A comment I had heard recently by a UNICEF expert on BCC said that for countries with limited resources, if there was one thing they should invest in, it would be education, especially that of girls. Two articles in the Economist look at education in South-East Asia and more generally, in the poor countries.
Besides abolishing fees, there are several things that governments can do to get more children into school. In rural areas, families are sometimes reluctant to let their children go to school because they need extra hands to work in the fields or perform household chores. One way round this is to provide free food in schools, as happens in South Africa and India. Pupils become less of a drain on the household budget if they are fed in school, and they can also concentrate better. Ideally, they should also be well fed before they reach school age. Malnourishment stunts brains as well as bodies. If severe in the first few years of life (or in the womb), the effects can be irreversible. By one estimate, better nutrition would raise average IQs in poor countries by 10-15 points.
Globally, girls are more likely than boys to miss school. Poor families often choose to educate their sons first, and it is usually girls who drop out to care for sick parents. Sometimes families are wary of letting their daughters walk long distances to be taught by male strangers. Such fears can be assuaged by opening lots of smaller schoolssometimes only a single classroomcloser to where people live, as Egypt has.
Educating girls is doubly important because it makes them more likely to ensure that their own children are educated. As countries grow richer, girls tend to catch up with boys academically. In parts of western Europe, they have overtaken them. That is still far off in poor countries, but it is never too early to start trying.