The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves

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In October James Tooley was interviewed by Neal McCluskey at the Cato Institute. I have listed to the 85 minute audio podcast of the interview twice (yes, it's that good). The Cato event was organized to celebrate the paperback release of Tooleys famous 2009 book The Beautiful Tree.

Tooley recounts his personal journey – beginning with his role as a professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle. Back then Tooley was a consultant to the traditional education establishment. On one such assignment for the World Bank he was in Hyderabad India doing due diligence for the Indian School of Business. Dissatisfied with working on upper middle class education, on a day off he went exploring into the slums. There he encountered one of the thousands of low cost private schools – that charged about US $1/month. He soon connected to some 500 schools that belonged to a federation of such schools.

He asked parents “Why do you send your children to this private school – when the public schools are free?” They answered “Because in the public schools the children are abandoned”.

Photo! Bharath Sai : Mint.jpg

Tooley was really excited by what he had found. When he returned to the World Bank in D.C. he started promoting research into this alternative approach to education for the poor. Like the other traditional aid agencies, the Bank was not at all interested. Tooley was told “You have just stumbled upon some businessmen ripping off the poor.” That is still the response you will hear from many of the old agencies.

But Tooley's research is starting to make a difference. Unable to get World Bank funding, he found research funding support at the John Templeton Foundation. That research beginning 2006 led to the book in 2009. In addition to his ongoing research, Tooley is cofounder of Omega Schools, a chain of low-cost private schools in Ghana, and Empathy Learning Systems, an educational service company that runs a chain of inexpensive private schools in India.

This is a fascinating story – enjoy the podcast and read the book. And don't jump to conclusions about what would work. E.g., I was thinking “what about government voucher funding via Milton Friedman's favorite vehicle, vouchers?” Some variation of the voucher idea might work, but Tooley is cautious – given his experience of how these developing country politicians and bureaucracies work.

From the Cato event:

The book tells the remarkable story of author James Tooley’s travels from Africa to China, and of the children, parents, teachers, and others who showed him how the poor are building their own schools and learning to save themselves. Publishers Weekly declared it “a moving account of how poor parents struggle against great odds to provide a rich educational experience to their children.” Writing in The Claremont Review of Books, John Blundell called it “a masterpiece.”

In conjunction with the release of the book’s paperback edition, James Tooley will discuss the extraordinary changes in educating the poor that have occurred since The Beautiful Tree was published, as well as his experiences as a cofounder of both Omega Schools, a chain of low-cost private schools in Ghana, and Empathy Learning Systems, an educational service company that runs a chain of inexpensive private schools in Hyderabad, India.

We hope that you will join us to hear James Tooley discuss what’s going right in some of the world’s poorest nations and communities. The entrepreneurial spirit, Tooley makes clear, and the love of parents for their children, can be found in every corner of the globe.

More on Empathy Learning Systems here.

Photo credit: Bharath Sai / Mint

Mark Lynas: Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy

Don’t miss the recent keynote speech by Mark Lynas to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative 2013 Technical Workshop, New Delhi. Norman Borlaug would be proud. Excerpts:

We are gathered here today, under the aegis of an international collaboration that bears his name, to continue Borlaug’s lifelong battle with wheat rust. Rust wiped out his family farm’s wheat when he was a boy, and rust was the reason Borlaug initially established the research station in Sonora.

As we all know, he and his colleagues succeeded eventually in defeating wheat stem rust for many decades, until the emergence of the resistant race Ug99 at the very end of the last century.

Although the progress of Ug99 has not been as dramatic as initially feared, susceptible wheat is still being grown all over the world, and forms a mainstay of humanity’s food supply today. A fifth of all our calories come from wheat, and the global harvest is nearly 700 million tonnes per year.

While European wheat growers keep stem rust at bay with liberal applications of fungicide, this is neither ecologically sustainable nor financially desirable over the longer term.

In south and east Asia, meanwhile, both of which produce more wheat than the whole of North America, most growers cannot afford or do not have access to fungicides.

Billions of people therefore depend on susceptible wheat varieties that are sitting ducks, waiting for an epidemic of Ug99 to be blown over on the winds from the Middle East and Africa.

I was given the mandate to talk today about ‘Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy’, and I cannot imagine a more appropriate area where this applies than the question of tackling wheat stem rust.

