In February of this year, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won its third mandate to govern the Indian state of Delhi, comprising the city of that name and its immediate surroundings. The AAP is a maverick political party born in the wake of a decade-old anticorruption campaign. To the surprise of many, it defeated the Hindu nationalist anti-Muslim campaign waged during the election campaign by the BJP, Narendra Modi’s governing national party. Survival of the AAP government is more than a regional election in a (relatively) minor state with a population of 20 million; potentially, it is a major event in Indian politics. But first, a digression on Hamlet.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the tradition of the unreliable narrator. For four centuries, people have debated what he intended as the “something rotten” in Denmark to which the guard Marcellus alerts Horatio after the appearance of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. In the next scene the Ghost denounces his brother Claudius who has usurped the throne:

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts –
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce! – won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!

One interpretation of rot in the state of India is that Modi is a “beast” who has “seduced” the “seeming-virtuous” people of India. “What a falling-off was there” from religious tolerance as preached by Gandhi, now abandoned by the Hindu majority, who are indulging a “shameful lust” that entails persecution of Muslims. The rightful king of India (whoever is the present leader of the Congress Party) has been assassinated – literally in the case of Rajiv Gandhi (killed in 1991), figuratively at other times.

More or less, this is the interpretation of Indian politics among cosmopolitan liberals. A good example is Asim Ali, writing in the New York Times under the headline “Modi lost the Delhi Election. It Doesn’t Matter.”1 Why doesn’t it matter? Because Modi’s Hindutva and intolerance of Muslims define the present state of Indian politics. The fact that the Delhi election winner chose not to challenge Modi’s discriminatory citizenship law and instead campaigned on quality of public services is proof that Modi has won the ideological debate over religious tolerance.

Shakespeare’s villains are never one-dimensional. Claudius may have assassinated Prince Hamlet’s father and usurped the throne, but he is portrayed throughout the play as a competent ruler.  Perhaps Hamlet’s father (the assassinated king) and the usurper Claudius are both rotten. Shakespeare lived in the 16th and early 17th centuries, a time of religious wars across Europe, which resulted in multiple acts of regicide in a context of rampant papal corruption. The usurper was usually neither better nor worse than the usurped. In 20th- and early 21st-century India, Congress tolerated political corruption on such a massive scale and for so many decades that a plurality of Indians have become as disgusted with it as 16th- and 17th-century Protestant Europeans were with the papacy. Apparently Indians are willing to be governed, at the national level, by the BJP, which may – or may not – govern the country more efficiently. Worth noting, the AAP not only defeated the BJP’s attempt to mould the Delhi election into an affirmation of Hindutva and opposition to Islam, but also decimated the Congress. Of 70 seats in the Delhi legislature, the AAP won 62, the BJP 8 and Congress 0. For many, the BJP’s introduction of a discriminatory citizenship law that grants citizenship to all religious refugees other than Muslims is a minor matter relative to the abysmal state of public services in much of India.

A government focused on public services

Soutik Biswas, the BBC correspondent in India, interprets the AAP victory much as I do. In one of several stories he wrote on the AAP reelection, he summarized: “Rather than being seen as a vote against the BJP, Kejriwal’s comfortable win owes more to the triumph of welfarism and effective governance – revamping state-run schools and health clinics, and providing cheap water and electricity.”2

Asim Ali acknowledged that “Mr. Kejriwal, an anti-graft activist turned politician, focused the electoral campaign of his party on his record of governance – the significant improvement he made to the delivery of services in public hospitals, the quality of education and infrastructure in schools, and the cost of electricity in Delhi.” Nonetheless, the victory “doesn’t matter” because the rot in India is simple: it is Hindutva and hostility to Islam. As an aside, Ali would be more convincing in affirming that the rot in India is primarily religious bigotry if he generalized his thesis to include criticism of Pakistan and – with more qualifications – Bangladesh.

Biswas and Ali agree on one thing: the AAP is a party led by earnest middle-class professionals primarily interested in better social services. Kejriwal is a former accountant. Atishi, the most prominent AAP spokesperson on behalf of better government schools, has a degree from Oxford. If readers want a Canadian parallel, the 1944–64 Saskatchewan government of Tommy Douglas and his successor Woodrow Lloyd (minister of education for 17 years before becoming premier and successfully implementing medicare) comes to mind. It was an earnest government led primarily by a charismatic preacher and several very smart teachers and farmers. For two decades it pioneered multiple social programs that were adopted across Canada in the 1960s. The progressive movement in the United States prior to World War I, largely motivated by middle-class disgust with the post–Civil War era of corrupt Tammany Hall politics, is another parallel.

The heart of the AAP’s raison d’être is better schools. The AAP has spent much more on schools than its predecessors but, more important, most of its senior leaders are obsessive about improving and decentralizing school management, empowering teachers as professionals and assessing school outcomes. In 2019, AAP leaders trumpeted the result, unthinkable a decade earlier, that students in Delhi government secondary schools were marginally ahead of the average performance in Delhi private schools.

The AAP victory over the BJP and Congress is encouraging, but its breach in conventional Indian politics is fragile. There is little evidence that the major political parties are willing to undertake self-criticism and constrain, if not eliminate, the complex web of corruption, patronage and electoral intimidation that has characterized politics in the subcontinent for the last half-century. The result of weak governance has been a shamefully weak set of social programs, especially with regard to schools.

The “shameful history” of Indian government schools3

In the century before India became independent in 1947, several commissions assessed the daunting task of organizing universal education in the subcontinent. The last initiative prior to independence was the Sargent Committee in 1944. It recommended an agenda stretching over four decades:

  • free and compulsory basic education of five years for all children aged 6 to 11, to be realized within four decades;
  • compulsory senior basic education of three years for four-fifths of the children aged 11 to 14;
  • secondary education, with a duration of six years, for the age group 11–17 for approximately one out of every five children who completed the primary school.

At the time, adult literacy was 18 per cent and only a quarter of school-age children were attending a school. Post-independence, Indian political leaders scorned the committee’s four-decade timetable. The first Five Year Plan reduced the time for realizing the committee’s first goal from four decades to one.

Far from achieving universal basic education in one decade, India proved the Sargent Committee’s timetable wildly overoptimistic. Seven decades after independence, the Lok Sabha (national parliament) continues to enact legislation and set ambitious targets – which it consistently fails to meet. The most recent major legislative initiative, the 2009 Right to Education Act, stipulates a right to “free and compulsory” education for children aged 6 to 14. In great detail, Rangachar Govinda and A. Mathew discuss the laws, commissions and five-year plans from the 1940s to the present. They reach the depressing conclusion that “through the decades … political leaders set specific targets and time frames … but these remained unmet every time.”4 This conclusion is shared by nearly all who have studied education policy in South Asia.

Following the launch of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in 2000, India and other South Asian countries responded with improvements in school inputs: more teachers (which allowed for reductions in student/teacher ratios), school improvements (such as toilets, books, electricity) and higher teacher salaries. India, Bangladesh and Nepal claim to have more or less fulfilled the “letter” of MDG2 – universal primary education by 2015 – but they did not fulfil its “spirit.” Enrolment of the primary-age cohort is now over 90 per cent in India and Bangladesh (but not Pakistan), and primary completion rates are about 80 per cent. However, “free and compulsory” education has not led to a better-educated young generation. Governments achieved high completion rates by lowering standards in government schools. In general, the quality of Indian primary education in government schools remains shamefully low.

How low? An indirect measure is the flight from government schools among those with some discretionary income. In the most recent survey by the Indian nongovernmental organization ASER (see box above) in 2018, the share of sampled children attending government primary schools has declined to 64 per cent. In other words, more than a third of all rural children now attend a nongovernment school. In the cities the share is probably higher.

A key ASER benchmark is the share of sampled Grade 3 students “working at grade level.” Nationally, the average is 27 per cent in terms of reading, and 28 per cent in arithmetic. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate progress through the five elementary grades in terms of ability to undertake the reading and arithmetic problems drawn from the Grade 2 curriculum of the relevant state. The ASER statistics illustrated are the national average for all school types. (For reasons explained below I have added the analogous average progress for West Bengal students and for an NGO school in northern Bangladesh.) There is a very large difference between average performance in government relative to nongovernment schools. Among Grade 3 students in government schools, only 21 per cent are reading at grade level, as opposed to 41 per cent in nongovernment schools. With respect to arithmetic, the comparable statistics are 21 per cent in government schools and 44 per cent in nongovernment schools.

There are many qualifications to make, but they do not seriously blunt the conclusion: government primary education in India is, as my colleagues and I concluded in an earlier Inroads article, a “shameful failure.”5 Some of the gap between government and nongovernment student assessments can be attributed to differences in family characteristics. Parents of children in nongovernment schools have higher incomes on average and, more important, are more likely to be literate. Having a literate parent is the most important family determinant of whether children achieve literacy as adults. Also, while average outcomes in nongovernment schools are dramatically better than in government schools, there is much variance among nongovernment schools. For example, Bangladesh national assessments indicate that madrassa students perform below the level of students in government schools.

An NGO school in northern Bangladesh

I am one of several Canadian volunteers who have supported an NGO school adjacent to a “cluster village” in Nilphamari, a remote district in northern Bangladesh close to the Indian border. Cluster villages are a form of social housing in Bangladesh for families of rural labourers who own no land. The nearest government primary school is at a distance of several kilometres. The NGO school began six years ago in an old building with one classroom that, in a squeeze, accommodated 50 students and a second that accommodated 10 students sitting elbow to elbow around one large table in the middle of the room. Enrolment rose, so we operated morning and afternoon shifts. In 2018, we decided to build a new school with five classrooms, a latrine, a teachers’ room and a dedicated recreational area. Someone – I don’t remember who – decided to call it Bluebell.

In February 2020, we organized an in-home survey using the ASER protocol to assess basic reading and arithmetic.6 The sample included 57 children from the cluster village in grades 1–5, roughly two thirds of present enrolment in the school. (The survey found a small number of children who attended a government school. Their performance was very weak.) The sample is minute relative to the large ASER surveys conducted in India. Its primary value is feedback to Bluebell teachers on student progress. And yet, despite being a sample of one small school, perhaps there are tentative conclusions to draw from the school as a case study.

To begin, the relationship between Bangladesh and the adjacent Indian state of West Bengal is somewhat similar to that between Wallonia and France: separate countries with the same language and many shared cultural references. At least in the early primary grades, West Bengal dominates India’s national reading results; for the final two grades the regional and national results converge. In reading, Bluebell’s performance clearly outpaces the outcomes in West Bengal and India overall, in all grades. In arithmetic there are inversions: West Bengal and Indian students overall outperform Bluebell in Grades 1 and 2; West Bengal and Bluebell are essentially equal in Grade 3; and Bluebell students progress more quickly in Grades 4 and 5 than do students in West Bengal or India overall.

Why are Bluebell students faring better than the average student in West Bengal?

