Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A new paper in Energy Policy (not a journal I read often) argues that people living in five slums in Gujurat, India, have a kind of hierarchy of needs. They give high priority to basic infrastructure needs until those are fulfilled then shift their aspirations towards education, healthcare and jobs. The authors have a sort-of experiment in that three of the slums had been upgraded in recent years with water, sanitation, electricity, roads and flood protection, through the Slum Networking Project.

In non-upgraded slums people's highest priorities were, indeed, water, sanitation, roads, electricity, rain protection and housing. In the upgraded ones people gave highest priority to employment, housing (again), land, health and education.

I wasn't entirely convinced by the paper's psychological theory or application of it. Priorities were measured in a relative way (by ranking). Although the stark difference in priorities between the two sets of slums is interesting to see, it's not clear that education was any more important in the upgraded slums in any absolute sense. It may be that respondents simply prioritise whatever they are most lacking. (The paper doesn't present any data on school enrolments and its regression analysis, with relative rankings in both the dependent and independent variables, doesn't seem valid.)

However the authors refer to other research suggesting that energy provision is good for health and education. Perhaps most convincing is their argument that while governments have traditionally focused on improved housing (in practice this often means forced evictions) as a "panacea to social problems," access to services, and most of all in this case to clean water, is a more pressing need as perceived by the people who live in slums themselves.

Abstracting out and accepting that the paper's broad argument probably holds some water, one problem for education is that people sometimes choose to live in places where there are few schools. The good news is that investing in infrastructure may increase school enrolments among the urban poor (e.g. because they have electric light for homework). The bad news is that these arguments might be used as an excuse by governments or agencies for underfunding education in urban areas. I hope not. A question that needs to be asked before relying on infrastructure to boost enrolment rates, is whether infrastructure is the main obstacle to accessing (not just 'prioritising' or 'aspiring to') education, rather than, for instance, a simple lack of schools, unaffordable fees, or unacceptably low quality.

No comments:

Post a Comment