7 actions to fight extreme poverty by improving education in the developing world
How diverse interventions in education can help tackle extreme poverty in developing countries
February 23, 2016 by Luis Crouch, RTI International
10 minutes read
A child reads at his desk in class, GPE/Paul Martinez

Silver bullets are hard to come by in the developing world. But this should not be discouraging.

Take the international education sector. While its horizon doesn’t promise any night-to-day revolutions premised on a succinct call to action, it is dotted with evidence that reveals a diverse array of options for improving learning and, thereby, tackling extreme poverty.

For donor organizations and their implementing partners, this is instructive. Direct, effective, and relatively simpler solutions to individual aspects of a larger problem can add up to more than the sum of their parts. This is precisely how diverse interventions in education can help tackle extreme poverty in developing countries. These seven independent approaches stand out to me as offering valid paths to important improvements in learning and life:

  • Set simple, communicable standards—Standards are a vital mechanism of promoting accountability and high performance in education, and may matter more for poor communities than rich—rich communities are often able to “force” systems to provide them with a good standard of quality. Parents who are not aware of the level at which their child should be achieving may be satisfied with the education services a school is providing even as their child’s learning outcomes fall short. Education systems should set simple standards and, just as importantly, communicate these standards to parents so that they may better understand their child’s progress and hold schools accountable. Under the EdData project, for instance, USAID has facilitated the creation of reading benchmarks for the early grades in certain countries. (See for example the case of the Philippines).
  • Start curricula where children are—When it comes to establishing the right curriculum, sometimes too much ambition can be problematic. For instance, one official curriculum in a developing country sets a reading comprehension goal of second grade students being able to “construct the meaning of the text.” In this particular country, a large percentage of second graders cannot even read a single word. Such theoretically ambitious curricula sometimes reflect an upper middle class bias, and evidence suggests that they result in lower achievement. Curricula should instead set very specific standards that reflect where children are in their educational development, such as starting with the basics of reading. Some NGOs are able to do this without “dumbing down” the curriculum, by starting where children are, and then ramping up. Ministries should also be able to do so. Pratham, an organization dedicated to improving education for India’s poor, has carried out numerous interventions demonstrating that restructuring classes by learning level—instead of age—can produce large improvements in learning. Their successful “Read India” program is based on this principle.
  • Fix the mess in the early yearsUganda’s “triple crisis” in the early grades--high rates of grade repetition, lack of early childhood development programs, and low literacy rates—weighs heavily on the country’s prospects. But the crisis is not isolated there; some 40 countries are affected. Some of the poorest developing countries report huge over-enrollment in the early grades and a big drop-off between first and second grades. This is not truly due to students dropping out, but to (often under-reported) grade repetition. As the chart below illustrates, many countries report grade enrollment rates that far exceed the population of grade-aged children in the country. A major part of the problem is lack of quality early childhood education and oral stimulation early on, which has contributed to, among other things, a crisis in early grade reading: about half of grade 2 children in Early Grade Reading Assessment programs cannot read any words. Fixing the problem promises far-reaching benefits—early cognitive development is the best predictor of later cognitive development, which is a good predictor of income. In Uganda, the government is working in conjunction with USAID on a National Action Plan for Child Well-Being that includes the goal of improving education in the early years.
Graph showing Grade 1 and 2 Enrollment is Higher Than Population. Credit: Luis Crouch
  • Improve both accountability and pedagogy—A slew of research carried out on development programs in poor areas shines light on two batches of effective interventions: accountability (e.g. merit pay, community influence over teachers’ rewards) and pedagogy (e.g. better books, better teaching, tighter programming and supervision). Accountability interventions by themselves are unlikely to sufficiently change behaviors and outcomes. Pedagogical interventions are unlikely to be scaled or sustained without accountability and supervision. Therefore, it is important that accountability and pedagogical improvements are both pursued. The two approaches are highly complementary from a strategic management perspective as well. As I explored in a recent co-authored paper, education systems in developing countries are typically in need of very large improvements in learning outcomes. Results of such significance are typically only achieved through direct pedagogical interventions, which are extremely expensive to take to scale. However, system-level changes—such as improved accountability—have the potential to improve teaching and learning on a national scale. For example, projects in Kenya are utilizing school monitoring systems to better track observations of instructional practice.
  • Work on mother tongue—Providing instruction in little-used home languages is often considered too complicated: doing so requires more advanced logistics, coordination, creativity, teacher placement and support. But perhaps the biggest disadvantage of the poor is linguistic and related to early grade reading, and it has been demonstrated that vast improvements in reading outcomes can be achieved through instruction in mother tongue. As poignantly described by SIL, local languages have a critical role to play in achieving the biggest development goals on the horizon.
  • Pay attention to finance and resources—Finance matters but the “how” may be more important than the “how much.” Increases in salary levels, for instance, generally do not lead to learning improvements. A World Bank assessment of government-funded schools in Malawi found almost no relationship between expenditure and results. Pro-poor financing that is tightly linked to results can help, but care must be taken to avoid perverse incentives such as teaching to the test. Differentiated support (e.g., more funding for the poor, or more investment in teacher support where results are lacking rather than in blanket professional development) would be a real innovation in many countries.
  • Rethink systems—Increasingly, vertical interventions such as USAID’s Early Grade Reading programs have delivered impressive results. However, full systemization of education in the development context has proven elusive. Previous efforts to improve systems (in the 1980s and 1990s) were somewhat de-linked from learning outcomes, results measurement, and concrete use cases that could exemplify what the reforms can achieve. Now programs such as Early Grade Reading offer concrete proof of application and impact. Practitioners should look deeply at the concrete recent experiences and consider whether there is an applicable “bare-bones” or “sine qua non” systematic approach for meeting needs of the poor. The DFID-funded Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) program is a promising innovation.

