"Having money is worth a lot more than having an education.”
The job market in Tanzania has gotten worse, its education landscape is dire, and all the while its government is doubling down on it's capitalistic impulses, creating more and more wealth for a selected few new multi-millionaires (and the country's recent billionaire achievement) while those who live in extreme poverty continue to struggle. Money, in this scenario, is worth more than anything- even the noble quest of education.
I just returned home from my first work trip to Tanzania since the pandemic. I've been thinking a lot about what's changed in the country during these past three years and about a sobering conversation I had with one of the students I work with, where she unflinchingly said that having money was worth more than anything education could give you. I've been working in the Tanzanian education space for over a decade and nothing has ever hit me as hard as the sentence quoted in the title of this article. It was dose of harsh reality that made me question everything I ever thought was great or honorable about working at anNGOthat provides full-ride scholarships to students who wouldn’t otherwise get an education.
“Having money is worth a lot more than having an education,” she said, “because money talks.” It’s worth repeating the quote for its full sobering effect. The conversation continued and my attempts at redeeming education, for all its empowering and transformative powers, were swiftly shut down. “If you have money, you have everything. Money gives you a better life, better health. It’s worth way more than going to school,” the high school student affirmed. And here’s the thing I can’t get over: she’s right. Because everything this world values, everything we idolize and aspire to, anything that adds substance, comfort, or worth in our lives comes with a price. And a hefty one at that; one that an education doesn’t guarantee you can afford in Tanzania, where thejob markethas become increasingly dire and the government more and more unabashedly capitalistic (but what else in new?).
Many things changed in the three years since I was last in Tanzania. There are a ridiculous amount of new banks in town, the night clubs are louder, the restaurants are flashier, and the big houses where the rich businessmen live (yes, it’s always men:“who lives there? a business man; and there? a business man; and in that huge house there at the end of the road? a business man and probably his wife”) got bigger. Sure, some dirt roads also got paved, there are more gas stations around, and the airport got a a bit of a makeover but if we’re real about any of that, chances are those changes are for the good of the people that were already using the roads, the cars, and the airports, and not to help bring new citizens into those spaces.
The students I work with all come from backgrounds ofextreme poverty. That is, families that live on less than $1.90 a day. And since the moment that the title words of this article got seared into my brain, I’ve been thinking about how these families’ lives have changed in the more than 10 years I’ve known and worked with them. The answer is not much. No one I know from this threshold of deep poverty is living substantially better lives a decade on; they aren’t healthier or wealthier and they don’t have more basic necessities met like food or clean water. If anyone has ever tried to convince you thattrickle-down economicsis a thing worth defending, send them into the trenches of life with little food or shelter and see how long they stand by their treacherous philosophy of helping the rich get richer while the poor stay poor.
Since the moment that the title words of this article got seared into my brain, I’ve also been thinking aboutcash transfer programs. Cash transfers have been increasingly adopted by poor countries around the world in an effort to target the most vulnerable populations. They are a proven way to reduce current poverty and help safeguard against future one. They havesuccessfullyimproved nutrition and education outcomes in many places and are an undisputed valuable policy tool for investing in human capital. Still, few governments are willing to take them on and I can’t help but see that as a resistance to thinking about poverty by any other terms than capitalistic ones. Money, by our capital accumulation standards, is intended to generate more money and, under that myopic tenet, money isn’t meant for where there is none to begin with. Under this limiting and inhuman economic lens, giving money away is wasteful at best and financially criminal at worst. Why would you give money out freely? What if the person doesn’t deserve it? You can’t solve people’s problems for them and, surely, there are better, more profitable ways of spending that money?
In 2018, there were27 millionTanzanians living in poverty (as defined by the international threshold of $1.90 per day). Poverty has been on the rise since 2011 and is expected to have significantly worsened in the pandemic years. And instead of attending to the country’s neediest socio-economic strata, Tanzania is doubling down on its capitalistic impulses. Ignoring its historical inclinations towards socialism, the government has forged an aggressive business strategy in the last two decades, opening up its markets to foreign investment, to international loans, and to the continued exploitation of its natural resources by outside interests. Tanzania, like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, ismineral rich; it is the fourth-largest gold miner and its industrial minerals and gemstones make up more than 50% of its exports. Its diamond industry is 75% owned by foreign companies, however, and the government has led a strong privatization campaign on most of its natural resources since the late 1980s (again, what else in new?). In its latest, and most appalling move to capitalize on its rich resources, the country made internationalnewsearlier this year when it began displacing thousands of its indigenous Maasai population, living on previously protected ancestral lands, to make way for commercial conservation (i.e. Safari companies) and hunting.
In theAfrica Wealth Rankingsfrom 2022, Tanzania reported a private wealth total of 56 billion USD; the East African country has 2,400 individuals with at least 1 million dollars in liquid financial assets, 80 multi-millionaires, 8 centi-millionaires (I didn’t even know this was a thing), and 1 billionaire. A country with nearly half (27 of 59 million) of its population living on less than 2 dollars a day has a total private wealth of 56 billion dollars. And sure, poverty isn’t necessarily* the responsibility of the ultra rich (*one could argue that it’s our collective human responsibility to make sure no one goes hungry or dies of preventable circumstances) but, surely, it is the responsibility of governments. “Having money is worth a lot more than having an education,” it seems, is not just the opinion of my uber-realist student. It’s the ethos of the Tanzanian government and the blueprint to follow in our depressingly capitalistic world, where money makes anything and everything happen and where it trumps well-being, happiness, or the empowering fabric of the learning that happens in school. Because what good is any of that if you can’t afford living.
I think, study, and do education and development things. Education should be free, accessible, and empowering for every child; we have a long way to go to make that happen.