Kicking Away The Ladder

ladderDeveloped countries stimulate developing countries to adopt the “good” institutions and “good” policies which will bring them economic growth and prosperity.   These are promoted by institutions such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank.  Recipes such as abolishing trade tariffs, an independent central bank and adhering to intellectual property rights feature high on their agendas.

In his book “Kicking away the ladder” Ha-Joon Chang shows that these policies are not so beneficial for developing countries.  Through historical analysis he shows that developed countries actively pursued all types of interventionist policies to achieve economic growth, contradicting the recipes they are now prescribing.  A case of poachers turning into gatekeepers.

Policies that were intensively used by the USA and European countries include tariff protection, import and export bans, direct state involvement in key industries, refusal to adopt patent laws, R&D support, granting monopoly rights, smuggling and poaching expert workers.  Chang points out that alleged free trade champions, the UK and USA, were the most protective of all and only switched to liberalisation after World War II when and as long as their hegemony was safe (see table below).  Asian tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan did the same, which explains their success.  Ha-Joon Chang shows that, in comparison, current developing countries offer relatively limited protection to their economies.


What does it imply for development cooperation? Developed countries often expect developing countries to adopt world-class institutions and policies in a nick of time.  However, the path to these kinds of institutions for developed countries was a long and winding path, a slow process that took decades, with frequent reversals.  We sometimes forget that universal suffrage was only achieved as recently as 1970 (in Canada) or 1971 (Switzerland). It took the USA until 1938 to ban child labour. Switzerland was notoriously late to adopt patent laws (explaining its success with pharmaceutical companies).  Imposing world-class institutions or policies on developing countries can be harmful because they take a lot of human and financial resources, which may be better spent elsewhere.  In fact, adopting such institutions and policies mainly benefits the developed countries, not the developing ones.

Ha Joon-Chang calls this practice of using successful strategies for economic development and then preventing other countries from applying the same strategy “kicking away the ladder”.  The WTO negotiation rounds or regional trade agreements have a lot in common with the “unequal” treaties between colonisers and colonised countries.

Why is institutional development so slow? Are there no last-mover benefits?  Chang gives following reasons:

  1. Institutional development is firmly linked with the state’s capacity to collect taxes. This capacity is linked to its ability to command political legitimacy and its capacity to organize the state (see blog post on Thinking like a State).  That’s also another reason why tariffs are so important for developing countries: they are some of the taxes that are easiest to collect. Institutional development is linked to the development of human capacity within a country by its education system. Setting up “good” institutions in countries that don’t have the human capital for it will lead to undermining, bad functioning or draw away scarce resources from other sectors.
  2. Well-functioning institutions and policies need to fight initial resistance and prejudice. Chang points to the resistance to introducing an income tax at the beginning of the 20th century in western countries.  It can take years and gradual policy changes to overcome this. The struggle to raise the retirement age in western countries is another illustration of the sometimes double standards we use toward developing countries.
  3. Many institutions are more the result of economic development rather than a condition for it. This is contentious, but Chang points to democracy as an example.

Chang advocates for developing countries to pursue an active interventionist economic policy.  His thesis confirms the importance of supporting developing countries in the strengthening of their education systems.  However, it also illustrates that the financial harm to developing countries as a result of unequal trade policies can be much higher than the aid flows to these countries.

Computers in Schools: Why Governments Should Do Their Homework

Time and time again, governments and NGOs herald the purchase of ICT as a panacea for improving the quality of education. The recent plans of Gauteng in South Africa are a good example. This study from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) provides an useful summary of the research done on the impact of ICT in primary level classrooms.  Latin America and the IDB have been at the forefront om some high-profile “One Laptop per Child” projects such as the Plan Ceibal (Uruguay), Enlaces (Chile) and the OLPC Programme in Peru, on which I blogged before.

Some extracts:

The evidence so far is quite persuasive that programs that overlook teacher training and the development of software may yield low returns.

