The GiveWell Blog

Developing-world scholarships and school-building

When you help children in the developing world attend school, what sort of school are you helping them to attend?

Independent studies of schooling in the developing world have shown (details and references at our discussion of scholarships and school-building):

  • Teachers are frequently underqualified, overworked, and/or frequently absent.
  • In some cases teachers have even been observed to be abusive to both students and parents (the latter by pressuring them to pay for extra lessons).
  • Schools are often geared specifically toward elite students, providing little or no benefit to students who aren’t prepared for the curriculum (or even in some cases the language of instruction). We would guess that this problem is particularly bad when outside donors are funding scholarships, since they’re targeting children whom the schools were likely not intended for.

The mere construction of a building or provision of a scholarship does not mean that a child is receiving an education. We believe that if you donate to help more children attend school, you must check on the quality and nature of the schools they’re attending – otherwise you could easily be wasting your money.

And even if a child is receiving an education, it’s worth asking whether this education has any real relevance and benefit. Reading and arithmetic skills may open up opportunities in the U.S. (although there is surprisingly little data on whether they do), but do they in rural Africa? Is it realistic or even possible that children who grow up in extreme poverty will find themselves in situations where academic skills are helpful?

As we note in our discussion of developing-world education, existing studies of the impact of developing-world education provide no strong evidence that it is beneficial, and some suggestive evidence that its effects on earnings and opportunities are marginal.

We think it’s very likely that children receiving scholarships would rather just have the money – and that donors would do better to give it to them.


  • Woody Collins on September 29, 2009 at 9:22 am said:

    When an education system produces nursing school directors, hospital administrators, health clinic directors and doctors; it provides relevance and benefit to their rural poor.

  • Great point; it really all does depend on just how much opportunity the children will have with their newly acquired academic skills. It’s important for non-profit organizations to get this kind of message out to people who would be donors (and there are grants that can facilitate this process–e.g. and let them know precisely what is going on with their causes.

  • Chantal on August 31, 2013 at 12:27 pm said:

    What are your thoughts about scholarship programs that give students in developing countries the opportunity to study at high quality educational institutions in the developed world?

    To what extent, if any, do you think that your research in regards to scholarships for institutions in one’s home country apply? If a program by nature targets only small numbers of elites, does that make it inefficient, or is there something in the idea of educating a country’s “future leaders”?

  • Ian Turner on September 8, 2013 at 8:43 pm said:

    Chantal, given the hugely expensive cost of education in the developed world, I’d have a hard time believing such a program would be all that cost-effective.

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