75%

Happy New Years, everyone! I celebrated here in Ghana, with my mum visiting for two weeks. We traveled the country, ate a lot of delicious food, saw some pretty amazing stuff, and read a lot. It was wonderful.

One of the books I read was “Naked Economics”, a titillating title by Charles Wheelan which tries to (and I think does a pretty good job of) presenting key economic concepts, while staying entirely away from math and graphs. It’s an interesting read, and it’s left me with some food for thought and quite an interest in learning more about economics.

At one point, when discussing the idea of wealth vs. money, in discussing ‘economically developed’ countries, he mentions that economists have estimated that 75% of is ‘stored’ in the minds of the people – their skills, ideas, etc. A pretty massive number, representing an amazing investment in people and an incredible richness beyond the ipads and the fancy cars. This is supposedly why Germany and Japan were able to ‘develop’ so quickly after having their infrastructure leveled during the Second World War.

It’s left me wondering what that means for development. Is the wealth disparity even greater than the numbers suggest? What does this mean for how we approach addressing this disparity, if the ‘tangible’ wealth is a minority component?

In promoting the use of evidence in decision-making at District Assemblies, we do some significant capacity development work. We’re not alone in this; every development project has its ‘CD’ component. It’s maybe something of a mantra – no matter anything else, an investment in a person is a sustainable investment, and a successful capacity building program is a successful and sustainable intervention. Unfortunately, CD is also an extremely difficult thing to get right (not to mention quantify). The implementation of these programs isn’t always the best, and they’re rarely coupled with the on-the-job training or more importantly a strong alignment with day-to-day job activities, so all too often these sessions fall flat.

Most of the time these capacity building interventions are just tagged onto bricks-and-mortar projects. A multi-million dollar investment in water infrastructure might be coupled with a 3-day training on project management. And, there’s enough of these projects all with their 3-day training that all too often it seems government workers spend all their time going from one training to another, without the time to actually leverage (and thereby reinforce) the new skills they’re developing.

A huge number of the higher-ranking leaders that I’ve met here in Ghana have trained abroad. They’ve made that substantial investment, often with support from someone or some organization, and are reaping the rewards (in Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan quotes research that estimated an annual return of 6% on an investment in education based on the corresponding increase in income – I suspect the return on investment for educating people from a developing country abroad to be way way higher). Education – quality education that teaches people to think critically – is key to the leadership development they’ve experienced. Patrick Awuah is a co-founder of Ashesi University here in Ghana, which seeks to develop the next generation of African Leaders, in Africa. His TED talk is fantastic – check it out – and really captures the importance of education in fostering critical thought.

Unfortunately, right now I think the education system in Ghana is struggling. With the Millennium Development Goal of universal basic education, enrollment sky-rocketed, so class size went up, pupil-teacher ratios went up, and the number of untrained teachers went up. Quality went down, and test scores went down. In Ghana, the BECE is a test that kids write after finishing Junior High School, and it determines both where they go to high-school (it’s the English system here in Ghana), and if. Last year, that if was a “No” for around 53% of kids. 53% of kids failed the BECE last year. 53% of kids will not go to high-school. I’ve heard (but don’t have a reference) that gross enrollment in high school is falling because of these falling pass rates – the increased enrollment in primary and junior high school through the push for universal education is more than offset by the declining quality, which has resulted in FEWER people going to high school. The challenge extends beyond education. Even in the universities (broad generalization coming), I’ve heard that often the education is by rote, in very large classes, with little emphasis on critical or creative thought.

This is getting a lot of attention right now in the media, by the government, and by civil society. They’re alarming numbers, both in terms of the human cost and lost opportunities, and in terms of that enormous fraction of the country’s wealth stored in their people’s minds.

I don’t have any solutions… If I were in charge (I know you’re listening, Mr. President), I’d start investing more in high quality teachers and increased opportunities for smart high school graduates, within Ghana and abroad. It’s painfully difficult for people to find funding for this, and so it’s not uncommon for people to work for 5 or 10 years after high school saving to go back to university. Education is critical, and hitting that critical mass of educated people is necessary, but how to actually get there?

It seems everyone here in Ghana, at one time or another, ends up ranting about education. It seems to get so little attention, and the attention it does get is either in terms of getting the ‘numbers up’ (universal basic education) or in the form of these short, skills-based sessions. It’s frustrating when you realize how big a component it is to total development – 75% of wealth, for god’s sake! – and yet how we seem to be failing in this sector (Ghana spends a huge portion of its government budget on education, well above average, and yet).

This blog post came out of a walk I took with my friend Mohammed last night. He’s a great guy – very friendly, always smiling, and seriously committed to learning (like so many other Ghanaians I’ve met). He’s currently attending college in town. We have a deal where he teaches me Dagbani and I teach him math. We’ve fallen off the band wagon lately but I’m hoping to pick things up again this week. He’s taking mathematics and biological chemistry. Last time we met we were working through algebra and fractions, while my Dagbani is seriously poor, but I’m keen to start trying hard!

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6 Responses to 75%

  1. Mike says:

    Wicked post brother! Sounds like an aamzing couple of weeks off, and the book sounds interesting too. Had some epic conversations on Sunday with my aunt, who’s an educational assistant in a high school in Toronto, and some cool insights comparing/contrasting her experiencs with what Hannah experienced working in a Ghana Education Services office in the Upper East. Can’t wait to see you in a month or so! KEep on ballin.

    -MK

  2. Tom Curran says:

    Very interesting post. It would be interesting to know if there have been many successful movements to improve teaching by NGOs or the Ghanaian government in pilot projects seeking to address the problem of learning by rote. I guess that to a large extent creativity in the classroom can be stifled by overly large classes and insufficient training. I wonder if the training could be modified to see significant improvements in teaching quality? A tough question, I suppose.

    • Sorry tom, just to clarify: do you suggest that teacher’s training could be modified to adapt to large class sizes? Or am I misunderstanding you altogether?

    • I haven’t heard of anything in the way of targeting teachers directly or the teaching pipeline. Insufficient training is definitely a problem – there are a lot of ‘untrained’ teachers, as the teaching colleges couldn’t keep up with the demand.

      It’s also interesting to note that a lot of research in the States (this is also from Naked Economics, but the documentary Waiting for Superman makes a similar point) has found almost no correlation between teaching quality and results in the classroom (test results). There is HUGE correlation between the competency of the teacher and results – it just seems that the training programs don’t affect this competency!

      Right now the incentives for quality, motivated, committed teachers aren’t there. Pay is really low, and to encourage people to get into the profession, they offer paid leave to go back to school. So, a ton of teacher’s are just there putting their time in so they can go back to school and ‘get on with their lives’… which doesn’t lead to the best results in the classroom.

      A seriously seriously tough question.

  3. Belinda says:

    One thing I find with education everywhere is the idea that formalized education is the good stuff. People think of education and they immediately turn to classrooms, tests, textbooks, uniforms. Why is it that written test scores are determining if students move ahead? I think there is so much value in non-formalized and traditional education that may be more effective in getting students to achieve their potential. At least, I see this to be the case in Canada. Perhaps in the education system other people in the community need to be more engaged as teachers in an informal setting.

  4. Pingback: Quality First | Questions to Questions

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