Investing in Education. Kristof and WuDunn describe living in central China as newlyweds, and getting to know a teenaged girl name Dai Manju. Her family had “no running water, no bicycle, no wristwatch, no clock, no radio,” and couldn’t afford to send Dai Manju to school, or even see the point—after all, both her parents were illiterate. When she was told to drop out in sixth grade, she yearned for school and was given bits of pencils and paper by affectionate teachers. Kristof and WuDunn wrote an article about Dai Manju, and a reader donated ten thousand dollars to fund her education, which ended up funding a new school as well. The impact was tremendous, and Kristof and WuDunn called the donor to thank him. But the donor had only sent a hundred dollars—it turned out that the bank had made a mistake, which thankfully it honored. Dai Manju went on to accounting school, finding jobs for family members and sending money home until her parents became among the village’s most wealthy. At thirty, she had married a skilled worker, had a baby, and was on a career path to become an entrepreneur. The scholarships accidentally funded by the bank led to echoes of Dai Manju’s story across the village, with girls finding factory jobs, sending money back home, and renewing the cycle of prosperity.
The funding of Dai’s school was an accident, but a remarkably fruitful one. Learning about the tremendous impact just ten thousand dollars had on a small village in China invites the readers to imagine what similar donations could accomplish. Although it’s a large sum for one donor, in the grand scheme of foreign aid it’s a paltry amount, and its impact illustrates the cyclical benefits of education. Girls who were able to leave for factory jobs lifted up their siblings, cousins, and even parents as well as improving their own futures.
As the authors write, schooling is both requisite to fight poverty and “often a precondition for girls and women to stand up against injustice.” But the benefits are difficult to measure statistically, they stress, and advocates tend to frame the data in ways that better market their cause. The authors offer the counterexample of Kerala, which is one of the best-educated places in rural India yet hasn’t grown economically. The authors regard this and the few similar examples as exceptions, but stress that, “education isn't always a panacea.” Most of their own evidence is anecdotal, but some empirical evidence exists attesting to the benefits of girls’ education, such as a study in 1970s Nigeria, which found that each extra year of primary education reduced the number of babies a woman had by 0.26.
To strengthen their arguments, Kristof and WuDunn consistently return to empirical evidence, which in the case of education is difficult to provide. And despite the fact that anecdotal evidence abounds for the social benefits of education, the authors make clear that education isn’t a cure-all. Though this chapter does not focus on the moral argument for women’s rights as the chapter on maternal health does, the argument can be made that providing girls education is also, simply, morally right.
Building schools isn’t always the answer to increasing education access, the authors argue, since teachers don’t always fulfill their jobs. Deworming children, however, is one of the most cost-effective ways to impact schooling. Removing intestinal worms worked for the American South in the early 1900s, and it works for African countries today. Providing girls with resources to manage menstruation is another strategy—when girls have only a rag to absorb blood, fear of embarrassment from stains often keeps them at home, but providing free pads can keep girls in the classroom. This is not without complications, though—the authors cite a pad distribution project in African started by the company that makes Tampax and Always products. Some schools lacked toilets, so the company built toilets at enormous financial cost, but cultural taboos about blood prevented girls from being able to throw pads away. Another way to increase girls’ education is to provide iodine, which is necessary for fetus brains to develop, by simply iodizing salt. One study suggests that iodine deficiency, which affects some 31 percent of households in developing countries, can decrease a child’s IQ by up to fifteen points. Iodine supplies for women can help their daughters perform in school better and longer.
This section gives ample evidence for the argument that the best solutions are seldom the most intuitive. Building new schools, for instance, may be easier to market and justify than a mission to iodize salt, but iodizing salt probably has more profound effects. Further, this section illustrates the unforeseen complications that accompany some aid projects, such as the need to build bathrooms in schools. Distributing pads seems at first like a straightforward, inspired project, but the lack of other fundamental resources made it evolve into a big undertaking. This section implicitly reminds the reader to keep a balance of pragmatism and enthusiasm—while ambitious visions for aid is useful, not accounting for mishaps can ruin a project’s goal.
Kristof and WuDunn claim that bribery is another effective way to boost girls’ education, though it’s never called bribery. In the 1990s, a Mexican official began an experimental antipoverty program in which families were awarded stipends for sending sons and daughters to school. The program yielded impressive results and is now called Oportunidades. This widely admired program, the authors report, gives cash grants from the central government directly to mothers, who are more likely to spend it for the child’s benefit. The authors praise Oportunidades for its emphasis on external evaluations, which gave the administrators a clear view of its successes and shortcomings. By allowing parents to invest in their children the way the wealthy do, “the program broke up “the typical transmission path of poverty from generation to generation,” the authors report, and raised education rates by 20 percent for girls.
The stunning success and longevity of Oportunidades shows that unorthodox—or what might be interpreted as unorthodox—solutions such as “bribery” can work, and very well. Bribery is typically associated with corruption, but the model of Oportunidades transmits the same idea to improve girls’ chance of escaping poverty. Importantly, the model also suggests that when given economic opportunity, poor families can enable their children to excel, which can push countries like Mexico closer (not fully) to meritocracies, or societies in which ability determines success.
