Posts Tagged ‘Opportunity’

To get out of poverty, get out of agriculture?

October 19, 2010

Out of all the World Food Day blogs I’ve read, Owen Barder‘s was the most refreshing, thought-provoking, and as always, entertaining. But I do question his argument on two pretty fundamental points.

Expanding on Owen’s stats-speak

…it is not as persuasive as the alternative interpretation of the high correlation between poverty and agriculture: the fact that most poor people work in agriculture suggests that the best way to escape poverty is to get out of agriculture…

I suggest it important to consider the possible omitted variables involved here. Sure, most people who are poor sustain their livelihood through some form of agriculture, but it does not follow that agriculture is the cause of poverty.

One big, fat omitted variable is the glaringly obvious rural context. The distinction between agriculture and rural living is important here because it forces us to think about what it means to live in a rural location other than working in agriculture: restricted mobility due to rougher roads hampering transportation of goods, access to services, opportunities to meet and collaborate, less competition in local markets, limited communication and information availability leading to slow learning of new skills, easy exploitation by the better informed…

These are some the biggest challenges that poor, rural people face, not that they work in agriculture per se. When some of these difficulties that act as bottlenecks to rural development are addressed, then agriculture remains an arduous life, but one that might be occasionally remitting and rewarding.

Of course that’s not to say that heading to the towns and cities isn’t perhaps a quicker way of escaping the isolation of rural life and drudgery of agriculture. Here’s my second point though, we must not forget the reality that many poor people face when they reach urban areas: a higher paying, more secure manufacturing job is the dream that most town-bound migrants fail to find. Many end up in slums, working even more informally for little more that buys a lot less, and certainly living even greater unremitting and unrewarding hardship.

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.