Education has many benefits to the individuals involved and to society at large. The health effects of education can be large and the education of women can significantly reduce child mortality rates. However, education charities are unlikely to be as cost effective as some other interventions.
Education charities in developing countries typically aim to increase the time that children spend in education institutions and the quality of teaching that the children receive by building schools, tutoring outside the classroom, improving literacy, incentivizing attendance, and providing supplies and technology.
In this category we include primary, secondary, and tertiary, education, but not vocational training or health-specific education , such as teaching about HIV and hygiene. Almost all of the available research covers primary education and this page reflects that.
(Much of this list originated on GiveWell's Education Page ).
This list is divided into supply-side (providing supplies, buildings or teacher training) and demand-side (helping to motivate school attendance) interventions.
- School building: building classrooms or buildings for government-run schools, and build and run schools themselves.
- Teacher training: training new teachers and upgrade the skills of established teachers.
- Pre-primary schools: running schools for children ages 3-6 to prepare them for primary school.
- Textbooks and supplies: providing textbooks, and everything from pencils to chalkboards to uniforms and shoes.
- Computers: funding computers in classrooms in schools and provide out-of-school computer training classes.
- Libraries: building school- and community-based libraries.
- Tutoring: providing focused help for students who are behind their peers. Example from J-PAL .
- Scholarships: sponsoring individual students and fund schools so that students do not have to pay the school fees that are common in the developing world.
- Attendance Incentives: improving or providing school toilets, or provide free meals at school, improving health and encouraging attendance.
- Motivating Parents: explaining the economic benefits of having their children educated in order to make education a priority for the family. We do not know of any charities that carry out this intervention but we believe it to be highly effective. (See here for a study conducted in Madagascar.)
- Ensuring that children are healthy enough to attend school: addressing the health-related reasons why children do not attend school. Often simple health interventions such as deworming or providing micronutrients will increase the time spent in school. This is highly effective.
Demand-side interventions are generally considered more effective. With demand-side interventions the money is only spent if the intervention is working, for example free school meals to motivate kids going to school will only cost money if the kids are actually going to the school and eating the meals. On the other hand, supply-side interventions have large upfront costs, are more complicated to implement, and often do not work, for example you may build a school and no students will attend, or you will provide books and they will not be used.
Education interventions promise a wide range of potential benefits: increased economic growth ; higher rates of societal production; quicker adoption of technological change; development of government and business leaders; improved health; empowering women; and the intrinsic value of education.
There is a strong correlation between education and wages in later life. One additional year in school for an individual has been shown to increase wages later in life by about 10 percent  . However, this does not necessarily mean an increase in total wages of the country, as a more educated person may simply displace someone less educated. This could be the case if a country does not have institutions that facilitate new businesses which can absorb better educated workers, causing workers to compete over a fixed number of 'good jobs'.
There are also significant health benefits to education. Simply attending a school can encourage use of health services later in life. Education also empowers women and may let them have more control over health decisions that affect themselves and their children and reduces future infant mortality rates .
In order to know whether to invest in an education intervention, we need to have some way of comparing them to other interventions - in particular to health interventions and our recommended charities . We used the DALY measurement to evaluate health interventions. The most common way of measuring education interventions is 'number of test score standard deviations gained'. There is, however, no straightforward way of converting the multiple effects of better education into averted DALYs, and any decision about which is preferable between health intervention and education interventions (or between any two types of interventions with different effects) will be based on a number of assumptions and approximations.
Intuitively, it seems very likely that providing better education, textbooks, skilled teachers, and classrooms will improve the lives and potential outcomes for children living in developing countries. However, most programs measure exactly those (number of schools built, number of books provided, number of computers donated, etc.), and do not provide comparable statistics on improved literacy, health outcomes, and future income increases. Providing textbooks may not work without training teachers, and building schools may not help if the children don't attend due to sickness, and even a well-educated child may have no opportunity if presented with unfavourable economic and social conditions. There are many reasons why an education intervention may fail and that providing basics of nutrition and economic assistance may be initially required for an education intervention's subsequent success.