Ideally, these interventions should be considered all at once, as part of systemic reforms. But there are versions or subsets of these systemic interventions that could yield benefits relatively quickly and would not be hard to take to scale, if political will exists.

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It is said. If you gave him a fish. It will be for that day. But if you made him learn about fishing. You will solve his hunger problem for whole life. This is the Education. And really it's a panacea for all the evils againest humanity.

In reply to by Luis Crouch

Luis, you are as close to being a panacea for the world's ills that any member of humanity could be. I salute you on the Global Partnership for Education--may it enable all of us to reach more of our potential. Noel

Im interested and would like you to assist the elementary school in my village in PNG.There is not enough support and the learning standard is very low here.

The lack of parental involvement in the education of children presents educators with a large issue in many countries. A marginalized parent, from an education standpoint, has not had any exposure to education (Hansman, 2006). Their children are sure to repeat the same behaviors because they do not have teaching and guidance in the home environment. This places a huge burden on teachers during the child's early education years. How realistic is it for the teachers to ensure that every child makes progress in first and second grade the first time they attend classes? Perhaps a strategy of using multiple teachers in the classroom would allow for teaching and formative assessment of each student to achieve the learning outcomes and place them on a path to timely progress.

Hansman, C. (2006). Low-income adult learners in higher education. In S.B. Merriam, B.C. Courtenay, & R.M. Cervero (Eds.), Global issues and adult education (pp. 399-411). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

In reply to by Alan F.

Well, at the very least the first few grades should not be more overcrowded than the later grades. Part of the problem is that Grade 1 is used in lieu of school readiness programs, creating a big mix of ages in that grade, and many goals. Just sorting out the age heterogeneity would help. And at the very least having the same pupil-teacher ratio, of now lower, in the early grades. Incidentally, one of the most cost-effective things you can do in an education system is, probably, to put your best teachers (not necessarily the most knowledgeable about subjects, but the most caring and skillful) in the earlier grades. May be politically difficult but it makes a lot of pedagogical and efficiency sense.

In reply to by Luis Crouch

Thank you for you response. If the suggestions you made regarding age heterogeneity could be successful, how would the educational and political powers of the country implement new policies to aid the youngest children? If the powers can be shown that improving early education is relevant to child development, and facilitates better success in the latter education years, what are the barriers to change?

In reply to by Alan F.

Well, I think there are two keys to this.

One is the traditional arguments regarding the benefits and the return on investment of investing in both the first few grades and so on. These are the usual Heckman arguments and other arguments.

