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Good and bad charities

Just occasionally you start to read a book and within minutes you know you are on to an absolute winner. This is one such book:

James Tooley grabs your attention right from the very start with a deeply personal story of how he went to India to study private schools for the few and discovered a vast and virtually hidden network of private schools for the poor.

Taken aback by the sheer number of these backstreet schools, he reported what he had seen to his colleagues at the World Bank and was met with a mixture of disdain and bemusement. These schools were "ripping off the poor" it seems, despite the fact that poor parents were scrimping and saving to afford the fees they could have avoided by simply sending their children to the free state schools. Why would they do this? The answer was very simple - a survey of state schools found that "in only half was there any teaching activity at all".

Another excuse was that these schools were creaming off the elite, an story I heard just the other day about schools in the UK. Poor parents were criticised for increasing inequality - another story that will be familiar to UK readers.

What was even more amazing was Tooley's discovery that the success of the private education sector had been noted by luminaries like development economist Amartya Sen, and had been reported upon by Oxfam. And both the economist and the charity had then concluded that universal state provision was the correct way forward.

Staggering isn't it?

It is hard to escape the conclusion that development gurus like Sen and mega-charities like Oxfam are part of the problem here. The incentive of the charity workers is to keep the people poor so that the problem never goes away. This is the bad charity of the title of this post.

And the good charity? There's plenty of it in evidence in the book. Here's Tooley:

Ten-year-old Farath Sultana also attended Peace High School. Her father works as a cleaner in a mosque and earned a monthly salary of 700 rupees ($15.55), which he admitted was not enough to feed his four family members. The family lived rent free with relatives who helped them get through each month by providing food. Both the mother and the father were illiterate, but they wanted their chidren to be educated. Peace High School provided both Farath and her six-year-old brother free tuition because of their critical financial position. link link



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Reader Comments (26)

I really think that some of the charities do more harm than good.

I did some work in Kenya a couple of years back, looking for potential quarry sites
The area I was working in had experienced several years of poor to failed harvests (it is marginal for cultivation at the best of times), however when I was there they had an excellent harvest. More is the pity that it was made worthless, as the UN food program continued its handouts. The locals were furious, wondering why the hell they'd bothered to work.

Back in Nairobi to catch a plane, and everytime I was at any of the big hotels in the city and the meeting facilities were always full of "charity" conferences.

Perhaps the Kenyan's I mixed with had simillar views to me about elites showering bounty from above, but the impression I got from them was of "charities" providing jollies to their salaried staff and precious little of use to the people they claimed to be helping.

Notable exceptions were:
Irish charity "Goal" who had medics in the back of beyond in South Kitui
A German agricultural charity who were teaching the locals how to put water retention dams on ephemeral water courses
The Maingi Family, who had established and were funding orphanage schooling and support for Aids orphans and the elderly relatives who were caring for them in Kitui town.

Jan 3, 2010 at 9:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterKeith

This is maybe slightly OT. But also the story of a grave injustice. Lord Monckton has said that democracy and freedom is in danger because of this AGW scam. What has happened to Peter Spencer could happen to anyone:

Wholesale theft in the name of carbon

The CommonFascism of Australia

Jan 3, 2010 at 9:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard

I blogged about this last year after listening to a Cato podcast interview with the author but haven't got round to reading the book yet, probably won't either but its on the wish list.

You can hear the podcast here:

My comment after hearing the interview:

The author has researched the growth of private education in some of Africa’s worst slums. He shows that all parents want the best for their children and will make sacrifices whenever they can. Furthermore, he shows how the market has responded to a need and provided these schools which, he claims, are doing very well at educating children*.

And the response of International Aid NGO’s to this failure of governments to meet an obvious need? As expected give more money to corrupt and incompetent Governments rather than support the successful market response.

*When something isn’t free it is valued; when you live in poverty you respect education and what it can do; when you have to graft and make sacrifices to pay for that education for your children you make damn well sure you support them and they maximise the opportunity.:

Jan 3, 2010 at 9:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterThe Great Simpleton

I thought this sounded very like something I read about Africa.

