In his celebrated treatise The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen poses the predicament of justice through a story of three kids and a flute. Talented Anne says that the flute should be given to her because she is the only one in the group who can play it. Poor Bob avers that since he has no other toy to play with, the flute should be his. Skilful Carla insists that the flute is rightfully hers because she has made it with her own hands. Now add a few more claimants to the parable. Aggressive Sam declares that he is the strongest and nobody can stop him from possessing the prize. Pragmatic Chang proposes to buy everybody out of the deal. Pacifist Savitri opines that the question of ownership should be left for future generations to decide. Opportunistic John has a brilliant idea – cut the flute in small bits and put it up for sale so that the poor of the world can afford to buy a part of the alluring piece. In his The Beautiful Tree, author James Tooley argues that the poor actually prefer doing it opportunistic John’s way. Indeed, they have already been doing it this way, and successfully at that, in various countries of the developing world for years now, says Tooley. The fundamental idea behind the book is not author’s own, though. It was popularised in Southasia by Professor C K Prahlad, who advised the major players in India’s fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) sectors to downgrade promotion of family size packages, going instead for one-time use sachets to bring the rural poor into the market net. The strategy has worked wonders. Everything from drinking water in pouches to anti-dandruff shampoo and chilly pickles in sachets is sold through paan-beedi shops in the countryside which also stock carbonated colas in plastic bottles. The author seems to think that what has worked to popularise FMCGs can work equally well to provide basic social services such as education and health.
In examining the field of education, Tooley becomes a market researcher and explores the great Indian bazaar where entrepreneurial vendors have set up tiny shops in back alleys to cater to the literacy needs of those too poor to send their children to private schools but not poor enough to fall back upon public schools. The distinction is repeatedly emphasised in the book – public schools in India are the ones that are set up, financed, and run by the government. Entrepreneurs run small and accessible schools as businesses that give value for money to those parents who can afford to pay ‘small’ fees. User charges at these outlets are often paltry in comparison to the high-end ‘boarding schools’ officials think of whenever the phrase private school is mentioned.
Like any topflight management consultant with a comfortable expense account and flexible terms of reference, the author gathers data from China, Ghana and Nigeria to support his argument that the supply of literacy services through for-profit providers is the most effective way of meeting the Millennium Development Goals in education. That is a part of his brief and perfectly understandable, at that. After all, the one who pays the piper calls the tune and the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank – which made much of the research for the publication possible – is unlikely to finance anything that does not forcefully promote privatisation policies. But the book becomes annoying when its writer attempts to connect his agenda with the organic teaching-learning method that Mahatma Gandhi called “a beautiful tree”.
The teaching shops in the cul-de-sacs and blind alleys the author explores attract the children of the economically active section of population. These children would have gone to school anyway; their parents have already seen the difference education can make. Had they gone to public schools, there would have been some pressure upon teachers to improve service delivery. But the competition in the market and everything that it implies, including subtle advertising, aggressive promotion and suave public relation exercises have ensured that sending one’s children to a government school has become an indicator of failed parenting. So even poor householders slog for longer hours, skimp in daily necessities and scrape the bottom of the family barrel to send their children to private vendors.
On the face of it, fees at these small-scale commercial outlets are not high. But breadwinners in working class families often have to compromise on medical treatment for their ageing parents or wholesome meals for the family to afford private education. As a percentage of the total income of a working class family, school fees often forms the second largest expenditure after food. While it can be argued that education is an investment in future, the service could have been availed of at a government school had private education not become a marker of upward mobility.
Even more insidious than the question of cost are the values that these private enterprises impart. Children who grow up with the feeling that they have paid for their education rather than received it from society tend to become more individualistic and less conscientious. Perhaps that is the reason princes and paupers received the same education at the feet of their guru in ancient times. Any investment made with an eye to gaining personal benefit and profit is unlikely to create grounds for social solidarity. Mahatma Gandhi characterised knowledge without character as one of the seven deadly sins. Another sin on his list is commerce without ethics. For good profit – the driving force behind any private enterprise – these two transgressions of social norms are often routine. In his explorations, the author finds that most of these teaching and learning shops are unregistered and do not hesitate to adopt techniques of jugaad management – a uniquely Southasian contribution to capitalism in which anything that delivers results is considered valid – to get around legal hurdles.
Since the John Templeton Foundation, an organisation supporting “the virtues that support successful capitalist economies”, sponsored part of the cost of the fieldwork and desk studies, the book is driven by the desire to find “free-market solutions to poverty”. There is nothing wrong with that intention, but any strategy that seeks to promote inequality in something as basic as primary education is unlikely to help establish the culture of peace and coexistence. Privately funded teaching and learning has always been a part of the Southasian education system. But the entry of explicitly for-profit enterprises in the field is a relatively new phenomenon. Initial results are far from encouraging – even the smallest entrepreneurs serve only those who can pay for what they get. That leaves the non-economic section of the population at the mercy of public education systems, impoverished and imperilled by the flight of the better off to private enterprises.
Leftwing educationists insist that there is no alternative to uniform, compulsory and public schooling for all. Right-wingers have more faith in the efficiency of private enterprise. Liberals would love to see community initiatives in social services. Religious groups, specially Christian and Islamic ones, have been at the forefront of propagating the idea that donating for free education for the poor is a pious act. Perhaps a system of education can be designed that mixes public schools, private enterprises, philanthropic institution and community initiatives. Towards that end, this book presents a strong case in favour of for-profit institutions and helps in taking the debate further in terms of how to design such a judicious mix. The parable of the flute and claimants to its ownership will continue to vex philosophers in their quest to pin down the idea of justice. For now, suffice it to say that buyers reign supreme even in the marketplace of ideas.
~C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.