School Fees, Remittances, and Female Education

June 23, 2011 — 3 Comments

So I spent close to three weeks in Ghana after the end of my first semester in graduate school. Ghana green coffee shops are like my second home. Every time I step off the plane at Kotoka International Airport and feel the humid, tropical air sticking to my face like wet Saran wrap, my soul does a little shimmy. I feel somewhat at peace when I am in Africa.

However, all was not quiet on the western front at my relatives’ house where I stayed in Accra. The culprit causing most of the drama?

School Fees.

New School Year, New Books

My Cousin Wrapping his Textbooks for the new school year (Accra, 2008)

Long story short, one of my very young relatives has been home for the past few months because his parents cannot afford his school fees. Bored with no books or stimulation, I would often see him just watching television, causing mischief, or running general errands for my grandmother. It broke my heart because my cousin is an extremely bright child and always did well at school. Of course, my grandmother asked me if I could help out by paying my cousin’s school fees. My initial reaction was to do whatever I could to help.  However, my followup reaction told me to call my mother to get to the bottom of this.

Her reaction? “Karen, don’t touch this problem with a ten-foot pole.”

I see two issues at work here in this situation: remittances and female education.

Remittances: My mother has since forever been sending my grandmother money every month for her upkeep, household expenses and sometimes for household emergencies. Over time, I have observed that my grandmother has been using the money to help out with school fees and food for my cousins. So she gives the money to my cousin’s mother. However, what happens by and by is that the money given to my aunt is siphoned off for other things, i.e. going to other people in the community where she is from, funerals, trading, etc. So then all of a sudden, there is no money for school fees (not to mention the costs of books, uniforms, and transport). And then my mom gets a phone call for more money, which she sends to my grandma, and then the cycle continues ad nauseam. She’s sick of it.

Which leads me to my second point about female education.

Many studies in international development have rightly found that increasing female education in third world countries lead to positive economic development outcomes. For instance, more female education leads to lower infant mortality rate and lower population growth. Educated mothers mean their children are more likely to finish school. My aunt never achieved a high school education, nor did she learn to fully read or write. Educated mothers will place a priority on educating their children. Financial difficulties aside, my cousin’s education is suffering because of his mother’s lack of it.

But here’s the challenge. Throwing money at problems like this rarely produce results. I told my mother, “Money cannot change a person’s ingrained priorities.” Prioritizing education could mean many things. It could mean sending the child to a cheaper school. It could mean sending my cousin to public school. It could even mean asking to buy books and making sure my cousin does some reading and writing everyday to at least keep up while the family gets back on its feet. My mother is adamant that the family send my cousin to public school and figure out a way to educate their children without depending on remittances.

It would be interesting and worthwhile if development organizations took the initiative to develop partnerships with Africans in the diaspora to track not just the amount of remittances that flow into a country, but how households are spending the money. Like how much is spent on food, health care, fuel, phone credit, and education for a family living in Accra? Or in the rural areas? Remittance spending journals could be useful not only to the families themselves, but also in the realm of governance and economic development.

Thoughts?

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3 responses to School Fees, Remittances, and Female Education

  1. 

    I think it’s an interesting idea, though I don’t know if it is a study worth doing in terms of the burden being places on families. “Please write down all of the things that buy with the money your family member sent you.” Personally, I think that we should only be intruding if we have something important to find out. Westerners love their studies… and everyone else gets really sick of them. We know that education isn’t being emphasized enough, we know that women who are educated make better decisions for their families – I don’t see a reason to use more funds to run *another* study by some white guy that takes 2 years (I’m a white guy, I can say that :P). I do think that the government and NGOs should be helping to emphasize the importance of education, though (a pretty common opinion, I think).

  2. 

    Great blog, Karen. I hope you were finally able to help your cousin pay his fees. Edcation, as you and I know, has become essential for success and fulfilment in the 21st century. As such, we must be willing to educate our children at all cost. I had a blast, Karen. Great, great blog 🙂

  3. 

    Hi Karen, I found this blog via the post on Chris Blattman’s blog. I’m a current Peace Corps volunteer in northern Senegal who already has an MA (so I totally feel you on the most current post). My community has a strong reliance on remittances from France and other places; my host family is no different. It sometimes seems like the emphasis on remittances in my community/family has made doing actual work more difficult–why bother, when the money is coming anyway? Moreover, I’ve spoken with a couple people who’ve come back to visit, and to see what their money has gone towards. One group who sent money to build houses and other structures were outspoken about their disappointment–they felt like the buildings “looked good” on the outside but were ready to crumble on the inside, and that their money had been “eaten.” I’m sure you understand how it works. I think it is important to find a way to change the priorities of the receiving family members: once immediate needs are taken care of, what comes next? And also, who’s to stay what those priorities actually are? I’ve thought about this in the last few months but don’t know what to do with it, so great post.

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