One promising avenue lies in the use of ICT to realise productivity gains in school management:

The collection, transmission, and analysis of data on enrollment, absenteeism, test scores, and infrastructure can help principals spot a problem in a given classroom, administrators spot an exemplary school, and policymakers track the performance of the educational system and the resources available. However, the gains in productivity seen in the business sector are rarely seen in the educational system, some have argued, because most education managers are not knowledgeable in the use of information management tools.

Studies that measured the impact of ICT, both of the access to computers and the use of computers, found more often than not no significant impact on learning outcomes – an overview is included in the report.  The authors note that it’s not sufficient for ICT investments to produce a positive impact, they should produce a positive impact compared to traditional instruction and, even better, to similar investments in other areas such as teacher training, smaller classes or libraries.

All other things being equal, the impact of ICT investments will be higher when the quality of teaching is low, as the potential for learning gains is higher. This underlines the risk of extrapolating findings from developed to developing country context.

Some recommendations from the report:

  • Given the high investments, the low number of decent impact studies is surprising.  The impact of ICT investments heavily depends on the context and on the implementation.  As such, results from impact studies cannot be generalized over different programmes.  Start on a limited scale and build impact evaluation into the programme design is important.
  • Important to keep the Total Cost of Operation (TOC) of ICT investment into account rather than the purchase price. This includes maintenance, training, connectivity and electricity costs.  Recurrent costs typically take up about 40-50% of the initial investment (in Latin America).  These are permanent costs, which imply savings elsewhere in the education system or an overall increase in expenditure. A large share of rural schools, high electricity and connectivity costs and high wages (as in South Africa) thus increase the share of recurrent costs.
  • Most successful ICT project implementation focus on honing ICT skills of learners and pursuing Computer-Aided Instruction (CAI), for example for maths.

Income Inequality in the Developing World

Science recently published a theme issue on income inequality in the developing world (free access, with registration).  It includes contributions from, among others, Thomas Piketty, Martin Ravallion and Angus Deaton.

The main idea from Piketty’s bestseller, Capital, is that inequality has been rising since the 19th century because yields on wealth are higher than those on income.  This trend was only interrupted by the 2 world wars.  Piketty’s thesis rests on historical data from the US and Europe.  This theme issue looks whether the conclusions are valid for developing countries as well.

Has the strong economic growth in developing countries since 2000 resulted in falling levels of inequality?  And what has been the effect on poverty?  The main findings from the article of Ravallion:

Science 2014 May 344(6186) 851-5, Fig. 1

Science 2014 May 344(6186) 851-5, Fig. 4







Inequality has fallen between 1981 and 2010.  However, the period between 2005 and 2010 shows an increase.  The variance over time is mainly attributable to inequality between countries.  Again, most recent data indicate that the component between countries has fallen, whereas the component within countries has risen.

  • Economic growth has lead to increasing inequality between countries, but to falling inequality within countries (although the latter trend has weakened in recent years).
  • The effect of economic growth on poverty depends on the initial level of inequality.  The higher that level, the lower the share of economic growth that flows to the poor and the lower the poverty reduction resulting from that growth.
  • Even if inequality has not been rising overall, there are still worries about high levels on inequality in developing countries:
    • capital tends to have diminishing returns, implying it’s more ‘useful’ when more equally spread;
    • high inequality means that many poor, talented people cannot reach their full potential;
    • high inequality tends to erode democracy, as a small group of people may hijack the democratic process and turn ‘inclusive institutions’ into ‘extractive ones’ (see Acemoglu’s and Anderson’s work);
    • low inequality and a strong middle class tend to create a more diversified and robust economy, as a result of a stronger focus on consumption goods and support for pro-growth policies.
  • Three cautionary remarks on the data:
    • The data, using the Gini or related MLD indicators, represent relative inequality. This means that inequality is the same whether incomes are 1$ and 2$ or 1000$ and 2000$.  This implies that even with constant relative inequality, the absolute differences in income and wealth can grow much larger.
    • Data on inequality in developing countries are notoriously unreliable.  The main data sources are the national accounts (household consumption item) and household surveys.  In the latter, the rich either don’t participate or tend to under-report their income and wealth.
    • Developing countries are a mixed bag.  Countries with rising inequality from a low base (India, China), countries with rising inequalities from a high base (South Africa, with Gini = 0.7!!!) and countries with decreasing inequality (most countries in Latin America).
  • Falling inequality is not something which happens ‘automatically’ as countries grow rich, as was postulated by Simon Kuznets.  It’s the result of pro-equity policies, such as investments in health and education (Bolsa Familia in Brazil) and job creation.