On average, children in nongovernment schools in India come from families with higher incomes than children in government schools, and that partly explains the superior nongovernment outcomes in ASER surveys. That cannot be the explanation here. The majority of children in our sample live in families where neither parent can read. There is also no doubt that family incomes in our sample are below the average in West Bengal.7

The NGO school has benefited from consistent donations by Canadian volunteers, which have enabled hiring an appropriate number of teachers. With five teachers for the 85 students in the primary school, there is an attractive student:teacher ratio of 1:17.8 Nevertheless, it is hard to make a case for generous foreign donations as the explanation. The NGO pays teachers at only half the level of government primary teachers. Hence, annual Bluebell per-pupil costs, including overhead costs, are under US$200 – which is roughly 25 per cent below comparable government spending per primary school student.

If pressed to explain Bluebell’s relative performance, I resort to the old saying among education administrators: “The three most important factors in any school are teachers, teachers and teachers; everything else is minor.” Bluebell has benefited from its ability to attract teachers motivated to teach. The NGO leadership of Bluebell has tried to follow the Bangladesh school curriculum while treating teachers as professionals. Bluebell should not rest on its achievement. It has outperformed ASER’s West Bengal statistics, but the ASER reading and arithmetic thresholds are hardly demanding. A good school is more than ASER expectations.

To conclude, if the BBC Delhi correspondent and I are right in our interpretation of what is “rotten in the state of India,” and if electorates in the rest of South Asia want to replicate AAP outcomes – both assumptions are debatable – citizens must tackle the ongoing damage wrought by conventional politicians.

Continue reading “Something is Rotten in the State of India”

I am writing in Vancouver four days after our desultory general election. By coincidence, Greta Thunberg is in town. Ten thousand paraded in the city centre today and cheered her stern Old Testament sermon delivered on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery:

If the adults really loved us, they would … do everything they possibly could to make sure that we have a safe future – a future to look forward to. But they are not doing that … It feels like they are doing the exact opposite, that they are desperately trying to change the subject every time the climate crisis comes up … They are trying so hard to delay the actions required for preventing this crisis from getting worse. Because they are so afraid of being unpopular and making uncomfortable decisions. It is like they are selling our future for their comfort and profit.1

Perhaps she should have devoted a few words to China. China has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Thanks, in part, to a massive increase in electricity production, primarily from coal-fired plants, the average Chinese citizen now enjoys an income level that, a generation ago, was available to only a tiny minority. There is a case to be made that the Chinese had the right to pollute in order to put an end to dire poverty. My generation of Canadians – I turned 75 this year – cannot use that argument. Basically, Greta is right: my generation has enjoyed a living standard better than any in human history, but at the cost of massive environmental damage, with worse to come. An item on the news tonight was mass evacuations caused by half a dozen fires raging along the California coast.

Relative to Greta’s sermon, along with David Attenborough’s lament on vanishing wildlife and the experience of families abandoning their homes in suburban Los Angeles, our debates on climate policy during the campaign were tepid affairs that soon will be forgotten. A short review is in order, if only to impress how parochial the Canadian political debate on climate change is.

In December 2015, shortly after his election victory, Justin Trudeau attended the UN “Conference of the Parties” on climate change (COP21) in Paris. On our behalf, he committed Canadians to adopting the target proposed by Stephen Harper a decade earlier, namely a 30 per cent reduction of Canadian GHGs by 2030 relative to 2005 levels. It was a commitment to do something, although obviously not enough to impress Greta.

The government estimate of 2005 emissions is 730 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent. A 30 per cent reduction implies that our emissions would fall by 2030 to 511 megatonnes. Emissions in 2017 were 716 megatonnes. Commissioned by the CBC, Navius Research took a stab at modelling the GHG reductions by 2030 that would arise if the promises of each of the four major parties were implemented. As figure 1 illustrates, only the Greens would successfully lower emissions below the promised 2030 target.

Here, in summary, is how the Greens intend to realize their GHG reductions by 2030:

  • reduce fossil fuel production immediately and drastically;
  • impose a carbon tax with a promised annual rate of increase;
  • regulate to reduce energy consumption across all sectors;
  • scrap new pipeline projects and build a trans-Canada electricity grid;
  • invest immediately and substantially in renewable energy production; and
  • undertake significant reforestation and afforestation.

Supporters of the “progressive” parties (lumping together all except the Conservatives and Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party) might reply to Greta that they had voted for a party cognizant of her message. If Greta looked at figure 1, she would probably spare the Greens – who won 7 per cent of the vote and elected three MPs – but say something rude about the rest of us, Conservatives and progressives alike:

You who voted Conservative, especially those in Alberta and Saskatchewan, want to perpetuate Canadian dependence on oil and gas. You want to change the subject and talk about pipelines to tidewater. You who voted for a “progressive” party are smug because you promise to do somewhat more than the Conservatives. In terms of the impact of your parties’ promises, the differences are trivial: Conservatives would lower Canada’s 2030 emissions to 1995 levels, Liberals and NDP to early 1990s levels. Except for the Greens, you Canadians are all guilty of delaying the serious initiatives required.

There are many arguments raised by the 93 per cent who rejected the Greens and opted to do very little:

  • To realize significant GHG reductions via a carbon tax, the rate needs to be six times higher than the present proposal of $50 per tonne of CO2. At $300 per tonne, the redistributive impact would be too great for any government to tolerate – even if the losers were generously compensated.
  • Maybe aggressive regulations on major emitters can substitute for an aggressive carbon tax and the Greens’ other disruptive policies. But aggressive regulations will quickly generate significant increases in many prices and disruption of many industrial sectors. Hence, aggressive regulations may well become as politically unpopular as an aggressive carbon tax.
  • Maybe Bernier is right: We are only 2 per cent of the problem. Let’s wait and see what technological innovations the rest of the world can come up with before we disrupt our way of life.

And even the Greens have yet to acknowledge what is probably required if Canada ever aspires to be a leader in containing rising temperature. The International Panel on Climate Change wants midcentury GHG reductions to be over 50 per cent, and high-income countries to make more aggressive reductions than developing countries. Modelling of the Green agenda implies reductions of nearly 40 per cent by 2030. If Canada aimed to, say, double its reductions, from 40 per cent to 80 per cent, what then? Presumably, any government rash enough to propose such an agenda would experience an electoral fate similar to the destruction of the Mulroney-Campbell Progressive Conservatives after they imposed the GST.

Many environmentalists believe that benign renewable energy sources (wind and solar) could completely defossilize our economy in a generation, with minimal increases in energy costs. The costs per megawatt-hour of wind and solar power have declined dramatically this decade, but neither is a source of “base load” (“dispatchable”) power. To provide power when the sun is not shining and/or the wind is not blowing requires either massive increases in storage capacity for renewable sources or power plants powered by fossil fuels, nuclear or hydro.2 Traditionally, Green parties have opposed major new infrastructure investments in nonfossil “base load” sources and have glossed over the limitations of wind and solar. Incidentally, those European countries that are reliant on nuclear base load power (such as France and Sweden) have per capita emissions less than half that of Canada.

Inroads has not published much on climate change but we did, two years ago, publish Chris Green’s incisive critique of Trudeau’s promise in Paris to implement Stephen Harper’s GHG reduction commitment.3 Green quoted Thomas Schelling, a Nobel economist, on the 1992 Kyoto Agreement:

I cannot help believing that adoption of such a commitment is an indication of insincerity … A serious proposal would specify policies like taxes, regulations, and subsidies and would specify programs (like research and development) accompanied by very uncertain estimates of their likely effects on emissions.

Until we find our own Greta capable of drawing 10,000 to a more-or-less spontaneous demonstration in Vancouver – and a much larger number to an earlier demonstration in Montreal – Canada will probably continue with our parochial preoccupations. We will fiddle while California and many other places burn.

Continue reading “Canada Fiddles While California Burns”

Even though one of the major party leaders represents a Vancouver riding – Jagmeet Singh comfortably won reelection in an inner-suburb riding on the east side of town – British Columbia is probably the region least interested in national elections. Nobody here gives a damn about Quebec’s Bill 21, because nobody here speaks French and Muslim immigrants are rare. Vancouver is increasingly a city in the Chinese sphere of influence. If the election had featured a major debate on the implications of Chinese real estate purchases – which it didn’t – we would have stirred ourselves and been involved.

Our provincial government has opposed the proposed expansion of a pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific, but opinion polls conclude that a small majority in B.C. favour its construction. The provincial government has no intention of elevating its opposition into a major matter.

We are in favour of reconciliation with First Nations but we are unsure of what that means. It means different things in liberal downtown Vancouver – where Jody Wilson-Raybould won reelection as an independent MP – than it does in the interior, which shares Prairie misgivings about too many Trudeau apologies. The B.C. legislature is currently debating legislation that would ensconce the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights as the basis of provincial policy. We are legislating that “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with Indigenous peoples in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.” Does that mean a First Nation veto on pipeline and similar resource proposals? We’re not sure.

We are in favour of a strong environmental policy but not enough to discuss the disruptions to our lifestyle implicit in the Green Party platform. We reelected the two Green MPs representing Vancouver Island ridings, but the Greens made no further advances.

The popular vote distribution in B.C. was 34 per cent Conservative, 26 per cent Liberal, 24 per cent NDP and 12 per cent Green. In terms of seats, the Conservatives won 17 (an increase of eight), the Liberals 11 (a decrease of seven), the NDP 11 (down two) and the Greens two (no change). On a map painting B.C. ridings with the winning party’s colour, most of the province looks to be an extension of the Prairies – all blue. The coast and all of Vancouver Island except for a very small Green patch in the southeastern corner are red or orange – no blue. The Liberals and NDP shared the urban seats in the two major cities, Vancouver and Victoria; the Conservatives won a few suburban Vancouver ridings.

Green support in B.C. peaked in the summer. In August, the CBC poll tracker placed the Greens (at 19 per cent) marginally ahead of the NDP (at 18 per cent). The prediction at the time was five NDP and five Green MPs in B.C. However, in the intervening two months, the NDP recovered and the Greens faltered. The Greens’ failure to do better is my major disappointment in this election.

In thinking about Brexit, Canadians instinctively draw a parallel to Canada’s free trade arrangement with the United States and Mexico. President Trump’s threat to scrap NAFTA prompted anxiety in many potentially adversely affected sectors, and most Canadians sighed with relief when a compromise was reached – a compromise that Congress has admittedly yet to ratify.

The European Union (EU) entails many more constraints on national sovereignty than the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement. The EU is a customs union that maintains common tariffs with nonmember states, and not merely an internal free trade area; the Schengen agreement guaranteeing free movement of EU citizens applies to virtually all EU members; the majority of EU countries agreed to a common currency; various decisions by Brussels constrain national human rights jurisprudence, employment regulations and so on. Ever since the U.K. joined in 1973, the majority of its leaders have been sceptical of the attempt by Eurofederalists to take the EU beyond a customs union and construct an “ever-closer union.” Britain is the only major country exempt from Schengen, and among the minority of countries that have preserved their own currencies.

From the U.K. perspective, the Brexit fiasco is an acute manifestation of the ambiguity about “ever closer union” prevalent among most EU citizens. Immigration from Africa and the Middle East during this decade has served as a catalyst for the evolution of “illiberal” democracies in eastern Europe, election of a populist anti-immigrant government in Italy and the rise of anti-immigrant populist parties in France, Germany, Sweden and other member countries. Unfortunately for the British, David Cameron forced U.K. citizens to vote on a simple in/out referendum question – and not continue with the pragmatic incrementalism at which the British are skilled.

