BruceR: schools in Kandahar nice, just not right now by mattsteinglass
May 18, 2009, 10:49 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Development

The intrepid BruceR responds to me saying building schools isn’t important, training teachers is:

And although seeing a vacant new school being used as a weapons cache may not endear NGOs to soldiers, when we think about it, we do have to concede that as late as 2004 Kandahar Province looked a lot more peaceful than it does now. Saying donors’ efforts have been wasted is not to say that when those schools were being paid for those donors were somehow being obtuse.

What I was trying to say was that, in the part of the world I was in at any rate, school buildings are not a necessary condition for anything right now: the restoration of basic security is.

First, BruceR is there, and I’m not, so he probably knows what he’s talking about. I’m sure there are some circumstances under which funding school construction is a wise use of donor money. And I agree with BruceR that it sounds as though Greg “Three Cups of Tea” Mortenson runs a terrific organization. Still, as a rule, construction as a use of aid money should be looked at with a very jaundiced eye. Donor agencies tend to want to build things because you can put a picture of them on your brochure and use it to justify expenditures to individual donors. Recipients tend to initially want buildings for similar reasons — they’re tangible. (For much the same reasons, recipients, particularly male recipients, tend to want four-wheel-drive vehicles and computers, which, like the school buildings, tend to get used for purposes that have nothing to do with donors’ intentions.) But once recipients have become involved in a project in a long-term fashion, they start to see that there are other things that are a much better use of $30,000 of donor money than buildings and cars. Like training a couple of science teachers for a year. And so on.

I just think that BruceR might want to consider whether the reason those school buildings aren’t being used as schools might not be entirely security-related. In Afghanistan, the particular fashion in which the buildings have been co-opted is as weapons caches, because that’s what the demand there is. In another country, they might have been used to store corn. Or taken over by somebody’s copy shop and internet cafe. Maybe these buildings really would still be schoolhouses if it weren’t for the security situation. But this might be a particular instance of a general rule that the physical stuff you give people as aid is highly liable to be frittered away or repurposed, whereas if you build the organization that accomplishes the goal you seek — train and pay the teachers, enroll the kids, or in other situations teach people to handle microfinance, start farmer’s groups to discuss commodity pricing and negotiations, get women’s reproductive health groups going with links to local health care, and so on — those people and groups will find a way to get the materials and buildings they need. And maybe you’ll still need to give them some of that stuff, but the demand will be there to use it.

And again, maybe the NGOs did all this in Afghanistan, and it was the security problem that blew it all away. But I still think this framework is very important to keep in mind, especially when people try to justify what the US has done in Iraq with talk of all the schools we’ve supposedly built and painted. Don’t talk to me about that. Talk to me about how many teachers you’re putting through Master’s in Education programs that you’ve set up in country, and stuff along those lines.


3 Comments so far
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My response to your response:

Comment by BruceR

[…] on Nordhaus and Shellenberger: po…musa on Nordhaus and Shellenberger: po…BruceR on BruceR: schools in Kandahar ni…musa on Um, hello, Mr. Drum — […]

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Really? Masters in Education programs? How high do you want to set the bar here? This sounds like the same argument that keeps qualified people out of U.S. schools: Go to school for 5 years then apply for a $60/month job.

I agree with your premise but this country doesn’t need to set unrealistic thresholds for teacher training like we already have in the US.

Comment by Rossi

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