Artwork for podcast The RISE Podcast
Adam Ashforth on how communities see the role of education in Malawi
Episode 516th September 2021 • The RISE Podcast • Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE)
00:00:00 00:43:27

Share Episode


In this episode of the RISE Podcast, Jason Silberstein, a RISE Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, speaks to Professor Adam Ashforth. The conversation draws on Adam’s ethnographic research to explore what the education system looks like for the average person in Malawi. He shares accounts from the Malawi Journals Project, which shed light on what most families see as the core purpose of education. In doing so, we learn just how absent the state is in many schools and how this space is filled with local relationships of accountability. 


Guest Biography

Adam Ashforth is a Professor in Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Adam has published extensively on state formation and the political implications of spiritual insecurity in everyday life in South Africa. During South Africa's transition to democracy he spent many years living and writing in Soweto. He is currently researching responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in everyday life in rural Malawi and ethnic conflict in Kenya's Rift Valley. His publications include four books: The Politics of Official Discourse in Twentieth-Century South Africa (Oxford, 1990); Madumo, A Man Bewitched (Chicago, 2000); Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa (Chicago, 2005) [winner of the Herskovits Award, 2005]; and The Trials of Mrs. K.: Seeking Justice in a World with Witches (Chicago, 2018).


RISE is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme is implemented through a partnership between Oxford Policy Management and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford supports the production of the RISE Podcast.


RISE Programme 0:04

Hello and welcome to the RISE podcast series, where we aim to explore the stories behind education, research and practice as part of the multicountry Research on Improving Systems of Education endowment, funded by UK Aid, Australian Aid, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Jason Silberstein, Host 0:23

Hello, and welcome to the RISE podcast. My name is Jason Silberstein, and I'm a Research Fellow with the RISE Programme affiliated with the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. And with me today is Adam Ashforth. Adam is a professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, and the author of four books. This conversation draws on Adams wonderfully thick ethnographic research to explore what the education system looks like for the average person in the lounge. We will learn from Adam what most families see as the core purpose of education. It's not learning. And we will learn just how absent the state is in many schools, and how this space is filled by local relationships of accountability. But we'll also explore the limits of those relationships and how narrowly they focus on money not learning. Throughout Adam is going to give us the perspective of normal families and communities who are key parts of education systems, but who often get less attention than other actors with more power. So without any further ado, here's Adam Ashworth. Adam, welcome to the podcast.

Adam Ashforth, Guest 1:36

Hi, glad to be here.

Jason Silberstein, Host 1:38

So Adam, like I mentioned, you and your co-authors have developed some really deep, nuanced narratives of how the education system is experienced by rural families and and students in Malawi. And I know this drew in part on an ethnographic archive, the Malawi Journals Project. So I was hoping to start you could just tell us more about where your source material for for your work in Malawi on education comes from and about the Malawi Journalist Project, in particular.

Adam Ashforth, Guest 2:14

co-author, Susan Watkins, in:

archive now consists of about:

Jason Silberstein, Host 7:15

Right, right. Oh, wow. What a Yeah, what a rich public resource of, of voices that you don't usually get to hear from unless they're filtered, like you're saying through a through a researcher. You know, what, one question that immediately occurs to me is, is there a story, you know, from this archive, that you find? You, you keep going back to yourself, that kind of reveals a lot about the education system and in Malawi, you know, one of the aims of this podcast is to start to, to tell some of these stories behind the research, so to speak. And so yeah, do you remember any any specific stories?

