Tuesday, January 3, 2012

School uniforms in developing countries: An unnecessary evil? - High-level test

Earlier I wrote a post about the requirement for school uniforms in developing countries and how I saw this as a potentially offensive injustice. I completed the first step by forming my hypothesis, "The unnecessary requirement for school uniforms in developing countries puts undue financial stress on families already struggling to afford basic necessities and/or tuition, and potentially even excludes some children from attendance." Now I am looking to test that hypothesis quickly at a high level. I want to do some research to gain reasonable assurance that the hypothesis is correct before I might move on to establish the magnitude of the problem.

Schools for Africa is a UK Registered Charity mainly focused on building schools, but who also say: "£40 will buy 10 sets of primary school uniforms". To put this into perspective:
  • They also say: "£235 will buy 50 text books for the children to share". That's £4.70 per textbook vs. £4.00 per uniform.
  • £4 is about the same as an average day's wages in Ghana
  • £4 is about the same as an average week's wages in Ethiopia
  • I choose these countries as I visited them in 2011, but it is worth noting that Wikipedia reports school uniforms as required in Ghana
The folks at Project Ethiopia, an American 501(c)(3) have reportedly bought 1,695 school uniforms at $8 a piece. These uniforms are also said to last two years, so that's an annual cost of only $4. They make the relevant point that these uniforms are the only set of clothing for many, which would lower the additional burden of the uniform requirement on top of that for clothes. Note, however, that $8 is more than a week's wages as calculated above. Again for perspective:
  • They also claim to buy over library books for $3 a piece
  • They also claim to buy a years school supplies (5 exercise books, 1 pen, bar of soap) for $3
Gift Ethiopia, a UK Charity will provide an Ethiopian school uniform for £8, describing it as such:
Without a uniform, many children in Ethiopia are unable to attend school. Many families, especially larger ones, struggle to provide a uniform for all their children. These children are denied an education and the chance to socialise with children their own age. Your gift will provide a student with a brand new, full school uniform, ensuring they can take their place in the classroom with pride.
  • £8 for a school uniform is about the same as they say it will cost to provide a school dinner for over 10 weeks
The first program listed on the website for Common Threadz, a 501(c)(3) American non-profit, is "School Uniforms for Orphans & Vulnerable Children". They describe the problem:
For families facing the challenges of poverty in Africa, school clothes are not as crucial as the next meal. The direct costs of education, from a uniform and shoes to books and stationery, force millions of orphans and vulnerable children to miss out on school each year. For a child in need from a poor rural family who may only own one pair of old pants or a tattered dress, a school uniform is not just a requirement, but essential to build confidence and academic success.
World Vision UK runs MustHaveGifts, and sells a pretty smart looking Pakistani school uniform for £12.
  • The uniform is described thusly:
    • Pakistan: Children who can't afford a compulsory school uniform can be denied the right to an education, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. With a school uniform, children can attend school for the very first time and get on the path to a brighter future.
  • At $2,500 USD per capita PPP GDP de-adjusted to remove PPP is $941 or £1.65 per day or almost £12 per week
Based on the above I think that we can conclude that there is reasonable evidence to suggest that in parts of the developing world school uniforms are comparatively expensive and a prerequisite to education.

The next step, though I may not endeavour to take it due to the scale of effort required, is to gather all of the available evidence together to establish a high-level estimate of the scale of the problem. What is the aggregate cost of school uniforms across the developing world? How many children are denied an education as a consequence of their family not being able to afford school uniforms? Ultimately building to the question, What if the requirement were abolished? Once we know the "size of the prize", and please do forgive me for that blatant consultant-ism, we can begin sizing up what can be done about it.

School uniforms in developing countries: An unnecessary evil? - Hypothesis

There are charities helping families in developing countries to buy school uniforms for their children so that they can attend school. This is a good thing, right? Which part? The part about charities helping families in developing countries or the part where this is even a problem? If what I consider to be an arbitrary policy is preventing impoverished children from getting a primary education, this is a great injustice.

Testing this with a few friends, I have concluded that this quite possibly is the case, and I also received some stark warnings about the social, cultural, and psychological dimensions to school uniforms. These warnings are certainly valid, but many great in justices in this world have been toppled that were held up by social, cultural, and psychological factors. The question is, how big is the problem, how big are the barriers, and are our efforts best placed elsewhere?

It occurred to me that this is an opportunity to try out some strategic modelling and analysis, something that I do often in my current work. I have already completed the first step of forming a hypothesis and testing with a few peers. To pursue the problem further I would take the following steps:
  1. Form a hypothesis:
      The unnecessary requirement for school uniforms in developing countries puts undue financial stress on families already struggling to afford basic necessities and/or tuition, and potentially even excludes some children from attendance.
  2. Test hypothesis at a high level
      Gather whatever evidence is at hand or easily available to sense-check and/or refine the hypothesis. Might the hypothesis be true? Is it likely enough to be true enough to warrant further investigation?
  3. Estimate the magnitude of the problem/scale of the potential benefits from taking action
      This will be much like a top-down strategic business case. The key focus will be "What if we could achieve a change?" without yet talking specifically about what actions would be required. Like the previous step, this is another gate we have to pass where we must be certain it is worthwhile proceeding. The output can also be an important number socially, as $x million lost per year or y thousand children excluded from primary education worldwide can be a useful catalyst for change as it is shared and repeated.
  4. Develop a portfolio of initiatives
      Preferably in a brainstorming/facilitated workshop environment, work with stakeholders and subject matter experts to generate potential initiatives or interventions to address the problem.
  5. Prioritize initiatives
      Estimate costs, benefits, and risks of each initiative and then build an action plan, selecting the highest benefit set of activities that fit within your budget or capacity while managing/minimizing risk. This is a classic Operations Research portfolio optimization knapsack problem, though in practice, problem sizes are small mathematics are rarely used.