The main obstacles to children attending school in developing nations

Essay, 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 95


Human Rights in Development

Sarah Docker

“Get angry,” Tomasevski (2006b) demands, “[and] help expose and oppose economic exclusion from education” (p.3). This essay examines Tomasevski’s (2006b) pressing call for indignation and action by uncovering the main obstacles to children attending primary school with a focus on the Sub-Saharan region. To preface this, it will first be established why education matters and is a human right reflected in international declarations. The essay will then narrow its effort into the economic direct, indirect and opportunity costs causing “the right to education [to] take a back seat” (ibid, p.4). In doing so, it will also consider what values, ideologies and priorities are underpinning the persistence of these costs and the consequential inequities and violations of children’s human rights. The discussion will be broadened to cover two other non-economic barriers to attendance, health and gender. This will serve to illustrate that “institutionalised economic exclusion” (ibid) is not the only problem to tackle in order to ensure that all children are provided with the appropriate opportunities and environment to gain a quality and transforming education. Essentially, an integrated and comprehensive rights-based approach is necessary.

This essay premises itself on the indisputable fact that a quality education is greatly beneficial in expanding one’s capabilities, enabling the fulfilment of range of interrelated human rights, and increasing and enhancing economic growth and development of countries. The reality that education plays a significant role in breaking the poverty cycle (Pick & Sirkin, 2010) and in “making the world more secure as well as more fair” (Sen, 2003, p.253) is evident in the abundant research detailing this transformative, “intrinsic” and “instrumental” (Robeyns, 2006, p.70) power and function of education in one’s personal life and broader society. For instance, there are well-established positive links between education and improved health (Ross & Wu, 1995), such as reduced maternal mortality (Luthra, 2007); heightened job opportunities and wages (Song, 2012); people’s awareness of their “social, civil and political rights” and subsequent ability to have their voice and demands heard through “participation in democratic and social transformation processes” (Herkens, 2002, p.256); and development of empathy (Gribble & Oliver, 1973) that is essential to social interaction and cooperation with diverse groups. These listed returns are only a small snapshot of the wide range of benefits of education, and both the research and societal consensus of these means and ends has led to the right to education being enshrined in international rights declarations, and more recently, being set as a Millennium Development Goal. The former deems that primary education is to be “free and compulsory,” enable parental freedom of choice, be non-discriminatory (Convention on the Rights of the Child [CROC], 1989; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR], 1966; Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR], 1948), and be of a quality that encourages “the full development of the human personality and strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” and promotion of “understanding, tolerance and friendship” (UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, 1960). The latter proclaimed the target that “by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling” (United Nations, MDG 2.A). This rhetoric and following political promises, however, have been insufficient in ensuring all children access to education, let alone one of an acceptable quality, with an estimation of “104-121 million children of primary school age” (Birdsall, Levine & Ibrahim, 2005, p.338) not in schools. Education, at this point in time, seems to be a privilege or luxury “based on a country-code lottery” (Tomasevski, 2006, p.2) rather than being both a moral and legal human right that is “equal and inalienable” to all (UDHR, 1948). The consequential urgency of investigating the reasons and obstacles as to why many are being excluded and denied their human right is thus illuminated, and this essay will now unpack the causes of these serious violations and abuses.

“The gap between the expression of rights and their delivery in practice has haunted their existence” (Christie, 2010, p.6). Stemming from this tragic reality, extensive research has found that one of the chief obstacles to children attending school is “economic exclusion” (Tomasevski, 2006a, p.96). This means there are substantial “direct, indirect and opportunity costs” (ibid, p.2) that result in education being unaffordable. Before launching into a specification of these economic costs and barriers and an expansion of the discussion to include non-economic deterrents, it is imperative to address why these costs have arisen given the aforementioned consensus that education is a fundamental human right. The best way to do so is through an assessment of the global context, with a particular focus on the dominant and influential ideologies, values and priorities. The World Bank, underpinned by a neoliberal agenda and a narrow view that education exists to merely improve human capital, have and continue to argue for increasing privatisation of education “even for the poorest communities” (Klees, Samoff, Stromquist & Bonal, 2012, p.58). This is unfortunately influencing policy response and resulting in charges for those already experiencing great deprivation and vulnerabilities to somehow attain a basic education. This is strikingly clear in the implementation of structural adjustment programs which orchestrated that the provision of public services through universal or subsidised funding be eliminated (Abouharb & Cingranelli, 2007, p.11), and in doing so, disregarded the “social obligation to give the essential opportunity of schooling to all children” (Sen, 2003, p.253). The absurdity and injustice of this approach is revealed in the numerous studies that assert that the cost of education is the greatest obstacle for student attendance (Tomasevski, 2006a). This conflicts with the CROC which insists that the “best interests of the child” (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR], 1989, Article 3) are sought and even specify that this involves making “primary education compulsory and available free to all” (ibid, Article 28). Given this contradiction that impedes on the livelihoods of children across the world, where affordability of education is affecting both those in the developed and developing, Klees et al. (2012) rightly conclude that the World Bank “have no business being the architect of global education policy” (p.62). As seen, the poor leadership and influence of the World Bank, along with the lack of a “unified global governance in education” (Tomasevski, 2006a, xiii) and subsequent accountability, are responsible for many impediments to education access.