Adam Ashforth, Guest 8:03

Well, there's one from the the archive that that comes to mind. And we wrote up a version of it as an appendix in that paper that the working paper for RISE, which is a story about the gift of a solar electrical system to a primary school in Malawi. And, you know, most of what most of Malawi doesn't have electricity, most schools don't have electricity. And, you know, the ordinary person would say, "Oh, what a what a good idea to give the gift of electricity" that would, you know, allow light in a few classrooms, maybe some electricity in teachers houses to help retain the teachers. Kids could do their homework in the classroom at night, because there's no light in their houses. This would be a safe space that they can a install the system, a few panels and inverter, a couple of batteries relatively inexpensive. And the benefits are enormous. So an international NGO, CONCERN donate donated in this district to 11 schools, a solar system. And they mean, this just arrived basically, I don't know how much pre prior discussion there was. But from the school management committee, it just suddenly appeared. So then the management committee becomes obsessed with, for them the obvious problem, which is somebody is going to steal this. So now, the management committee says and our general writer was on the committee and in in these meetings, and so she has the discussion and the arguments. So obviously, we need to, to hire a watchman. In order to guard the solar system, now, that's going to cost money, how are we going to pay the watchman? Well, we're going to have to get money from the community from the parents to pay the watchman to guard the electrical system. But hold on, we just asked the parents for money for a watchman, and they didn't like it. So we said it was going to be for books. But in fact, we hired the watchman, and some of the community appears that we, you know, they're constantly asking for money. So anyway, this system works. And it's very nice. A few weeks later, apparently, one of the children at the school was helping push a car that had a flat battery. And in the course of pushing the car, she informed the owners or drivers of the car, that there was a battery at the school, in the closet, in the, in the cupboard in the sixth grade classrooms. So sure enough, a couple of days later, these guys come with machetes, chased away the watchmen and stole all the electrical equipment. At the same time, possibly as a result of the money that was being raised to pay for the watchman, disappeared as well. So there, the committee is convinced that the head teacher has taken advantage of the chaos, to steal the money and claim that it was stolen by the thieves. And make off with it himself, because previously, he borrowed some money from that fund, because he claimed his wife needed to go to hospital and he needed transport money to take her to the hospital, and was going to pay it back. So anyway, that the details and details and details go on and on and on. But the end of the story is that eventually one of the batteries was found at a illegal drinking den powering the music system. And eventually, someone was arrested for the theft. But the electrical equipment never showed up back at the school. And finally, the contractor came and took the wires as well. So you know that the end of the story is that a very good idea, you know, which could be a very good policy to electrify sets off a whole chain of events. And, you know, complications for the people involved in the school, and eventually, back to no electricity.

But I think one of the other things that I would say,that really jumped out at us, from both the archive of the journals, and also the interviews and discussions that we had concerns the agency of students that, you know, there's a lot of talk about dropouts, and at the dropout rate in Malawi is startling. You know, from, from 100 students who started in grade one, maybe eight, will pass the grade eight final exam for primary school. And there's a lot of talk, particularly about keeping girls in school, you know, if there's money put into keeping girls in school, but what we found was a very, you know, standard story about dropping out that it was the kids themselves, a particularly kids who failed year after year. And you know, by the time they're 13/14, and then they're in a class with 8/9/10 year olds. And, you know, they've just got the prospect of failing again, and again, you know, the chances of passing that final exam are minimal that they know it, and they want to drop out, because they want to either go to work somehow will help in the gardens, farming for the family or get married and have a life instead of just being stuck in school. So I think we were we were very struck by that, that dimension of agency, among the kids and often, you know, often it was against the wishes of the parents because the parents have this fantasy, that by getting a credential, you know, a School Certificate going on. A kid will be able to get a job and having a job, they'll be able to look after the parent in their old age. You know, this is the kind of driving fantasy of you know, the whole school system really. So but the striking I think for us was this degree of agency among the kids and how you know, dropping out was a solution rather But from their point of view, was a solution to a problem, rather than a problem in and of itself.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Right, right. I mean, I think this, this raises, the, one of the insights that I think come comes out of your work so powerfully is that education systems, you know, are not obviously, or even mostly about, about teaching kids stuff, you know, and this is one of the big, big points that RISE as a research programme overall has been trying to make, that learning is low in lots of countries, because learning is not actually at the at the centre of the education system at all. It's, it's not on the minds of the folks necessarily on the minds of folks running the education system or on the minds of people, you know, in the system. Like you're saying, the the parents and the students. So yeah, can you tell us a bit more about about these kind of local definitions of education are these these local goals of education, and, and you've already mentioned this, but you know, how those are not necessarily go to school and learn as much as I can?