In fact it is the same James Tooley. Still excellent just the same.

Jan 3, 2010 at 10:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterTDK
Jan 3, 2010 at 10:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterTDK

This may also be of interest.

More than 32,000 schools in India — about 3 per cent of the country’s total — do not have a single student, according to a government report.


India’s school-age population was declining in many areas, and that many parents, even in the countryside, were choosing to send their children to private schools.

Jan 3, 2010 at 10:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterTDK

Another excuse was that these schools were creaming off the elite, an story I heard just the other day about schools in the UK.

I'm not sure if I'm misreading you but I rather get the impression that you're misinterpreting me. At no point did I blame the performance of state schools in Scotland on the private sector. I simply made the point that one of the reasons for the good performance of schools like Glasgow Academy and Hutcheson's Grammar is that they select according to ability.

Jan 3, 2010 at 11:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterShuggy

Looks you never seen the inside of an Indian state school in your live, otherwise you would know why even the poor don't want to send their kidsfor free there, or why the kids themselves hate the state schools.
Forget European state schools, they are incomparable with the Indian ones.

The height of the career of a teacher in an Indian state school (and any other government job) is his/her appointment. This probably cost a few hundred thousands of rupees under the table , but it is worth it. Life long guaranteed good income, a pension, barely any supervision, automatic promotions every so many years. They practically cannot be fired. This explains the wide spread absenteeism of teachers in government schools, their lack of interest in teaching etc. Also the facilities and buildings will be in a very dilapidated state, as India spends a low percentage of its GDP on primary, middle and secondary schooling. If you find one toilet in a government school, you are lucky.

Now there are definitely bad charities around, but also good ones, so its unwise to paint them all with the same brush. They are doing what the state should have been doing, but is not doing.

Put pressure on the Indian central and state governments to increase their spending on education, combined with a the option that civil servants can be fired when performing badly.

Jan 4, 2010 at 3:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterAntony


You seem to be falling into the same error that Amartya Sen and the NGOs do. State schooling doesn't work, private schooling does. The answer is to close the state schools, not to try to reform them.

Jan 4, 2010 at 8:05 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill


II wasn't implying you'd said any more than you do here, although I can see how you might think I was from my use of the words "creaming off". I think the Indian situation is directly analogous to the UK.

Jan 4, 2010 at 8:29 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Some observations


Jan 4, 2010 at 9:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Maynard

Some observations

1 Regarding provate schools, I think you find the same situation in many parts of Africa. The poor scrimp and scrape to pay for private education because of the corruption of the state system. This happens either under the noses of the aid sector or is caused by them.

2 On Radio 4 last night there was a "debate" about water poverty on at about 5:00 recorded at the RGS. Apart from the obvious tenor of statism and socialism and implausibility, the winner was a proposal for "sand dams" which retain and purify water when it is available for use when it is not. This sounds similar to the German charity above. Although obviously a low cost and "sustainable" solution, what struck me was the the in built lack of aspiration. Yes the villagers would have got some water which would have relieved the women of the need to spend 6 hours each day gathering water, a great boon but no talk of further development. Indeed, one of the "judges" was concerend that this might increase "development" and urbanisation. So it's ok to maintain these people at a subsistence level.



Jan 4, 2010 at 9:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Maynard

An interesting 25 minute talk by Tooley:
(b.t.w. the Amazon links don't work)

Jan 4, 2010 at 10:46 AM | Unregistered Commenterharold

Just a quick note - neither of the Amazon links seem to be working.

Jan 4, 2010 at 10:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterGarth

Put pressure on the Indian central and state governments to increase their spending on education, combined with a the option that civil servants can be fired when performing badly.

Ah!. Doncha just love the statist classics. "If it's not working, do more of it"

neither of the Amazon links seem to be working link link

Jan 4, 2010 at 12:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterTDK

The initial posting is about "bad" private schooling.
Government schooling is bad in India, Africa and I guess in UK: it is better in Northwest continental Europe. Conclusion: in the right conditions, government education can work, but it will need more then 2 or 3% of the GDP as in India today. I guess the UK is spending considerable more.
Good (and affordable) private education is also also possible under the right conditions, depending on the intentions and a steady flow funds to NGO's.
A private school cannot run on just school fees from poor people, I speak from experience here.

