Spreading knowledge is a good thing. But lack of knowledge itself is seldom the central barrier to progress, and, when knowledge is lacking, the problem has roots that are not addressed by the Report. The Report appears to explain a lack of knowledge by a combination of a lack of understanding of the importance of knowledge and a lack of funds to support the spread of knowledge. It would seem more useful to recognize that knowledge is tied up with power and wealth.
Consider, for example, the issue of expanding schooling in low-income countries. India, in spite of its impressive economic growth in recent years and the much touted highly educated work force that has played a major role in that growth, continues to have a relatively poor record with basic education. In 2004, literacy among females over 15 was 47.8 percent and was 73.5 percent for males. (UNDP, 2006, p. 373).30 While there are many aspects to an explanation of these low rates (and for the gender disparity), the following comment by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen (1995, p. 107) is instructive:
“… local democracy has often been undermined by acute social inequality. The low involvement of women in local representative institutions such as village panchayats is a clear illustration of this problem. In large parts of [India], local government is in the hands of upper-caste men from privileged classes, who are only weakly accountable to the community and often end up using local public services as instruments of patronage. In some cases, the rural elite has been known not only to be indifferent to the general promotion of local public services but even to obstruct their expansion, to prevent the empowerment of disadvantaged groups. In Utter Pradesh, for instance, it is still possible to find villages where a powerful landlord has actively opposed the creation of a village school.”
The Indian situation is not unique in demonstrating the connection between social power and the progress – or lack of progress – of schooling. Examining the situation of Northeast Brazil in an insightful paper titled “The Fear of Education,” Judith Tendler (2002) summarizes her findings as follows:
“In the research conducted for this paper…owners and managers of large modern manufacturing firms in the textile, garment, and footwear sectors of Northeast Brazil reported, to their pleasant surprise, that they have been able to live with illiteracy without compromising their ability to compete. They did not prize an educated workforce and, indeed, sometimes worried out loud that ‘too much education was a bad thing.’ This ‘fear’ of education also pervades the thinking of politicians and governments, particularly the departments that support economic development – and particularly at the subnational level, where decisions to fund and improve
30 The rate for youth literacy, for people in the 15 to 24 age groups, was significantly higher: 67.7 percent for females and 84.6 percent for males.