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The Copenhagen Challenge Paper for Education - What does it mean for fighting poverty?

3 min read
22 Nov 2012


The May 2012 Copenhagen Consensus (CC) set itself the challenge of providing an answer to the following question: "If you had $75 billion for worthwhile causes, where should you start?'' Whilst this is a remarkably broad question, CC aimed to produce a concrete ranking of options which could 'achieve good in the world' in the most cost effective way possible. Here, I will discuss the principal findings from the Copenhagen Challenge Paper for education, and discuss what this may mean for those interested in maximising their impact on human development with a budget under $75 billion .

At the risk of giving away the punch-line before the set-up, I will jump to what is, arguably, the most important sentence of the report: "The answer is almost certainly no.'' This is the paper's answer to the question of whether educational programmes can out-perform the best available investments in child health. Whilst this response may seem critical of educational-based investments, it is better interpreted as a positive sign for the effectiveness of investing in early-life health.

Even when placed head to head with the most effective programmes which education has to offer, health appears to come out ahead. This finding emerges from the Copenhagen Consensus' close analysis of three education projects all of which have been shown to produce benefits well in excess of their costs. Together these projects present a "compelling package of complementary [education] investments," consisting of:

  • cash transfers to families conditional on kids attending school,
  • the provision of updated information for parents about how much school can do to enhance their kids' future prospects, and
  • school based health programmes.

Both the costs and benefits of these programmes are quite varied. Perhaps the simplest programme, providing children and their parents with more information regarding the true benefits of education, has been shown to increase children's willingness to attend school, increasing completed schooling by approximately a quarter of a year, with the costs restricted to the dissemination of knowledge in schools (Jensen, 2010). At the other end of the scale, conditional cash transfers involve considerable cost: both in terms of monetary transfers and the monitoring of conditions (the well-known Mexican programme PROGRESA for example, cost the Mexican government $US 2.2 billion in 2004) (1) but they have been shown to lead to large increases in years of schooling, progression to higher schooling levels, and also smaller effects on health (in the short term), along with effects on household welfare due to increases in income have been demonstrated. Finally, school based health programmes, such as in-school de-worming initiatives, have been linked to lower absenteeism, and also create important spill-over effects in terms of reduced disease transmission. These in-school health-based treatments are often particularly low-cost, generally costing less than one dollar per student per year.

Despite reasonably compelling evidence for the positive effect of these programmes, dollar for dollar (or shilling for shilling, or peso for peso), they just couldn't match health-based interventions assessed using a similar cost-benefit approach. The most cost-effective programmes in health - nutritional supplements, anti-parasitics, antibiotics and vaccinations at early ages - seem unlikely to be surpassed, for the time being at least.

The Copenhagen Consensus agrees those who think that the path to development is educated and engaged citizens. It is almost certainly true that more education leads to higher wages, greater survival rates at key moments of life (such as during childbirth), and more educated future generations. But for those who want to invest in education who are primarily driven by concern for cost-effectiveness, the conclusion is that it is best not to invest in education directly. Rather you can have a bigger impact by providing the health that permits children to take full advantage of an education to improve their well-being.

(1) de Janvry & Sadoulet, 2006

Read more about health interventions here.►