Big BRICs, Weak Foundations: The Beginning of Public Elementary Education in Brazil, Russia, India, and China

by Latika Chaudhary, Aldo Musacchio, Steven Nafziger & Se Yan

Executive Summary — Economists have argued that the "Great Divergence" between the developed and underdeveloped world in the nineteenth century was reinforced—if not caused—by rapid improvements in schooling that occurred in the advanced economies. Explaining differences in economic development today may hinge on understanding why most societies failed to develop adequate primary education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This study sheds new light on the comparative experiences of Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC) during the formative years of their primary education systems. Key concepts include:

  • Extreme decentralization in environments without democracy or accountability for local officials may lead to unequal educational outcomes within countries, as elites in certain provinces may choose to spend less on public goods, such as education.
  • Brazil, Russia, India, and China were among the largest and poorest states in the world in the early twentieth century, and their low level of development limited investments in mass schooling.
  • Brazil and Russia—marginally richer and possessing slightly broader forms of elite democracy—saw greater investments in public primary schooling than India and China.
  • Central authorities in each BRIC country mostly absolved themselves of the responsibility of providing primary education.
  • The provision of education was frequently decentralized to lower levels of government, where the absence of accountable and representative democracy allowed local elites to capture political institutions, limit redistributive taxation, and dictate how public resources were allocated.
  • Variation among elites or in the political and economics conditions they faced (whether across space or over time) generated multiple schooling equilibriums across and within BRIC.

Author Abstract

Our paper provides a comparative perspective on the development of public primary education in four of the largest developing economies circa 1910: Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). These four countries encompassed more than 50% of the world's population in 1910, but remarkably few of their citizens attended any school by the early twentieth century. We present new, comparable data on school inputs and outputs for BRIC drawn from contemporary surveys and government documents. Recent studies emphasize the importance of political decentralization and relatively broad political voice for the early spread of public primary education in developed economies. We identify the former and the lack of the latter to be important in the context of BRIC, but we also outline how other factors such as factor endowments, colonialism, serfdom, and, especially, the characteristics of the political and economic elite help explain the low achievement levels of these four countries and the incredible amount of heterogeneity within each of them.

Paper Information