There is overwhelming evidence that when attendance fees are removed, enrolments escalate rapidly. This illustrates the real danger of user fees jeopardising children’s human right to education. The doubling of enrolments in Malawi when free primary education was introduced in 1994, from 1.6 million in 1993 to 3 million in 1994 (Omwami & Keller, 2010, p.13) is one instance of the surge in attendance when costs are borne by the government rather than individuals and families. Another example of the many explosions of enrolments that have occurred with the alleviation of fees is in Uganda. The data communicates that the move to free and universal primary education in 1997 resulted in the improvement of attendance from 62.1% of 6-12 year olds to 83.6% in 1999 (Deininger, 2003, p.294) and a massive reduction in the gender gap, being initially 4.6 percentage points and lowered to 0.8 points (ibid). In Lesotho, in the first year of implementation, enrolment increased by 75% and in Kenya, by 22% (Grogan, 2009, p.185). This causal link between free education and heightened attendance cannot be overlooked as there are also clear subjective household assessments and research that exposes the main obstacle to dropping out or never attending school in the first place is the cost of schooling. This is problematic as it was found in Uganda, before direct costs were removed, 70.7% noted fees as the largest impediment and this almost halved to 37% afterwards (Deininger, 2003, p.295). This 37% remainder sparks interests into the indirect and opportunity costs which will soon be examined. It must be noted, however, that the presence of direct fees exacerbates the existing gender and class disparities and inequalities (Ssewamala, Wang, Karimli & Nabunya, 2011), therefore not making the world a more secure, fair and just place in which the “inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” (UDHR, 1948) is acknowledged. Ultimately, what many are left with is a horrific trade-off that violates multiple human rights, such as the one noted in Nicaragua, that the presence of user fees for education forced families into a terrible dilemma of discerning whether to “pay the fee or buy needed medicines, clothing, even food” (Arnove, 1997, p.91).

In regards to the claims that in spite of the removal of attendance fees, many continue to profess that cost is a great hindrance to children attending school, this essay will turn to the further direct and indirect opportunity financial costs. This will demonstrate how the concept and promise of free education was merely “reduced to fee-free” (Tomasevski, 2006a, p.4). It is hard to deny that “poverty is a pervasive and profoundly debilitating factor” (Rideout, 1987, p.23) yet the miniscule efforts to eliminate other costs faced by many families and individuals conflict with this and disregard the multifaceted nature of poverty. For instance, Tomasevski (2006) has extensively documented 22 direct charges that the public faces even when attendance is deemed to be free. These include transport, meals, school building and maintenance, teaching and learning materials, uniforms, basic amenities, and even supplementation of the poor public funding of schools (ibid, p.19). An example of this is the exorbitant and “invidious existence” (Nudzor, 2012, p.349) of compulsory levies on parents in Ghana which families argued prevented them from either sending children to school or keeping them in school. The assumption that parents can cover these costs demonstrates an ignorance of the interrelated burdens and deprivations those in poverty encounter in ensuring their own subsistence and survival as well as their dependents. Essentially, it professes that disposable income can readily be placed into education, a long-term investment, when many can only have a short-term vision of providing for their basic needs.

Another significant obstacle to children attending school is the opportunity cost of lost income as poverty creates a dependence on the “economic contribution of children to families in developing countries” (Bedi & Marshall, 2002, p. 130). In other words, attendance rates will decline when the returns of education are perceived to be low comparable to the income gained when children are engaged in employment both formally and informally. For instance, Strulik (2013) articulates how many children in developing countries juggle both work and school, or simply devote themselves to the former, in order to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families. In Honduras, for example, there is a seasonal variation in attendance dependent on the availability of harvest work and parents have been found to “evaluate the different costs and benefits” (Bedi & Marshall, 2002, p.130) of sending their children to school against the wages reaped. In Burkina Faso, it has been found that both the “high costs of education and limited access to schools” (de Hoop & Rosati, 2014, p.78) are significant determinants of child labour. As seen, when fees are either present or absent, the benefits of child labour can be perceived as outweighing the rewards of education in ensuring survival. One effective way to address this impediment has been found to implement school health care and feeding schemes that provide not only an incentive to attend school and improvement in retention (Alderman, Gilligan & Lehrer, 2012, p.187) but also combat the problem that malnourishment is one of the “leading causes of scholastic underachievement” (Acham, Kikafunda, Malde, Oldewage-Theron & Egal, 2012, p.1).

The provisions of such incentives that provide students with their basic needs and education simultaneously is limited when the indebtedness of developing nations to the developed and financial institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, are considered.


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The main obstacles to children attending school in developing nations
The University of Sydney
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education, human rights, human development, economics, political economics
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Sarah Docker (Author), 2014, The main obstacles to children attending school in developing nations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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