Feature Story

Establishing Educational Equity in the Developing World

Authored by: Mehar Chatha | Canada

Picture a world where a family has to choose between food or school; where a day in school means no food or water for that day. For millions of students around the world, school is a rare luxury, and for others, especially girls, it is a distant dream. The sad reality is that for hundreds of millions of students, a quality education remains dependent on where they live, or how much their family earns.

The state of education in the developing world has been a focus of several international forums for decades. In most such countries, only a handful of children graduate from secondary school, and in fact, most are forced to drop out of primary school. Among these early so-called ‘dropouts’ most cannot comprehend a simple paragraph of their mother language.

Education is usually purported as a fundamental human right. It is supposed to push students to their full potential and lay the ground work for their social and personal development. It is also undeniable that education is vital to reducing poverty, achieving gender equality, social development, and even fostering economic growth. However, with around 59 million children in the developing world not having access to a basic primary education, these lofty ideals seem little more than political platitudes.

Often the blame falls on parents, unwilling or unable to send their children to schools. Another frequent accusation is insufficient infrastructure; indeed images of children gathered under trees have raised many an eyebrow and vicious commentary. However, the problem is far more fundamental. Simply building schools, as many government and aid programs seek to do, have not generally produced a long-term improvement in graduations, or even studentship.

The reason is that building a swanky school does not address the innate barriers most students faced in the first place. The issue was not sitting under a tree, it was that the tree in question may be hours away from their home. Another frequent barrier is that even students living in close proximity to the school may not be able to afford the basic tools of education (notebooks, pencils, or pens); in other cases these resources are simply too far (in a major city or town) to be accessible.

A final consideration is the curriculum the students are taught. Often governments demand students learn a national curriculum, irrespective of the nature of the school. Yet, it is worth seriously asking if a student may stand to gain more from a tailored program, including substantial vocational training in concepts applicable to their immediate life. Parents may be far more inclined to send students to schools in which they learn concepts that they can readily apply to their immediate circumstance.

The issues surrounding education in the developing world are complex, and debates will inevitably continue for the foreseeable future. Yet, it is critical to frame these debates appropriately. Asking the wrong questions may lead the students we are seeking to serve no better off; though we may feel somewhat more self-righteous. In other words, as Malala Yousafzai put it:

“One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”