Far from resolving U.K. ambivalence over EU membership, the 2016 Brexit referendum (52 per cent Leave, 48 per cent Remain) has exacerbated the Anywhere-versus-Somewhere divisions that pervade domestic politics in most EU states. At the time of writing (April 2019), U.K. polls suggest there is no U.K.-EU relation able to command a clear majority. Potential variants range from “crashing out” of the EU with no agreement to restoration of the prereferendum status quo.

Many advocates of a “soft Brexit” compromise, something between crashing out and the 2016 status quo, want a version of the “Norway model.” However, very few in the U.K. – and even fewer in Canada – have any solid knowledge of Norway’s status as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) but not of the EU. John Erik Fossum’s article is an excellent introduction to the complex compromises required to make the Norway model work.

There are only five million Norwegians and, as Fossum describes, over time they have negotiated their way partially into the EU without actually becoming a full-fledged member. It is much more complicated for 66 million British to negotiate their way out. Is the “Norway model” an appropriate option for the U.K.? I am doubtful.

Click to read Adaptation Without Membership by John Erik Fossum.

Christian Rioux, correspondent in France for Le Devoir, and Kamel Daoud, journalist (and occasional novelist) writing from Oran, Algeria’s second city, are – deservedly – two of the most read journalists currently writing in French. Here, we reproduce in translation a column from each.

Rioux writes about the Gilets Jaunes, a spontaneous revolt of David Goodhart’s “Somewheres” against President Macron, symbol of Parisian “Anywheres.” The imposition in fall 2018 of a new tax on fuel, justified as a response to climate change, was the catalyst. In searching for historical parallels, Rioux goes back to the Jacquerie, a brief peasant revolt in the mid-14th century. The catalyst for that uprising was a new law obliging peasants to defend the châteaux of their deeply hated noble overlords. From the 14th century he jumps to the the early 19th century and the Luddites in England, who smashed textile machinery – new technology that was destroying the traditional lifestyles of weavers. Apparently, the Gilets Jaunes have destroyed 600 radar units deployed to catch and fine vehicles exceeding the speed limit.

The revolts of the jacques, the Luddites, and the Gilets Jaunes share a great deal: incoherence, spontaneity and opposition to new technology that is destroying a way of life. Few countries, Rioux concludes, achieved the sophistication in the art of conviviality displayed by the French in small towns and villages. Is Macron’s goal of “ever closer union” in a European Union committed to free trade and freedom of movement among 28 (perhaps soon 27) countries worth the cost? Rioux does not answer.

The first Gilets Jaunes street demonstration took place in October 2018, and it became a weekly event over the last six months. Finally, in late April, Macron gave his policy response. What the Gilets Jaunes dislike most about their government is the power of the technocratic elite, most of them “énarques” – graduates of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration. Macron has promised to close it down and introduce a law on decentralization of authority to the regions. (Incidentally, Macron himself is an énarque.) If there is one consistent economic demand by the Gilets Jaunes it is lower taxes for the typical taxpayer. Macron has offered a €5 billion income tax reduction targeted to the middle class. The number is impressive, but bear in mind that it is about 0.2 per cent of national GDP. Overall, the initial media response has been harsh: Macron’s response is more symbolism than substance; it will not resolve la morosité nationale.

Click to read Gilets Jaunes: Under the radar by Christian Rioux.

Daoud is writing about the fin de regime of the nominally secular postcolonial government in Algeria. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, President from 1999 until his recent abdication in the spring of 2019, is an octogenarian who rose to prominence in the 1960s liberation war against the French. Since his stroke in 2013, he has been a figurehead. Power is exercised by an elite coalition of the military and business elites. Coinciding with the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes, young Algerians have for the last six months organized repeated demonstrations in major cities against the status quo. As with the Arab Spring at the beginning of the decade, the prospect in Algiers is not optimistic. For many, the present interlude is the ideal moment to flee Algeria’s repressive society dominated by gerontocrats and Salafist imams. Hence the old taxis rolling to the coast and the waiting boats of the traffickers who will take Algeria’s Somewheres to France. The traffickers sell orange life vests for €25.

Click to read The Future is Orange by Kamel Daoud.

The irony is that, simultaneously, Français de souche are morose about threats to their country’s way of life, and illegal migrants from Algeria view France as the Nirvana of the North.

John Judis, The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt against Globalization. New York: Columbia University, Columbia Global Reports, 2018. 157 pages.

Oklahoma!, the musical, opened on Broadway in 1943, as the major Western democracies were engaged in a brutal world war.1 Set in rural Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century, it opens with Curly, the cowboy hero, approaching the farm of Laurey’s family while singing,

Oh, what a beautiful mornin’!
Oh, what a beautiful day!
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Ev’rythin’s goin’ my way.

The musical reflected Americans’ confidence in their collective destiny at a time of global crisis. Overcoming the inevitable obstacles, Curly wins Laurey’s hand in marriage. The one cloud in the prairie sky is Jud, a rejected suitor who crashes the wedding and starts a fight. Jud conveniently falls on his knife. His death is a minor incident.

Last year, a revisionist Oklahoma! opened off-Broadway. It is no longer a beautiful day; ominous clouds hover over this version. The dialogue and the songs remain largely intact but, instead of Jud falling on his knife, in the climactic encounter Curly shoots him at short range. Blood splatters Laurey’s wedding dress. This new dystopic Oklahoma! reflects the views of its times, or at least its audience. New York’s educated, cosmopolitan theatregoers (overwhelmingly “Anywheres” in David Goodhart’s terms) have a much darker understanding of life than the Oklahoma “Somewheres” of a century ago. The new production has received lengthy, positive reviews in the New York Times, the New Yorker – and the Observer in London. Online I couldn’t find a review in the Tulsa World. Not surprising. The new Oklahoma! is not likely to appeal to Oklahomans. Nor, I expect, to John Judis.

The Democratic Majority Fails to Emerge

Judis is a prominent journalist and public intellectual, an Anywhere formed in the 1960s New Left – now Old Left – at Amherst and Berkeley. He was a founding editor of a socialist journal in the 1970s. In time he became more eclectic in his choice of publishing venues and, by the 1980s, was a senior New Republic editor. He has published eight books on subjects ranging from an analysis of William Buckley, Jr., to a critique of George W. Bush’s war in the Middle East. In The Emerging Democratic Majority, co-written with Ruy Teixeira in 2002, he predicted that demographic change would give the McGovern coalition that was thrashed in 1972 a lock on American politics in the future. This coalition consists of mostly white cosmopolitan elites (the Anywheres) and ethnic minorities.

Obama’s victory in 2008 seemed to vindicate the prediction, but Judis has revised his thinking in light of the backlash by the white working-class Somewheres who put Trump into the White House. The McGovern coalition thesis is wrong, he concluded in a 2017 New Republic article. Intergenerationally, most ethnic minorities assimilate into the amorphous American middle class. Electoral victory is not to be found in a coalition of urban cosmopolitans and self-defined marginalized minorities. Democrats must respect core middle class interests among those who have become “white” – even if their skin colour is black, yellow or brown. In other words, the Democrats must become nationalists. Judis’s latest book, The Nationalist Revival, is an elaboration of why he has abandoned his earlier thesis.

At 150 pages, it is a blessedly short book. His fundamental conclusion is that a necessary condition for a successful society in an industrial age is a meaningful measure of shared national identity – how much is open to debate. A secondary theme is his critique of the idealistic pacifism of the 1960s New Left. Like Judis, I am of the generation formed in the United States by the New Left of the 1960s, and I am probably more sensitive than those younger to his critique of our 1960s naiveté. Has he defined a better, more realistic agenda? I am not persuaded. I return to this second theme below.

The first chapter contains a balanced discussion of academic debates on the origins of nationalism. Cases of protonationalist group solidarity that overcame class, religious and ethnic divisions to resist an external threat can be found over several millennia of recorded history. However, most historians accord a privileged role to the French Revolution and realization of universal literacy in the 19th century as the key factors enabling the rise of nationalism as understood in the 20th century. Judis readily acknowledges that leaders who employ nationalist appeals range from monstrous demagogues like Stalin and Hitler to pacifists in the tradition of Gandhi. There is no certainty in politics, concludes Judis, and the – hopefully minute – possibility of electing a despot is not reason enough to subsume nationalism in multinational institutions. An irrefutable argument for nationalism, he insists, is the need to generate public support for what are, relative to the pre–World War II era, very high levels of taxation:

The modern welfare state has been built upon shared nationalist sentiments. Governments had to secure citizens’ commitment to pay taxes to help their fellow citizens when they became sick or disabled, too old to work, or lost their job … Citizens had to be able to identify themselves with the fate – “it could happen to me” – of other citizens they did not know … This willingness to identify with others assumed … that, for instance, were or had been willing to work; that if they were immigrants, that they had entered the country legally and were committed to staying and working and that in extreme circumstances, they would fight to defend the nation …

When this trust and feeling of reciprocity has broken down, the support for the welfare state has dissipated, as it did in the US, amidst suspicion of what Ronald Reagan called “welfare queens”, and in Europe, as suspicion has arisen that immigrants or refugees are free riders or “welfare tourists”.

Here, Judis is correct. Among the states belonging to the OECD – sometimes described as the world’s rich country club – three quarters collect taxes that exceed 35 per cent of national GDP, most of which are devoted to funding their respective welfare state programs. Even in the United States, with a relatively weak set of social programs, national, state and municipal governments collect 33 per cent of GDP according to latest OECD data. In comparison, income redistribution by international organizations, such as the European Union or official development aid, is trivial.

Undeniably, nationalism has experienced a revival during this decade. Why? Judis’s answer is that cosmopolitans in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Brusssels distanced themselves from their respective Somewheres. The cosmopolitan ideal in Europe over the last quarter century was an “ever closer union” leading to open borders among EU member states, coordination of tax and monetary policy in Brussels, and some form of European federalism. On “ever closer union,” U.K. Eurosceptics got it right. The prospect of European electorates entrusting Brussels with tax decisions over one third of European GDP and generating faith in open borders has collapsed. In both Europe and North America, cosmopolitan elites favoured multilateral free trade agreements, and paid inadequate attention to the implication for the Somewheres as manufacturing jobs shifted to Mexico, South Asia, Southeast Asia and, above all, China.

In castigating political elites, Judis casts a large net: his definition of cosmopolitan leaders extends from Bush (father and son) to Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels. His major foils are Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, two prominent centre-left politicians of the two decades pre-2008. According to Judis, Clinton and Blair got almost everything wrong. They supported an undue expansion of free trade agreements culminating in the World Trade Organization, which has exacerbated income polarization and loss of middle-class jobs (in places like Oklahoma). They may not have been the initiators of financial market deregulation, which began in the early 1980s, but they participated in its excesses. They invited China into the WTO, naively believing that it would evolve into a rules-respecting future member of the OECD. By allowing moral righteousness to overwhelm realism, they endorsed every eastern European anti-Russian revolt post-1989 and admitted former Soviet colonies into NATO, thereby accelerating Russia’s return to czarism.