My sense from experience and discussions with Ministries of Education and Ministries of Finance is that these arguments are perceived as a bit abstract.

So, two, is the demonstration that at least a good number of countries are in some sense already paying the cost of providing a better experience in pre-primary and the first few grades, because the current mess imposes either fiscal or educational costs. In a paper that I hope to get published soon, I make this argument. You are welcome to a copy of it if you write me at my e-mail address lcrouch@rti.org. I also have a PPT where I make the argument in graphical form.

In my (admittedly limited) experience in getting countries to consider these issues, the second line of argument has worked better. But that is based on relatively limited experience.

Cheers and thanks for your interest.


I am heartily thankful to Global Partnership for Education for this in-depth research and initiation for the Education of marginalized section of the developing countries. the points that were raised and explained in the article titled as "7 actions to fight extreme poverty by improving education in the developing world" with valid references are the real requirement to solve the problem of illiteracy and poverty both. Parental Involvement, Set simple communicable standards, Improve both accountability and pedagogy, Rethink systems, Pay attention to finance and resources, Start curricula where children are, Work on mother tongue are the fundamental demands to the mission of SDGs by 2030. One more thing that I want to add is the Employment with the Education. we have to convert our schools into Educational workshops where the identified group will get education and employment both at the same time. we have to re-think and have to differentiate the educational policies for them.

In reply to by Dr. Rupendra S…

Certainly linking education to the world of work is a trend that is worth paying attention to. Models used in some developed countries may have a role in developing countries, and vice versa. But I think this makes most sense for adolescents, say. Not sure it makes sense for the very few first grades. For adolescents, putting more schools in work, and putting more of work in the schools, seems to make sense. Programs such as Linked Learning, as implemented by ConnectEd, seem to be receiving good evaluations. Thanks for your interest.

As president of a philantropic women society, I would like to learn about possible ways to contribute and support your educacional programs in Panama.

In reply to by María Ana Antoniadis

Thanks for your interest. I am afraid I no longer work at GPE, and Panama may not be poor enough to qualify for GPE programs. However, the various initiatives to which I refer in my blog are documented and are not that difficult for a country such as Panama to adapt or at least use as inspiration. Good luck!

First of all thanks Luis

Education like, Look at the course like you are viewing it for the first time. Using the ‘student view’ options provided are useful for this as well.


One of the many ways to get a child excited about learning is to approach it in a creative way. The Christian Children's Fund of Canada has 85 Creative Learning Centres operating in India thanks to donors that support 3,200 children. Learning through play, music and other creative methods makes learning fun. Watch this video to see how sponsor support is inspiring education through creativity. https://www.ccfcanada.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7…

After reading your complete post I really like all the steps and actions to fight extreme poverty by improving education in the developing world. Children in India are facing the basic challenges like shortages of teachers, books, and basic facilities, and insufficient public funds to cover education costs. I think your provided steps specially “Pay attention to finance and resources” and “Improve both accountability and pedagogy” are really helpful to fight extreme poverty and in development of country.

There are many good organizations specially Shareandserve.com which provides free education charities to rural areas. They also help to remove extreme poverty in India. So, Thanks for your thoughts on this subject.

Nice information that are provided in this article,Thanks for sharing this type of information.

Very interesting info for all the kids at westfield intermediate school. It is very useful. Including all the kids in my class
-Ava Grace
6th grader at westfield intermediate school!!!

Dear Luis,
Thank you for the article. The 7-actions highlighted are very useful, especially for developing countries. One of my best lines " finance matters but how may be more important than how much". Leaders in education in poor countries are quick to project lack of finance as a major challenge impeding the quality of education, but when they get the money, it ends up in the wrong direction.

Of the 7 best ways to fight poverty, language of instruction appears to continue haunting the Zambian education system where the movement from English to a familiar language of instruction appears not to solve the linguistic dilemma in the language of instruction in the education system. While use familiar languages of instruction in early grades is better than using English, familiar languages are equally not mother tongues further worsening the difficulties learners from diverse culture face in the classroom owing the the multiplicity of languages in the country. Thus, children in cosmopolitan cities where one familiar language has been adopted yet there are children from all over the country find it very difficult to understand instruction and be helped by their parents who are alien to the local languages in towns.

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