Adam Ashforth, Guest:

Yeah, schooling is very much about credentials. And, you know, if you're lucky enough to pass that eighth grade exam and get a Primary School Certificate, then that might open the door to a low level job as a driver or a cleaner or something. So the first thing to know is that jobs with capital J, in very, very short supply in Malawi, the vast majority of the population makes a living by subsistence agriculture or small scale trading. So you know, for professions that we call them for which education is not needed. At least not schooling is not needed. But for any kind of job, a credential is needed. And the lowest is the primary school, and then, you know, up through university. So schooling is all about credentials. And one of the things that we were interested in looking at was really, that question of what use is, education is learning in the everyday context. And I'm sad to say not much. For instance, there's not much in the way to read in Malawi and village. If you have time and inclination and ability to read, you're going to struggle to find a newspaper. The only book that might exist would be a Bible or possibly a Quran in and, you know, otherwise, your skill in reading is going to be pretty much useless. In the everyday context, one of the things that we we looked at a bit was question of whether cell phones might sort of bump up the need for literacy, because certainly in Africa, phones and here are used for texting more than anything else. And it occurred to me that if, you know, if you needed to be able to read and write in order to send WhatsApp messages, then you know, maybe that would be an incentive to learn something at school. But at that point, you know, this was 2017 when we did this research, and although cell phones were around, in most of the rural areas, most of the kids didn't actually have access to them. Now, I think it'd be interesting to know, with the advent of smartphones, and even in the poorest communities, smartphones are becoming ubiquitous. That would certainly be a point in learning how to read and write. And similarly with numeracy. You know, basic counting is simple enough. Once you get past counting. There are calculators it used to amaze me how, how readily people would access a calculator. So you know, you're, you're in a shop or a bar and you buy a bottle of Coke. It's 150 kwacha, two bottles of coke, they'll probably know that it's 303 bottles of coke. The calculator will come out and it'll either be, you know, an old real calculator or phone. So, you know, like even the basic skills of numeracy are kind of superfluous. So, you know, like, it's very, it's difficult to see in that context, you know why issues about the quality of education and learning for the sake of learning of mastering even basic skills, you know, has that kind of relevance.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Right. Right. Right. That's, that's super interesting. And yeah, well, I certainly use my calculator quite a bit as well. I feel like, you know, the education system, even in the West teaches you lots of these skills that you never use again. What about the the exams? What about the school leaving exams? I mean, is that not a good enough reason to to learn how to read and write?

Adam Ashforth, Guest:

Well, that is that that is the sole reason in fact, I would, I would say, but it's, it's, it's insufficient as motivation in the sense that, you know that the sole reason to pass the exams is to get a job. But jobs are so scarce, that even people who do pass their exams, and then graduate from secondary school, often just sitting around, unemployed. And we also came across a lot of sort of commentary about secondary school graduates who, who think they're better than anyone else, because they've actually passed the exams, but then they don't have a job. Because there are no jobs. And so they're just sitting around either doing nothing or farming like the rest of us. So it's a kind of vicious circle in that sense that everybody desires, the job, but they just aren't there. It works for for a fee. So but it's really quite a small, small nu.mber

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Right, right, right, It's it's right. It's designed to work for the the elite, but the average, you know, Joe, or whoever on the on the street is not, is not motivated by that.