The cosmopolitans’ errors continued into the new century. They wasted treasure and lives in attempting to reform the Middle East by toppling Saddam Hussein. As Keynesians, they admittedly saved the “too big to fail” banks and prevented 2008 from being a repeat of 1929, but they did little to support millions of “Laurey and Curly” families faced with foreclosed mortgages and personal bankruptcy. However, their most egregious error, for Judis, was to minimize public concern over immigration and refuse to address the case for immigration controls. George W. Bush advocated a generous temporary foreign worker policy to satisfy business desire for cheap labour. Clinton “felt the pain” of illegal Mexican immigrants. Blair championed easy access to the U.K. for “Polish plumbers” as a humanitarian gesture toward eastern Europeans finally free from Soviet colonialism.

Whatever their motives, these leaders ignored the potential loss of social trust due to large scale immigration. Judis cites the overwhelming polling evidence in the U.K. that identifies immigration as the principal factor motivating pro-Brexit voting in the 2016 referendum. He explains the success of “illiberal” democrats in Hungary and Poland as, primarily, a response to the combination of massive illegal immigration from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa and Brussels’ insistence on the Schengen agreement, which stipulates free movement of all residing within the EU.

Judis’s interpretation of the many post-2016 academic studies attempting to explain Trump’s success is that the key factor is immigration and Islamic terrorism. Loss of middle-class jobs and stagnant incomes matter, but “of all the issues immigration/terrorism was the most important.” He admits, “That conclusion is based as much on interviews and the political history of the last three decades as on polling.”

He doesn’t mention Canada’s immigration policy, but his proposed “solution to the conflict over immigration and national identity” in the United States sounds a lot like ours: a points system heavily weighted to education and ability to speak English (or French in our case) and explicit policies of assimilation. (In Canada, outside Quebec, cultural assimilation is an implicit goal.) However, he is not optimistic that a U.S. equivalent could ever get through Congress. The solution, he argues, requires two impossible things:

The first is blocking illegal immigration through stiff employer penalties, while giving a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants already here. These immigrants cannot simply be deported, and if they remain in the US illegally, they will continue to constitute an inassimilable underclass. The second … is to reduce the annual number of immigrants, and to narrow the conditions for family reunification, while giving priority to skilled immigrants … Regardless of how these proposals are framed, they likely cannot get through a Congress that is divided into conservative nationalists and liberal cosmopolitans.

Unfortunately, in a book constrained to 150 pages, there is not much space for nuance. As Judis sketches the sins of Clinton and Blair, I start asking: What would he have advocated as trade and immigration policies pre-2008?

U.K. acceptance under Blair of large numbers of eastern European immigrants no doubt contributed to Brexit support a decade later, but it did strengthen eastern European economic and political ties to western Europe. In the 1990s, no one knew that two decades later Xi Jinping would undo the relatively liberal domestic policies pursued by Deng Xiaoping. At the time a good case could be made that U.S. trade openness was an effective Marshall Plan for all Asian countries. U.S. support for export-led development over the last three decades facilitated the rural-to-urban migration of hundreds of millions of peasants formerly living in dire poverty who, while not wealthy, have become far more prosperous than their ancestors. While income distribution within high-income countries has become more unequal over the last three decades, thanks to Asian progress income distribution on a world basis has become less unequal.

Military Intervention from Korea to Iraq

Like all of us who came to political maturity in the 1960s, Judis adamantly opposed the ideological Cold War obsession among American elites that led the United States to pursue the wars lost by the French in Southeast Asia. On the Vietnam War I agree. However, Judis more or less argues that every war pursued by the United States since the Korean War in the 1950s was counterproductive. He makes little allowance for uncertainty and no allowance for the idea that military force is sometimes the least bad option. If the post–World War II multilateral conventions and institutions, with the United States as the “indispensable” nation, were preferable to the post-2008 reality, there is a need to acknowledge that in some instances use of military force, usually led by the Americans, was an essential ingredient.

Not all U.S.-led wars should be equated with Vietnam. Clinton intervened against Serbia in Yugoslavia’s civil war out of a legitimate fear that Slobodan Milošević would inflict a slaughter on his Muslim neighbours analogous to the fresh-in-mind Rwandan genocide, a tragedy that no colonial European country or the United States had intervened to halt. In Iraq, surely the major U.S. error is to have “tilted” toward Saddam in the 1980s on the realist rationale that the enemy of my enemy (Saddam as enemy of the Iranian ayatollahs) is my friend. By 1990, the war Saddam had launched against Iran had caused a million deaths. Saddam had gassed Kurdish villagers, invaded Kuwait and butchered 50,000 Iraqi Shia who revolted against him. He was a dictator in the same league as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot.

Poorly prepared diplomatically, poorly executed militarily, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq nonetheless came close to victory by 2010. Obama’s opposition to the war led to the United States pulling out and leaving in power a sectarian Shia leader beholden to Iran, who in the 2010 election had won fewer seats in parliament than the Sunni-Shia moderate alliance. Nouri al-Maliki alienated Iraq’s Sunni elites sufficiently that they allied themselves with the Islamic State. What would Judis want Reagan to have done in the 1980s, George H.W. Bush to have done in Iraq in 1990, Clinton to have done in Serbia in the mid-1990s, or George W. Bush to have done about the decade-long no-fly zones established post-1990 to preserve lives among Kurdish and Shia Iraqis? Was Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq post-2010 wise?2

What About Canada?

Among OECD countries, Canada’s foreign-born ratio is near the top; our immigration/population ratio is also among the highest. Why have we not experienced an equivalent Somewhere-vs.-Anywhere conflict? Perhaps because, historically, our major domestic conflict has been reconciliation of francophones and anglophones. Perhaps because, relative to the United States, our social services are of higher quality. Universal Canadian medicare is not the only difference. Probably more important is that our ranking among OECD countries of 15-year-old secondary school student performance (based on the Program for International Student Assessment) is consistently near the top, whereas U.S. ranking is mediocre. And unlike most OECD countries with large immigrant populations, Canada and Australia stand out in terms of high performance among children of immigrants.

Australia is surrounded by two oceans, Canada by three oceans and a land border with a high-income neighbour. Thanks to geography, both countries can readily impose a points system heavily weighted to education and language skills, and thereby restrict immigration by those with poor education and no ability to speak English (or French).

In 2018, Angus Reid undertook a comprehensive survey of Canadian attitudes on immigration. Since 1975, pollsters have asked whether Canadians want higher or lower immigration levels. Prior to 2000, the average wanting lower levels was about 40 per cent, from 2000 to 2014 about 35 per cent. The 2018 result was 49 per cent. The dramatic rise in the share wanting lower immigration is presumably due to 40,000 illegal immigrants crossing from the United States in recent years. And, as elsewhere, differences in attitudes toward immigration are essentially determined by education levels. Among those whose highest education level is high school or less, about 60 per cent favour an immigration level lower than at present – twice the rate among those with a university degree.

Canadians should not be smug.

Continue reading “Cosmopolitan Errors, Nationalist Response”

The Winter/Spring 2018 issue of Inroads featured Marvin Shaffer’s article on British Columbia’s Site C dam controversy. In December 2017, soon after the issue went to press, the B.C. cabinet decided to complete the dam. However, it did not take long for a new energy policy controversy to take centre stage. Kinder Morgan has received federal regulatory approval and begun construction of its much-debated pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver. In Alberta, all major players, in business, labour and politics – both Rachel Notley’s NDP government and the United Conservative opposition – support building this pipeline to gain ocean access for the diluted bitumen extracted from the northern tar sands.

On the other side of the Rockies, the B.C. NDP promised prior to the 2017 election that it would do everything possible to stop construction of the pipeline. Now in government, the NDP has (at the time of writing in April) decided to submit a reference question to the courts over the province’s right to legislate further regulation to prevent environmental damage arising from increased tanker traffic. Does this amount to an insistence on imposing very high safety standards on a pipeline that, in private, the B.C. government knows it will ultimately accept? Or does the government intend to follow through on its campaign promise to wage guerrilla war against the pipeline? The answer is not clear. To date, the best guess is the first, but if political protest mounts, Victoria may switch to the second. Meanwhile, tempers are frayed as Canada’s two NDP premiers verbally assault each other, and Ottawa desperately wishes everyone would talk about something else.

Other events have escalated the conflict. British Columbia has chosen this moment to announce construction of a major liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in northern B.C., which will export to Asia. It rationalizes its export proposal to environmentalists with a claim that the LNG will be used in power generation and will replace coal, a fossil fuel emitting more greenhouse gases (GHGs) per unit of electricity than natural gas.

Whether that will be the outcome is moot. From Alberta’s perspective, the B.C. government is guilty of rank hypocrisy. It wants the jobs and tax benefits from exporting B.C. hydrocarbon resources while it threatens to block Alberta hydrocarbon exports. Citing B.C.’s antipipeline rhetoric and intense opposition by some environmentalists and First Nation leaders, Kinder Morgan’s U.S. parent has suspended further investment in the pipeline and threatened to withdraw from the project altogether. In response, the Alberta government has offered, if necessary, to buy out the Canadian subsidiary to bring the pipeline to completion.

In this issue, we have assembled three cogent interventions in the debate. Two have been published elsewhere, but bringing them together in one place will help those wanting to get beyond the phony war between the two provincial governments.

The setting for this debate is the Paris Climate Accord under which, shortly after they won the 2015 general election, the Liberals committed Canada to reduce annual GHG emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 (from 740 to 520 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent.) The first of the three position papers is by Andrew Leach, who has been central in defining Alberta’s strategy in the federal-provincial negotiations following Canada’s commitment under the Accord. Each province’s core climate change obligation is to implement a credible schedule of escalating prices for GHG emissions, something to which Alberta has agreed. However, Alberta has insisted that a pipeline providing ocean access for tar sands oil is part of the federal-provincial deal. If provinces, B.C. in this case, pick and choose what they like in the plan, he argues, the deal collapses – which potentially threatens survival of the federation.

Mark Jaccard has no faith in the federal-provincial deal. He describes the last quarter-century of Canadian political discourse on climate change as Orwellian. Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, works in the Ministry of Truth. His job is to revise past history according to the current strategy being pursued by Big Brother. Something similar has been taking place, says Jaccard, in Canada. Since 1988, Canadian prime ministers have promised to meet a series of GHG reduction targets. From Brian Mulroney through Jean Chrétien to Stephen Harper, they never intended to implement the aggressive carbon pricing and regulations required to realize these targets, and no one should be surprised that the targets have not been met.

Justin Trudeau is asking that we forget past doublethink and the fact that Canadian emissions have continued to grow since the 1990s (except during the post-2008 recession). This time is supposedly different: Big Brother – in the form of Kinder Morgan, oil companies, Edmonton and Ottawa – is asking us to believe that building a major pipeline to enable expansion of Alberta tar sands exploitation is part of a credible plan to reduce GHGs. Common sense dictates that we be sceptical of the federal-provincial deal, a plan that all agree is far from adequate to meet the promised 30 per cent reduction. Already, the tar sands account for 10 per cent of Canadian emissions. Rather than promote a pipeline to expand tar sands exploitation, Ottawa could buttress its credibility by implementing substantial regulations that have the potential to make a significant reduction in emissions.

