Tackling the Learning Crisis in the Global South

Photo by CDC via Unsplash

By Gaby Sanchez

I.              Problem: The Learning Crisis

Despite an increase in levels of attendance among school children in the Global South, UNICEF reports about 53% of these children do not reach reading proficiency by age 10. This has been dubbed the learning crisis, which has real implications for individuals’ job prospects and ability to function in their community. The World Bank has arrived at a list of potential causes: “children do not arrive ready to learn; teachers often lack the needed skills and motivation; school management skills are low; and school inputs have failed to keep pace with expansion.”[1] Beyond the size of a schooling system, institutional bias against children from marginalized backgrounds, home environments, the cognitive effects of malnutrition, and poor attendance due to economic responsibilities of low-income children all add further complexity.[2]

UNICEF frames this learning crisis as a product of underinvestment, which leads to “large class sizes, poor-quality teachers, lack of supportive materials and poor school infrastructure.”[3] Even with the increase in access to education, low- and middle-income states still spend “far less than the 20%” of GDP benchmark for education. This lack of funding is felt in tangible ways: first year classrooms in Malawi have an average of 130 students; fewer than 5% of students in Tanzania have their own reading textbook; and only one in four schools in Chad has a toilet.[4] UNICEF’s report also indicates that children from lower income brackets sometimes receive as little as 10% of public education spending, as opposed to the top 20% of children, who get upto 20%.[5]  This translates to poorer learning outcomes for children from rural areas, children from marginalized groups, and girls, creating an inequitable distribution of resources that world leaders must address.[6]

Government management of resources can be held responsible for this. Hossain and Hickey explain that resources in education systems are often poorly managed and distributed due to over-centralization of government services. With this caution, UNICEF’s plan to focus on the central government may not be effective,  unless coupled with other policies. Instead, this blog post will focus on policies that address three causes of the learning gap: teacher motivation, student absence, and parental involvement.

II.           Political Context

Hossain and Hickey argue that education reform is deeply contingent on the political landscape of the state (via Bruns and Schneider).[7] Quality-affecting reforms take longer to realize, making them politically less appealing than the instantly visible results of making schooling free.[8] Ambiguity around what reforms are effective and difficulty measuring results are the main challenges to improving education quality.[9] Decisions around education involve various actors, all with different priorities and levels of political influence. This analysis focuses on political elites, teachers unions, and parents.

Political Elites

Hossain and Hickey contend that it is typically the political elites who decide what educational reforms will be enacted. If elites face short time horizons, they are less likely to take on the political risks of pushing for long-term, quality-driven education. Meanwhile, in communities where elites are more politically established and thus have longer time horizons, we may see a larger push for improving quality.[10] The level of centralization in government systems also contributes to the attractiveness of education reforms. Many education systems in the Global South are highly centralized, which does not allow for local accountability.

Teachers Unions

It is generally understood that teachers unions tend to be well-organized and influential as a cohesive political actor. Historically, they have opposed the hiring of contract teachers who work outside of the union. Unions might also resist attempts to reform tenure policies, trying to ensure their members have job security. As Hossain and Hickey assert, teachers unions vary in terms of their policy priorities from state to state and thus are not uniformly opposed to educational reforms.


Parents in the Global South generally have less opportunity to influence education reform as they are often “less well-equipped and informed to articulate demand for quality improvements.”[11] The lack of quality education is an intergenerational tragedy: adult literacy rates in the Global South can be low among the poorest communities, meaning parents cannot play as active a role in the distribution of educational services. Despite this, Fazzio et al. find that parents in the Global South actually show high demand for education – they would spend as much as 20% of their income on quality education for their child.[12] This places parents in a position to serve as powerful advocates for improving education quality.  Actors in education are not a monolith. Idiosyncrasies of a given state’s cultural and political makeup must be taken into consideration.