Adam Ashforth, Guest:

Yeah, I mean, one of the things that did also strike us is that even in it in a country, like Malawi, where public education for the poor, and the majority of the population is very poor, is truly dismal. But even in that context, there are people who succeed, there are schools that succeed, there are teachers who succeed, there are students who succeed. And that was something that, you know, a little bit inspiring to think of, but it's also made us think, you know, like, we ought to spend more time trying to figure out, you know, what it is, that allows these, these people, you know, in the most adverse of circumstances to actually thrive or succeed, we did a little thing, trying to portray some success stories. Very difficult to imagine how that could be systematise, you know, across a whole school system, especially at the level of teachers, you know, so the standard idea about teachers is that they're either born or made, and the ones that are born are very few and far between. and the ones that are made, are just there because they can't get another job, you know, they graduated from secondary school, and that's all they can get. But occasionally, you run into these incredibly gifted and dedicated teachers. I wrote up an account of of one a second grade teacher who was just absolutely amazing, in my view, but you know, that's he, he was just an amazing character. And I, you know, I don't have the imagination to see how that could be kind of systematised across a whole school level. system.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, this. This is one of the another of the big questions that I think RISE is concerning itself with is, you know, what do you do with these positive deviants? And these really inspiring stories that you're pointing out, is that is that something that that you can learn from and then kind of force on the whole system? Or is the idea to to actually, you know, give people enough autonomy in their local context and enough motivation in their local context to to become those folks. And, you know, it has to be a little different in each situation and the level of the individual I mean, you know, what one other aspect of your work that I think relates to this that I wanted to bring in is precisely this, this idea of, you know, what, what role can parents and local communities in particular play in, you know, local school? So let me just quickly read this one quote from your study. It said "our study did not include interviews with high level functionaries in the ministry, because they do not appear in our stories of primary schooling in rural Malawi." I that just really struck me, I thought that was great. You know, it's like, the exact opposite point of almost the entire, you know, aid industry and most international organisations who, you know, they start with the ministry, and often they don't get beyond the ministry, and you're offering precisely the opposite view, which is that, you know, if you go to actual school, you know, and talk to people go to that school, the ministry barely shows up. And so I was hoping you could just talk a bit about, you know, this idea of this state being absent at the local level, and does that leave room for, you know, these great individuals to kind of potentially, you know, fulfil a larger role in managing and governing their own schools? Or Or is there a real vacuum or or what happens when the state is not there?

Adam Ashforth, Guest:

Yeah, it's, it's, it's a very interesting issue. I think in some instances, it does have a forward possibility possibilities. And one of the things that we identify is that there, there are really two key figures in the success of a school. One of the head teacher, and the other is the village chief, if you have a chief who is committed and supportive, and a head teacher, who is committed and energetic and dynamic, and, you know, has has to be a tremendous diplomat, it has to be a great administrator, motivator of teachers, you know, like, again, really remarkable and unusual, that rare kind of character. But when that is the case, then then there's possibilities. And the possibilities hinge on the ability of the head teacher to mobilise external resources. Because the reality is that, you know, the education department pays teacher salaries, often late, and they're pretty minimal in many cases, but not much else. And by the time it's finished paying the salaries, there's not much left over for anything else. The schools that we looked at, at that time, had the equivalent of about $1 per student per year for maintenance, construction, supplies, books, whatever. Not a lot. And the funds that come from the central government through the ministry are leaky, they get syphoned off by all sorts of characters along the way. So in schools where, as I said, we're ending up with about $1, which means that then anything that a school wants to do, from buildings to maintenance to books, and has to be raised from the local community, or through some other kind of brokerage to NGOs, or donors of some, some kind or another. Now, a very dynamic and skilled head teacher who can do that can bring resources into the, to the school that could really transform it, but But sadly, most of them can't. And again, in this context, the chief is the key figure in the in the community for format, managing the relationships between parents and the community in general. You know, it was, it was stunning to us as well, the, the amount of money that is collected from parents, you know, technically education, primary education is free. But in reality, it's not. And parents contribute through labour through making bricks and building classrooms and so on. And also through various kinds of levies, often called development chu tokuko levies. And these are supposed to be voluntary, but then they usually not, you know, if the kid doesn't pay, if the family doesn't pay, then the kid will get chased away in most instances and sent home until the money comes. And in many families, you know, it's it's a real burden, financial burden, paying these levies and buying a uniform because kids need school uniforms and so you know, financially often it's it's a, it's a dicey issue as to whether the benefits say of if the school has a feeding programme. Now, again, so with the feeding programme, the chief can be absolutely essentially that because the chief can mobilise resources from the committee To get food for the kids, and so then the, the school becomes a valuable asset for families, because they're, especially the little kids can, can get out of their mothers here and allow them to go and do the work in the garden or get some food. So that's a value in and of itself. You know, that that's, that's driven by the Chief. But so that, that, that, you know, the contributions, I think of the community and the parents is absolutely crucial. But another thing that we found, and it's a little point tucked in to the, to that RISE paper, you know, so on the one hand, these contributions are not, don't figure into the policy discussions about education. You know, the World Bank report, there's no mention of them at all that that kind of thing.