Marvin Shaffer endorses, with qualifications, the case for the pipeline. Canada has a resource-dependent economy and in the short term would realize economic benefits from the pipeline, which enables diversification of export markets. Without ocean access, the United States continues as our sole major export market. Being the sole purchaser enables the United States to exercise a measure of monopoly power over the export prices we obtain. The United States is bargaining hard to increase its benefits from foreign trade; we should do likewise.

Over the next three decades, as the world transitions away from fossil fuels, it is arbitrary to pick on one source of GHGs and attempt to block expansion of Alberta’s oil sector. Why constrain tar sands expansion as opposed to phasing out coal-based power generation across the country more quickly, or regulating new vehicle emissions more aggressively, or ramping up the promised carbon tax more rapidly?

In addition to this sampling of the debate, Reg Whitaker offers a spirited argument against the pipeline in his column in this issue. The pipeline debate also engaged the Inroads listserv in February, and we present two short posts from that exchange.

Click to read The Great Alberta-BC Bitumen and Wine War by Reg Whitaker and Pipeline Politics by Philip Resnick.

Anywheres, somewheres and pipeline politics

There is a link between this debate and Amy Chua’s Political Tribes, the book I review elsewhere in this issue. Her argument is a variant on David Goodhart’s “somewheres vs. anywheres” thesis in explaining the Brexit referendum outcome and Joan Williams’s “white working class vs. cosmopolitans” thesis.1 Overall, expansion of global trade over the last quarter-century has enriched the world and, on a world basis, slightly reduced income inequality, thanks to hundreds of millions in south and east Asia rising above dire poverty levels. However, the benefits have been so unevenly distributed in high-income countries that large constituencies within Europe and North America now favour an affirmation of national sovereignty and rewriting of trade agreements (such as Trump’s NAFTA negotiations).

In addition to scepticism over free trade, these resurgent nationalist constituencies are dubious of major shifts in tax and regulatory policy to meet international climate change agreements (hence the support for Trump’s evisceration of EPA regulations on coal mining and mileage limits on auto manufacturers). In Canada, the majority in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal probably oppose pipelines taking Alberta oil to ocean ports on either the east or the west coast. They also favour the federal-provincial agreement to price GHG emissions. To oblige the “cosmopolitan anywheres” by scrapping the pipeline will anger many “noncosmopolitan somewheres” convinced that the costs of climate change policy are being disproportionately loaded onto the oil and gas sector, located primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The first victim of pipeline cancellation would likely be the Alberta NDP in the forthcoming election. The second victim might well be the federal Liberals in 2019.

Nobody asked for my advice, but here it is anyway. My ideal solution would be an aggressive exercise of federal jurisdiction over the provinces on this issue. Scrap the complicated federal-provincial carbon-pricing arrangement – which is in danger of collapse anyway as a result of conservative opponents in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario – in favour of a uniform, more aggressive schedule of rising carbon taxes over the next decade. Make this revenue-neutral through a cut in the federal personal income tax. Add some of the tough regulations that Jaccard wants. Affirm federal jurisdiction here and ensure that the pipeline is built – but only after climate change modelling suggests the tax and regulatory package is adequate to meet Canada’s Paris Accord obligation (with a pipeline in place before 2030).

As I said, nobody asked for my advice, and doubtless no one will.

Click to read The BC-Alberta Pipeline Fight Could Undo Our National Climate Plan by Andrew Leach, Trudeau’s Orwellian Logic: We Reduce Emissions by Increasing Them by Marc Jaccard, and What to Do With the Elephant by Martin Shaffer.

Gilles Kepel, La fracture. Paris: Gallimard, 2016. 288 pages.

Hakim El Karoui, La fabrique de l’islamisme. Paris: Institut Montaigne, 2018. 617 pages. (A short version is available in English as The Islamist Factory.)

More people have died from jihadist attacks this decade in France than in any other European country, and more French Muslims volunteered to fight for the Islamic State caliphate than did Muslims from other European countries. Ironically, despite intense debate among Français de souche on the problems posed by Islam in their country, the French do not collect official statistics on the size and social characteristics of ethnic- or religious-identity populations; to do so could be interpreted as a violation of official commitment to laïcité. Unofficial estimates of Muslims in France are five to seven million, of a total population of 67 million.

Perhaps the French have debated relationships with Muslims more intensely than other Europeans because Muslim-French relations over the last two centuries have been more complex than elsewhere. Born in Algeria, Albert Camus, in his first novel, L’Etranger, told the story of Meursault, an alienated pied noir (French-origin settler in Algeria) who, caring nothing for the death of his mother, wanders in Algiers and, at the novel’s climax, kills an Arab for trifling reasons. For this and other essays, novels and plays dealing with cultural incomprehension and ideological sectarianism, he received the Nobel Prize in 1957.

Camus equivocated on the justice of guerrilla tactics in the 1950s Algerian liberation campaign: “En ce moment, on lance des bombes dans les tramways d’Alger. Ma mère peut se trouver dans un de ces tramways. Si c’est cela la justice, je préfère ma mère.” (“Right now, are throwing bombs onto streetcars in Algiers. My mother could be on one of those streetcars. If this is justice, I prefer my mother.”) For this statement, Camus was pilloried by the Parisian left, by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in particular. Sixty years later, the Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud wrote a prize-winning novel (translated into English as The Meursault Investigation) conceived as a sequel to L’Etranger. The central character is an Arab equivalent of Meursault who, for trifling reasons, kills a pied noir.1

When, in the 1960s, the newly sovereign governments of the Maghreb (majority-Arab northwest Africa) engaged in ethnic cleansing to rid themselves of pieds noirs, France was enjoying its trente années glorieuses of post–World War II economic growth and invited Maghrébins as guest workers. These immigrants exchanged newfound sovereignty in their home country for the ability to earn higher wages in metropolitan France. Most of these immigrants never returned; they became French citizens and settled into banlieues where they felt culturally at home. The first generation was reasonably grateful for this arrangement, their children and grandchildren much less so. Many have turned to Islamism. Why the ingratitude?

Debating political ideas is something the French do well. One such debate is explaining the rise of radical politicized Islam – in France and throughout the Islamic ummah. The most prominent public intellectuals debating Islamism are two academic political scientists, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel. Roy insists that the rise of Islamism among young Muslims in western Europe should be understood as a search for a meaningful identity among a marginalized minority suffering poor education, high unemployment and poverty. Endorsing Islamism justifies rejection of west European values with respect to education, employment and career, laïcité, and women’s equality. It also justifies rejection of the previous generation’s passive acceptance of a marginal status. Roy emphasizes that only a tiny minority pursue their Islamic identity to the extent of jihadism. The appropriate policy response is better schools, an end to discrimination in employment and official campaigns to counter Islamophobia.

Kepel sharply criticizes Roy for downplaying the role played by Islamist ideology – in particular, Saudi-based Salafism. Islamism, Kepel insists, is an ideology that, somewhat akin to socialism in the 19th century, is mounting a frontal attack on Western liberalism throughout the ummah. Other alienated groups may adopt countercultures; only Muslims adopt a counterculture whose ideas, taken to their logical extreme, justify killing nonbelievers.

Kepel has the better arguments. In recent years he has conducted sociological studies of Muslim-dominated banlieues in Paris, Marseille and certain industrial cities. He has documented the trend over the last decade as Salafist ideas and practice have come to dominate life among second- and third-generation Muslim youth. La fracture is a slight volume, but it effectively makes the case that recent terrorist incidents in France, and other west European countries, arise from what he describes as a third wave of jihadism.

The first wave was Al Qaeda, a centralized organization whose major success has been destruction of the World Trade Center. The second wave consists of autonomous regional jihadist organizations, from the Sahara to Indonesia. The third is the strategy pursued by Daesh2 (the self-proclaimed post-2014 caliphate) to exploit the internet and encourage the radical minority among Salafist-influenced Muslims in Western countries to undertake autonomous attacks on miscreants, using whatever weapons are at hand – knife, truck, rifle, etc. Between January 2015 (assassination of the editors of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris) and July 2016 (massacre of families strolling on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on Bastille Day, and assassination 12 days later of an 84-year old priest delivering morning mass in a church in northern France), this third wave succeeded in killing nearly 250 people in France.

Hakim El Karoui has a multicultural heritage (Tunisian Muslim father and French Protestant mother) and eclectic curriculum vitae. He initially taught politics at the University of Tunis; in Cairo he taught French at the Jesuit college and learned Arabic. He served as consultant to French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, appointed him to head l’Institut des Cultures de l’Islam. He has recently published a magisterial 600-page monograph on Islamism for the Montaigne Institute, a policy institute somewhat comparable to the C.D. Howe Institute in Canada. Like Kepel, he insists that Islamism should not be analyzed as a simple reaction against recent Western intervention in the ummah. Islamism, he insists, is an unexpectedly successful alternate worldview to liberal capitalism. It is

an interpretation of the world, a vision of the ideal organization of society, including its non-profane aspects, and the role of religion in the exercise of political power. In a triple sense – interpretation of the world, social organization and relation to power – Islamism is a contemporary political ideology … While there may be significant ideological differences between Wahhabites and the Muslim Brotherhood, both groups are seeking to make Islam into a set of beliefs for individuals and society.3

The first half of his study is a survey of Islamic theology from the 18th century to the present and of the principal Islamist currents, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and similar groups elsewhere (which collectively he describes as frérisme), and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.

The second half elaborates on a social science survey of the rise of Islamism among Muslims living in western Europe. On the basis of a survey of attitudes among French Muslims, he defines three broad types along a continuum in terms of the priority that respondents attach to their faith: first secular Muslims (46 per cent of French Muslims), second the ambiguous (25 per cent) and third Islamist sympathizers (28 per cent).

Many among the secular have few contacts with organized Islam; they share French values such as a ban on polygamy and see French law as having priority over any interpretation of shariʻa. Those in the ambiguous category accept certain Islamic injunctions, for example requirements for daily prayers and fasting during Ramadan. They accept the primacy of French law over shariʻa but object to the 2004 law that bans symboles religieux ostentatoires (“conspicuous religious symbols” such as the hijab and niqab) in public schools. Those in the third category typically support application of shariʻa and acceptance of the niqab as a justifiable symbol of piety, and firmly reject the secular ideal of religion restricted to the private sphere. On matters of international policy, those in this third category are highly critical of European support for Israel and of any Western intervention in the ummah.

A disturbing survey conclusion is the distribution of attitudes along El Karoui’s continuum by age. The secular share is much lower and the share sympathetic to Islamism much higher among those under age 25 relative to those over age 40.

To give a concrete illustration of the conflict within the Islamic ummah between secular Muslims and Islamist sympathizers, let me introduce an example from Bangladesh, which is the third most populous Muslim-majority country (after Indonesia and Pakistan). While causes of the 1971 civil war pitting East versus West Pakistan and the subsequent birth of Bangladesh are many, one aspect is that the Bengali Muslim elites were largely secular (in El Karoui’s terms) whereas those in West Pakistan were not.