Unfortunately, cross-country comparisons suggest that education is not necessarily associated with higher income per capita  . If this is correct, education may not increase average wages. This is a surprising result, but it should at least give us pause to question how effective education actually is. In developing countries, education can be valued more as a way of selecting employees than as a measure of knowledge, particularly when education is of low quality. The students who stay longer in school and get better test scores will be offered better jobs, displacing those with lower scores. Another possible explanation is that education has received so much funding and development over the last 50 years that the economic benefits to further improving eduction are minimal. The growth in education enrollment is - in many African countries - an order of magnitude higher than the growth of wage employment . Possibly developing countries are now educating enough people (to primary level) to fill the jobs that required educated people. Another possibility is that the quality of schooling is so poor that spending time there isn't providing students with valuable work skills.
There are exceptions. For example, in India, when Green Revolution technologies were coming into play, education had a big positive effect on average wages, as the educated rural workers were able to adapt to using the new technologies much faster than less educated workers.
In comparison, there is evidence that health interventions can have significant positive economic effects. For example, by comparing areas with different levels of malaria we can see that areas with less Malaria have more economic growth. One study estimated that eradicating malaria in an area will give a 3% increase in household expenditure.  Research on deworming has found even larger returns, though there are fewer primary studies to rely on.
Some have suggested that education has intrinsic value, even above any improvements in health or material quality of life it might generate. The World Values Survey, the largest collection of data on correlates of well-being, suggests that years in education does not itself increase happiness.  By contrast, health itself was found to have a significant effect on an individual's welfare.
As mentioned above, there are significant health improvements resulting from better education. Often these health effects are hard to measure because it is difficult to control for the more educated people getting better jobs so living healthier. The greatest heath effect is the reduction of infant mortality rates for the next generation. For instance, one year of extra education for women can lead to a reduction in infant mortality rates by 5-10 percent, and five extra years of education for women in Africa can reduce infant mortality by up to 40 percent. A lower infant mortality rate reduces the fertility rate, and so reduces the chance of a woman dying during childbirth. It has also been estimated that education can reduce the chance of a mother's death from about five percent to about 1.4 percent.  Encouraging education may be an effective health intervention.
Increasing the secondary and tertiary education of a population can entice multinational corporations, particularly as technology allows for cross-border employment, creating new domestic positions that require educated people, so may have an overall positive effect economically. Giving What We Can has not yet looked at the effects of interventions that increase the secondary and tertiary education.
Many "common sense" education interventions, such as programs providing books and educational material and building schools , are minimally effective. There is a general lack of consistency in results and scalability. Interventions that work well in one area may very well fail in another.
We have not yet come across any clear evidence that suggests that future charitable spending on education interventions will have more than a small economic effect in the majority of cases, especially compared to the economic effects of health interventions.
It is also possible that the health improvements, reducing child mortality rates and more, that result from better education are highly cost-effective and that encouraging education may be an effective health intervention. Giving What We Can will look further into this possibility.
It does not appear that education interventions are currently as effective our top charities , certainly there is a lot less evidence to suggest that specific education interventions have a significant positive impact. For this reason Giving What We Can is not recommending any current programs.
"The Challenge of Education", Copenhagen Consensus 2008 Challenge Paper; 2008; p. 27, p.41
"The Challenge of Education", Copenhagen Consensus 2008 Challenge Paper; 2008; p. 2-3
Women's education, child welfare and child survival: a review of the evidence ; John Hobcraft; 1993; Health Transition Review VOL.3 NO.2 159-172; p. 159
Trade globalization economic development and the importance of education-as-knowledge; Salvatore J. Babones; 2009; Journal of Sociology © 2009 The Australian Sociological Association Volume 46(1): 45-61; p. 47
Where Has All the Education Gone? ; Lant Pritchett, 2001; The World Bank Economic Review VOL.15 NO.3 367-391; p. 367
Where Has All the Education Gone? ; Lant Pritchett, 2001; The World Bank Economic Review VOL.15 NO.3 367-391; p. 385
Mosquitoes: The Long-term Effects of Malaria Eradication in India ; David Cutler, Winnie Fung, Michael Kremer, Monica Singhal and Tom Vogl; 2009; p. 14
How's Life? Combining Individual and National Variables to Explain Subjective Well-Being; John F. Helliwell; 2002; p. 11
Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries (2nd Edition); 2006; Chapter 58; p. 1101
Women's education, child welfare and child survival: a review of the evidence ; John Hobcraft; 1993; Health Transition Review VOL.3 NO.2 159-172; p. 161
Last updated: 2013