A Concrete Contribution to Education

by Sasha Alyson

As I write this, children in a rural Lao village are sitting in a school that I built.

Actually, it was a pre-school. And I didn’t myself “build” it, I just donated money. But let’s not quibble, because I’m not trying to brag. I wish to apologize.

At the time it seemed like a good idea. I first visited Laos in 2003. It was a poor country with weak education. When I mentioned World War II to one bright college student, he asked, “Is that the same as Star Wars?” He had no way to know: On that first visit I never saw a book in the Lao language. College graduates could find Laos on a map, but not the USA, Africa, or Europe. Because I had a publishing background I wondered: Could I move here and help young people develop writing and business skills, while producing books that would improve education and literacy? Three years later, that idea became a reality.

But in 2005 it was still just an idea. When I had an opportunity to donate toward construction of a pre-school, I grabbed it. If the book project never bore fruit, at least there would be something concrete left from my time in Laos.

That is the great appeal of building schools. They are concrete, in every sense. I gave money, and a school appeared. The money wasn’t all frittered away on salaries and overhead. And doesn’t everyone agree that school-building is a good thing, right up there with childhood vaccines? Moreover, though I never asked for it, there’s a plaque with my name on it.

After working to improve literacy and education in Laos for more than fifteen years, I’ve changed my mind. Building schools is good business for international charities. It’s bad for the countries that get the schools.

Look at it this way: Suppose you were asked to choose one mechanism for education: good teachers, good books, or a brand new schoolhouse. Which would you choose? I’d go for the books. You might choose the teachers; you might be right. Surely no one would choose the schoolhouse. But “build a school” is the easiest fundraising angle for international charities, because it addresses our urge to see tangible results.

Of course, when we donate money to build a school, it’s not because we think the physical building is the most important aspect of education. We assume that if we cover the big-ticket item, the other elements will fall into place. But the fact is, they don’t. After charities come and build a school, their usual attitude is: “That was great. Let’s find another village where we can build a school for them, too.”

Yet when it comes to improving local education, a physical structure is the one thing a village with limited resources can contribute. Villagers build their own houses, using free or inexpensive local materials; they can build a school. It will be made from wood or bamboo, not concrete. So what? Schools made in local styles have better ventilation and more natural light; when they need repair, local people know how to do it. Best of all, a village that builds its own school has invested in the education of its children. Why are so many international charities eager to take that away from them?

It’s not because these schools are improving the quality of education. What evidence I can find suggests just the opposite.(1)

The reason school-building is popular is summed up by a well-worn phrase: Follow the money. School-building feels virtuous to donors, who have neither the ability nor the inclination to think through the details. They can see concrete results. They get a plaque. “Everybody knows” that education is the key to solving the world’s problems, especially in poor countries. Donors feel happy. They won’t look deeper.

In the past, diverse societies all evolved ways to prepare their young for adulthood — without help from foreign charities. I don’t believe that the standard Western school model, pushed by the U.N. and NGOs, works for developing countries. But that should be for them to decide. It’s human nature to welcome freebies. When a charity shows up, eager to begin pouring concrete for a school – just what the U.N. says you needed! — that distracts attention from the questions that should be asked first. Six months later, an opening ceremony creates a sense of “Misson accomplished!” when the real mission hasn’t even started.

Notes and Sources

Top photo: Seabees from the U.S. Navy and Philippines put the finishing touches on a Filipino school. School construction is a popular activity for U.S. military units in developing regions. It’s seen as a way to win hearts and minds… but the first lesson local children learn is that their country can’t take care of its own needs, it must get help from the U.S.A. (U.N. Navy photo.)

1. U.N. agencies are remarkably silent about some vital questions. In fundraising appeals, they talk of a “crisis in education” in developing countries. Has it gotten better or worse in the quarter century in which U.N. agencies and NGOs have had increasing influence? If worse, as many of us have observed, why? I’ve looked at this more closely in “Schools in the global South are getting worse. We need to ask why.”

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