Eradication of Poverty on Hold?

A long piece in The Economist recently on the evolution in purchasing power parity between economies of developed and emerging countries. Up until a few years ago, it looked as if convergence would be reached within 30 years, even if excluding Chinese growth.  Hundreds of millions of people were drawn out of poverty.  Voices have been calling for the post-2015 global development goals to include the eradication of poverty by 2030.

However, the pace of economic growth has been slowing in emerging economies, not just in China, which is managing a difficult transition from low-wage, export-based manufacturing towards an economy dominated by services and internal consumption.  However, at the current pace, it will take 150 years to catch up (using as indicator GDP/ person in PPP as % of US GDP).

em_cathcing up_1








Convergence was foreseen by economists like Robert Solow.   As the main drivers he identified capital influx (as a result of higher interest rates offered by developing countries) and technological progress (enabling emerging economies to leapfrog development stages).  Pietra Rivoli saw a ‘race to the bottom’ by poor countries as a way to attract labour-intensive industries, allowing people to abandon agriculture, get access to better services, creating a virtuous spiral.

The main reasons why the convergence has grinded to a near standstill are:

  1. The peak of manufacturing in a country’s development occurs earlier and is lower than previously. Dani Rodrik attributes this to the growing role of technology, reducing demand for low-wage manufacturing jobs, lowering the incentive for companies to seek out regions with low wages and lowering the share of manufacturing in the total value chain of a product.
  2. The previous decade was a period of exceptional hyperglobalisation, spurred by strong demand for natural resources, China’s accession to the WTO and strong growth in trade (also outside China).

Rather than the optimistic scenario foreseeing income convergence within a generation, it looks we’re back at the slow grind towards convergence, driven by incremental progress in geography (infrastructure, see work of Jared Diamond), institutions (see work of Daren Acemoglu) and trade (e.g. regional agreements on trade in services).

The article is rather pessimistic in tone, as it considered the gains in poverty reduction as an exceptional feat not likely to be repeated soon. It raises critical questions for countries like India and Bangladesh which are looking to benefit from their demographic dividend and take over some of China’s low-wage industry.  It also underlines the need for investments in education.

Unfair Trade

FairTradeCoffee“A CUP of “fair-trade” coffee used to make mud taste good, and you could buy it only in churches and charity shops (The Economist).

A recently published 4-year study of The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London which uncovered some uncomfortable findings about the fair trade industry in Ethiopia and Uganda, may make Fairtrade coffee even taste less good.  It has raised a flurry of reviews (The Guardian, The Economist).  Some extracts.

From The Guardian

“Our research took four years and involved a great deal of fieldwork in Africa. We carried out detailed surveys, we collected oral histories, we talked to managers of co-operatives, to owners of flower companies, to traders and government officials, to auditors, to very young children working for wages instead of going to school, to people who had done fairly well out of Fairtrade, and to people who appeared not to have benefited.”

“One of our interviewees, James in Uganda, is desperately poor and lives with his elderly father in an inadequate shack very close to a tea factory supported by Fairtrade. Despite the fact that his father was once a worker at the tea factory, James is charged fees at the factory’s Fairtrade health clinic. He cannot afford them and instead has to make his way on one leg to a government clinic more than 5km away to get free treatment.”