But then when we asked around about, you know, parents complain constantly about these levies, and complain about having to pay however much they are,you know, kind of mischievously started asking our researchers, then getting them to ask others, how much people contribute to their churches. And this was in the largely Christian area. So the Christian churches, and typically the answer is between five and 10 times the amount that they contribute to the schools. And nobody complains about the churches constantly seeking money. And like, you know, these bloodsucker, churches, you know, always getting my money. And when you ask, well, what's the reason? Why do people contribute to the churches so freely when they moan and groan about the schools? And the answer is, because when you die, if you haven't contributed, nobody from the church will show up for your funeral. The funeral is absolutely central in the you know, the community life. And so you don't dare not make the full contribution to the church for fear of not having them present singing, you know, the choir comes and sings, and the preacher will come and Minister. So you'd better make your payment to the church. And as I said, that could be 10 times the amount that the school wants, but

Jason Silberstein, Host:

yeah, you pay it. I guess it's pretty clear what what you're getting from the church, and maybe it's not so clear what you're getting for the school. Always. Right.

Adam Ashforth, Guest:

That's Yeah, exactly. And, you know, the churches are providing, you know, not just spiritual benefits, but you know, material benefits, particularly in the realm of, of health and healing, for which churches, central faith healing and so on. So, you know, they're, they're really considered absolutely central to life, whereas the school is a bit peripheral.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Right. Yeah. One follow up question there, as you were talking about at this local level, the key players in local schools, you know, success is the head teacher and, and the Chief, this this sport traditional Chief, but you didn't mention the school committees, which, of course, I think this is the great hope of, of local involvement and developing a voice for families that a lot of the development sector kind of has come up with is this mechanism of school committees. And I think there's some really interesting work coming out of the political economy of implementation team in RISE that's looking at the school committee's, and other contexts in on the continent, particularly in Nigeria, and making it an interesting point that these are kind of external, artificial or kind of invented, things like these school committees aren't organic, naturally occurring things in the in the system in the community in the politics of the place. And oftentimes, because of that are quite dysfunctional. You know, they're kind of like these these solar light systems. That concern kind of showed up and dropped on the community from your story earlier. They're certainly not something that community asked for. And so I guess, I'm just curious what what is the relationship between the school committee's and the chief and the head teacher?

Adam Ashforth, Guest:

