Getting involved as a volunteer with Nomi Network has caused me to educate myself about international development. If you have not done so, I recommend reading the books, Three Cups of Tea, and its sequel, Stones into Schools, both by Greg Mortenson, as well as Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I also recommend a book called, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, by Rodney Stark. The latter has sections about the importance of human capital, especially the correlation between the literacy rates of a country and its level of economic development. Throughout the book, Stark makes historical observations about why certain countries and cultures became economically advanced and why others didn’t.
What I learned from the above books is that to improve a country in the long term, especially economically, it is necessary to improve the human capital, and the foundation of human capital is education. With regard to capitalism, for better or for worse, and despite its side effects, capitalism is the best system that we have for the economic betterment of people. The fundamental problem in the underdeveloped countries of the world has been that education has not been universally available. Furthermore, the problem has been compounded by the fact that education has tended to be reserved for the boys.
The single best thing that can be done to improve an impoverished country like Cambodia that has had a history of female disenfranchisement is to go to the rural countryside, build schools, and educate the girls. In theory, education is available to everyone in Cambodia. But the reality is this. Half the schools in Cambodia do not have bathrooms for girls, and that causes a high dropout rate among girls. When a family member is seriously ill or dying, it is a daughter that is required to stay home from school to care for them. When parents become destitute, it is the daughter who is required to go out to work to help support the family.
The average wage in rural Cambodia is between one and two dollars a day. Cambodia requires that children wear uniforms in school. How is a parent that is making only $1.60 a day and who is not able to provide satisfactory food and health care to their children able to afford school uniforms? Transportation is another problem. In the rural areas, schools can be miles away from where the children live. Rightfully, parents will not let their youngest children walk such distances to school. And for older children, how can parents possibly afford a bicycle at $50.00?
So many of the non-profit charitable organizations that are doing international development have their offices in the capitals of the countries they are trying to help. They need to get out into the countryside, and work to improve life in the rural villages. That is where the majority of the people live, including the poorest.
When you educate boys in a rural village, they tend to leave and never return. When you educate girls, they tend to stay, which becomes a great resource for the village. It makes all the difference. When they marry, girls become the mothers of the next generation of boys and girls. If a girl can be educated even to just the fifth grade level, it has a significant, cascading social impact on the village, in health, sanitation, nutrition, and child-rearing. International development experts call this, "the "girl effect."
A literate girl also means that when she is an adult, she can get a better paying job. In addition, when girls receive a higher education, it leads them to postpone childbirth until after their education is complete. This causes them to have fewer children overall, a morally acceptable form of population control.
One of the major reasons that China has become an economic power is that decades ago, the government made a decision to educate girls. In doing so, they doubled the available population of literate workers and citizens. And similarly, decades ago in impoverished India, in the state of Kerala, the Kerala government made a conscious decision to educate the girls, and today, because of that decision, compared to India as a whole, Kerala is at a relatively advanced state of educational and economic development.
In Cambodia, and other countries that are underdeveloped, one of the ongoing social phenomena is the emigration of people from the countryside into the cities. This occurs because of the poverty in the countryside, and it has resulted in serious social problems in the cities. Among these are increased organized crime, street crimes, homelessness, human trafficking, prostitution, and the break-up of families.
Nomi Network is working with young adult women in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. We are providing job training and jobs for women who were rescued from brothels as well as for women who were at risk of being forced into the sex industry. The women are mostly illiterate but have education available to them if they want it. Due to various social and economic circumstances, these women cannot or do not want to return to their villages of origin. We pay the women a wage that is well above the average in Phnom Penh and provide them with other benefits as well. But the, "girl effect" still applies. Each woman that works for us is supporting, on average, a family of four or five people.
Education mitigates human trafficking in several ways. In a country like Cambodia, if a child is in school, it reduces the risk of them becoming a victim of sex or labor human trafficking. And with females of working age, they only enter sex work when they are destitute and have no other options . Literacy makes other options available.
I don’t mean to overlook the boys. I am a boy myself. But it is the women who raise the boys. In countries like Asia and Africa, gender equality is seriously lacking--boys are greatly advantaged already. In underdeveloped countries, an investment in girls education may have the greatest long term return on investment, in building a better society.