Some main findings:

  • Fair Trade agricultural seasonal and casual workers often earned lower incomes than those working for non-FT employers.
  • Social community services intended as a by-product of Fair Trade are often not accessible for FT workers.
  • More concern with the incomes of producers than with wage workers’ earnings.
  • Differences could not be attributed to the fact that Fairtrade cooperatives were based in areas with higher or particular disadvantages.

The study raises some questions about Fairtrade, to say the least.  It may not fit with our view of helping the poor, but workers may be better off working with large producers, offering higher wages, better facilities and more days of work.  Moreover, most of the organisations that are certified tend to come from richer, more diversified developing countries, such as Mexico and South Africa, rather than the poorer ones that are mostly dependent on exporting one crop.  As one of the researchers writes:

” If we are interested in what makes a difference to extremely poor people, it is important to compare areas with Fairtrade organisations not only with other smallholder producing areas, which we did, but also with areas where producers are much larger. If larger farmers can pay better and offer more days of work, this is surely an important thing to understand.”

The findings may have some parallels with wider issues with development:

  • the convenience of small efforts that show solidarity with the poor
  • charging a premium for easing one’s conscience
  • a stereotypical view of ‘the poor’  and what they prefer
  • the attractiveness of simple, straightforward solutions
  • a proliferation of labels and organisations, harnessing this desire ‘to do good’
  • a romanticized ‘small is beautiful’ view on development


Pedagogical Knowledge for Mathematics: Consequences for Effective Professional Development

(c)svwWhat knowledge do mathematics teachers need in order to teach successfully?   In a first blog post I looked at the concept of pedagogical content knowledge of mathematics.  In the second I discussed research attempts to measure teachers’ knowledge and link it to students’ learning outcomes.  In this one, I write about the implications for teachers’ professional development.  In a next and final blog post, I will try to relate the first three blog posts to the South African context.

Traditional forms of professional development such as workshops and lectures, tend to be top-down, one-off activities, focused on transmitting ‘new’ ideas of teaching and learning. Research shows that such isolated and piecemeal models of intervention bring little significant change to teaching practices and student achievement (e.g. Borko, 2004; Cohen and Ball, 1999). Recent initiatives of teacher professional development follow a ‘socially and culturally situated process of knowledge construction.’  This implies more attention for collaboration, discourse, reflection, inquiry and application. Research indicates that effective professional development requires continuous interactive support over a substantial period of time, should focus on specific educational content under guidance of an expert adopting a hands-off role and revolve around artefacts that help fostering a sense of ownership with teachers (Borko, 2004; Shalem et al., 2013).  Communities of Practice form an attractive theoretical framework for this kind of activities.  This view aligns well with the situative vision on PCK, as ‘knowledge-in-action’ that cannot be separated from the classroom context.  Regular school-based professional development not only has the advantage that it limits teachers’ time away from their classes, but it also promotes involvement from the school management. New teachers are often asked to comply with established practices in the school, regardless of what they learnt and appropriated before (NORRAG, 2013).

Some illustrations of teachers’ training formats that incorporate these principles are lesson study (Sibbald, 2009), curriculum mapping (Shalem et al., 2013) and mentoring programmes (Nilssen, 2010).

Curriculum mapping is a collaborative activity during teachers seek to align what is taught in the classroom (‘enacted curriculum’) with what is expected in state or national standards (‘intended curriculum’) and assessments’ (‘examined curriculum’).  Shalem et al. (2013) report on a curriculum mapping project for basic education mathematics teachers in South Africa (DPIP).  The main objectives of this project were:

  • Improve use of (inter)national assessments by teachers
  • Enhance alignment between enacted and intended curriculum
  • Develop communities of practice based on a joint enterprise and artefact creation
  • Clarify teacher expectations about intended learning outcomes
  • Improve interpretation of an outcome-based curriculum (previously in place in South Africa)

Lesson study has Japanese roots and is based on joint lesson planning combined with observation lessons to refine teacher understanding of all details surrounding a particular lesson.  A detailed lesson plan is collaboratively constructed, tried out and discussed several times, with members of the lesson study group taking turns teaching the lesson.  Positive effects on both content and pedagogical knowledge have been published.  However, the method is time-consuming and requires a collaborative culture within the school.  Initiatives such as in Chile, where a law has been proposed to link test results of teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge to their salaries, are likely to have an adverse effect, promoting competition among teachers.  Hattie (2009) identifies collaborative work by teachers in preparing and evaluating their teaching as one of the top factors affecting learning.

