Snake oil for the 21st century

by Sasha Alyson

Seeking your donation to fund its education programs, Save the Children tells of a:

25% increase in wages later in life resulting from a single year of secondary education.(1)

It even gives an authoritative-sounding source: A 2004 paper from the Council on Foreign Relations called “What Works in Girls’ Education.”

And here’s where the snake-oil pitch begins. NGOs such as Save the Children, along with U.N. agencies such as UNICEF and UNESCO, have found that they can raise a lot of money by vowing to get more children into school. But their claims often cross the line into outright deceit. Let’s dissect this specific claim to see all the problems.

The source is from 2004 — 16 years ago. Conditions have changed greatly since then. And that source merely quotes an earlier study. Why can’t they find anything more recent?

The 2004 source, “What Works…,” says: “A leading development economist has found that returns to female secondary education are in the 15–25 percent range.” Save the Children changes this to 25%.

Furthermore, I cannot even find this statement, nor anything close to it, in the paper where it supposedly appears.(2)

Many studies, not surprisingly, do find that more schooling is associated with higher wages. But this is correlation, not causation. There are three reasons that schooling and wages will often correlate, even for people who learned nothing in school.

  • Your circumstances of birth have an enormous impact on both your schooling and your wages. Children from a rich white family usually get more schooling, and also earn more. That doesn’t mean the schooling raised their wages.
  • Likewise, someone who is naturally smart, hard-working or ambitious is more likely to attend school, and also to earn more – but not because they went to school.
  • Some employers, especially government agencies, pay more attention to years of schooling than to actual ability. So a graduation certificate – even from primary school — will usually raise your wages if many other people don’t have one.

As these examples show, studies of “returns to education” are about private returns — benefits to the individual. They become misleading if used to plan public policy, because many things (bank robbery, for example, as long as you don’t get caught) can benefit some individuals while harming society. If a country pays for schools without gaining workers who have better skills, then education may benefit certain individuals but it’s a loss for society.

These studies looked wages of adults who had attended school roughly in the 1960s to 1980s. School attendance in developing countries was much lower then, and rarely was it compulsory. If children attended school, probably their parents believed it brought benefits. Now, under pressure from the U.N., most countries require children to attend school, even as school quality has dropped dramatically. The U.N. has in fact stated that “More than one-half of children and adolescents are not learning worldwide” and “In every region, most children not learning are in school.”(3) It is absurd, and deceitful, to compare the benefits of attending a school in 1980, when it had strong incentives to actually teach, with the benefits today, when quality is mostly ignored in favor of quantity.

Furthermore, because fewer people graduated from school in those years, their graduation certificate made them stand out. Now, nearly everyone has a certificate, and it does them no good.

These earlier studies were written to encourage developing-country governments to see education, and particularly girls’ education, as a good investment. Most likely it was – provided the government invested in true education, and not just schooling. But now, these studies are used to justify foreign agencies trying to influence education policies in developing regions because that makes their faraway donors happy. Government officials try to please the Western-run NGOs, because they bring money. The local citizenry isn’t happy that their children so often learn nothing, but can’t do anything about it. They’ve been outbid.

Why do donors care about enrollment rather than school quality? Many reasons. One is that for a quarter century, the U.N. has trained the world to believe that school enrollment is the same as education. The Millennium Development Goals, which shaped aid policy for fifteen years, used only enrollment, not learning, as the criterion of success for the Education goal.

There’s one final flaw in Save the Children’s solicitation. They want you to assume that your donation will help them improve education. But their own internal studies have repeatedly found that Save the Children’s programs make little or no significant difference.(4) Yet by showing up as — in their words — “the world’s leading expert on childhood,” they draw attention and resources from those who actually do know what they’re doing, who have skin in the game, and who are trying to improve education, not please foreign donors.


Let’s return to my earlier question: Why doesn’t Save the Children offer current, honest evidence for its claims? I don’t think there is any. Besides, deceitful statements are working just fine.

Notes and Sources

1. The Save the Children claim has been prominently posted on the education page of their New Zealand affiliate’s site at least since September, 2017.

2. Schultz, Paul. (2001). “Why Governments Should Invest More To Educate Girls.” World Development. 30. 207-225. 10.1016/S0305-750X(01)00107-3. The copy that I could locate is marked as a “Discussion Paper”; the final paper is available only to institutional subscribers. It seems unlikely that such a major change would have been added, but I cannot be sure.

3. “More Than One-Half of Children and Adolescents Are Not Learning Worldwide,” Unesco, and Unesco Institute for Statistics, September 2017.

4. Several internal evaluations of Save the Children’s literacy program have been made available to me by someone working there. The “PEPAS Literacy Boost Pakistan, Endline Report,” January 2014, states, in boldface: “Finally, there were no significant differences in the gain or endline scores of Literacy Boost and comparison students.” Another, “Literacy Boost Bangladesh, Endline Report,” May 2013, similarly says: “No statistically significant differences exist between Literacy Boost and comparison groups either at baseline or at end line.” Some evaluations did find slight benefits, but far too small to justify the high cost of the program.

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