The Situationist

The Situation of Poor Education

Posted by Adam Benforado on June 3, 2010

What is the cause of the educational disaster in central Africa?

Nicholas D. Kristof had an interesting take in his N.Y. Times column, Moonshine or the Kids?, published last week.

According to Kristof, “[I]f the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.”

In the article, Kristof profiles a Congolese family, the Obamzas (yes, you read that right).  The family is behind on its $6-a-month rent and cannot afford to send the three Obamza children to school at a cost of $7.50 a month.  The Obamzas do, however, spend $10 a month on cellphone usage and Mr. Obamza spends $12-a-month drinking at the village bar.

Kristof’s point is well taken—many poor families around the world spend more on alcohol, tobacco, and other “non-essential” goods than they do on educating their children.  However, he does not go far enough in searching for the roots of the problem.

Kristof does offer some situationally sensitive solutions: encouraging aid groups and U.N agencies to help women to take “more control over purse strings” and developing microsavings programs that can support a savings culture.  Yet, he ultimately seems to place blame on parents like Mr. Obamza.  Indeed, the column comes off as being about “personal responsibility” and making wise choices.

This seems particularly shortsighted given the main vices that Kristof mentions: cigarettes, alcohol, and cell phones.  These are not goods that people freely “choose” to consume.  The first two have been clearly established as addictive.  And all three are now actively marketed to people in the third world by various corporate interests eager to hook a new consumer base.

Ultimately, Kristof has identified something that we should all pay attention to—the dreadful state of education for the poorest people in Africa—but he’s asking the wrong questions.  He shouldn’t be asking why Mr. Obamza “prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids.”  He should be asking about Heineken’s efforts to market its beer and Altria’s efforts to market Marlboro cigarettes to young men and boys in the Congo Republic.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Inequality and the Unequal Situation of Mental and Physical Health,” “Missing the Situation Leads to Optimism Among Powerful,” “Should Addiction Be Criminalized?,” “The Addictive Situation of Fatty Food,” “Merchants of Discontent – Abstract,” “A “Healthy” Alternative or the Latest Trick?,” Market Manipulation – Assuaging Cognitive Dissonance,” “Without the Filter,” “Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Promoting Smoking through Situation,” and The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice.”

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