Yes, so the committee's are interesting. And the one that we know most intimately through our journal writer who was on it, had the chief on it and my impression from the work that we did was that where the chief is directly involved in the school committee, then they can function quite quite well quite effectively because they're essentially a subcommittee of the chief and the chief has other The groups of elders and community members that he consults with regularly. So this is sort of like, you know, it's called the school management committee, but it's really the Chiefs sort of subcommittee for the school. And then, you know, that becomes the chief sees the school, as, you know, as his and him being the representative of the community and so on. And I think, you know, in situations where the chief and the head teacher work well together, then, you know, the committee can can function quite effectively. And it's quite interesting too, in relation to money. You know, money is the is the key issue in all of these things. And I think in any impoverished context, money goes hand in hand with distrust, that, you know, nobody trusts anybody with money. So the committee's, their main role is raising money and spending money and keeping an eye on the money add on each other. And the community can sometimes be very sceptical about the committee that the committee is, is conspiring to steal the money. But in situations where it can work, it can provide a sense of responsibility and accountability and transparency. In, in finances, and one of the things that I found very interesting in our work was the, the sorts of the norms surrounding what we might call leakage of funds. And the the ways in which, you know, a certain amount of, you know, what technically might be called misappropriation is considered legitimate. So for instance, you know, if I'm buying iron sheets, to put a roof on the school, and I put the roof on the school in it, I do the job, but I keep, you know, a few sheets to put on my house, that's considered legitimate, you know, that's, it's, you know, it's a reward, it's, I think, we use the term of brokerage fee, you know, an informal brokerage feed. But if I raised money for iron sheets, and don't put them on the, on the roof of the school, and do put them all on my house, or just take the money for the, you know, that's outright theft. And, you know, that's totally illegitimate. So, these things are always, you know, kind of highly negotiable and constantly negotiated. But I think it is very interesting to look at the sort of norms surrounding accountability in relation to the disbursement of funds. So, for instance, getting back to that solar panel thing, the, the school committee and the community were far more upset about the possibility that the head teacher had stolen the funds, which would have been a paltry amount compared to the value of the solar panels, that the solar panels because the solar panels dropped from the sky and then disappeared. And, you know, however much they were worth, which would have been substantial. That wasn't our concern. But, you know, the possibility that the teacher had a head teacher had stolen, you know, the equivalent of a few dollars was absolutely enraging. And then what was interesting was the chief in that case, you know, that the committee wanted to take the teacher to the police and, you know, pursue it and the chief said, No, it's your fault. You shouldn't have trusted him with the money, the committee should have set up a bank account and kept control of the funds. You know, so, you know, don't blame him for stealing it, because you put him in the way of temptation. That's, that's on you.

So, you know, I guess the point I'm making is that there are these complex norms of accountability that are in place and use now that they refer primarily and perhaps exclusively to finance but it seems to me that there might be ways in which other dimensions of accountability can be explored in that regard. So for instance, you know, with with teacher performance, there's not much we couldn't find much evidence that parents or communities were concerned about quality in the sense of pass rate or anything like that. But there is in terms of quality, even on pass rate, that is it you know, if teachers don't show up at all, if they're drunk, you do see community action, often coordinated with by the Chief. And I think, you know, it'd be interesting to think about ways in which those sort of norms of accountability could be expanded to include things like quality, even if it's simply, you know, the pass rate for, for the exams.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. It's, it's, it's so interesting, it seems kind of like this, this accountability at the local level is a bit of a double edged sword where on the one hand, you're, you're pointing out that it's actually quite functional and complex. And, you know, there's this efficient corruption, so to speak, that that it allows in terms of managing finances, and, you know, maybe it's a lot better form of accountability than a highly centralised, highly systematised system that did it, you know, relies on the bureaucracy and very, very strict rules and all that inflexibility and, and kind of shallowness that comes with that kind of system. This local form of accountability could be a lot more rich and strong and nuanced in everything. But then on the other hand, like you're pointing out, it's it's, it's only in certain domains of education right now that that are quite focused on money, and financing. So I think I want to ask you our final question at this point, which is kind of a takeaway element that we have across the podcast. And that is kind of one thing out of everything you've you've talked about that you wish other people knew about the education system in Malawi, just kind of one insight that that our audience can carry away with them?

Adam Ashforth, Guest:

I think it would be. But I mentioned a little earlier that even in such a desperately poor and thoroughly dismal public schooling system, there are glimmers of hope there are people who succeed there are there are schools that succeed there are students that said there are some truly gifted teachers. And I think it's important to, to remember that because even when we look at the system as a whole, it's it's very hard to be anything except extremely pessimistic. But those success stories I think, are worth noting, and indeed, studying and celebrating.

Jason Silberstein, Host:

Professor Adam Ashworth, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your research with us.

Adam Ashforth, Guest:

You're welcome.

RISE Programme:

Thank you for listening to our podcast today. And if you liked it, be sure to check out our research at or follow us on social media at RISE Programme. You can find links to the research mentioned and other workshops under the description for this podcast episode. The RISE podcast is brought to you by the Research on Improving Systems of Education ()RISE Programme through support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.