In other programs, bribery with food at school also works to encourage parents to maintain their children’s attendance, the authors write, and it helps students pay attention, provides nutrition, and prevents stunted growth. Though school meals cost only ten cents per child per day, the authors report that lack of funding prevents some 50 million children from benefiting. While school attendance is important, so is learning ability once in school, the authors write. One study in Kenya showed that the most effective of six ways to encourage good test scores was to offer a small scholarship to middle school girls for the next grade depending on their results. Fearing embarrassment, boys raised their scores, too.
When poor children’s primary needs, like food, are met, they are much better able to compete in performance with those who have privilege. Academic success, then, often has much to do with how healthy and equipped one is outside the classroom.
The authors stress that some people object to foreign aid, given that so many aid efforts fail. When Bono, a champion for aid in Africa, gave a talk at an international conference, he was met with resistance from some Africans in attendance. One Kenyan man has begged donors, “For God's sake, please just stop.” The authors acknowledge some points as valid: aid is easier to mess up, they write, than most Westerners expect, especially since just providing a resource, such as mosquito nets, doesn’t guarantee its use. As an example, the authors describe the HIV transmission-preventing baby formula that many women—even if they receive an AIDS test, and give birth in a hospital, and the hospital has the formula—will chuck on the way home from the hospital, because feeding a newborn from a bottle would betray that they have AIDS. Another example is a story in which an aid group in Nigeria distributed a superior strand of cassava seeds, a staple crop raised by women. The crop eventually became so profitable that men took it over and spent the profits on beer. The project failed.
Kristof and WuDunn take pains to acknowledge counterarguments against the foreign aid efforts that comprise a major motivation for Half the Sky to be written. The fact that people from the same African countries that receive foreign aid are exasperated with it is a compelling argument to examine the shortcomings of aid work. The story of introducing new cassava seeds in Nigeria epitomizes the follies of the most well-intentioned, well-planned aid work.
But, the authors stress, compared with the 1960s, “an extra 10 million children survive each year now, an extra 100 million per decade,” due to projects like vaccination and rehydration for diarrhea. The financial investment the U.S. made into smallpox vaccinations was returned both financially and in some 45 million lives.
The authors close this part of the chapter by implying that, though many projects fail or flounder, or even cause damage, cynicism should never reign in the question of aid initiatives.
Ann and Angeline. The authors introduce Angeline Mugwendere, who grew up in Zimbabwe going to school wearing only a ratty dress with nothing underneath. She washed dishes at teachers’ house in exchange for gifts, like a pen. In her sixth-grade exams, she earned one of the highest scores in Zimbabwe, yet couldn’t afford to pay for the next year. Here, the authors introduce Ann Cotton, a Welsh woman whose baby daughter died at seven weeks from a lung disease, the greatest pain in Ann’s life. After having more children, Ann went on a masters program trip to Zimbabwe, where she realized that poverty, not cultural attitudes, was the main obstacle to sending girls to school. In the village of Mola, she met two girls living in a makeshift hut sixty miles from home so they could go to the cheaper school in Mola. Their struggle reminded her of her grandmother’s hardships in Wales, and she was moved to raised funds upon returning home. After struggling to sell cakes at a market stall, she managed to found an organization called the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed). She funded the schooling of Angeline, who excelled as expected.
The origin story of Camfed can be interpreted as a story of how empathy can be cultivated. Ann Cotton’s firsthand experience losing her daughter apparently gave her the urge to honor the child and deepened her sensitivity toward women’s struggles for rights. She associated the trials of girls in Zimbabwe with the trials her own grandmother endured. Apparently, by relating her own history to the hardships she witnessed in Zimbabwe, Ann was inspired to commit to women’s empowerment. Of course, personal experience with loss isn’t necessary to move someone to action. But, because empathy involves the ability to relate to another person, using personal experience to recognize another’s humanity can be an important part of sensitive foreign aid.
Kristof and WuDunn report Camfed as now helping 400,000 students a year attend school, with only local staff on the ground and much local enthusiasm. What’s more, Camfed’s brand is wholly about the students, not about Ann or even her baby, who inspired her work. The authors are explicit that they highlight Camfed as evidence that aid groups should “focus less on holding conventions or lobbying for new laws, and more time in places like rural Zimbabwe, listening to communities,” and sending girls to school. A major problem Camfed has faced is sexual abuse from principals who barter high grades for scholarships, a problem they addressed by having local committees award scholarships. In addition to providing pads, underwear, and other resources, Camfed even supports girls post-graduation with vocational resources. What’s more, alumni have formed advocacy groups, some even becoming philanthropists, despite their small incomes (by Western standards). The authors close the chapter by circling back to Angeline, who is now the executive director of Camfed in Zimbabwe.
The authors’ praise for Camfed seems to reflect some fatigue that they feel—after seasoned careers of exposure to aid strategies—for Western aid groups’ elaborate conferences and focus on laws. This fatigue indicates the tension between an abstract or theoretical approach to humanitarian problems, versus on-the-ground intervention with concrete input from local stakeholders. The two aren’t incompatible, and in other sections the authors argue for more political lobbying (within the U.S.), but the authors do reflect frustration with aid bureaucracies that can ignore the real life urgency of human rights issues.