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3.1 The public sector: Training priorities, resources and reorientation

"While there is long history of poverty-focused training in developed industrial economies, it is still relatively rare in the large majority of developing countries where most of the poor live" (Malik, 1996:46). This seems particularly ironic given that most of the world's poor live in developing countries. The following discussion looks at why public sector training priorities continue to favour non-poor groups. We shall focus in particular on the design of poverty reduction programmes, overall resource availability and competing claims over training resources from other sectors and groups.

3.1.1 Training and poverty reduction

To a considerable degree, limited, often tokenistic public sector training for the poor is symptomatic of the weak overall commitment to eliminating poverty that is displayed by many governments. A major World Bank study on poverty in Sub-Saharan African countries concluded that, in the mid-1990s, less than quarter of governments in the region were strongly committed to poverty reduction (World Bank, 1996). This lack of commitment is manifested in a variety of ways. With respect to the informal sector, governments have been criticised for adopting a 'minimalist' approach. Thus, in Asia, "few governments have tried to understand the constraints facing the informal sector... Besides easing access to credit, it is assumed that the sector will somehow manage and develop without any intervention from governments with NGOs taking increased responsibility" (ILO, 1995:7).

While it is generally acknowledged that creating an enabling macro-economic and legal environment is often likely to have a much greater impact on MSE development than specific promotional measures, deeply entrenched political and social forces prevent governments from doing this. Faced with this situation, "it is far easier and more politically visible to construct a few subsidised shelters to protect a few lucky informal sector mechanics than to liberalise the regulations which continue to constrain the majority" (Harper,1996:107). There are, therefore, real worries that government training provision is a way of avoiding hard political decisions about creating truly 'enabling environments' for the poor in the informal sector.

In Latin America, many national vocational training institutes have set up specialist divisions to respond directly to the training needs of the poor and disadvantaged in the informal sector. However, in SSA and South Asia, public institutions "have found the idea of serving new target groups much more problematic" (King, 1996: 42). But, it is precisely in these two regions where the incidence of acute absolute poverty is greatest (see Box 3).

National training boards and committees are usually only advisory and their composition is heavily weighted in favour of representatives from other ministries and public bodies with minimal representation, if any at all, from organisations that protect and promote the interests of the poor. These governance structures generally lack any real influence over training policies and related resource allocations.

The design of poverty reduction programmes is also a key issue. Safety net programs tend to absorb the bulk of government resources for short term poverty reduction. This includes such measures as family assistance and/or cash social assistance, food transfers, public works, and income generation. Generally speaking, skills development for beneficiaries is not seen as a major requirement in order for these interventions to be successful.

Political complacency has also been an important explanatory factor. In some countries, politicians and policymakers genuinely believe that concerted efforts are being made to train the poor. In particular, technical and vocational secondary schools are often seen as providing skills for the poor. In most of Latin America, "the establishment of (national vocational) training institutes constituted the instrument of public action in the education plane towards the most disadvantaged" (CINTERFOR, 1998).

It is important to acknowledge, however, that the need for the public sector to play a leading role in skills development in the smallholder agricultural sector is generally accepted by most governments and donors. Perhaps the best example of this commitment is the World Bank- inspired Training & Visit extension system (T & V) which has been adopted in over thirty countries during the last 10-15 years. World Bank lending for T&V projects has totalled over US$4 billion since the early 1980s. However, the Bank policies concerning the role of training for the poor in other sectors are, at best, ambiguous and, at times, decidedly negative. This is particularly the case for core VET institutions which, typically, are the sole or joint responsibility of ministries of labour, education and higher education (see Bennell, 1996).

During the 1990s, the World Bank has consistently encouraged governments, particularly in low income countries, to reduce the share of VET in the overall education budget. Thus, one of the main objectives of the World Bank's VET reform agenda is to privatise funding and provision of VET as much as possible thereby ensuring that primary/basic education receives maximum possible government funding. In practice, however, because of the fungibility of budgetary resources, the exact opposite may be happening. In the early 1990s, the Bank was concerned that "educational policy reforms are being undermined because donor support for primary education allows governments to increase spending on VET" (World Bank, 1993:4).

Learning to change: Skills
development among the
economically vulnerable and
socially excluded in
developing countries
Paul Bennell
Employment and Training Department
International Labour Office Geneva
First published 1999

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