Borlaug was an unusual revolutionary in that he didn’t want his revolution to stop with him. He was a lifelong advocate of innovation – and a staunch supporter of biotechnology as the promising new frontier for plant breeding.

You can see why. By today’s standards, Borlaug had to work blind, using guesswork, chance and a lengthy process of elimination with thousands upon thousands of wheat crosses to try to get just the right genetic combination.

I cannot imagine a better embodiment of Norman Borlaug’s philosophy than this successful joint effort.

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But unfortunately the progress of good science runs up against the hard rock of bad politics. As perhaps the world’s most political food crop, by virtue of its very nature in supplying our daily bread, wheat has so far been locked out of the biotechnology revolution.

Although many new wheats have been developed using recombinant DNA and even tested in field trials, not a single one has ever been made available to farmers – not because there was anything wrong with the new varieties, but solely because of the worldwide cloud of fear and superstition that surrounds the use of genetic engineering.

Thus, the most powerful tools offered by modern molecular biotechnology must seemingly be permanently discarded – not because of any rational assessment of risks and benefits – but because a tide of anti-science activism has drowned scientists and governments around the whole world in a tsunami of lies.

An explosion of mobiles in the developing world

According to a recent study, adding an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points

The Economist on the explosion of mobiles in the developing world.

The reason why mobile phones are so valuable to people in the poor world is that they are providing access to telecommunications for the very first time, rather than just being portable adjuncts to existing fixed-line phones, as in the rich world. “For you it was incremental—here it’s revolutionary,” says Isaac Nsereko of MTN, Africa’s biggest operator. According to a recent study, adding an extra ten mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts growth in GDP per person by 0.8 percentage points.

In 2000 the developing countries accounted for around one-quarter of the world’s 700m or so mobile phones. By the beginning of 2009 their share had grown to three-quarters of a total which by then had risen to over 4 billion (see chart 1). That does not mean that 4 billion people now have mobile phones, because many in both rich and poor countries own several handsets or subscriber-identity module (SIM) cards, the tiny chips that identify a subscriber to a mobile network. Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chief executive of Ericsson, the world’s largest maker of telecoms-network gear, reckons that the actual number of people with mobile phones is closer to 3.6 billion.

(…) And Africa is the region with the fastest rate of subscriber growth. With developed markets now saturated, the developing world’s rural poor will account for most of the growth in the coming years. The total will reach 6 billion by 2013, according to the GSMA, an industry group, with half of these new users in China and India alone.

All this is transforming the telecoms industry. Within just a few years its centre of gravity has shifted from the developed to the developing countries. The biggest changes are taking place in the poorest parts of the world, such as rural Uganda.

Much more in this Economist special report: Telecoms in developing markets.

Autocracy and Technology

Alex Tabarrock

(…)

And don’t think that the data being collected by autocracies is limited to Facebook posts or Twitter comments. The most important data they will collect in the future is biometric information, which can be used to identify individuals through their unique physical and biological attributes. Fingerprints, photographs and DNA testing are all familiar biometric data types today. Indeed, future visitors to repressive countries might be surprised to find that airport security requires not just a customs form and passport check, but also a voice scan. In the future, software for voice and facial recognition will surpass all the current biometric tests in terms of accuracy and ease of use.

 

An Economics Masterpiece You Should Be Reading Now: Justin Yifu Lin’s “The Quest for Prosperity”

My reading list is overflowing, but it looks like Clive Clook’s recommendation has to go on the top of the Development Economics list. Are you ready for “new structuralism”?

The most valuable new book I’ve read this year is Justin Yifu Lin’s “The Quest for Prosperity.” George Akerlof, a Nobel laureate in economics and a man not given to reckless overstatement, calls it “a masterpiece.” I’d say that’s right.

(…)

Lin … was an observer and participant in China’s economic miracle. From 2008 until earlier this year, he was the World Bank’s chief economist. Today he’s back in China, at Peking University.

Lin’s book is intellectually ambitious. He sets out to survey the modern history of economic development and distill a practical formula for growing out of poverty. It’s a serious undertaking: Lin isn’t trying to be another pop economics sensation. But “The Quest for Prosperity” is lightly written and accessible. It weaves in pertinent stories and observations, drawing especially from his travels with the World Bank. He leavens the economics skillfully.

