Policies, good or bad, are all decided by people who are quite literate. What we need to explain is why some literate ruling groups make consistently bad political and economic decisions. One such decision is not investing in raising the literacy levels of their populations. Why did Sri Lanka and China invest in raising their literacy levels to over 90 percent while Pakistan and Bangladesh remain at around 40 percent? Why is the rural education program in India so weak compared to its urban program?

What we really need to explain is the persistence of illiteracy in some countries or parts of some countries. And this has to do with the interests, choices and decisions of the literate sections of these countries.

When analysts begin to explain the political economy of continued impoverishment, when people understand the real causes of their poverty, and when political parties mobilize them on the basis of this understanding, perhaps then there will be hope for change in countries that have shortchanged their citizens by keeping them poor and illiterate.

For the contrary argument, see Is Poverty the Cause of Illiteracy?
S
ee also, Is Overpopulation the Cause of Poverty?

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