Public v private, principles v practice

Over at Duncan Green’s Poverty to Power blog there’s a bit of a ding-dong (parts 1, 2 and 3) between Justin Sandefur and Kevin Watkins over whether donor money for education in developing countries should be invested in state or private schools. Both have data and research findings to support their positions, and both make the point that a bit of both should have a place in any sensible education donor’s portfolio. So far so good, so why the all the fuss and strident opinions? One doesn’t have to be a psychoanalyst to suspect that attitudes to private education in our own countries – a fraught subject if ever there was one – are spilling over into the international development sphere.

If that is the case then I should at least declare my own loyalties; I was lucky enough to go to a private school, and very possibly would not be working in conservation and development today if I had not had that chance. But except for the economists and the religiously inspired, development is a decidedly left-of-centre vocation, and so the balance of commenters and voters in Duncan’s poll appear to be against donor funding for private schools.

My only experience of education systems is as a consumer and employer of other consumers, but you do not need any special insights to agree with the primary assertion made by both that there is a big problem of education quality in many developing countries, and a significant issue of access in at least some countries, e.g Pakistan. The essential quandary is how to practically improve the quality of education without compromising on principles of access and fairness. Private schools by definition cost people money and so are likely to be less accessible to poorer people.

But there are lots of essential public goods for which we are accustomed to paying for. Many, e.g. power, water and telecoms, are tightly regulated as a result, and rightly so. They do not, however, come for free. Yet access to information on market prices via a mobile telephone might potentially be more useful and important to a poor farmer’s children than a questionable education would be. Food is an even more fundamental requirement for life than education, and yet just about everybody has to pay for what they eat.

So just because education is a vitally important public good, I do not buy the argument that it needs to be provided directly by the state. As with, say, generating electricity, you may find that private operators are able to do so both better and more efficiently. On the other hand, given the situation in most countries that the state is the dominant provider of education, and that this generally embodies principles of universal access (at least in theory), I am quite open to the argument that funds for education might best be spent improving that system …

if such funding can actually lead to significant and cost-effective improvements. Lots of newly-built but empty classrooms (paid for by donors) coupled with miserable educational achievement in rural areas around here even when there are teachers present suggests there can be a flaw in this assumption. So if better results can be achieved by supporting low cost private schools then I am all for them. The same ‘if’, of course, applies, and outside of American tea partiers I imagine there are few people who would support private schooling as a matter of principle; the evidence base if their favour needs to be there. (In the absence of sufficient evidence either way funding some pilot projects would be reasonable.)

Ultimately, in my view, it is better to educate some people well, rather than everyone badly. For all the problems with elites and elitism in developing countries, without an elite you do not have anyone to run your country. (Something, it seems, South Sudan is struggling with.) The principle of universal access only becomes a concern when the thing being accessed is actually worth something, or at least when we are able to fix the problems so that it is worth something. As stated many times before donor funds are sometimes quite good at delivering concrete outputs (more classrooms) but much less frequently successful at delivering less tangible outcomes (better educational achievement).

Is opposition within the development sector to private schooling based upon prejudices founded in developed country politics or actual realities in developing countries? I have no expertise to say one way or the other, but I do find similar biases in tropical conservation, in which many so-called experts insist on the gold standard of protected areas despite plentiful evidence that they often do not work very well on the ground. (This is not the same as saying they do not work at all.) As with education, rich country principles seem to occupy the moral high ground over practical solutions that might actually suit poor countries better. That is a shame for both the people affected and the wildlife that might otherwise be conserved.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by David on August 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    I agree with your point on projecting what we already believe domestically – good post. I’d add a further question to ask of the evidence: not whether private schools really perform better that close comparison groups, which is of course threshold, but even if that’s granted, why?

    Everyone seems to agree that public schools in developing countries fail due to teacher unpreparedness and absenteeism, and that these are in fact symptoms of wider problems with accountability.

    If those problems are not addressed, is there a reason that mass use of private schools would resist similar problems?


    • Good question. I guess the point is that parents will not pay to send their kids to a school that doesn’t teach anything. So donor funding for private schools would need to work through some kind of voucher or top-up grant scheme rather than simple block funding unless that were accompanied by robust standards enforcement (when you would face institutional and ethical challenges in too many developing countries). Secondly there needs to be competition, an alternative option to which they could send their kids, e.g. the local state school. That competition would work best when the parents have at least some skin in the game. I.e. a voucher that covers 100% of the costs and that cannot be cashed in for any other kind of benefit (e.g. medical care if you wanted to make it non-cash) would appear to run the danger that you raise of generating the same outcome. But if parents really have to fork out at least something then they will demand at least some minimum standards, e.g. teachers turning up to work.


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