Two Schools

Essentially, he proposes a middle way between two contending schools: structuralism, which emphasizes barriers to development that government intervention is needed to overcome, and the neoclassical approach, which stresses market forces and frowns on industrial planning. He calls his hybrid “new structuralism,” suggesting a closer affinity with the first. (That branding is a bit misleading, but I can see that the alternative — new neoclassicism — doesn’t roll off the tongue.)

(…) 

China’s Success

Structural transformation, of course, is exactly what China has achieved. Elsewhere Lin has acknowledged that China needs further policy reforms and that all is not well. Yet the country’s success of the past several decades is indisputable — and this is no Soviet-style industrialization mirage. Russian factories sold their output to captive markets. Nobody with a choice ever bought a Soviet-made car or television. China’s outward-looking producers are world-class. I’m typing this on a best-of-breed Apple Inc. laptop, manufactured in China.

As I argued in my last column, China is a capitalist country. But how did it get that way?

Lin’s answer draws on both development paradigms. He sees a vital role for government in overcoming barriers to development. But interventions, he argues, must respect compelling market realities. Of these, the most important is international comparative advantage. Poor countries have lots of cheap labor. For them, capital-intensive heavy industry isn’t the way to go.

For today’s developing countries, Lin says, the global economy is the indispensable setting, and looking outward is the sine qua non of rapid development. On the input side, that’s because of the opportunity it affords for technologically driven catch-up growth. On the output side, it’s because the world is a market for exports. On this view, “export pessimism,” the idea that poor countries couldn’t prosper through international trade, was one of the biggest mistakes of the import- substitution school. Globalization is the poor’s best friend.

Currently $15.37 on Kindle.

Why 2012 was the best year ever: Never in the history of the world has there been less hunger, less disease and more prosperity

Steven Pinker’s 2011 book has gather a lot of attention: The Better Angels of Our Nature. Recently I listened to his October 2012 talk at the Commonwealth Club.

Prof. Pinker learned a lot about human progress in the course of the research for the book. The Spectator December 2012 issue has a leading article by Pinker that summarizes a few of those progress vectors. I thought it might be a good antidote to the dismal stories that dominate the media. Pinker begins with this:

It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

To listen to politicians is to be given the opposite impression — of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse. This, in a way, is the politicians’ job: to highlight problems and to try their best to offer solutions. But the great advances of mankind come about not from statesmen, but from ordinary people. Governments across the world appear stuck in what Michael Lind, on page 30, describes as an era of ‘turboparalysis’ — all motion, no progress. But outside government, progress has been nothing short of spectacular.

Take global poverty. In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. It emerged this year that the target was met in 2008. Yet the achievement did not merit an official announcement, presumably because it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism. Buying cheap plastic toys made in China really is helping to make poverty history. And global inequality? This, too, is lower now than any point in modern times. Globalisation means the world’s not just getting richer, but fairer too.

The doom-mongers will tell you that we cannot sustain worldwide economic growth without ruining our environment. But while the rich world’s economies grew by 6 per cent over the last seven years, fossil fuel consumption in those countries fell by 4 per cent. This remarkable (and, again, unreported) achievement has nothing to do with green taxes or wind-farms. It is down to consumer demand for more efficient cars and factories.

(…) 

Check it out – I guarantee you’ll feel more cheerful. 

MIT’s Poverty Action Lab: devising cost-effective development interventions

Development economist William Easterly has demonstrated convincingly that most “foreign aid” is ineffective, and often is worse than doing nothing (increasing corruption and dependence). E.g., see Africa’s Poverty Trap and Foreign aid vs. growth: Robert Lucas and William Easterly.

But there are effective interventions – so how do we discover how cost-effective various ideas are? That is the mission of J-PAL at MIT, created by French economist Esther Duflo. J-PAL is applying randomized controlled trials (RCT) as a key input to their cost-effectiveness methodology.

