Can we afford not to invest in education?

Read the latest post from our blogger Joely Harris about the importance on education in reducing inequalities.

This summer I joined four staff and twenty five children in a three week expedition in Madagascar. We were blessed with hugely knowledgeable guides, including the self proclaimed “bird nerd” who had mastered over 100 bird calls and was David Attenborough’s very own guide. Theo the “bird nerd” had once been part of a naked tribe that had lived in the national park before it gained its status as such. He educated us on the traditions of the Madagascan tribes and their need for the wood that exists inside the National Park. Deforestation is a humungous issue in Madagascar with one half of its forests disappearing between 1950 to 1985 leaving a meagre 11% of rainforest left today. Theo’s overarching argument as to how to fix this was, (you might have guessed it) education!  Due to being taught how to guide in the national park he could provide for his family without resorting to cutting down wood from the forests. His cousin and nephew are also guides in the forest.

Yet pro-education arguments do not halt at solving deforestation. When I asked our charismatic, quirky and deceptively intelligent guide, Dafy, what the greatest issue for Madagascar is he said:

“Education. If we want things to get better, for Madagascar to go up, we need education”. Dafy is a farmer as well a tour guide for the company, Mad Chameleon. During our trip we visited a small farm where a woman showed us how she sowed her crops. The tradition in Madgascar is still to resort to the slash and burn technique, using the ashes left to fertilize the soil. Dafy then in turn demonstrated a new technique he had picked up in a visit to Denmark: using old grass or leaves to cover the top of the soil he can prevent the sun drying it out too much and providing greater nutrients to the soil beneath when the leaves decay. Dafy then explained that many people are unreceptive to new ideas: old farmers are set in their ways and unable to see the benefits in innovation within farming. Once again, education is key. Placing children in schools, catching them when they are receptive and willing to learn, will enable farming to move forward in Madagascar and solve their ongoing struggles with food production.

Across Madagascar many villages are scattered with no hospital or school in sight. Medical practice may often be passed down through families and occasionally a village member will become trained to handle childbirth and the maladies of the locals. Nonetheless, this still leaves a large margin for error and with children taking their only knowledge from their elders without any formal guidance, it is unlikely to improve.

The status of women in Madagascar has also only been recently changing and it is a sign of progress that our female farmer was able to have control of her own crop production.  Nonetheless, this is still a work in progress. Our Madagascan guides kindly reminded the females of the group not to touch the pretty (but dangerous) flowers because, as females, we cannot help but want to touch pretty things. Though this is far from the most offensive sexist comment I have heard, it still reflects the traditional views surrounding girls. If you place women in a more active role, give them education and the tools with which to build their own futures, you will be mobilising half the population that has so far been left in the shadows. I’m sure you don’t need me to point out that if double the number of a country become productive, progress is far more likely: two hands are better than one.  The New York Times bestseller Half the Sky argues that educating and giving equal opportunities to women could well be the solution not only to poverty, hunger and discrimination but also terrorism and radicalisation. To quote the chief economist of the World Bank, “investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”

So when faced with the overwhelming list of problems in the world and wondering in which direction to go, we might wonder whether we should commit our time and money to building schools, training teachers and coaxing students into the classroom. Yet with the overwhelming evidence of the multi-faceted benefits of education and the clear side effects of a lack thereof, can we truly afford not to?

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