South Africa’s Slide

This week’s Economist magazine highlights mounting troubles in Africa’s largest economy. Though South Africa is far from state failure, the heady optimism of early post-apartheid days is long gone. Even as many African countries are surging ahead, politically and economically, the “rainbow nation” is stalling out.

Mandela’s land is dear to me, since I have traveled there three times in the last few years, leading groups on two occasions. It is a land of tremendous beauty and potential, but the current political climate and nagging legacies of the white supremacist era are holding South Africa back.

The main obstacle to South Africa’s progress is an uncompetitive electoral landscape, which breeds corruption and bad governance. There is no way around it: the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost its way. Though South African elections are basically free and fair, a serious opposition party is yet to emerge as the country nears two decades since the end of apartheid. The ANC’s dominance must be broken, if only for a short time, if the country is to move forward.

Lack of electoral competition is hardly the only challenge that South Africa faces. As the Economist’s special report highlights, South Africa’s schools are in pitiful shape. Many of the country’s southern African neighbors produce better outcomes, and that with less spending per student. To be fair, these neighboring states do not have to deal with the fallout of the struggle against apartheid. During the last 15 years of white minority rule, widespread protests and civil unrest led to a “lost generation” with respect to education. And, despite some recent gains, HIV/AIDS persists as a major burden for the country. And we could go on.

Let’s hope that South Africa’s current travails are simply a rough patch in an otherwise promising post-apartheid narrative. Africa and the world need a stable, free, and prosperous South Africa. And, after the nightmare of apartheid, it would be tragic if South Africa goes the way of Zimbabwe.


Labor Day in the U.S., part I

If you haven’t sampled the blog of Walter Russell Mead, it is well worth a look. Today – Labor Day in the United States, and the unofficial end of summer – Mead’s blog includes a thoughtful set of reflections for American students as the new school year begins.

Here is one key excerpt that caught my attention. In this excerpt, Mead is addressing America’s next generation:

Your competition isn’t sitting in the next library carrel. Your competition is in China and India – and your competition isn’t hanging out at frat parties or sitting around watching sitcoms with dorm-mates ….

Your competition is working hard … and is deadly serious about learning. There’s nothing written in the stars that guarantees Americans a higher standard of living than other people. Those of you who spend your college years goofing off in the traditional American way are going to pay a much higher price for this than you think.

For those of you reading this elsewhere, please indulge a bit of American introspection. As a former university professor, I know well the U.S. adolescent culture that Mead is describing. Too many young adults today exist in an “entitlement culture” that does not serve them or their country well. Their attitude is that “seat time” (i.e. attendance with minimal expectations for performance) at university should lead to a credential which should automatically lead to a good job. For more on this culture, see the recent book Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa.

Educational reform without cultural reform will never work. Unless American students embrace a culture of high achievement, this country will slip farther in international competitiveness, and deservedly so. Economic stagnation could lead to greater social instability in this country and additional strain on our institutions of government.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

Pakistan’s Schools

For many, Pakistan is the most worrisome critically weak or failed state. It has a huge population (about 180 million people) with a relatively limited base of natural resources and arable land. The country has persisting deep ethno-regional divisions, despite a common Islamic heritage. Since its independence in 1947, the central government has not proven capable of administering peripheral regions of the state. And, not least, Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors have long been characterized by tensions and open conflict. And, we could go on ….

An under-emphasized aspect of Pakistan’s fragility is its public education system. Here it is no exaggeration to declare a national crisis of huge proportions. A 2010 film by FRONTLINE/World, Pakistan: The Lost Generation, documented key dimensions of the crisis. In terms of the big picture, less than 45 percent of the country’s school age children are enrolled in a school of any kind, private or public. The public education system that serves the majority of these children is hardly deserving of the label “system.” As the film so vividly shows, many of Pakistan’s “schools” are really just meeting points. Here is a quote from the film’s synopsis:

There are some 20,000 “shelterless” schools throughout Pakistan. And even when there are buildings, 60 percent have no electricity, and 40 percent have no drinking water. Because the schools are so bad, Pakistan has the lowest enrollment rate in all of South Asia.

To be clear, millions of Pakistani kids attend classes in makeshift outdoor spaces. For those with buildings, they are rarely minimally equipped for instruction and learning. Though the film clearly emphasizes the worst of Pakistan’s schools, this portrait provides significant insight into the whole system.

Leaving other issues aside, such as teacher recruitment and retention, curriculum, and ideology, Pakistan’s educational deficit provides stark evidence of state weakness. In terms of educational outcomes, there is truly a vast “lost generation” of illiterate and uneducated in Pakistan. That legacy will hinder future political and economic development for decades to come. Beyond this, however, is the contemporary reality of governance. The physical status of the country’s schools is not just a reflection of the country’s poverty. Though Pakistan is a low-income society, incompetence and corruption have led to terrible delivery of services. Construction contractors are paid for work that was never completed in part or whole. Civil servants are not held accountable for their malfeasance. At the same time, elites send their children to private schools, the main preserve of quality education.

Going forward, it is not clear that outsiders can do much to reform Pakistan’s schools. After all, reforming the educational system will require better governance, not just technocratic fixes.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.