Saturday, April 18, 2009

Science-based do-gooding.

Last month as we drove up to her mom's house, Iris and I were talking about what sorts of non-profits we think really use their money well, in terms of achieving a lot of good with relatively little money. I said that the ones that usually impressed me were those very focused on a single type of action that did that one thing extremely well, rather than trying to save the whales and reduce teen pregnancy and sue the manufacturers and put out a great picture book of homeless homosexual redwood trees. Iris asked what kind of action I had in mind, and I said that ultimately, the step that seems to do the most good for the least expense is educating girls in poor countries where girls don't traditionally get educations. The list of things one can accomplish by educating girls is truly amazing. The level of education of the females in a country is the single best predictor of longevity increases, decrease in infant and juvenile mortality, decrease in rate of population growth, decrease in rate of infectious disease, increase in future education of both boys and girls and so on and so on. It is more important than how rich a country it is, how many doctors it has, the religious practices of the population or how well educated the men are. There are decades of studies comparing between nations, between regions, between villages and between individual families, and at every level having better educated women around translates into a healthier, more stable and less quickly increasing population. And the greatest gains in all these outcomes come from the first steps in educating the women. Whether women have a masters or a PhD doesn't affect the chance of their babies dying much. Whether they finished third grade or had no school at all has an enormous impact. Every additional year of schooling is helpful, but less so than the previous year.

When I read these studies, I feel like we shouldn't be spending development money on anything but educating girls. I feel like we've known about the development wonder drug for decades (and unlike most wonder-drugs, this one actually works) but haven't bothered to use it. Iris pointed out that in many countries, such as Niger, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer, there are cultural sensitivities that would keep a westerner from marching in and educating girls. The education of boys is considered more important, and many boys don't get educated for lack of funding. Post-colonial resentments exist, and must be treated carefully. Iris argued that if an organization wanted to educated Niger's girls, its organizers would have to have the kinds of insights and sensitivities to Niger's culture that only Nigeriens have. She lamented the fact that there was no such organization in Niger.

Imagine then our surprise and delight when (less than a week later) Iris found out that some of her Nigerien contacts were founding an organization to promote and fund the education of Nigerien girls. If we were superstitious people, we could draw all sorts of conclusions from the coincidence. Instead, we have offered to do what we can to help them get up and running. They don't yet have anything more official than a possible name and a board of directors. They aren't even taking donations yet (they still have to apply for tax-exempt status). Iris has been contacting her Peace Corps friends who have particular useful expertise, and I've been unwisely taking time away from my thesis to gather up and summarize the published research on the benefits of educating women. Perhaps it is naive, but I can't help but think that it would be useful to have a well documented statement on the benefits of educating girls to show to potential donors and government types. We expect to be helpful to them however we can. If they are able to do what they want to do, Niger (currently one of the world's poorest and worst educated nations) should be an amazing success story in a decade or two.

1 comment:

jte said...

What, and no recommendations for lottery numbers to play?

Anyhow, as a general notion, Iris's point about boys' education often being considered more important within many societies around the world -- perhaps promoting universal education would be a relatively cheap way to ensure that girls are educated. I can't much imagine that there's any downside to educating the boys as well, even if the correlations don't show quite the same social gains as educating girls. And if guaranteeing the education of boys is the political price you pay for enabling the education of girls, so be it, eh? Naturally, all this will be more complicated than just that in any given country/community, but as a general policy...