Jan 4, 2010 at 1:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterAntony

Fine, let's have vouchers then.

Jan 4, 2010 at 1:40 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

'TDK - More than 32,000 schools in India — about 3 per cent of the country’s total — do not have a single student, according to a government report..'

For that 3% the truancy rate is running at 0%.
No student misdemeanours have been committed.
No students failed any subjects.
And the schools are much cleaner than they would have otherwise been.
And I am betting that the schools administrators are right up to date with their paperwork.
Just like a hospital without patients.

Jan 4, 2010 at 10:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterTony Hansen

Although obviously a low cost and "sustainable" solution, what struck me was the the in built lack of aspiration. Yes the villagers would have got some water which would have relieved the women of the need to spend 6 hours each day gathering water, a great boon but no talk of further development.

I can understand your conclusions - but you need to understand that this was an edited version of the debate - and your points could not be further from the truth.

I suggest you look at our website and listen to the films and the voices of the people.

Quite frankly "inbuilt lack of aspiration" is an insult to the 2,236 farmers that we work with, who battkle day to day to improve access to clean water and food production. We only work with communities who have the "aspiration" to improve their own lives - that is the fundamental philosophy of the organisation.

As for "no talk of further development" the subject was water and it was very clear in the full debate that sand dams ENABLED farmer sthe time to focus on improved farming and if you read our website and annual review you will see how we do that, in spades.

Jan 4, 2010 at 10:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimon Maddrell

"So it's ok to maintain these people at a subsistence level."
Apologies for my irritation but do not paint us with the brush of that "judge"
He believes (as demonstrated by haranguing one of my staff after the debate) that Africans should be left to melt in the mess that they created.
At no point in time can you accuse me or us of saying its ok for "these people" to be maintained at a subsistence level.
You can't libel us or me by association - me being the one who argued for the winning solution.
I suggest that you check your facts before making your anonymous accusations and give farmers in Africa the credit they deserve for having teh 'aspiration to gain access to clean water and grow more food to eat and sell'
Which, from my development lectures, is somewhat above subsistence.

Jan 4, 2010 at 10:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimon Maddrell


Please re-read the thread. I think you are picking up the wrong end of the stick. The "anonymous accusations" you refer to appear to have been made by Paul Maynard.

Jan 5, 2010 at 7:38 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

I should of made it clear that I was responding to Paul Maynard's comments - rather than to your good self.

Jan 5, 2010 at 11:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterSimon Maddrell

Hi Simon and thanks for your input.

Charity work in Africa has a central paradox. Stuff happens: goats get delivered, wells get dug. But the overall effect is nil. Maybe even worse than nil - it seems to infantilise the people over there.

At the very heart of your work is the concept that the people in Africa need some outsiders to take charge.

Have you got any way round this paradox?

Jan 5, 2010 at 12:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes

"...the charity {Oxfam] ... then concluded that universal state provision was the correct way forward..."

Government shill promotes government policies.

Staggering? Not really. Just business as usual for the Statists and their lackeys.

Next up - Pope rumoured to be Catholic; Astonishing toilet habits of large ursine mammals; - stay tuned!

Jan 5, 2010 at 2:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Duffin

I'm half heartedly considering a trip to Africa. If I get, I'll likely visit the bars in either the Norfolk or New Stanley hotels in Nairobi. I'll see if I can get chatting to some of those using the conference facilities. I very much suspect the "conferences" include safaris, stays in game lodges and trips to the beach - all in the spirit of "fact finding" of course...

I suspect that at least some "charity"/"development"/NGO "conferences" in places like Nairobi, are prety much equivalent to the "medical" conferences held at Algarve golf resorts (and yes, I have pharmacist friends who go to them, it is their money to do with as they please - they aren't claiming to be charities).

Jan 5, 2010 at 8:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterKeith

I've linked with this article, also one by Fausty and Straightshooter.

Jan 11, 2010 at 11:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterMrs R

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