It’s a rich man’s world

Are developing countries responsible for their own fate? Is it fair to blame developed nations for the economic problems of developing countries?

Listen. Isn’t it about time we abandon the divisions of the developed North and the developing South, and acknowledge that the true division is between the elite and the masses within individual countries and regions?

By treating the entire developing world as one big entity, I feel we are protecting an incredibly rich elite in Third World countries, allowing them to continue to take advantage of aid programs aimed at empowering the poor. Likewise, we are labeling millions of poor, marginalized Westerners as ‘rich’ simply because they belong to the developed world. I saw more poverty when I lived in the States than I when I lived in Rwanda, and I have never met as many obscenely rich individuals than at the hotels and pools in the East African capitals.

By treating the entire developing world as one big entity, I feel we are protecting an incredibly rich elite in Third World countries, allowing them to continue to take advantage of aid programs aimed at empowering the poor

Dependency theory paints an accurate picture of how unfair the world is, and how it got that way. Clearly, colonialism drained the colonies of resources and continues to ‘drain’ them of human capital today. But then what? (As I’m most educated on Africa, I will use this continent in my examples.)

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the ‘first fathers’ of the independent nation-states willingly continued the unilateral flow of resources to the old colonial powers: indeed, many leaders ran their countries as personal estates, much like King Leopold II of Belgium had done with Congo. The result was incredible poverty for the masses (but immense riches for the African elite). Was it wrong of the World Bank to provide these leaders with money through insane loans? Yes, of course. Was it wrong of the CIA to help out with military coups during the Cold War to ensure pro-Western leaders on the continent? Undoubtedly. Is it helping anyone to blame developed countries for the current state of affairs? My answer is ‘no’, and this is why: by placing the fate of developing nations in the hands of their respective governments, I feel we are one step closer in actually achieving something.

Was it wrong of the World Bank to provide these leaders with money through insane loans? Yes, of course. Was it wrong of the CIA to help out with military coups during the Cold War to ensure pro-Western leaders on the continent? Undoubtedly.

Noah and Eckstein (1988) question the usefulness of labeling the First World as evil exploiters and the Third World as powerless victims. They refer to the consumers in the developed world as “victimized bad guys”, a term I find appropriate.

We, the consumers of the wcoffeecuporld, are part of (or trapped in?) a system built on exploitation. But am I as a citizen of Norway exploiting the coffee farmer in Rwanda? Is it fair to say that my buying coffee is contributing to the continued exploitation of coffee farmers by the plantation owner, as well as the detrimental effects that cash crop industry has in African environment and deforestation? You know what: maybe it is.

There are many points of dependency theory I agree with, but the strict divisions it draws between the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world is staggering any possibility of a resolution.

It is not the rich West that is exploiting the poor South; it is the rich elite in any given country that is taking advantage of the system. In this YouTube Video, DeSoto argues that capitalism is a natural human system; a system that can be fair if only the people of the world have access to it. While I at times found these clips presenting a biased truth (particularly regarding the Tanzanian coffee farmer…), I did agree with this point.

Capitalism is not a cruel system: rather, it is people that are cruel. How can we combat selfish people? In my opinion: through government regulation and support to community-based initiatives. When solutions are created and run by communities (so-called ‘bottom-up’) there is a bigger chance of positive change. Governments in developing nations need to take responsibility for empowering the masses.

Is it fair to say that my buying coffee is contributing to the continued exploitation of coffee farmers by the plantation owner, as well as the detrimental effects that cash crop industry has in African environment and deforestation? You know what: maybe it is.

That being said, I do believe the Third World debt must be deleted. This is the only specific measure the Western world can (and should) take to re-balance the world order. Third World debt is a perverse legacy of the selfish power-battles fought during the Cold War, and a substantial portion of these loans were given to known tyrants only to maintain their alliance to the capitalist world.

Third World debt is a perverse legacy of the selfish power-battles fought during the Cold War, and a substantial portion of these loans were given to known tyrants only to maintain their alliance to the capitalist world.