For an example, the above graphic summarizes the results of their Teacher Attendance & Incentives program. I like this example because it illustrates that some of the most effective ideas are simple and cheap. In this case, providing a basic digital camera to each village school

(…) Esther Duflo, a French economics professor at MIT, wondered whether there was anything that could be done about absentee teachers in rural India, which is a large problem for remote schoolhouses with a single teacher. Duflo and her colleague Rema Hanna took a sample of 120 schools in Rajasthan, chose 60 at random, and sent cameras to teachers in the chosen schools. The cameras had tamper-proof date and time stamps, and the teachers were asked to get a pupil to photograph the teacher with the class at the beginning and the end of each school day.

It was a simple idea, and it worked. Teacher absenteeism plummeted, as measured by random audits, and the class test scores improved markedly.

 FT has an interesting profile of Dr. Duflo (if you don’t mind reading what they had for lunch).

The importance of being urban

Don't miss the latest from Ryan Avent at the Economist Free Exchange:

WHILE Europe's austerity-minded governments and inflation-averse central bank must take much of the credit for the euro area's current economic problems, the crisis has been fanned by failures of regulatory reform and integration that have made adjustment much harder than it needs to be. Those failures also operated prior to the crisis, contributing to growth in imbalances, and without much more in the way of structural reform they will continue to be an economic albatross when the crisis is finally put to rest.

This week's Free exchange column looks at an underappreciated way in which regulatory burdens and incomplete integration have prevented the euro area from taking full advantage of the size of its market and growing richer: by constraining the growth of its cities:

Although America and the euro zone have similar total populations, America’s 50 largest metropolitan areas are home to 164m people, compared with just 102m in the euro area. This striking disparity has big consequences.

Differences in metropolitan populations may help explain gaps in productivity and incomes. Western Europe’s per-person GDP is 72% of America’s, on a purchasing-power-parity basis. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute, the consultancy’s research arm, reckons that some three-quarters of this gap can be chalked up to Europe’s relatively diminutive cities. More Americans than Europeans live in big cities: there is a particular divergence in the size each region’s “middleweight” cities, those that teem just a little less than the likes of New York and Paris (see chart). And the premium earned by Americans in large cities relative to those in the countryside is larger than that earned by urban Europeans.

In highly skilled societies, bigger cities are associated with higher levels of productivity and income, the column explains. This seems to be due to the ways in which cities facilitate innovation in an age of rapidly increasing economic and technological complexity. Prosperity now requires lots of skilled individuals in reasonably close proximity to each other, to learn from and occasionally partner with as part of the process of coming up with and spreading new ideas. America appears to be better able than Europe to accomplish this across a wide range of places.

But why? The piece explains:

Regulatory barriers to growth may be to blame. Tight zoning rules limit housing supply and raise prices by driving a wedge between construction costs and market prices. This “regulatory tax” amounts to over 300% in the office markets in Frankfurt, Paris and Milan, according to a 2008 study by Paul Cheshire and Christian Hilber of the London School of Economics, but is just 50% in Manhattan and, in effect, zero in fast-growing places like Houston. Taxes that add to transaction costs also help explain low European mobility.

(… Snip…)

Paul Romer on what happened in Honduras

The fragments leaking out of Honduras have been disturbing to say the least. The Transparency Committee has still not been formalized. So when the news of private development deal leaked the Committee wrote what is essentially a resignation letter. Paul has just emailed some details to Tyler Cowen

Paul sends me the following, which he describes as “a personal statement to the news media”:

Qn: Prof. Romer, are you still working with the government of Honduras on the creation of a RED – a Region Especial de Dessarrollo? Or on what some have called a model city?

Ans: I and the other people who were named to the Transparency Commission wrote a public letter to President Lobo stating that we have no ongoing role in the project. Personally, I have also resigned from the CORED advisory committee.

Qn: In the beginning, you were an active supporter of the RED project. What changed?

Ans: From recent newspaper reports, I learned that the Honduran agency responsible for public-private partnerships had signed an agreement about a RED with a private company. When I asked for information, I was told that I could not see this agreement.

This was a departure from the standards of transparency that the administration had led me to expect. It was also a departure from the role for the Transparency Commission outlined in the Constitutional Statute passed by the Honduran Congress.

Qn: How can it be that a member of the Transparency Commission could not see such an agreement? Under the process set out in the Constitutional Statute, doesn’t the Transparency Commission have to give an opinion about any proposed RED?

