Wednesday, Feb. 11


U.S. development programs making
a difference in Bangladesh    
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[FEB. 11, 2004]  URBANA--A University of Illinois developmental economist who has worked extensively in Bangladesh says U.S. Agency for International Development programs in one of the world's poorest countries are having an effect in increasing education, particularly for girls.

"The good news is that these programs seem to be having some success, though major challenges remain," said Mary Arends-Kuenning, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, who has focused her research on the AID programs and the problems confronting Bangladesh.

Bangladesh ranked 139 out of 175 countries in terms of human development, though this ranking has improved in recent years as a number of countries in sub-Sahara Africa have plunged into famine, poverty, illness and violence. The per capita GDP in Bangladesh in 2001 was $1,610.

In Bangladesh, portions of U.S. food aid are targeted toward addressing the lack of education, particularly for girls. Participating families are given extra allotments of wheat as an incentive to send their children to school and keep them out of the labor market.

"There has been quite an increase in school enrollment as a result, especially for girls," said Arends-Kuenning. "However, there are strong cultural pressures toward early marriage for girls, usually at 13 or 14. These girls don't have any say in who they are to marry or when they marry, and the fact that the bride's family has to pay a dowry, which is huge and increases with the age of the bride, discourages the continuation of girls in school."

To address this part of the problem, a World Bank loan to the government of Bangladesh offers families financial incentives to send their daughters to secondary school. Additionally, the Bangladesh government is trying to curtail or eliminate the dowry system.

"We are finding that the secondary school program, too, is having some measure of success in keeping girls in school," said Arends-Kuenning.


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She points out that the incentives are not paid merely for school attendance; the students have to earn passing grades to remain in the program.

However, now that Bangladesh's schools experience increasing enrollment, problems of overcrowding and student performance have emerged. Along with Ahkter Ahmed of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Arends-Kuenning is studying the effects and possible means of alleviating problems.

"At first glance, class size seems to be a problem. The government has not been able to afford to build new schools, and it is not unusual to find 75 to 80 students in one classroom," she said. "We are looking at the impact of the enrollment-increasing programs on school quality."

Arends-Kuenning and Ahmed have used school achievement test results to measure the effects of the programs on the schools, the aid students and the students whose families do not receive aid -- usually families who are better off financially.

"We found that, interestingly, class size doesn't seem to matter," she said. "However, the percentage of students who receive the aid in the fourth grade has a negative spillover effect on the students whose families do not receive aid. There are negative peer effects."

"We recommend that the government should invest more in the quality of its schools and consider instituting carefully designed minimum learning standards."

[University of Illinois news release]

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