III.        Policy Alternatives

  1. Teacher Focus: The first suggested policy mirrors Fazzio et al.’s proposed intervention, focusing on teacher motivation and support. This holistic approach entails hiring, training, and monitoring teachers who provide primary education to poor, rural areas. Local communities would be involved in teacher hiring. More teachers would be hired, shrinking class sizes to 25 to 30 students. Teachers would be compensated per diem in particularly remote areas[13] and receive additional pay based on student performance.[14] The teachers would receive intensive training prior to beginning tenure with the schools and before every school year.[15] This intervention would require extensive monitoring by school administrations or community oversight committees. Teachers would then receive feedback on their performance.
  1. Student Focus: Cash transfer programs have proven to be effective in various contexts in the Global South. Here I propose a scholarship program that provides supplies and basic needs for students during the school day as well as a weekly or monthly allowance for older students. While this would not be conditional on grades or performance, students would only be able to access these services at school. The program could be administered either by local government agencies or school administrations, whichever has higher This program would also prevent teachers from having to pay for student supplies out-of-pocket.
  1. Parent Focus – Encouraging Parents Education and Participation: Daniels posits that “parents’ illiteracy in their children’s language of learning poses the biggest threat to the parents’ role as educational collaborators”.[16] In the Global South, poor communities have lacked access to education for generations, creating an undue burden on students to learn without the guidance of their families. For these reasons, I suggest a policy focusing on family literacy, where parents are invited to actively participate in the education process. This could be done by breaking up the school day so children spend the morning with their peers and have family sessions in the afternoon . Parents would also be offered classes to advance their own education. These programs could offer communal dinners, food and supplies to improve turnout.

IV.         Analysis

Below, each policy is scored against four key criteria: effectiveness, political feasibility, equity/accountability, and cost efficiency.  A Score of 3 means that this policy has a high chance of fulfilling a given criterion, a score of 2 corresponds to a medium chance, while a 1 indicates a low chance.

Table 1: Teacher Focus
Criteria Description Score
Effectiveness: Is the intervention likely to produce the desired outcomes? In Fazzio et al.’s intervention, children performed about 58 percentage points higher after four years of the intervention than the control group.[17] Continuous training and monitoring would ensure teachers are using best practices and stay motivated. Teachers may be more invested in students’ performance due to accountability to local communities. 3
Political Feasibility: Is it likely that this policy will have the needed political backing to be chosen/implemented? Political opposition may come from teachers unions, especially if salaries of contract teachers are different from civil servant teachers, those not hired via the intervention. Bold et al. explain that interventions like these can be politically very difficult to sell: teachers unions might demand that all new hires be hired as government employees and be considered part of the union. 1.5
Equity/Accountability: Does this policy address equity issues and allow for greater accountability? Hiring teachers through local communities would create community oversight and provide opportunities to address learning concerns. Such accountability is likely to improve classroom experiences for rural and poor children. This would be an equitable policy because it caters to those historically excluded from quality education services. 3
Cost Efficiency Fazzio et al. admit that their intervention is resource-heavy, and the up-front cost could be intimidating to any decision-maker. However, when put into context, the intervention is highly cost-efficient in the long run.[18] 2
Table 2: Student Focus
Criteria Description Score
Effectiveness Cash transfers are positively correlated with higher attendance in school.[19] However, these effects may not be felt over longer time horizons.[20] Abe and Awojobi reviewed various studies on cash transfer programs across the Global South and found large variations in type and extent of outcomes.[21] Generally, we can conclude that cash transfers and scholarships are useful, but the extent might be dependent on location and program design. 2
Political Feasibility Governments in the Global South have established cash transfers and scholarships in the past. These are attractive to policymakers because they can be measured using parameters such as attendance and retention. The caveat is that the motivations of the political elite must align with goals of increasing education quality. 3
Equity/Accountability Creating financial security for vulnerable students would allow students and families to reap immediate as well as long-term benefits of education. Whether school administrators or government officials administer the cash transfers, oversight is key. 3
Cost Efficiency The cash transfer would not substitute a student’s family income, but could be expected to provide enough support  to keep children in school. This would allow children to benefit from early education while avoiding financial strain. Actual costs will be highly dependent on the scale of the program. 2
Table 3: Parent Focus
Criteria Description Score
Effectiveness It is widely accepted that parental involvement positively affects children’s learning, leading to higher academic achievement, cognitive competence, greater school attendance, and greater problem-solving skills.[22] 3
Political Feasibility The parent focus intervention might require more political will as policy-makers may have prejudice against adult learners. The program in totality may not gain enough traction because it also involves providing community spaces and necessities like food. Similarly, politicians may be wary of “forcing” constituents to go back to school, understanding the economic constraints they face. 2
Equity/Accountability This policy provides literacy services to communities who would otherwise not have access to them. Parents would also have the tools to hold government programs accountable and become more active participants in their children’s education. 3
Cost Efficiency The costs of this program would again be dependent on scale. Feeding families and having essentially two curricula and class sessions (one for students and one for families) may be more costly than other interventions. Governments and agencies would also incur costs to recruit teachers for adult learners. 1.5
Trade-off Matrix
Policy Effectiveness Political Feasibility Equity/


