Hurry Up & Wait!

Why Slow Beats Fast When Comes to Educating the Poor.

When is the best time to plant a walnut tree? Twenty years ago.

When is the second best time to plant a walnut tree? NOW!

The “Slow Movement,” to no one’s surprise, began in Italy in 1986. Fairly quickly, the Slow Food Movement spawned a profusion of related crusades: Slow gardening, slow parenting, slow travel, slow art, and slow on and slow forth.

Like lots of other over-committed folks, I find the notion of slowing down very attractive. But for some people slow has, ironically, become a shortcut. When they advocate slow, they mean taking it easy, lowering your expectations, placing fewer demands on yourself, keeping cool, chilling out. That’s not slow, that’s light. To my mind, the value of slow is in trading immediate gratification for future gain. Few of us go that route anymore from our personal choices to our public works projects and our government institutions, we are always looking for a quick fix.

It takes a lot more time to plan a menu, go to the market, inspect the vegetables, deal with a dozen vendors, carry the goods home, wash and chop and cook and set the ta- ble than it does to call out for pizza – but oh, it is so worth it. And if you grew those vegetables yourself, well that’s even better, and slower, but it’s sure not easier, or cheaper. There’s nothing light about it.

I hereby propose a Slow Movement in Economic Development and Poverty Reduction.

“Excuse me?” you ask. “Isn’t economic progress for the poor already too slow?”

The problem is that it’s too light. The reason there is so little progress among marginalized populations around the world is that everyone tries to do it FAST and on the cheap.    International aid agencies make short-term commitments and demand quick, measurable outcomes. They want to hear about numbers of beneficiaries, rates of expansion, “success stories.” They don’t genuinely want to know about the problems or the “failure stories,” which are often far more instructive than the successes. If you don’t take the time to comprehend and address the problems, how can you improve the results?

Ovidiu Ro’s goal is to help raise the academic attainment of Romania’s poorest children from 6 grades of schooling to 12. When it happens, that will be a success story. But getting a 10-year-old kid whose father makes him work in the market into first grade—that’s not a success story, that’s still a tragedy in the making. Because in most cases that kid will never finish school, will never reach the hu- man potential he had when he was born.

I came to Romania on the fast track, as an American Peace Corps Volunteer, planning to take 24 months off from my frenetic New York life in a kind of grown-up cross-cultural exchange. Twenty-four months turned into eleven years when I discovered I actually did have something to contribute here, but that it would take a very long time to accomplish anything of lasting value. In 2001, I started a project in Bacau with Maria Gheorghiu, a Romanian primary school teacher who had been trained by the Soros Foundation in the U.S.In the begin- ning, we were dedicated to getting children into, or back into, mainstream schools regardless of their age. But after a few years, we reviewed the progress of the children in our programs (which had grown to several communities and several hundred children) and we were forced to con- front a disturbing fact. Although it had not been difficult tointegrate8-or even10-year-olds into first grade or to get older children into ‘Second Chance’ classes, these children rarely lasted more than three or four years in the system.

The outcomes for children who started formal education by age 5 were far better. The sociological reasons for this are obvious, but a review of brain development research makes it clear that the problem is not just “social.” It is rooted in the cognitive development of the human brain. A child who does not receive early, appropriate mental stimulation is literally damaged for life.

“The availability of appropriate experiences at the right stages of development are crucial in determining the strength or weakness of the brain’s architecture, which in  turn, determines how well he or she will be able to think and regulate emotions.”

As a result of our own experience in the field, combined with the scientific research, we changed our focus from getting children “in school” to getting young children into early education programs and helping them to enter first grade with a skill-set comparable to their financially and socially better off peers.

Economic development is like human development. It can’t be sped up any more than the human gestation peri- od can be shortened from nine months to three. Making a baby takes 40 weeks, rearing a child takes 20 years, closing the education gap in Romania will take two generations – if we start now.

We intuit this when it comes to our own children. From the moment they breathe their first breath, we give them the best that money, attention, education and our own drive and determination can muster. Nothing is too good for our children. But for the children of poor people, we give an evening or two a year at charity events, or SMS a bit of money when there’s a telethon. Meanwhile, the government signs “children’s rights” proclamations and issues press releases. These efforts raise awareness and they do raise money – they matter, but they aren’t enough unless they are combined with country-wide sustained, systemic efforts for change.

Unfortunately, most public funders don’t think that way. Most funders want to start NEW projects, see immediate results, and get back neatly sorted, stamped receipts so they can start some other project somewhere else.

There is never enough money to carefully monitor, never enough time to seriously evaluate, never enough patience to reflect on outcomes on more than a superficial, cursory basis – and rarely the will to continue underwriting even the most successful projects for more than two or three years.

The giver, having given, moves on. As a consequence, even the most effective projects die before they become a part of the root system of the community – and the wheel of development continues to reinvent itself, at enormous cost and minimal impact. This serves no one not the “beneficiaries”, not the individual donors or taxpayers, and certainly not the future wellbeing of the society, which was, I believe, the original intent.

The fact remains that if Romania wants to be able to pay pensions in 40 years, it has to raise the least educated quartile of the population from an average of 6 years’ schooling to an average of 12 years. It has to give the poorest segment of the population a chance to work themselves out of poverty and into the middle class. That can’t possibly happen unless we start by giving poor rural children at least as good an education as we give rich urban children. It will take concerted effort on the part of the central government, the local authorities, the private sector and us, civil society. And our efforts won’t bear fruit for 20 years.

Defeating poverty is sort of a bit like growing walnut trees.

Do we have success stories?

I’ll let you know in 20 years.

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