Development, Education and Conflict

Olympio Barbanti, Jr.

August 2004

Millennium Goal 2 - Achieve Universal Primary Education

Among the many problems developing countries face, education is central. Without education there can be no proper development. One could then expect developing countries to place a high priority on education (at least at a basic level), so everyone would at least meet some minimal educational standards (e.g., basic literacy). Often, this does not happen.

Reasons for Poor Education

Social Structural Issues

Structural conflicts are one reason why education is often not prioritized.  Lack of education allows easier political and economic control and thus is in the interest of the powerful elite. Those with less education usually have less income and also have more difficulty understanding their own predicament. Thus, these people are more vulnerable in both social and economic terms, and often become dependent on the powerful in society for supplying many of their basic needs. Many poor people sell their electoral votes in exchange for needed goods: dentures, medicines, or any other material needs. Since education could free people from this relationship, the powerful elite see education as something to be avoided, not promoted.

Family Issues

Family problems are a second reason why education is not prioritized. Poor families are unstructured, fathers are frequently absent and sometimes have been replaced by a woman's partner. The level of intra-household conflict and even physical violence is high, but remains veiled as women fear the consequences of reporting the abuse or being abandoned. Additionally, parents who did not get a good education normally do not attribute importance to education for their children. All this reflects on the child, who invariably brings to the school the conflicts they face at home. In addition, many poor children are asked, if not forced, by their parents to beg in the streets or to work instead of going to school.

School Issues

Interviewee, Maria Livia de Castro empowers teenagers through art through her NGO. She believes that the current official school model is not completely compatible with the idea of opening minds and developing human capabilities. For her, basic schooling in Brazil is extremely conservative. It does not provide empowerment. She exemplified this assertion with the case of a student who was being expelled from school because he had spray painted the school's walls. In her opinion, the school could have taught him the difference between right and wrong, and tried to channel his artistic gifts to art production. [1] 

This exemplifies the lack of conflict resolution training within schools in Brazil. Like those in many other developing societies, Brazilian schools tend to be authoritarian.  However, public schools in developing countries are facing difficult times, thus they need conflict resolution skills to deal with their problems.


Silvana Gallina, president of the Espirito Santo State Reforming School System, reports that the large majority of youth taken to reform schools in Brazil are fathers and breadwinners, despite an average age of only 13 years old. The great majority of these youths have committed crimes related to drug trafficking. In fact, drug trafficking is one big impediment to primary education, since children in school are not available to help the drug trade.

Frequently, in large Brazilian towns and neighborhoods, criminal elements order schools and stores to shut their doors and send students and employees away. This hurts the children, who miss school, but it also hurts them because the resulting fear and instability undermines their full learning capacity.  

This poses a question of how to negotiate with illegal agents. Should public figures negotiate with them, since negotiation implies recognizing the legitimacy of these agents? On the other hand, can any better result be achieved without negotiation? Answers to these questions remain unclear.

Illiteracy and Conflict Resolution

A recent poll of 15 to 64 years olds found that only 25% of Brazilians could fully read and write, 8% were completely illiterate, and 67% were functionally illiterate--they could read, but could not comprehend the full meaning of what they read or make a connection to other issues. This is both a development problem and a problem for development.

For example, one NGO interviewee, Lucio Ventania, works with socially vulnerable people such as prostitutes and former inmates. His clients face great difficulties obtaining jobs because they cannot understand very basic information. One can then imagine the limitations this situation poses for conflict resolution practice as it is largely based on rational methods of dialogue and structured meetings in which people are "equalized" around a table. Generally, those who are functionally illiterate know their restrictions and will not want to (or be able to ) fully participate in such meetings.

Conflict professionals are gaining a greater appreciation for the importance of cultural sensitivity in their methods. Here, the concept of "cultural sensitivity" refers more to the needed awareness of formal educational levels than to other cultural characteristics, though those are also important. Local perceptions of right and wrong, for example, must be acknowledged.


The concept of "empowerment," as advanced by the Brazilian academic Paulo Freire, is very important in developing countries. Freire rightly saw empowerment as a path to freedom. In his view, the functionally illiterate should be educated with a pedagogy capable of opening their minds to a broader understanding of the reality in which they live. This means not only teaching them to read and write but giving them social, political, and economic awareness and skills which will enable them to more fully understand but also participate in their own, their family's and their community's lives.


[1] Editors' note: I heard a story on the U.S. National Public Radio about a group of educators who were encouraging young inner-city youth in the U.S. to create legal graffiti as art in an effort to overcome the trend of expelling students for doing it illegally. So it is not just a problem in developing countries!

Use the following to cite this article:
Barbanti, Jr., Olympio . "Development, Education and Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2004 <>.

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