Teacher Absence in the Developing World

In South Africa the problem of teacher absence is so bad that frustrated students rioted when teachers repeatedly failed to show up for class. But the problem is not limited to South Africa, teachers are absent throughout the developing world.  Spot checks by the World Bank, for example, indicate that on a typical day 11% of teachers are absent in Peru, 16% are absent in Bangladesh, 27% in Uganda and 25% in India.

Even when teachers are present they are often not teaching.  In India, where a quarter of the teachers are absent on any particular day, only about half of those present are actually teaching.  (These are national averages, in some states the problem is worse.)

The problem is not low salaries.  Salaries for public school teachers in India are above the norm for that country.  Indeed, if anything, absenteeism increases with salary (and it is higher in public schools than in private schools, despite lower wages in the latter).  The problem is political power, teacher unions, and poor incentives. 

Teachers are literate and they vote so they are a powerful political force especially where teacher unions are strong.  As if this were not enough, in India, the teachers have historically had a guarantee of representation in the state Legislative Councils so political power has often flowed to teachers far in excess of their numbers.  As a result, it's virtually impossible to fire a teacher for absenteeism.

The situation in South Africa is not that different than in India.  The NYTimes article on South Africa has this to say:

“We have the highest level of teacher unionization in the world, but their focus is on rights, not responsibilities,” Mamphela Ramphele, former vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said in a recent speech.

Some reforms are planned in South Africa, including greater monitoring of teacher attendance but this offhand remark suggests the difficulties:

“We must ask ourselves to what extent teachers in many historically disadvantaged schools unwittingly perpetuate the wishes of Hendrik Verwoerd,” [President Zuma] recently told a gathering of principals, implicitly challenging the powerful South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, which is part of the governing alliance (!).  (Emphasis added, AT.)


I would be good if rich countries like US invest more in NGO's and other organizations to improve the lot of young people in poor countries instead of wasting loads of money on destructive technologies that kill millions of innocent civilians.

We have a similar problem with the teachers' union in New Jersey (the felicitously named New Jersey Education Association).

Oooh. Someone used the word 'invest'.

Personally, I'd say waste. As in waste money collecting the tax. Waste money in deciding where the money was to go. Waste money on setting up the 'programs'. Of course a big building will have to be built and staffed somewhere in the Washington/Boston Yuppie Good Idea Zone. Then of course we need to recruit and staff the NGO's. They'll all need health care, training schools, each country will need administration buildings, staff. ( Anyone seen any improvement yet?).

Now about five years into this money flushing exercise, but good for lefty yuppie graduates of worthless, but expensive lefty schools and, ahem, 'disciplines', we will have our first study on 'effectiveness'. This will start a few years of back and forth amongst secular lefty do-gooder faithful. ( Still no kids really educated who were first 10 when the boondoggle started and now 17 and out of 'school'.)

By now the NGO is fully versed in buying political support, hiring the useless lefty daughters and sons so they can drink, have sex and get paid and get lefty do-good moralizing awards in some tropical local, driving Toyota Land Rovers, wearing Pantagonia and hitting My Face on their Appple laptops.


I could go on.

This is not limited to the developing world. This is pretty much how schools operate in poor urban areas in the United States. In Detroit schools, only 25% of students graduate high school, and out of those who graduate only half have basic literacy skills, despite education being as well funded as most schools in Western Europe, and being better funded than schools in all but the most wealthy local suburbs. Yet it is pretty much political suicide to say there is any problem other than insufficient funding... and you will be attacked for "not supporting public education" if you imply any other government-funded alternative or even support basic literacy tests for teachers (Yes, the teachers unions are opposed to basic literacy tests for teachers!!! They are worried that too many of their members are functionally illiterate!!!). I would go as far to say that students in India are more literate in English than the majority of Detroit high school students.

What surprises me though, is not how well the teachers unions have the political system gamed, but how well they have managed to brainwash the general public... How many people here will defend the teachers and unions in a place like Detroit, and will present a system like school vouchers as some conspiracy to deny poor kids education (something that the teachers unions are already doing a fantastic job at doing without vouchers!). Watch the rabid teachers union supports chime in, and I doubt any are actually teachers.

How true Paul!

Imagine if all those resources we've spent over the years were spent and directed by industrious entrepreneur types.

Imagine even more if there was some money to be made!

Teacher absence in the developing world? How about teacher absence in the developed world? Yes, that's right folks, right here in the good old USA, in Chicago, kids are a month into school and still don't have teachers.


Education is too important to be trusted to government and unions.

I second recommending James Tooley. Here's a link to a Cato podcast with him:


I'm surprised that Tyler didn't mention him in his post, since his work seems to be the response to this problem.


one such lefty do-gooder blogs here, under the name Tyler Cowen.

A lot more of it has to do with salaries and other perks than you think. In Malawi, drivers can earn the same or greater salaries than rural teachers - I met one once. He said to me:

"Why would I remain a teacher? Before, I was stuck in one place. Now I can see all of the country and other countries as well, and get paid more!"

Wow, students who actually want to learn and are angry at the attitude of the teachers. Something must done to resolve this problem....

Education is vital to any country, especially to a developing one whose human capital will determine and shape the direction of its future, whether toward prosperity and well-being, or poverty and perdition. So, it is frustrating to discover within this survey, posted on the website of the School Choice Campaign, a flagship project of the Centre for Civil Society to bring about reforms in schools in India, a high rate of attrition among teachers in the developing world, which averages about 19% across the countries studied. The authors of this study, ‘Missing in Action: Teacher and Health Worker Absence in Developing Countries,† examine the many causes for such absences. Topping off the list is the state of working conditions (or the quality of infrastructure), especially in rural areas, that plays a major role in a teacher’s decision whether or not to teach that particular day: “This finding is consistent with the idea that teachers and health workers are extremely unlikely to be fired for absence, but that their decisions about whether to go to work are influenced by the working conditions they face.† To correct these problems, the authors recommend the following: increased local control in terms of giving local institutions the power to hire and fire teachers; improve the existing civil service system; experiment with systems, and offering access to school vouchers wherein parents decide on how to spend public money and can choose among schools within both public and private school systems.


You should take it easy. As I understand the union's position, there is no way measure your performance or to reward or punish you based on merit. You ought to cut back by about 20 hours a week. There should be several mentors at the school who can show you how to do it.

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It is sad to hear this.I can this problem be solved because if it won't be solved it will end up by students making fake degrees and that isn't right.Is sad when political issues fall upon innocent children.

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