For many years, I worked with the founder and vice-chancellor (until his death two years ago) of the International University of Business Agriculture and Technology (IUBAT), a secular institution located in northern Dhaka on an attractive campus adjacent to the Turag River. Its 8,000 students, both men and women, study in faculties ranging from business to engineering, agriculture, nursing and computer science. On the other side of the river is an open field, a very large field by Bangladeshi standards, owned by Tabligh. El Karoui identifies Tabligh as an international, basically “quietist” organization operating in the Middle East and South Asia. It also has a presence in western Europe. As in other countries, Tabligh in Bangladesh organizes annual ijtema, massive pilgrimages drawing the faithful to this field from across Bangladesh and adjacent Indian states for several days of collective prayer. The numbers have grown from 20,000 in the 1950s to a million or more in recent years.

When we designed the IUBAT campus, we preserved an attractive copse of mature bamboo adjacent to the one-storey student laboratory buildings. In the first year of IUBAT’s move to this campus, early in the last decade, Tabligh organizers channelled the ijtema supporters from the nearby highway, which happens to be on the IUBAT side of the Turag, through the IUBAT campus en route to their field across the river. They chopped down the bamboo and levelled the laboratory buildings that retarded their passage. That was the first of ongoing conflicts.

The university dress code allows a woman to wear what she wishes provided her face is visible. Learning of this dress code, Tabligh organized for a month a gauntlet of supporters at the campus entrance. Female students not wearing a head covering were denounced as miscreants. At one point, members of the gauntlet got past the guards at the campus gate and entered the campus. They attacked students and vandalized classrooms.

In addition to these skirmishes, Tabligh mounted a drawn-out legal campaign to dislodge IUBAT from its campus and secure the campus as headquarters for Tabligh’s Bangladesh activities. With access to senior lawyers, its campaign moved slowly through the courts and finally reached the Supreme Court. Two years ago, after protracted and complex political lobbying by supporters of the university, IUBAT more or less won the legal battle and preserved the campus as a secular university. However, future conflict remains likely. IUBAT versus Tabligh is one of many, many ongoing conflicts in Muslim-majority countries over the last generation, conflicts that pit modernizers at the secular end of the continuum against Islamists at the other.

Both Kepel and El Karoui see their role as that of realists obliging Français de souche and moderate Muslims to acknowledge the malevolent effect of Islamism among many young French Muslims, and the need to counter it. How? Kepel offers little in terms of advice; El Karoui is more detailed in his prescriptions. His central recommendation is creation of an Association musulmane pour l’Islam de France with a mandate to build autonomous French Islamic institutions and thereby minimize the influence of Islamic organizations in Arab countries. It would train imams in France, counter Islamic anti-Semitism and so on. Whether such an organization can succeed is moot. Predictably, Muslim leaders have opposed the idea, arguing that such an association would be directed by “experts outside the Muslim religion” who would lack credibility. There are no easy answers.

Glossary of Islamist organizations

SALAFISM: Salafism – the word literally means ancestors – includes Sunni theological currents whose supporters advocate a return to the ideas of Muhammad and the original “pious ancestors” who led the first three generations of the caliphate. All subsequent modifications to Islam, including modernizing currents seeking a synthesis of Islam and Western liberalism, should be opposed.

WAHHABISM: The 18th-century preacher Ibn Abd al-Wahhab gave his name to the major Saudi tradition of Salafism. It concerns itself with theological purity and obedience of the faithful to strict rules about daily life. Most Wahhabi consider themselves “quietist” and abjure all participation in politics. The contract underlying Saudi society is political control exercised by the extended Saud family and the theological hegemony of Wahhabi elites. Given income from oil, the Saud family provides large sums to finance Wahhabi proselytizing in various forms. Kamel Daoud has described Saudi Arabia as a Daesh that succeeded.a

FRÉRISME: El Karoui includes here several Islamist currents, the most important of which is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Islamist organizations in this tradition engage in electoral politics and are more tactical in their activities than Wahhabi imams in Saudi Arabia. The short-term beneficiary of the Arab spring in Egypt was the Muslim Brotherhood, which won an election and briefly enjoyed office until the military reasserted control. Those in the frériste tradition do not shun interaction with non-Muslims.

QUTBISM: Qutbism is a militant tendency within the frériste tradition. Sayyid Qutb (1906–66) was born in a rural Egyptian village to a poor family. However, he received a decent education and became a specialist in education studies. Originally a liberal, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s. He briefly supported the military coup that toppled the monarchy and ushered Gamal Abdel Nasser into power. However, he broke with Nasser and was imprisoned. In 1966, the Egyptian government executed him. Among supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, he is a martyr to the Islamist cause. Ayman Al Zawahari, successor to Osama Bin Laden as head of Al Qaeda, studied under Qutb.

SAHWA: Sahwa is a political movement in Saudi Arabia, born in the early 1990s in opposition to the presence of American troops engaged in the campaign to expel Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. Its conservative theology places it among Salafist organizations, but unlike the Wahhabi, Sahwa members have overtly challenged the Saud family, and have been persecuted in Saudi Arabia.

JIHADIST SALAFISM: Using Kepel’s categorization, we can refer to three waves of Islamist jihadism: first, Al Qaeda; second, regional organizations (such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb); third, jihadist attacks by individuals, usually inspired by Islamic social media and often with internet advice and support from Daesh.

DEOBANDISM: Named after the north Indian town of Deoband, this is a “quietist” tradition that emphasizes education of the faithful. It is close to the Hanafi school’s interpretation of Sunni Islam. It is a large tent, with affiliations ranging from the Taliban to Tabligh to Jamaat-e-Islami. It occupies a privileged position among Pakistani immigrants to the U.K.

JAMAAT-E-ISLAMI: Founded in 1941 by Abul Ala Mawdudi, Jamaat is a South Asian equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Originally, Mawdudi opposed creation of Pakistan as a separate state because of misgivings about the close links between the largely secular Muslim League and liberal British colonial traditions. Like the Brotherhood, Jamaat favours active participation in electoral politics as an instrument in persuading the population to support an Islamic state applying shariʻa. Incidentally, the Pakistani woman who in 2015 successfully litigated her right to wear a niqab during her Canadian citizenship ceremony is a Jamaat supporter.

TURKISH ISLAMISM: The Justice and Development Party (AKP), formed as a hybrid political party embracing Turkish nationalism, sympathetic to state support for Islam and favourable to economic development based on market capitalism, has governed Turkey since 2002. Initially, it enjoyed widespread popularity among secular Turks and west Europeans as an opponent of the military’s abuses under secular Turkish governments in the tradition of Atatürk. This decade, the AKP has become increasingly authoritarian, championing Turkish nationalism over accommodation of the Kurds and curtailing secular Muslim institutions within Turkey.

Continue reading “A Realist Approach to Islamism in France”

Eden Robinson, Son of a Trickster. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2017. 336 pages.

At the time of writing, the short list of five novels for the 2017 Giller Prize has just been announced. Eden Robinson’s latest novel made the cut.

By coincidence, the novel I read just before Son of a Trickster was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. (I know, I should have read Rushdie’s masterpiece long ago, but I didn’t.) I mention this trivial coincidence because Rushdie and Robinson both employ magic realism as means to enhance scathing critiques of their respective societies – South Asia from the 1940s to 1970s, northern British Columbia today.

In Rushdie’s tale, the central character, Saleem, is born at midnight on the day of India and Pakistan’s independence. Children born within an hour of independence possess magical powers. Saleem’s powers consist of being able to discern exactly what is in the minds of others. In a first-person narrative, we follow both Saleem’s domestic life and the country’s major political events with the aid of his magically enhanced insights.

The central character in Robinson’s tale, Jared, is an Indigenous teenager living with his divorced mother in Kitimat. It turns out that Jared is not the son of his supposed father; he is one of many sons of Wee’git, a trickster. Wee’git appears in the novel several times, first as a stranger on a bus who sits beside Jared, reveals the secret of his paternity and tells Jared that he has survived even though “your mother shot me in the head.” Wee’git later appears as a raven inviting Jared to join him as a trickster and escape the torments of evil spirits. Jared’s mother, it turns out, is a witch with magical powers of her own. She is also a heavy drug user.

The novel benefited from publicity surrounding a melodrama at the Walrus, whose fiction editor invited Robinson to publish a chapter in the magazine. Other editors insisted that she ease up on the use of profanity. After several iterations, Robinson withdrew the chapter, accusing the Walrus of censorship. The fiction editor resigned in support.

There is certainly lots of bad language and violence in the novel. In an early chapter, Richie, a drug dealer, insists that Jared’s mother repay the drug debts of an ex-boyfriend. Richie makes his demand in a note tacked to the front door of their home with a knife. When she finds it, she comments to Jared, “Some fucktard sure laid a monster hex on us.” She does not pay. Shortly thereafter, “with a big shit-eating grin,” Richie looses his two pitbulls on Jared. Before they can maul him, his mother turns up in her truck:

The dog bounced off the grille … His mom turned to look behind her, backed up a few feet and then calmly shifted gears again and squashed the pit bull under the front passenger tire … As her tires spun, blood sprayed the snow and steamed in clots. His mom rolled down the driver’s window. “Kindly leave my boy alone … Sorry ’bout your dog.”

Despite this incident, Richie becomes her lover, and moves into the house. Apparently, this was too much for the Walrus.

Jared lives in the basement; his mother and her drug-dealing boyfriend live upstairs. Following in Richie’s footsteps, Jared exploits his one marketable skill: he cooks and sells weed-laced cookies to fellow high school students. He uses much of this income to aid his supposed father, hospitalized with a back injury. Jared pays the rent for the apartment shared by his supposed father, his supposed father’s girlfriend and her pregnant daughter Destiny.

When her baby is born, Destiny tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce Jared into becoming the adoptive father. Instead, Jared falls in love with Sarah, a Native girl who comes to live next door, who attends Jared’s high school and who acts as nurse to her dying grandparents. Sarah is tormented by her own spiritual demons, repeatedly cuts herself and ultimately tries to commit suicide. She is removed from the story in an ambulance. Thereafter, Jared smokes pot and declines into alcoholism.

From this plot summary, you may conclude that this is a misérabiliste melodrama suffused in drugs and alcohol. That would be a mistake. It is a good novel written in the tradition of roman noir mysteries, with much sharp dialogue, sex and dark humour. There is a little too much Raymond Chandler for my taste.

A good novel is about individuals. The author may have an ulterior motive – in Robinson’s case, to oblige readers to understand the scale of obstacles that prevent Natives in her world of northern B.C. from realizing a satisfactory life – but if she allows the motive to substitute for depicting psychological realities as perceived by the principal characters, the novel fails and becomes a didactic tract. Son of Trickster is not a didactic tract. It has its limits, however: it does not adequately flesh out characters other than Jared. We never learn what motivates Richie, or why Jared’s mother had an affair with Wee’git and shot him, or why Sarah ultimately tries to commit suicide.

But despite its limits, it is a very good novel. Robinson enables us to understand why a Native teenager in Kitimat might well drop out of school, smoke pot all day and become an alcoholic – without invoking racism among white teachers or students, residential schools or other sins of the settler society. Use of magic realism helps show the power of Native traditions, among urban Natives as much as among those living on-reserve, but Robinson does not propose traditional beliefs as a solution to her characters’ problems. Traditional stories may provide wisdom, but in Robinson’s telling these stories primarily evoke scenes of chaos: for example, carnivorous otters able to transform themselves into human form. Jared rejects Wee’git’s invitation to join him; he opts to continue living with his mother, whose philosophy is simple: life is tough and only the tough survive.

