Oct. 11, 2012
By Charles R. Ostertag
Dr. Scott Rozelle posed a difficult question during his presentation at Give2Asia’s 10th Anniversary Forum: What caused wages to rise in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea such that these once-booming manufacturing centers relinquished their first-place manufacturing titles in the 1970s and 1980s to China? Indeed, the wage rate in South Korea, which was once fifty cents an hour, is now $13 hour. Compare this to the annual real hour unskilled wage in China of $2 an hour. Dr. Rozelle’s answer: Education. When a population has skills in math, language, science, and information technology, they earn a higher and internationally competitive wage. Subsequently, Dr. Rozelle’s message on the major solution to the wage and poverty gap in rural China was also clear: Education.
The numbers are telling. In China, the high school education gap between rural students and their city counterparts is such that 83% or children in city areas attend high school while only 40% of rural children do so. Studies in other countries like Mexico have shown that when large populations do not receive the skills they need to be employed at a high wage rate, they become unemployed. Generally, unemployment offers these populations three choices: (1) immigrate to a country where unskilled labor is paid more than in the home country; (2) join an informal economy to produce income; or (3) become involved in crime.
As Co-director of the Rural Education Action Project (REAP), Dr. Rozelle hopes that China can make the push to higher wages and a more even distribution of wealth. REAP works in two ways. First, it designs and implements new programs, interventions, and conducts evaluations. Second, REAP partners with NGOs, government agencies, and others (corporations, universities, foundations) who are trying to implement projects in China. The principle is simple—seeing is believing. Show the positive effect of education and health programs in China and experiment to find cost effective and scalable solutions.
Reliable data and research is an essential tool in REAP’s work. Dr. Rozelle explained that rural children suffer vulnerabilities in health and nutrition that children in the city do not. For example, REAP tested forty-thousand rural students and discovered that within that population 39% suffered from anemia. Anemia has the effect of lowering IQ between 10-20 points and brings about intense lethargy. REAP also tested twenty thousand rural school children for eyesight problems: 15% of the children were nearsighted and only 142 of that 15% possessed glasses. In other terms, for every 40 nearsighted children, only one of them had proper eyeglasses. Testing showed that nearsightedness without proper eyewear lowered all of a student’s grade by one full grade point, i.e., grades that should be As were Bs. REAP also tested 1,700 rural school children for intestinal worms and found 24-40% of the children, depending on their location in Guizhou or Sichuan, were infected and subsequently suffered health and nourishment problems. Not surprisingly, when children were given diets high in iron and vitamins for their anemia, glasses for nearsightedness, and tablets to cure intestinal worms, their performance in school greatly improved.
Dr. Rozelle explained the ideal for philanthropic giving in China: Demonstrate to the government something works on one thousand school children, and then harness the government’s resources to transform those proven results into State policies that impact one million school children. The keys to action are (1) rigorously and simply demonstrate impact and (2) commit to scaling-up via policy engagement. The proper flow is transforming practice, analysis, and results into policy, and then transforming policy into a lasting impact on children. In parting, Dr. Rozelle emphasized that this kind of impact can only be created by involving all appropriate stakeholders such as children and their parents, teachers and principals, to local and high-level government officials. Education of China’s rural population depends on it.