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A teacher stands in a classroom at Yaskule girls primary school in Michika village, northeast Nigeria June 12, 2017. Picture taken June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye - RC16880F4FA0
Future Development

Future Development Reads: Teachers in poor countries, human capital investments, and tips for disseminating research

Editor's Note:

At the end of each week, one of the rotating editors for Future DevelopmentShanta DevarajanWolfgang FenglerIndermit Gill, or Homi Kharas—provides recommended literature on a specific development topic.

A new paper by Justin Sandefur, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, tells some inconvenient truths about teachers in poor countries: First, they are relatively well paid (the highest ratio of teacher salary to GDP per capita is in the Central African Republic). Second, their pay does not seem to have much to do with their qualifications or teaching performance. For example, public school teachers are paid about twice as much as their private-school counterparts with the same qualifications.  A different paper by Tessa Bold, assistant professor at the Institute for International Economic Studies, and co-authors finds that among fourth grade teachers in a sample of African countries, only 7 percent had the minimum knowledge necessary to teach language in that grade.

These findings are particularly disturbing because there is now increasing evidence that the quality of teacher input matters a lot for student learning. Using data from 31 countries, Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, and co-authors show a clear and robust relationship between teachers’ cognitive skills and student performance. And at the college level, using a creative identification strategy, Carolina Arteaga finds a significant relationship between human capital and earnings (thereby rejecting the hypothesis that a college education is simply “signaling”). In short, unless we make substantial progress in teacher ability and performance, students in developing countries will face significant difficulties later in life.

Speaking of human capital, I was encouraged by a recent paper by economist Victoria Baranov and social and economic demographer Hans-Peter Kohler that documents the favorable effect of anti-retro viral therapy (ART) for HIV/AIDS on life expectancy in Malawi, which, in turn, is leading to greater investments in children’s education, even among HIV-negative people. The longer people expect to live, the longer they can enjoy the fruits of their children’s education, so they invest more in their children. Not only is this good news, but it confirms empirically a (negative) result that economists Clive Bell and Hans Gersbach and I obtained using a theoretical, overlapping-generations model and simulation analysis. Our conclusion was that, without ART, the reduced life expectancy in a high-prevalence country like South Africa could lead to under-investment in human capital that gets transferred across generations, possibly leading to an economic collapse.

A final note, researchers are constantly trying to disseminate research and findings better. David McKenzie, lead economist at the World Bank, shows how to use photos and videos to communicate research findings, while Bob Denham, economics filmmaker and communicator, spells out the five steps needed to produce a short (140-second) research video. Both are incredibly useful resources.

The Future Development blog informs and stimulates debate on key sustainable development issues within and across all countries.

Now hosted by the Center for Sustainable Development, this blog was originally launched in September 2013 by the World Bank and the Brookings Institution in an effort to hold governments more accountable to poor people and offer solutions to the most prominent development challenges. Continuing this goal, Future Development was re-launched in January 2015 at In the ensuing years, the blog’s scope evolved in parallel with ongoing international policy debates and was formally updated in November 2022 to focus on broader challenges of sustainable development around the world.

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