Is education the most effective anti-poverty investment?

School in Kabkabiya, North Darfur.
School in Kabkabiya, North Darfur.
UNAMID

Global Poverty Project CEO Hugh Evans made the case for supporting education in a recent blog post for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). He makes the case that investments in education are “perhaps the most effective and quickest way to reduce poverty.” Others point out that the evidence is not quite as clear as Evans says.

“Here is an opportunity to really make a difference to the lives of the most disadvantaged people on the planet,” writes Evans. “By increasing how much money is directed to the GPE, the US can be sure that its foreign assistance will see greater returns for the world.”

The United States lags when it comes to funding education through the GPE, says a new OECD report. The US ranks second to last among OECD countries. Only one place ahead of Romania.

Evans points to the evidence that supports his case for investing in education.

For instance, each additional year of schooling raises average annual gross domestic product growth by 0.37 per cent. Also, where the enrollment rate for secondary schooling is 10 per cent higher than the average rate for the population, the risk of war is reduced by around 3 per cent.

However, there is that pesky problem with correlation and causation, says Lee Crawfurd in a blog post. The numbers cited by Evans are correct, but do not necessarily mean that investments in education lead to increased GDP and less war. It may be that countries that have better GDPs and less war end up with improved education rates.

Countries that have higher rates of schooling may also have slightly faster growth, but we have known since the penis paper that looking at correlates of economic growth at the national level is mostly stupid. Countries with more schooling might indeed be less likely to be at war, but this DOES NOT prove that it was the schooling wot done it. The individual-level “micro” studies are generally more persuasive than the country-level “macro” studies, but even there most of them are looking at correlations rather than real or natural experiments.

Crawfud goes on to suggest that there is no real analysis of cost-effective interventions and the idea misses the important point that building schools and putting kids in classrooms is not the same thing as education.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • Nathan

    Fair points here, but they also miss the important point that boys & girls have a right to education, which gives them the opportunity to be better informed, more empowered citizens. Should we stop working to build better education systems if evidence shows there’s no impact on poverty? This is what the question seems to imply…