Posts Tagged ‘Education’

When Education Outpaces Opportunity – Help Me Doctor

February 4, 2010

“I have a PhD in agriculture, an MBA in Finance, 12 years work experience as finance officer for a host of INGOs, 3 of those years were abroad, a 5 page publication list, 2 of those pages are articles in international journals. I am desperate for work, willing to consult on short-term contracts, anywhere in Asia. Please leave me on your consultancy list.”

Or words to that effect.

It is incredible how many people in Nepal have PhDs, MBAs and Master’s degrees. And it is even more staggering that many of them are struggling to make a secure living.

This reality is further evidence of the dangers of an over-expansion in education without a complementary expansion of opportunities for the educated. I relate this to the African post-independence experience:

From 1957 onwards, newly independent African states embarked on ambitious fast-track development agendas. Central to these plans was the rapid education of its citizens. Enormous educational expansion brought steep rises in school enrolment, attendance, and graduation. Literacy and numeracy rates rose sharply, and knock-on impacts were felt everywhere where better education plays a role in outcomes, leading for example to declines in fertility rates and the prevalence of hygiene-related illnesses.

But as more people went to school, expectations of work opportunities grew, nearly always faster than the supply of opportunities for the educated. In part to avoid having a large disgruntled educated tranche of the population, many countries guaranteed university graduates employment in the government and in state-owned companies. Many commentators agree that this was a large contributor to the over-sized, wasteful and inefficient governments and state-owned enterprises in Africa that emerged between the 60s and 80s.

Back to Nepal, and what I see is another impact of education levels outpacing work opportunity. The bar keeps being raised: If for every decent graduate-level job that is made available in Nepal, there are ten suitably qualified Nepalis, then recruiters will obviously look for ways of differentiating applicants. So those with higher degrees will more likely secure the jobs, leaving others, less but still adequately qualified, behind. Over time, having a bachelor’s degree becomes the standard and a master’s is required differentiate oneself.

What is staggering is that increasingly in Nepal, the process has gone a step further. At the moment I work for a development consultancy firm, connecting well qualified and experienced individuals in South Asia to technical development contract work. And the simple truth is, if you don’t have a PhD, you’re not likely to get a call from us.

The impact of this momentum can be devastating. In Nepal parents commit large amounts of their assets, or become heavily indebted to send their children to what they deem are the best private schools and further education colleges. Education in Nepal has become big business, exploiting the hopes and aspirations of students and parents who believe that a further qualification will make them more employable and offer a path out of poverty. But when this path involves two years of ‘sixth form’, four years of bachelor’s, at least two further years of master’s, may keep winding after that, and still does not always offer the promised prize at the end, the whole institution of further education reveals itself to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


Kima the HIV-positive Muppet on South African Sesame Street

December 1, 2009

I found this blog published in a Nepali English language newspaper. Thought it was brilliant.

Sesame Street certainly has a place in my heart. I remember it used to run at 12:30 in England and my mum used to tape it. We had dozens of Sesame Street VHS recordings, which I watched when I was ill from school…

Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children

September 30, 2009

Pema Chodon and Sangmo Sherpa apologise for the non-existent mess in their flat – they are preparing for a celebration tonight. What’s the occasion, I ask. I’m told that there is no need for one.

Pema and Sangmo are seniors at Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children, located in the Buddhist suburb of Kathmandu. The 17 and 16 year olds are on a ‘gap year’, working as special assistants to the director of the school, having finished tenth grade the previous year. Next year, they may join the few but growing number of teenagers from the school securing scholarships to complete high school abroad. But as Sangmo explains, with so many complications, not least ethnic discrimination on the part of the Nepali government against Himalayan youths, she will not get her hopes up until the plane takes off from Kathmandu International.

Shree Mangal Dvip School was founded in 1987 by eminent Tibetan lama Thrangu Rinpoche as a place for northern highland Nepali children to get the opportunities that the national government fails to provide in their home region. Culturally and linguistically Tibetan, and Buddhist, Nepali highlanders are one of the most marginalised groups in Nepali society. Villages in the mountains have no roads, electricity, telephones, sanitation, hospitals or schools. Even relative to the rest of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, highlanders’ lives are exceptional precarious.