Ans: In December 2011, President Lobo signed a decree naming me and four other internationally respected individuals to the Transparency Commission. At the time, these appointments were reported in the international news media, in particular by the The Economist. However, the government never completed the process of publishing this decree in the Gazette. The administration’s current position is that because the decree was never published, the Transparency Commission does not exist in the eyes of the law and the five named members have no legal basis for reviewing any agreements.

Qn: Can the government create a RED if the Transparency Commission does not yet exist?

Ans: If the Transparency Commission does not yet exist, the administration can propose a RED directly to the Congress. The RED will then come into existence if the Congress passes an act describing its geographical boundaries. Passing an act that specifies boundaries may seem like a minor detail, but under the Constitutional Statute, it has important legal consequences.

Qn: Does the administration have to disclose the terms of any agreement that it signs with a company that will invest in or manage a RED? Does the company have to disclose the identities of its financial backers? Does the company have to disclose anything about its experience or qualifications?

Ans: The law states that the Transparency Commission must be given all the information needed to evaluate any proposed RED. If there is no Transparency Commission, the Congress is the only remaining protection. To make sure that it is comfortable with the identities of the investors and the governance structure that the investors have negotiated in their agreements, the Congress could insist on full disclosure before it votes a RED into existence. The Congress might also want to insist that it have a separate right to approve any agreement related to a proposed or existing RED that could place a financial burden on the Honduran government. This kind of burden could arise, for example, through an agreement that lets a private party bring a claim for damages against the government.

Qn: Do you know how the misunderstanding about the legal status of the Transparency Commission came about?

Ans: Various explanations have been offered, but I cannot be certain why the decree naming the members of the commission was never published in the Gazette. Nor can I be certain why the administration did not disclose its decision not to publish the decree.

Whatever the reasons for these decisions, the result was an important failure of transparency. The public perception, that the Transparency Commission was in operation, differed from the reality. This gave the wrong impression about the checks and balances that would be operating as the first RED came into existence.

From the very beginning, I made a commitment to the citizens of Honduras, to the members of the Honduran Congress, and to the many people around the world who wish Honduras well. I committed that I would work for their benefit and do so transparently. This means that at a time such as this I have to be willing to state to the public what I know to be true.

Paul also sends along these links (in Spanish):

http://www.elheraldo.hn/Otras-Secciones/Portada-Impresa/Romer-Hay-un-fracaso-importante-de-la-transparencia http://www.elheraldo.hn/Secciones-Principales/Al-Frente/Romer-Han-desviado-las-normas-de-transparencia-en-ciudades-modelo http://www.laprensa.hn/Secciones-Principales/Honduras/Apertura/Hubo-fallo-importante-en-la-transparencia-Paul-Romer#.UGBt_aT9FGg

India only: the $35 tablet computer

This sounds sensible on the surface – India packages up an Android tablet with optional mobile broadband. To accelerate widespread internet access. What’s not to like (aside from the probable subsidy)? Here’s Tyler Cowen:

Do you want a tablet but don’t have enough money to buy one of those high-end tablets available in the market today? Here’s some good news for you. There’s a new $35 tablet, the catch is, you can only get it in India.

The new Aakash UbiSlate 7Ci comes equipped with WiFi so you can connect to the internet but if you’re living in India, you can avail of the $64 upgrade and have yourself a cellular Internet package of $2/month for 2 GB of data which translates to roughly 25 emails, 25 websites, 2 minutes of streaming video, and 15 minutes of voice chat a day. It also features voice search, so it might help pacify your need for something similar to Apple’s Siri.

It features a 7.5-inch display, a front facing VGA camera, and a Cortex A8, 1Ghz Processor. According to reports, it’s as fast as an iPhone, so it can’t be too bad. It runs Android but the version hasn’t been specified yet.

The cheap tablet is part of the Indian government’s move to technologically mobilize the country. The first batch of the affordable tablets will hit universities around India sometime this month and via a “special offer”, DataWind, the carrier and maker of the tablet, will offer broadband for a monthly cost of US$1.78. And for those living in remote areas where electricity is sparse, they can get a solar charger for the Aakash UbiSlate 7Ci.

Here is more, and for the pointer I thank Mark Thorson.

Tyler quipped “Perfect for MRU” in his caption. Translation “Perfect for Marginal Revolution University“. Tyler and Alex Tabarrok are on their way to Korea for a MR session.