What Role Does Education Play in the Eradication of Poverty?

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Five years ago, I had an answer to a common question.

The question, “How does one improve the standard of living amongst the poor?”

My answer (and the answer most people give), “Education.”

But today, I’m a lot more skeptical of education.  It might not be education in general, but at least the educational system here in PNG.

Here’s what happens when you get an education here in PNG.

  1. Parents make a huge financial sacrifice to get their kids enrolled in school (Western style school system where they learn to reading, writing, and arithmetic).
  2. Students sometimes work hard in school and sometimes don’t. 
  3. The student may or may not graduate.  If the student graduates, she will be able to be one of 10+ people competing for an open job.
  4. If the student does not get a town job, she returns to the village to tend to a garden.

I see two flaws in this approach:

  1. Parents assist children based on a obligation to give their kids the best opportunity. The Western world has convinced people education is the key.  As a result, parents pay school fees even when the kid doesn’t care a lick and spends every weekend drinking.
  2. You are guaranteed to lose money (in the form of school fees/tuition).  In the end, the child may or may not get an education.

There’s a lady I know (she who shall not be named) who has a kid she wants to get into a vocational school.  The kid was very irresponsible in school so I’m surprised he was even accepted.  The annual school fee is K3,000 (about $1,000 USD).  The lady lives off of money she makes by baking and selling things in the market.  Based on her income, it is going to take 1,500 hours worth of work just to pay the fees for her son. Also, she is a single mother and has three other kids.  To put it in perspective, for a person who makes $20 an hour, that would be like paying $30,000 for one child to go to school for one year.  That’s $30,000 out of the $41,600 that person makes.

That is insane to me.  No way!!! I wouldn’t do it.  That is way too high of a view of education for me.

The Alternative is Small Business

What if that very same lady took that K3,000 and had her son (or herself) start a small business?

In the process, the son would get an education.  Sure, it is not a formal education, but learning how to run a business is important. 

The money invested in a business can offer an education and has the potential to earn a profit instead of be lost (in school fees).

One of the big reasons I started the small business lending program was that I believe business (experience) is a better way to get an education.

Final note:  In this article, I’m specifically talking about school above the sixth grade.  It is helpful for every world citizen to have an opportunity to learn the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  However, beyond that, it might be better to focus on life skills instead of academic skills, especially in a place like PNG..

 Have I lost touch with reality?  Is education always the answer to everything?


  1. says

    Have you lost touch with reality? No. I agree that for a lot of kids experience is way more valuable than education. And, if they desire to learn more at a later stage they can go back for more or do it at the same time as they work.

    • says

      I think that leaving the door open for kids to go back when they are ready is an important part of this discussion. Thanks for the insight.

  2. Cedric says

    Hi Craig,

    Thank you for your ministry. You provide a valuable service and I enjoy reading your articles.

    To address your question, is education always the answer, of course not. Actually I think your example reveals a part of the problem, the child was very irresponsible at school. So maybe a small business would be beneficial for this child or maybe not. A small business brings different challenges than education but both require wisdom and diligence.

    If the child is just irresponsible, I don’t think education or business is going to fix that. We are scripturally encouraged to train up our children in the way they should go. We are all warned to be like the ant and not the sluggard, to be wise and not foolish, and that if a man doesn’t work the man doesn’t eat.

    I’m interested in hearing your thoughts as well as the thoughts of other readers.

    • says

      Yes, irresponsible children are hard to teach. Through the small business at least there is a chance you won’t blow all your money. But, helping someone get into business doesn’t make them responsible.

  3. Art Ford says

    In the west we note that a university education is the only thing people spend money for and then don’t care whether they get it or not, as evidenced by cutting classes etc.

    An education can be a valuable tool, but it doesn’t guarantee escape from poverty nor that the person will be a more moral being.

    There are a few skills that can assist in climbing out of poverty. These of course need to be learned somewhere as does an ounce or two of wisdom. Beyond that hope, the heart of a servant and applying love as Jesus taught it will be a great help along the way.

    I say that, not forgetting for a moment how complex an issue poverty is.

  4. says

    Education does not have to occur in a school setting. It can actually occur anywhere. Many under educated people read a lot to increase their knowledge. Formal school is not the only place education occurs.

  5. says

    I have a friend who was hired to teach high school English on an island in the South Pacific. He was trying to get these students to read Chaucer when most of them had never actually finished any book on their own. Really rough going.

  6. says

    In this case, I think the issue that needs to be addressed is responsibility, not education. Starting a business or getting an education is merely the means to the end.

    Perhaps a better question to ask is: “What role does responsibility play in the eradication of poverty?

    As Cedric mentioned, if you were able to “teach a child the way in which he should go,” then in theory that child shouldn’t be irresponsible. Then he would probably do well whatever he pursues, whether education or business.

    This is not to discount your business lending program at all, as I hope it does have an impact.

    And I’m sure this (teach a child the way in which he should go) is easier said than done though in an environment of poverty, but these are just thoughts.

  7. Wes Smith says

    This experience shows that there is no one answer to poverty, there are many that all have to employed. I don’t think a small business would help the person in the example you gave Craig, somewhere they need to learn to work. When I was in high school, going to college was a good idea that I received from my parents. After I spent a summer working at Taco Bell for minimum wage, going to college becam MY idea and MY desire. Education only works when the person in school wants to be there. My guess is smal business is similar, it will only work if the person has a desire to work hard and have his/her income related to the hard work plus external business factors (risk).

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