By any standard, Shree Mangal Dvip School is outstanding. Taking in the poorest Himalayan boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 22 the school teaches them maths, science, English, Nepali, social studies, IT, and Tibetan to international standard (IB in some subjects). Class sizes are between 15 and 30. Boarding rooms are basic, but clean and comfortable. The school also provides health and dental care for all in the school community.

The school also has a strong emphasis on Buddhist teaching, with the children taking part in prayer and meditation every day. Transferrable life skills are also instructed along the way through innovative programmes such as the senior ‘gap year’ whereby older students work as teaching, health care and administrative staff in the school.

Notice boards of the various student clubs and societies skirt the basketball court. At the time of our visit, the young monks of the nearby monastery who come here for lay teaching, donning dusty old Brazil and Chelsea shirts, were scrapping around across the football pitch.

Canadian Shirley Blair, director of the school, explains to us that things are going well at the moment, with strong support from international private donors, many of them Buddhists influenced by the teachings of Thrangu Pinpoche.

But she remembers a time when the school experienced black-outs for 18 hours every day, broken windows were left unmended due to lack of funds, and basic schooling equipment was in serious shortage. Necessarily hard-headed and thick skinned, Shirley also several times faced off against maoist would-be extortionists wielding metal bars. The school’s walls are now cemented with nails and broken glass for protection. Shocked by one occasion where Shirley stood up against the thugs on her own the students mobilised themselves to set up a website, and promised that they would protect their school from intimidation themselves in future. “The thugs would not beat kids, it would be all over the international news”, they explained.

The school has big plans to build a new ecological campus away from the bustle of Kathmandu, but this depends crucially on the support of Thrangu Rinpoche, his followers, and other donors.

During my visit I was struck by the quality of the school and the opportunities given to the 650 odd under-privileged children, despite significant adversity. Clearly the religious charity model works well in this case to provide substantial working capital for the school. More distressing is the size of the waiting list for entry at the school, which runs into two packed ring binders, and the reality that a dysfunctional state system makes this type of charity school, whose long-term sustainability is always uncertain, the best chance for Himalayan children.


The Importance of Climate Change Considerations in Development Issues

May 23, 2009

I have been fairly surprised by the reaction of fellow development students when I mention my interest in climate change. The underlying feeling might be well characterised by something Anthony Costello, head of the Centre for International Health and Development at University College London, said recently (May 14, 2009): “[Climate change is] not just an environmental issue about polar bears and deforestation”. But as his unit’s report on global health identifies climate change as the biggest threat to world health today, and other international commissions* similarly emphasise the centrality of the climate change issues in 21st century development, the view of climate change as a ‘green’ environmental cause separate and secondary to ‘red’ development is still prevalent, at least in my academic circles.

I like polar bears, and I love a nice walk in the woods, but my interest in climate change has little to do with ‘hippy’ environmentality. Rather, I realise that my, and thousands of others’, ‘red’ commitment to improving livelihoods and empowerment of the poor and marginalized around the world is at risk of being in vain if the changing environment is not taken into account.

There are three conceptually distinct climate change policy agendas. Mitigation policy concerns itself with reduction of the future extent of climate change, and in particular greenhouse gas reduction schemes. Closely related is the question of future energy sustainability. Thirdly, in view that the effect of past greenhouse gas emissions are already being felt today and effects of present emissions will be felt into the future, climate change adaptation is of fundamental importance. The interaction of all three of these arenas with development goals needs to be addressed by all in the development industry.

Of particular interest to me, and to the work of UYDO and micro-level projects in general, is the need to consider climate change coping and adaptive capacity within one’s conception of livelihoods. For example, the medium to long term criteria of success of microcredit for income generating purposes must consider to what extent fledgling businesses can cope and adapt to climate shocks. With this consideration in mind maybe hardy goats are a better farming investment than chickens (which are more weather affected), or buying salinity-resistant seeds is worth it despite extra costs (where sea level rises cause increasing salinity of nearby soils).

Furthermore where NGOs are already on the ground providing business and other technical advice, education on the local threats of climate change should be included in the ‘curriculum’. Where understanding about the potential effects of climate change is slight, simply explaining that a ‘bad year’ may not be an exception any longer can be the most powerful capacity enhancing mechanism. Information is key to good business decisions.

* Commission on Climate change and Development presents its final report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Statement to the 17th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development