Ball et al. (2001) suggest that the ideal course would to witness an outstanding fifth grade mathematics class, complemented by later study to extend and make more explicit a global and overarching perspective on the lesson topic.  In fact, Seymour and Lehrer (2006) suggest that PCK for mathematics develops with experience, as a teacher supplants general heuristics with more concrete representations and ‘interanimated’, contextualized combinations of teacher and student discourses develop.

These findings pose challenges for teacher professional development in developing countries.  In countries where many donors are active and that lack a framework for in-service training, such as Cambodia, organizing such a coherent system of regular professional training is challenging. Donors may set different priorities, timeframes and implementation frameworks. In the best case, organisations can organize joint trainings and follow-up activities, as in the cooperation we had with the Stepsam2 project from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA).  In the worst case, teacher trainers and teachers are overwhelmed by a plethora of one-off workshops, each reducing valuable available time in school. A vision for teacher professional development and a framework wherein various initiatives can be fit is necessary to enhance the quality of professional development, improve alignment with educational goals and to find a balance between time for teaching and time for learning.

Selected references:

Ball, D.L., Lubienski, S.T. and Mewborn, D.S. (2001) ‘Research on teaching mathematics: The unsolved problem of teachers’ mathematical knowledge’, 4th ed. In Richardson, V. (ed.), Handbook of research on teaching, Washington, DC, American Educational Research Association, pp. 433–456, Available here
Borko, H. (2004) ‘Professional development and teacher learning: Mapping the terrain’, Educational researcher, 33(8), pp. 3–15.  Available here
Shalem, Y., Sapire, I. and Huntley, B. (2013) ‘Mapping onto the mathematics curriculum – an opportunity for teachers to learn’, Pythagoras, 34(1), Available here

Seymour, J.R. and Lehrer, R. (2006) ‘Tracing the Evolution of Pedagogical Content Knowledge as the Development of Interanimated Discourses’, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(4), pp. 549–582.

#WorldSTE2013 Conference: Days 3 & 4 (1)

DSC_0218I gave two talks at the WorldSTE2013 Conference.  One discusses some successes and challenges of VVOB‘s SEAL programme.  It relates the programme to Shulman’s Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) and Mishra and Koehler’s extension of Tecnological, Pedagogical and Content Knowledge.  By introducing PCK Shulman aimed at reasserting the importance of content knowledge, as opposed to a sole focus on generic pedagogical skills such as class management that was very much in vogue during the 1980s.  The presentation is embedded below.

The second presentation is based on papers I submitted for MAODE course H810.  It discusses accessibility challenges to (science) education for learners with disabilities in Cambodia. It presents these challenges from an insitutional perspective, applying the Framework of Instutional Change, developed by D.C. North in the 1990s and applied by Ozcan Konur in education.  In particular, it highlights some of slow-changing informal constraints that hamper the effects of changes in formal rules (such as Cambodia’s recent ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities) to take much effect in practice.   The framework underlines the importance of aligning formal rules with informal constraints and enforcement characteristics.

On a sidenote, I believe this presentation was about the only one that explicitly discusses inclusive education and how access to science education can be increased for learners with disabilities, despite WHO and the UN estimates that around 15% of learners has some kind of learning disability and that 90% of disabled learners in developing countries do not attend school.


North, D.C. (1994) Institutional Change: A Framework Of Analysis, Economic History, EconWPA, [online] Available from: (Accessed 23 December 2012).
Konur, O. (2006) ‘Teaching disabled students in higher education’, Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3), pp. 351–363.
Seale, J. (2006) E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice, Abingdon, Routledge.