I’m in a Congolese city called Butembo for a bit, continuing my research on the role local organizations play in providing public goods in fragile states.

The work is going fine. For the first time ever, I’m no longer a grad student and I have research funding! I have a fixer/driver. We are jetting around town in a white Land Cruiser collecting data and doing interviews faster than you can say “conditional cash transfers.” It’s going faster than I expected, which means I may be able to add an additional site to this study.

Butembo’s interesting because it’s ethnically homogeneous, pretty much free from conflict, very prosperous and almost completely free of expatriates. In other words, if you need a control case in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this is the place.

As this project is a continuation of previous research, I’m asking questions about service provision that I have asked over and over and over and over again.

And you know what? Despite all our theories and ideas and the fact, as Easterly is fond of saying, that we really have no idea how people escape poverty, I’m increasingly convinced that one thing is clear: school fees are the enemy.

In Butembo, about 75 percent of the population of between 600,000 to 700,000 people live on less than $2 a day. The average annual school fees per child run from $25 to $35 for primary school and from $30 to $50 for secondary school. For a family that has three, five or 10 children, the burden is enormous and insurmountable.

There are almost no well-organized, large aid projects that pay school fees for children in the eastern DRC. Outside of some child sponsorship programs (most of which are inactive in the DRC for the very simple reason that they can’t guarantee to donors that the children won’t become displaced or die), the international nongovernmental organizations typically don’t touch it.

There are good reasons for that; they tend to focus their energies on reconstructing schools destroyed in the war, getting teachers better training in modern pedagogical methods, and other very needed areas, including offsetting school administrative costs so that fees can be lowered.

School fees are necessary here. Although it technically owns and runs most of the schools here, the government is incapable of managing them, which is why the churches have taken over their “management.” Under the agreements that govern this arrangement, the government is supposed to pay teacher salaries, construct buildings and provide classroom furniture, books and other necessities.

It doesn’t. That leaves the churches doing everything, and parents paying directly for the entire cost of their children’s education.

Or, more often, it leaves children not being educated at all.

And it leaves me wondering if maybe we’d be better off just paying the school fees, taking that burden off of families so they can spend their money on medicine, balanced diets or better sanitation at home.

Would doing so create dependency? Yes.

Would people in this city have a better chance to make it? I don’t know.

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. This column was adapted from her blog, Texas in Africa. She did fieldwork from 2005-07 related to the Congo for her doctoral dissertation, “Authority at ‘Twilight:’ Civil Society, Social Services and the State in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”

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