February 2, 2008

The 8 Commandments

All the work I’ve lately been putting into getting the children of Itipini into primary school has brought to mind the Millennium Development Goals. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the MDGs are a set of 8 goals established by the United Nations in 2000 that seek to improve life in the developing world. One of the goals is universal primary education by the year 2015.

Itipini will not meet this particular MDG this year; there are some children who won’t be in primary school. Why not?

A major obstacle to primary education throughout the developing world is school fees. But that’s not an obstacle in Itipini. For parents who can’t afford to send their children to school, African Medical Mission will pay their way. AMM is not exactly flush with cash but there is enough money to ensure that it should not be an obstacle to education.

Think for a moment about what it takes to get a child into primary school in the developed world. School fees and school uniforms are not generally at issue. What it requires is a mother or father or guardian who will wake the child up each morning, feed them, clothe them, and send them on their way. Then, when the day is done, that same person needs to welcome the student home, feed them, and make sure they get to bed on time. For the student to be successful, she or he might need help with their homework or someone to read to them. If none of this happens, other people might start to notice and there is a whole array of tools – from truant officers to foster parents and so on – to ensure that the child ends up in school.

It is this second set of non-monetary, social obstacles that is the prime obstacle to universal primary education in Itipini. While there are many mothers (almost exclusively, given that the fathers are AWOL) and grandmothers who do their best to feed their children and make sure they go to school, there are also many who do not and who really don’t seem to invest all that much energy in their child. There are children who run around Itipini all day because no one has bothered to sign them up for school or tell us they can’t afford the fees. We made a big public push to get children registered for school but still parents show up now – two weeks into the school year – and ask if it’s too late. I guess I should welcome the fact that they’re trying at all but I want to scream, “Where have you been? Don’t you care?”

In the developed world, the long arm of the state would intervene in these situations. But the South African state has a weak to non-existent presence in Itipini. There are no truant officers or enough social workers to intervene when necessary. I do my best to play the role of guardian for those children who I know need it. I ask them what they learned in school, I try to find out about their homework, and so on and so forth. But to do this effectively for even one child is hard and takes an immense amount of time and there are scores of such children here and millions more like them across the developing world.

The Episcopal Church is one of many organizations that has made achievement of the MDGs one of its primary goals. This is laudable and should be widely emulated. But we will not achieve the MDGs simply by writing checks and sending money to the developing world. At some point, we need to stop and answer the question of agency – are the people on whom this money is being spent ready for the advantages the money will bring them? Most are. But what about the ones who aren’t? How do we best help them?

I’m planning on coming back to this topic in future posts but I want to raise it now because it’s been on my mind constantly these past few weeks. I have no answers, just questions.

(Here’s another one – what if all that effort and money we expend in getting the children into a school puts them in a sub-standard or failing school where the quality of education leaves a lot to be desired? As a statistic, that child is in primary school but is it doing him any good? This is not a hypothetical scenario.)


Anonymous said...

I also ponder this question. If we do find a way to educate the children, what if there are no jobs availabe for these now educated young people. "If you give a person food, you feed them for one day - if you teach them to fish, they have food for a lifetime" -- but what if there is no river, no lake, no ocean nearby?