Why Numbers are Important?

Half the illiterate adults in the world, about 400 million, live in South Asia; over 40 million children do not go to school; and half the children who do enroll in Grade 1 drop out before completing five years of primary education.

Is this a problem and, if so, how is to be addressed?

This is not a post about the state of education. It is about the importance of numbers and their relevance to the arguments we make and the solutions we propose.

Some people say that governments have failed in their duty to provide education to citizens and therefore non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should step in to fill the vacuum.

Most of the time such discussions are carried out without any reference to either the scale of the problem or the scale of the proposed solution. They are what are termed ‘hand-waving’ arguments.

As soon as one looks at a few relevant numbers, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

Take Pakistan, for example. The total number of schools operated by NGOs today is less than 5,000 and the total number of students enrolled in such schools less than 500,000. On the other hand, just the number of children dropping out of the primary school system every year is about 500,000.

So, can the NGO strategy be physically scaled up to take care of the education problem? Forget the stock of existing children out of school; can NGOs put in place 5,000 more schools every year just to take care of the new dropouts.

It is unlikely, but suppose someone answers this question in the affirmative. Then the argument would need to be taken to the next level to discuss the costs involved. What is the cost being incurred by NGOs to teach one child? And how much new financing would be needed to do what NGOs are proposing to do? What would be the source of this finance?

We have come a long way from the ‘hand-waving’ argument. Now we understand the scale of the problem, the level of response needed if the problem is to be addressed by an NGO-led strategy, and the amount of financing that would be required to do so.

We are well on the way to a standard problem assessment and feasibility analysis of a proposed solution. Just by asking a few questions and collecting a few numbers, we have reduced the risk of embarking on an infeasible strategy.

The objective of the post is to highlight the importance of such an analysis as part of argumentation about public policies. This is not an argument that says that NGOs should not set up schools. Every child that is fortunate enough to benefit from education could have his or her life prospects changed. But looking at the numbers can make us realize that NGOs can help a limited number of individuals but they cannot resolve the crisis of education in South Asia.

For an example of a similar analysis applied to the energy sector, see Giant Leaps And Small Steps For Energy Technology. The article asks what is the central reality that has changed over the decades? Answer: The scale. “As world GDP grows from $50 trillion to $80 trillion in 20 years, new supply equal to France’s total energy consumption will be needed each year. This is the central challenge of our era. A Manhattan or Apollo Program just won’t cut it.” 

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