The World Bank and other lending institutions gave out immense loans without demanding security, and yet are now demanding our generation to pay. At the same time, governments are bailing out multinational corporations (run by Westerners) under the pretext of ‘combating the financial crisis’. This is at best an unintentional slap in the face of developing nations, at worst a deliberate attempt for MNCs to cling onto their domination of the global market.

References:

Noah, H. & Eckstein, M. (1988). Dependency theory in comparative education: Twelve lessons from the literature. In J. Schriewer & B. Holmes (Eds.). Theories and methods in comparative education, (pp. 165-192). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

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Measuring education

According the positivist perspective, empirical knowledge can be attained through the collection of data. But is condensing education to a set of numbers beneficial or harmful to the improvement of schools worldwide?

I have an issue with transforming un-countable qualities into ‘hard data’. This problem probably stems from my background in biology and chemistry, where I did a lot of statistical research. In most branches of science there is a definite answer: you either observe an outcome or you don’t. You can measure the weight of the retained chemical product, and you can count the number of parasites in a liter of water. Can we truly measure education in the same way?

Personally, I found this ‘transferring of research approach’ very difficult. According the positivist perspective, empirical knowledge can be attained through the collection of data. But is condensing education to a set of numbers beneficial or harmful to the improvement of schools worldwide?

I’m thinking especially of how the presence of standardized tests undermines true education and knowledge-transmission. Baker, Goesling, and Letendre (2002) draw their conclusions from the TIMSS test, where countries like Singapore and Hong Kong had the highest math scores. What does the test score say about student-centered learning, independent thought, or critical thinking? How can we measure students’ ability to participate in a fair democracy, to accept other cultures, or to use their skills to the benefit of their communities?

How open-minded are you?
How open-minded are you?

As members of a global community, we call for skills like ‘cultural acceptance’, and ‘cross-culture communication’, yet we usually rank our schools according to how students score on math and reading. How do we even begin to measure ‘open-mindedness’?

I fear that the positivist approach traps the development and improvement of schools in a mesh of standards and test score goals. For anyone working in education, it is evident how limited a teacher is by his/her curriculum, how education and funding is so closely linked to student academic performance, and how most tests fail to capture a nuanced picture of the student and the school. So why do we keep looking to these test scores and their conclusions for guidance?

 How do we even begin to measure ‘open-mindedness’?

Without quantifiable data, I guess we would be stumbling around in darkness. I do recognize the need to ‘legitimize’ the field of comparative education, and for governments, policy makers, and donors to have a way to assess their input. What I am more interested in, however, is more recording of actual experiences, interviews, and opinions in educational research.

In Baker et al.’s (2002) article they use the amount of books in the family as an indicator of socio-economic status (SES). Had they measured this in my community in Rwanda, most students would show incredibly low SES. It is not in the culture, however, to store books at home. Yet, my students (and their families) are some of the most well-read individuals I know; they circulate books among them, and donate them to poorer schools when they have finished. In addition, they spend a lot of time in libraries. This is just one example of how a cultural custom might distort statistical findings.

 I do recognize the need to ‘legitimize’ the field of comparative education, and for governments, policy makers, and donors to have a way to assess their input.

Putting a definite number or a countable value to something can be dangerous, in that it gives us a false notion of reality. If there are so many difficulties in collecting true data, should we even try to compile it into ‘findings’?  Also, the obstacles in obtaining quality data are numerous: bias and trickery in data presentation, lack of accuracy, not culturally sensitive, language obstacles, and so on. (Crossley and Watson, 2003).

My main issue with the positivist approach, therefore, is the confidence it places on statistical data. I feel there are too many limitations in the process of data collection and interpretation, for us to base entire policies on their findings. The reliance on ‘objective’ data creates a notion that one system can be directly transferred from one country to another, but this, in my view, is not true.

References:

Baker, D., Goesling, B. & Letendre, G. (2002). Socioeconomic status, school quality, and national economic development: A cross-national analysis of the “Heyneman-Loxley” effect on mathematics and science achievement. Comparative Education Review, 46(3), pp. 291-312.

Crossley, M. & Watson, K. (2003). Comparative and international research in education. New York: Routledge.