May 16, 2017 10:10 am JST

Breaking the poverty trap through education

Lack of access to opportunities perpetuates vicious cycle in Asia

SHOTARO TANI, Nikkei staff writer

John Wood, founder of Room to Read, reads books with children in Vietnam.

TOKYO -- Despite the rise of many Asian economies over the past few decades, poverty levels remain an uncomfortable reminder of lingering inequality in the region. 

According to Asian Development Bank estimates, which use a region-specific poverty line and incorporate the effects of food insecurity and vulnerability, Asia's poverty rate in 2010 stood at 49.5%, with the number of people in extreme poverty at 1.7 billion, just over 40% of the continent's population.

John Wood, a former director of business development for greater China at Microsoft, is a keen advocate of using education to break the cycle of poverty where children born to poor parents miss out on opportunities and end up poor in adulthood.

"A headmaster in Nepal once showed me his empty library and I said, 'Why don't you have any books, you have 440 students?' He said we are too poor to afford education," Wood said, looking back on a backpacking trip around Southeast Asia in the 1990s.

"That just struck me as the cruelest irony -- to tell 5-year-olds that, through no fault of your own, born in the wrong place at the wrong time, 'You will not get educated.'" Wood went on to found Room to Read in 2000, a non-profit organisation aimed at improving literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world.

"My father grew up in poverty. [He] was the only one of the seven kids in the family to get educated. The reason he did was he had a scholarship to a university, and that was my family's ticket to the middle class," Wood said. "You see those stories throughout Asia, across Africa. It was almost always some family member who got the lucky break. But lucky breaks are totally random. I think education is too important to be randomised, so what Room to Read is all about is to say, let's create a structure and a guarantee that every child everywhere has a chance to get educated and it is not left to random capricious chance."

John Wood, founder of Room to Read

As the name suggests, Room to Read's primary focus is on building libraries at schools. As of 2015, it has established 18,661 libraries around the ten Asian and African countries it operates in, and the number of children with access to them has reached 843,890.

Additionally, the NPO has sponsored the construction of over 2500 school blocks, trained over 10,000 teachers in literacy pedagogy and is also a publisher of books in a variety of languages, aimed at providing culturally relevant material to children and empowering local publishing communities.

"I'm very proud of the fact that, when we started that program, [we said] that we are not just going to take foreign books and translate them. You can take Heidi or Pippi Longstocking and translate that into Khmer and kids are going to see books that have no cultural relevance," he said. "We decided our non-negotiables were going to be local authors, who were then empowered, who can then stick around and write extra books, local artists, local editors, local printing to create some economic stimulus in those communities."

Wood agrees that measures to address immediate necessities, such as providing clean water or sanitation, are essential to alleviating poverty. But ultimately, he believes that promoting literacy can provide a sustainable, long-term solution to many related problems. "I think education is, to borrow a phrase, a rising tide that lifts all boats," Wood said. If you want systems of clean water, if you want systems of sanitation you need engineers, you need people skilled at mathematics, planning, economics and budgeting. Even those issues I think can be eventually be solved."

Relative poverty

The numbers behind the economic case for enhancing education in developing countries speak for themselves. UNESCO's 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report estimates that achieving universal upper secondary education by 2030 in low-income countries would lead to an increase in per capita income of 75% by 2050.

But relative poverty within developed nations is an issue that often goes unnoticed.

Data compiled by the OECD shows that the child poverty rate in Japan was 16.3%, higher than the organization's average of 13.3%. The numbers in South Korea were less discouraging at 7.1%, but for a country that has witnessed significant economic growth over the past few decades, they remain stubbornly high. In Hong Kong, the rate stood at 18%, according to a government report.

A further problem is the fact that these are some of the most expensive countries in the world in which to go to school, especially in terms of tertiary education. Within the rigid employment systems of many Asian countries, prestigious universities act as a gateway to a job for life with a top company. To get their kids into a good university, most parents have to shell out for a private high school, and in many cases a private junior high and elementary education as well. That is not to mention the additional cram schools many children attend in the hopes of improving all-important exam results. Only wealthy families can afford the entire process comfortably, meaning a new cycle of poverty has emerged within developed societies.

While the proportion of household expenditure spent on education only accounted for 2.3% in the U.S. and 1.1% on average in the EU, it was 8.7% in Japan and 8.3% in South Korea. For people in Hong Kong living in public housing, the ratio was 5%.

Tony Chan, president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Tony Chan, president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, believes institutions like his are part of the solution. "Public universities will have to play a big role," he said. "The public university is a great equal opportunity supplier. It sets up a level playing field. If you have an excellent quality public university and their tuition is lower ... you at least have a way to go."

Established in 1991, HKUST is a public research university that has risen to 2nd place in the 2017 Times Higher Education Young University Rankings. According to the university, 70% of the local students at HKUST come from public housing, with many of their parents having never been to college. But the university strives to provide equal opportunities. "One of the things we did was we set up an alumni endowment fund," Chan explained. "Our alumni are young, and one of the purposes of this alumni fund is to fund [overseas student exchange programs] ... so that nobody will be deprived of the opportunity of going just because of their finances."

Chan, who studied in the U.S. and served as UCLA's dean of physical sciences from 2001 to 2006, staunchly opposes the rigor of the Asian system, saying that a utilitarian way of looking at universities is not "a good way to tackle poverty" as the skills that students learn can become obsolete a few years after graduating due to technological advancements. This is part of the reason why HKUST tries to broaden the scope of student acceptance, looking beyond exam scores.

But Chan is well aware that changing cultural perceptions is an uphill battle. "It is difficult politically to convince the politicians and society. They do not see the direct cause and consequence," he said.

"Educating people is an investment into future for society. It is not immediately to get them a job. I think the society that recognizes that will eventually cure poverty," he continued. "[When] you look at the more developed countries, the rate of education is very high. Of course it is easier to do when you are richer, you can devote more resources. But I think you need it more when you are developing than when you are developed."

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