Sunday, May 4, 2008

A different kind of power

In the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan, a friend wondered whether we would get more from the money we were going to spend on force, however justified it might be, by sprinkling the countryside with schools instead. The people there live in abject, grinding poverty. They would not have needed a palace such as Oprah endowed in Africa.

I admit that I was skeptical. Faced with the implacable destructive power of fundamentalist Islamism, frequently expressed by the then-ruling Taliban, I had a hard time imagining that any school more enlightened (and subversive) than an Islamist madrassah would survive long in the desolate Afghan backcountry.

The numbers, however, did add up. For the $25 billion we naively thought we would spend on arms and bribes, I estimated we could build and permanently endow teaching staff for a million spartan one-room schoolhouses. In impoverished Afghanistan, $25,000 buys a lot of brick and mortar and would surely leave more than $20,000 behind to pay for a teacher out of medium-risk investment returns - 5% would provide $1000 a year in a country where the per capita income is about $300.

Now, some Turks are doing this on a smaller scale in Pakistan. They are limited to the cities, and I'm sure their cultural goals are different from ours. But it does make me think, What if?

Image from Wikimedia Commons, generously released into the public domain.

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