Cost Efficiency Total (out of 12)
Teacher Focus 3 1.5 3 2 9.5
Student Focus 2 3 3 2 10
Parent/Community Focus 3 2 3 1.5 9.5

V.           Closing Recommendations

This analysis addresses the origins of the learning crisis (as argued by scholars): lack of teacher motivation, low attendance, disruption in schooling, and intergenerational lack of education. Decision-makers must consider the political and economic context in their state and try to identify the root cause of their learning crisis. Based on the criteria above, the recommended policy solution would be a cash transfer targeted at students, followed by a teacher-centric policy. Acknowledging the tremendous potential for impact of Fazzio et al.’s intervention, I propose the teacher focused alternative be adopted when feasibility is a smaller concern in the long term.

Gaby Sanchez is an MPP candidate ’22 and was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador and immigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area as a child.  In 2016, she graduated from Mills College. She has dedicated her young career to working with immigrant communities in the International Rescue Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union. Before attending Goldman, Gaby worked with capitally charged clients as a mitigation specialist with the Community Resource Initiative.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.

[1] Hossain, and Hickey, “The Problem of Education Quality in Developing Countries,” 9.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Imchen and Ndem, “Addressing the learning crisis: An Urgent need to better finance education for the poorest children,” 2.

[4] Hossain, and Hickey, “The Problem of Education Quality in Developing Countries,” 8.

[5] Imchen and Ndem, “Addressing the learning crisis: An Urgent need to better finance education for the poorest children,” 5.

[6] Hossain, and Hickey, “The Problem of Education Quality in Developing Countries,” 7.

[7] Hossain, and Hickey, “The Problem of Education Quality in Developing Countries,” 2.

[8] Hossain, and Hickey, “The Problem of Education Quality in Developing Countries,” 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hossain, and Hickey, “The Problem of Education Quality in Developing Countries,” 4.

[11] Hossain, and Hickey, “The Problem of Education Quality in Developing Countries,” 3.



[13] Ibid.

[14] Tessa Bold, Mwangi Kimenyi, Germano Mwabu, Alice Ng’ang’a, Justin Sandefur, “Experimental evidence on scaling up education reforms in Kenya,” Journal of Public Economics 168, (2018): 1.



[16] Daniels, “Adult learning, gender and mobility,” 24.




[19] Jane Temidayo Abe and Oladayo Nathaniel Awojobi, “Relationship Between Cash Transfer Programmes and School Outcomes in Africa and Latin America: A Systematic Review,” Global Journal of Social Science 19, (2020).

[20] Abe and Awojobi, “Relationship Between Cash Transfer Programmes and School Outcomes in Africa and Latin America: A Systematic Review,” 30.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Christina Clark, “Why it is important to involve parents in their children’s literacy development,” National Literacy Trust (2007): https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED496346.pdf.