Nor does learning about colonialism, residential schools and patriarchy help much. Sarah is smart and has read all about these ideas, but they do not enable her to thrive. She too escapes reality by extensive use of drugs, and ultimately succumbs to depression.

In the final chapter Robinson offers a glimmer of hope – Jared joins an Alcoholics Anonymous group. But this is a glimmer, not a didactic agenda.

While travelling recently in rural Bangladesh, one of us (Manzoor Ahmed) visited a government primary school. Sitting in the third row of a rather crowded Grade 3 class of about 40 boys and girls was Khaled. With the teacher’s permission, Manzoor asked Khaled to read. His teacher readily agreed, and Khaled read a passage from a story in his Bangla textbook. The story had been taught to the class. He read with reasonable fluency, halting once or twice, but pronouncing the words correctly. Manzoor praised Khaled’s performance and asked if he would read from the Bangla newspaper he had to hand. Khaled stood quietly and was not responsive. Encouraged by the teacher not to be shy, he tried to utter the syllables of the words in the headline. He could not read full words or the sentence.

Khaled, a nine-year-old Grade 3 student, obviously could not read an unfamiliar text. The textbook passage had been read out and repeated in the classroom and he could repeat it. However, he had not really learned to read. Reading requires mastering and decoding letters of the alphabet, assembling them into words, and giving appropriate meaning to the string of words. If Khaled cannot read a Bangla text unless it has been drilled in class, he will not be able to read textbooks in higher grades. He will not be able to do his math studies, because that requires reading the instructions for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. How many primary students across South Asia are in Khaled’s shoes?

By general consensus the most important objective of primary schools is enabling students to read and write the relevant regional or national language. If children do not pursue at least five years of reasonable-quality education, they are unlikely to achieve literacy – and are unlikely to read and write later in life. In a survey undertaken simultaneously among adults in a Dhaka slum and in a low-income rural village in Bangladesh, three quarters of the adults sampled had not advanced beyond Grade 2.1 Among them, 3 per cent reported being able to read. Among those who had studied to Grade 5, two thirds reported they “can read well” and the remainder reported they “can read a little.” Only among the small percentage who had studied to Grade 6 or above did all report they “can read well.” This result has been replicated many times.

We referred to the need for five years of “reasonable-quality” education. Unfortunately, in much of South Asia, primary schools are not of reasonable quality. How to go about improving them is the central theme of our forthcoming book. The most definitive evidence of the crisis in school quality in South Asia are results of surveys undertaken by ASER,2 an Indian NGO, which has recently extended its school assessments to Pakistan. ASER reports are based on large-scale surveys conducted in children’s homes – over 600,000 in the most recent sample in India, in 2016. In this survey, only 25 per cent of rural children in Grade 3 could read a short story in the regional language of the state’s Grade 2 curriculum. As expected, children in more prosperous states performed better than those in poorer states, but in no state was the average ability of Grade 3 students to read the Grade 2 text above 50 per cent. In Pakistan, the comparable statistic among Grade 3 students was 17 per cent. To date, the only rigorous application of ASER’s protocol in Bangladesh is a small pilot study undertaken by two of us in a northern district in 2017. In our sample, 30 per cent of Grade 3 students could read the Grade 2–level text.3

To pose a little more precisely the question as to how many are in Khaled’s shoes, consider the ASER results in the terminal primary year (Grade 5). Slightly under half of the Indian children successfully read the Grade 2 sample text, slightly over half in the Pakistani sample. There are approximately 200 million children in primary school in South Asia, about 40 million of whom are in Grade 5. If half these children cannot read at the Grade 2 level, about 20 million are in Khaled’s shoes at Grade 5.

The second core primary school objective is that children learn the four basic mathematical operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division). In the same ASER surveys, 28 per cent of Indian children in Grade 3 could perform two-digit subtraction problems (such as 73 – 36 = 37) from the Grade 2 curriculum. The comparable Pakistani statistic was 44 per cent, and in our pilot Bangladesh study it was 18 per cent.

The third core objective is that children learn some basic scientific ideas. Pursuit of basic literacy, numeracy and scientific understanding is universal in school systems across the world. Obviously, achieving these three outcomes cannot define the full curriculum. A good primary school teaches children to interact socially and to learn cultural expectations and ideas. This component of the curriculum must be anchored in local culture and values specific to the country in question.

Why does it matter?

Why does it matter that all children receive a quality education – starting with a solid basis at the primary level? The question is worth asking, even if the answers seem obvious.

  • There are four basic answers – based on the crucial role played by quality primary education (for which we use the literacy rate of the country’s adult population as a proxy) in realizing four important goals:
  • economic development (measured by per capita GDP);
  • good public health outcomes (illustrated by under-five mortality);
  • reduction in poverty (measured by per cent below the World Bank’s lower middle-income poverty threshold of US$3.20 per person per day); and
  • enabling people to continue learning and developing their capabilities, on their own or by participating in further education.

If we are discussing South Asia, the first observation is that Sri Lanka is an outlier in terms of per capita GDP, under-five mortality and poverty (see table 1). Its outcomes are closer to those in Thailand and China than to those of the four other South Asian countries.

We refer to adult literacy as a proxy for the “human capital” created mostly by the primary school cycle. Literacy should be considered as a continuum, from recognition of an alphabet and words to fluent reading of texts. However, to undertake any quantitative analysis we need a benchmark. In what follows, we use literacy statistics as reported by UNESCO. A respondent is deemed literate if he or she can read a simple sentence. By this very modest benchmark, UNESCO estimates that the adult literacy rate in South Asia averaged about 68 per cent over the last decade, well below the average of 74 per cent among countries labelled “lower-middle-income” (see note 6) by the World Bank. Given South Asia’s large population, more than half of the world’s illiterate adults, as defined by UNESCO, reside in South Asia (389 million out of a total of 758 million).

Literacy and per capita GDP

Not surprisingly, there is high correlation between literacy rates and per capita GDP among low-income and low-middle-income countries. Association is not necessarily explanation. Perhaps the story to tell about education and prosperity is not that higher literacy plays a crucial role in increasing per capita GDP. Perhaps the story should be reversed: once families have higher incomes, for whatever reason, they want higher education levels for their children and, given higher prosperity, more families can afford to pay higher taxes for government schools or fees for private schools. In the long run, the reverse story, or a story of mutual reinforcement, is important. It does not, however, undermine the argument that literacy, as proxy for human capital in low-income countries, is a crucial determinant of future economic development.

Figure 1 illustrates, for 12 countries, the change in per capita GDP from 2000 to 2016 against adult literacy rates in 2000 – which avoids the reverse causation dilemma. The criteria for inclusion are that the countries be in south, southeast or east Asia; that in 2000 their per capita GDP (measured in 2000 and 2016 in constant 2011 purchasing power parity dollars) be below US$10,000; that their population exceed five million; and that reliable data be available.

While the figure includes data from only 12 countries, they cumulatively comprise half the world’s population. Of total world population, three in eight reside in either China (19 per cent of the world total) or India (18 per cent). Pakistan (3 per cent) and Bangladesh (2 per cent) rank respectively sixth and eighth in terms of national population; Nepal and Sri Lanka are relatively small. Collectively, the five major South Asian countries comprise nearly a quarter of the world total.

As recently as 2000, China’s per capita GDP was not an outlier relative to South Asia (see table 1). Admittedly, it was more than twice that of Bangladesh and Nepal, and roughly one and a half times that of India. But its per capita GDP was only two thirds of Sri Lanka’s, and essentially equal to Pakistan’s. Since the beginning of this century, China’s massive rural-to-urban migration in combination with advances in basic education and literacy has led to its emergence as the world’s dominant manufacturing nation – the outstanding economic and development event in the world in this period. This migration has had a major impact on Chinese labour productivity and, not surprisingly, even after adjustment for adult literacy rates in 2000, China’s increase in per capita GDP is well in excess of the increase among the 11 other countries.

GDP is an imperfect measure of economic prosperity. Nonetheless, it is a useful first approximation of national economic development. Per capita GDP is an average; it cannot tell us anything about the distribution of income within a country between poor and rich.

Similarly, adult literacy rate is a useful, if imperfect, measure of the average per capita human capital available to a nation’s economy. National literacy rates underestimate inasmuch as they ignore both human capital transmitted intergenerationally via “learning by doing” and human capital generated among the minority who proceed to secondary and tertiary education. On the other hand, current literacy rates overestimate human capital inasmuch as many of those deemed literate by the UNESCO benchmark have a very limited ability to read and to use their reading capacity in daily life.

Figure 1 also illustrates an equation arising from a very simple regression of national changes in per capita GDP from 2000 to 2016 in terms of national literacy rates at 2000, plus an index identifying China. The index variable acknowledges the uniquely successful Chinese exercise in rural-to-urban migration and industrialization. The resulting equation fits the data remarkably well.4 Among these low-income countries (in 2000), the literacy rate appears to be a crucial variable for predicting subsequent economic development.

In their analysis of per capita GDP growth among 50 countries over the four decades between 1960 and 2000, Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann undertake a similar exercise, initially using mean years of national schooling as a measure of national human capital.5 The variable is positive and statistically significant, but the explanatory power of the resulting regression is weak. When they add an education outcome variable (the average of several mathematics and science student assessments), the explanatory power of the regression becomes impressive, and the mean years of schooling variable becomes statistically insignificant.

Their sample countries are at the upper-middle-income level or higher; hence, they concentrate on measures of secondary school performance. While their study includes a few control variables, both their 50-country analysis and our 12-country exercise are statistically simple (some would say simple-minded). Certainly, many institutional factors, ignored in both these studies, matter. However, adding complexity does not blunt the central conclusion: achieving reasonable-quality primary education outcomes is a necessary condition for escaping low-income status.

The process of economic development cannot be reduced to the organization of good schools. If a supply of workers with appropriate skills at the country’s level of development is necessary, so too is the presence of employers wanting to hire them and an institutional framework conducive to entrepreneurship. Channelling entrepreneurship requires an appropriate regulatory framework.

Literacy and health: Beyond its narrowly economic effect is the role of literacy, in particular female literacy, on a range of public health outcomes. Figure 2 displays under-five mortality rates against adult female literacy. (Here the causal direction is obvious.)

It is worth distinguishing between the six countries with female literacy below 70 per cent (which include all South Asian countries other than Sri Lanka) and the remaining six with female literacy at 90 per cent or higher. Among the first group, mortality rates are above 30 per 1,000 live births; among the second, all have realized a rate below – most well below – that threshold. The large deviations from trend in Pakistan (with mortality well above projection) and Nepal (mortality below projection) indicate that, independent of female literacy, the quality of health services is an important factor.

Many factors other than female literacy are relevant here; however, the association between female literacy and public health outcomes is one of the most robust of epidemiological results. There are many routes whereby literate mothers are in a better position to raise healthy children than those who are not literate. They are better able to make appropriate use of public health services, such as prenatal and postnatal checkups, and follow written health advice. If literate, women can earn more and thereby increase family income. All else being equal, children fare better with fewer siblings, and there is a powerful association between higher female literacy and lower number of children per family. Presumably, the underlying dynamic with respect to family size is that literate women exercise more influence within the family and, in general, they want small families. Admittedly, there is more to an analysis of fertility than the empowerment of women. China’s “one child” policy has been a powerful external incentive in determining family size in China.

