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government failure

What will it take to end poverty in Africa?

Shanta Devarajan's picture

My colleague Jim Kim has launched a social media campaign on what it will take to end global poverty (please send your solutions via twitter to #ittakes.) I was reminded of a blog post I did about four years ago entitled “Ending poverty in Africa and elsewhere”. 

My answer then and now is:  Overcome government failure.  By “government failure,” I don’t mean that governments are evil or even that they are incompetent or ill-intentioned.  Analogous to “market failure,” government failure refers to a situation where the particular incentives in government lead to a situation that is worse than what was intended with the intervention.  

For instance, governments finance and provide primary education so that poor children can have access to learning.  But if teachers are paid regardless of whether they show up for work, and politicians rely on teachers to run their political campaigns, the result is absentee teachers and poor children who don’t know how to read or write—precisely the opposite of what was intended.  We see similar government failures in health care, water supply, sanitation, electricity, transport, labor markets and trade policy.

Africa’s Learning Crisis

Shanta Devarajan's picture

Hardly a week goes by without someone pointing out that, despite being enrolled in school, many of Africa’s primary school-age children don’t seem to be learning very much. 

Today’s salvo is from the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education, whose Africa Learning Barometer estimates that 61 million children (half of the primary school-age population) “will reach their adolescent years without being able to read, write or perform basic numeracy tasks.”  

Last week, my colleagues Elizabeth King and Ritva Reinikka called on Africa’s education system to “put learning first for all students.”  We have documented disappointing learning outcomes in Tanzania on this blog.  Despite being a middle-income country and having substantially increased public spending on education, South Africa’s performance in standardized tests is below the average for African countries.