Education a catalyst for economic transformation
Guyana Chronicle
April 15, 2003

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WHILE many theories of development abound, the latter half of the 20th century has surely demonstrated that except for some dynamic states, the process of modernisation is not always one continuous sequence of positive improvements. Very often, some countries experience a period of considerable advancement that is followed by stuttering starts and stops, and then another meaningful stretch of progress. The development question itself sometimes seems riddled with paradoxes and inconsistencies. How is it that some countries (like Guyana), which are blessed with a friendly climate yearlong and which have dozens of untapped minerals and whose potential for agricultural production is vast, have economies that are sluggish in response to market demands? Conversely, why is it that some countries with just a few natural resources have been able to create wealth by the simple expedient of matching human skills to services or industries with high priorities on the world market? Israel, for instance, has been able to make the “desert bloom” perhaps in fulfilment of Biblical prophecy by transforming hard, arid land and mountain slopes into magnificent agricultural nurseries that yield tons of produce for its people as well as for daily exportation.

Just two years ago, a visiting educator made a brilliant presentation at the University of Guyana, and offered his listeners several insightful comments on the long-term economic prosperity of a nation that invests in education. The visitor was Professor Gajaraj Dhanarajan, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth of Learning, and his presence here was to grace a double event - the Silver Jubilee of the Institute of Distance and Continuing Education (IDCE) and the Inauguration of the Dennis Irvine Lecture Series. Speaking on the topic, “Combating Poverty Through Adult Education”, the Professor initially asserted that over centuries, education has been recognised as the most powerful agent for change. He recounted that the `Economist' had said that at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, half of Japan's workforce was in the paddy fields, Singapore was still a mosquito-ridden and politically volatile colony, Hong Kong a small port coping with refugees from neighbouring Guangdong and other coastal provinces of China. Taiwan was also hopelessly coping with its own stream of refugees from Shanghai, Korea on the brink of a civil war and poorer even than Sudan, Mainland China was going through its trauma of the Cultural Revolution and the ASEAN nations overall were struggling with pre- or post-Independence political challenges.

Professor Dhanarajan contrasted this bleak 50-year-old picture with the present advances witnessed in these eastern states. "By early 1990," he said, "these nations were in the middle of an economic boom sustaining annual growth rates of about seven per cent, perhaps two or three times faster than that of any other part of the world. You know of course that at the start of this millennium the average Taiwanese was richer than most New Zealanders; the people of Hong Kong were much better off in wealth than their former colonial masters; Singapore better off than most Europeans and South Koreans having a GDP in excess of US$6,000...Coupled to the economic growth are social developments that indicate that the average East Asian will be healthier, have a longer life expectancy, and will be better fed and sheltered. While there are many factors that may have contributed to changing the region from `poorhouse to powerhouse', investment in education and more education is probably the most important of all."

Since it is impossible to attempt to analyse the profundity of Professor Dhanarajan’s presentation in the confines of this column, we will conclude with one of his more pertinent assertions: “If we accept the premise that education, more than any other factor, can make the difference between wealth and poverty, health and misery, conservation and destruction, national unity and division, then the levelling of educational opportunities must be a priority for all of us who care about our fellow citizens."

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