Literacy and poverty: Defining poverty thresholds inevitably entails debatable criteria. If the threshold is defined in terms of income required to enable physical survival, it will be very low. If the threshold incorporates a relative component (the threshold is defined, say, as some fraction of median income), it will probably be much higher. The World Bank defines its lowest threshold, often applied among countries classified as “low-income,” at US$1.90 per person per day. We use the threshold applied to “middle-income” countries (11 of our 12 countries qualify as middle-income): $3.20 per person per day.6

A common feature of low-income countries undergoing economic development is high income inequality. In low-income countries, the well educated realize very high incomes relative to median country income; government ability to redistribute income via taxes is weak; only a minority of the rural labour force enjoy the education required to gain access to higher-paying urban employment. Given these realities, countries that prioritize primary education and achieve high adult literacy substantially increase the supply of workers able to participate in nontraditional jobs, which in turn can dramatically lower the proportion living in poverty.

Figure 3 illustrates the population share living below $3.20 per day against adult literacy rates. As we have come to expect, there is a sizable difference between the average for countries with adult literacy above 90 per cent and the remainder, which have literacy below 75 per cent. Four of the five South Asian countries are in the relatively low-literacy group.

Beyond the humanitarian goal of reducing the hardship associated with poverty, countries with lower poverty rates, in general, enjoy greater political stability. The Worldwide Governance Indicators provide measures of governance along six dimensions, one of them being “political stability and absence of violence or terrorism.”7 The correlation between percentage living below $3.20 a day and per cent rank (among approximately 200 countries) on this index dimension is modestly negative. Among the five South Asian countries, the negative correlation is high.8

Completing the primary cycle is a low rung on the education ladder. For middle-income countries to prosper, they also need to realize quality secondary education among a substantial share of the next generation. That brings us to our fourth goal: a good-quality primary education is the necessary condition for people to continue learning, either on their own or via further formal education. To sum up, if we accept the importance of economic development, good population health outcomes, low poverty rates and education beyond the primary level, and the importance of literacy in realizing these goals, then the case for quality primary schooling is overwhelming.

Why is school quality a serious problem in South Asia?

In 2000, the United Nations launched the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Among the goals, MDG2 (universal primary education by 2015) ranked second, after reduction in world hunger. In the 15 years following 2000, India, Nepal and Bangladesh dramatically increased primary school enrolment, to a level above 95 per cent among children in the relevant age cohort. In the process, they realized enrolment gender equality. They also dramatically increased primary school completion, to approximately 80 per cent. (As for the two others, Pakistan increased enrolment and completion rates, but to much lower levels, and Sri Lanka had realized near-universal primary enrolment and primary school completion by 1980.)

Given these results, India, Bangladesh and Nepal could claim to have more or less satisfied the “letter” of MDG2. But they did so by ignoring its “spirit.” They lowered standards for certifying primary school completion. The best quantitative evidence of very low standards is the ASER results discussed above. A question that immediately arises is: Why has there not been massive public pressure to improve standards?

There are several answers. The first is that those best placed to protest have little personal incentive to do so. Elite families rely on high-fee private schools to educate their children. Among low-income families with some discretionary income, an increasing share now choose “low-fee” private schools. In India and Bangladesh, the share of primary school students in nongovernment schools has risen from about 20 per cent to 30 per cent over the last decade.

A second reason is that low-income parents, many of them illiterate, do not have the ability to judge the quality of government versus private schools or the discretionary income to pay for private schooling. To the extent that the truly poor abandon government schools, it may be for a no-fee charity school (such as a madrassa) with standards no better than government schools. The combination of elite and middle-class families disengaged from the public-school system and the difficulty of low-income families in gauging school quality has enabled politicians and administrators to maintain the status quo with little public outcry.

A second question then arises: Even if they have avoided public criticism, why would governments want low standards? Surely, senior politicians and public officials understand the basic rationale for improving education levels and the importance of quality primary education.

To be fair, many do understand. However, at this point we must bring quality of governance into the discussion. Reputable indices such as the Worldwide Governance Indicators and Transparency International provide depressing evidence: relative to most low-income countries, South Asian countries (Sri Lanka and some Indian states excepted) display high perceptions of corruption, high perceptions of political instability and low perceptions of government effectiveness in delivering basic services such as health care and education. Only on the dimension of relative honesty in elections and freedom of the press do South Asian countries match or outperform other low-income countries.

Principals and agents

Parents who want a decent education for their children have a primary interest in how schools function. In the language of principal–agent analysis, they are the principals – not to be confused with school principals. At the same time, administering schools entails agents – senior-level administrators, school principals, teachers and so on. Many of the agents’ activities positively contribute to realizing children’s education, but some of those activities do not.

This may seem obvious. But only in the last decade have development agencies and educators come to grips with the severity of the governance problem in the context of education. Annually, the World Bank publishes a major synthesis report. The 2018 report is devoted entirely to the obstacles to quality in education posed by problems of national governance.9

A central feature of principal–agent interaction is the role of information: agents have knowledge that the principals lack, and it is costly if not impossible for the principals (parents in the context of schools) to get the relevant information and act on it. For example, parents presumably want teachers hired on the basis of competence and willingness to teach diligently in the classroom during working hours. However, the custom appears widespread across South Asia that applicants for government teaching posts offer to education officials or local politicians a substantial sum (as much as US$10,000) as a precondition for being hired. This leads to the hiring of teachers on the basis of applicants’ financial resources and not on an evaluation of their potential as future teachers. From the perspective of parents this is adverse selection – an incentive structure that increases the probability of teachers being hired who are likely to be inappropriate and who cannot effectively serve as role models for students.

Once they are hired, supervision of teachers is often lax and they are in a position to engage in private tutoring of their students, for which parents pay. Here is moral hazard – an incentive structure that encourages teachers not to carry out their duties in a manner that parents would prefer.

Given opaque decision-making, interagent collusion arises. For example, senior administrators and politicians share the boksheesh paid by applicants for teaching positions. In exchange, administrators tolerate lax supervision of teachers who economize on time spent teaching in the classroom, and prioritize paid private tutoring.

Interagent collusion differs by country. In the last decade, the government of Bangladesh introduced a mandatory nationwide exam (Primary Education Completion Exam) in Grade 5. The stated purpose was to standardize the criterion for primary completion, relative to the status quo ante in which local jurisdictions exercised autonomy over evaluating completion. However, exam questions are frequently leaked and teachers engage in extensive private tutoring. Much of the tutoring requires that students in their final year memorize answers to exam questions.10 This increase in tutoring can reasonably be interpreted as an extension of collusion between teachers’ unions on the one hand and senior administrators and politicians on the other.

Another feature peculiar to South Asia – especially Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan – is that a preservice qualification and certification for teaching is not a requirement. In many countries – including China and other southeast and east Asian countries – young people after the higher secondary level are first recruited for a four-year university general degree program, with education as a major subject of study. Thus the graduates are prepared professionally, intellectually and emotionally to take up teaching as their life occupation.

In South Asia, teachers are sent for pedagogy training after they are employed in a school. School teaching is among the last choices for university graduates, a fallback position, and those recruited are not the more capable graduates. Among those appointed as teachers, many look for opportunities to move to other jobs. Quality of teachers – their recruitment, preparation, professional development and incentives – is a major obstacle to quality assurance in primary education in South Asia. No solution to this problem is available in the context of the prevailing principal–agent dynamic.

Centralization of school management

Another aspect of principal–agent analysis is the impact on outcomes from alternative allocation of responsibilities to the various agents in the system. South Asian school systems are extremely centralized. In India, individual states are responsible for primary education. Given the population of Indian states (the largest is over 200 million), and of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the number of students per school system is very large. (In Bangladesh there are 20 million primary school students in more than 100,000 primary-level institutions run essentially by the Directorate of Primary Education in Dhaka.) Centralized responsibility may realize scale economies (e.g., a lower cost per textbook if the central ministry contracts to supply all textbooks.) On the other hand, centralization increases the chain of decision-making; in general, it slows decision-making, expands the information requirements for the making of managerial decisions, and often ignores critical local conditions.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an ambitious survey of student performance in three subjects (reading, mathematics and science) at the upper secondary level, conducted at three-year intervals by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The 2015 round comprised samples in 70 countries: all OECD members plus many others, including several middle-income countries. In addition to surveying students, the 2015 PISA survey posed a series of questions to school principals in the sampled schools of each country. PISA used the results to undertake a comparative analysis of the impact of alternative school governance arrangements on student outcomes.

The analysis disaggregated school governance into five functions:

  • decisions on human and financial resources (hiring/firing teachers, setting salaries and school budgeting);
  • determination of curriculum;
  • exercise of student discipline (e.g., penalties for poor attendance);
  • student evaluation (e.g., “high-stakes” examinations of student learning outcomes, “low-stakes” core competency assessments); and
  • student admission.

Simultaneously, PISA identified five administrative levels for potential exercise of each function: school principal, teachers in the relevant school, school district governing board, regional government, and national education ministry. Responsibility for individual functions may be shared among various levels. (For each function in each country, PISA averaged the school principals’ perceptions as to the relative weight of each administrative level in exercising each function.) Figure 4 illustrates a scatterplot of national school systems by an index of school autonomy constructed from this PISA survey. Decentralization is not a panacea, but the trend is evident: systems affording more autonomy to regional school boards and individual schools tend to achieve better science outcomes.11

Few independent analysts consider a government school system as centralized as is typical in South Asia to be optimal. UNESCO has forcefully given its support to reforms aimed at decentralizing school administration, but warns would-be reformers that doing so inevitably generates political opposition from beneficiaries of the status quo.12

Decentralization of public services with accountability and responsiveness to the beneficiaries’ circumstances enjoys rhetorical support in South Asia. South Asian countries have local government structures with officially stated roles and functions, which could include the management of basic education services. Effective decentralization, however, is subject to admnistrative history, the ideology of those concerned and vested interests at play.

In all South Asian countries – with the exception of Bangladesh, which seems to take pride in its unitary government – local government bodies, such as the panchayat raj in India or its equivalents in other countries, are supposed to exercise certain functions in delivering primary education for the children of the local community. In reality, local control is minimal throughout the subcontinent; the centralized bureaucracy, aided and abetted by politicians, plays the dominant role. What can be done to change this reality is a political economy puzzle yet to be solved. The PISA analysis makes a strong case for greater decentralization of public education system management, and may suggest clues as to how South Asia can go about it.

by John Richards, Mohammad Shahidul Islam and Manzoor Ahmed

John Richards, co-publisher of Inroads, has undertaken numerous social policy research projects in Bangladesh over the last two decades. Shahidul Islam, currently USAID education team leader in Bangladesh, has specialized in primary school innovation. Manzoor Ahmed has occupied senior positions in UNICEF, was founder-director of the Institute of Educational Development at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and has played a major role in research and advocacy on behalf of early childhood education. His most recent publication deals with the role of schools in teaching values. This is an excerpt from the manuscript of a forthcoming book on primary education in South Asia, to be published by University of Toronto Press.

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