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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #34

Chapter 5: A Look At Other Systems (Cont'd)

Brazil’s Bolsa Escola

Brazil, like many developing countries, has appalling rural poverty, child labor, and school dropout rates. Bolsa Escola (School Bursary Program) was started in 1995 to overcome these problems by paying poor families to keep their children in school. The theoretical and intellectual underpinning of this bold social engineering program was provided by the American Nobel laureate in economics, Gary Becker, who advocated that investments in human capital is just as valid and can be as productive as investments in physical infrastructures.

Poor parents of pupils of ages 7-14 are paid if they keep their children in school. These parents are given a monthly income equivalent to the prevailing wage for one year. This would continue monthly thereafter only if all their children attend school for over 90 percent of the time in the previous month. Most of the beneficiaries are families headed by single mothers.

The immediate results were impressive and went beyond merely improved school attendance. In one study there was a remarkable drop (by 36 percent) in child employment rate and a significant drop in street children. But most spectacular was the reduction in school dropout rates. Control districts (that is, comparable areas not under the program) had dropout rates of about 7.4 percent; in subsidized areas, a stunning under 0.4 percent–a near 20-fold difference.

The program has since been refined with payments dependent on the number of school-age children, and reduced proportionately when only one child is missing school rather than the previous all-or-none rule. Some programs also incorporate nutrition and health care. Further, the minimum number of years of support is now two instead of one, and the period extended to a maximum of eight years. These families are further encouraged to be involved in the school.

The World Bank studied this program and offers some useful lessons. One is the careful selection of candidates so as not to miss those most deserving. Two, the selection criteria must be objective and transparent, and understood by all, especially the local bureaucrats and citizens. Most importantly, the program should not be tied to any political party or be used as a tool to curry citizens’ political favors or votes. Brazil’s program is also highly decentralized, as only the government entity closest to the people can best know who are the most needy.

The Bank is sufficiently impressed with the program to fund its expansion. The Bank also notes other equally significant accompanying benefits besides increased educational achievements, like reduction of poverty and child labor. It suggests further refinements, for example, to base payments on the number of children and not just school-age children. The Bank reiterates the importance of decentralization and local control to avoid leakage, that is, missing those deserving. At the same time the Bank cautions that these programs should not be at the expense of basic investments in schools. There is no point in giving grants to families and then have no money left over for improving schools or providing for teachers.

The program is currently being replicated elsewhere in Latin America with equally impressive results. Mexico has the comparable and equally successful Progressa program.

Another innovation of Bolsa Escola is that recipients are now given ATM cards so they can collect their money without having to face the local petty bureaucrats, thus eliminating a potential source of corruption. This also introduces the recipients to the modern concepts of banks and ATM cards.

I recommend a Malaysian variation of Bolsa Escola for the poorest areas. The decision as to who would qualify should rest with those who know the students and their parents well – the teachers. Further, I would restrict the payments only to children attending secular and not religious schools. I would also expand the social experiment by introducing other subsidy models and then evaluate to see which ones work best. In some districts I would improve the physical facilities by providing air-conditioned classrooms, single session, and extended school day, in others by providing nutritious meals. One of these interventions might well be just the right ticket to keep our poor children in school.

* * * * *

The examples cited here all offer some relevant lessons for Malaysia. My reform proposals incorporate some elements from each of these, modifying them to suit Malaysian conditions. Before I get to the specifics, I will first critique past and present attempts at reform. The next chapter will also review recent reforms in other countries for lessons that would be of relevance to Malaysia.

Next: Chapter 6: Attempts At Reform

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