Scott Hipsher

ESL teachers and global poverty reduction

Teaching English is a valuable contribution to our global society

I recently signed an agreement with a publisher for a new book which will focus on the private sector's role in poverty reduction in Asia. It is always exciting to have an agreement for publication for a writing project and poverty reduction is a topic I am passionate about. While acknowledging money in itself does not automatically buy happiness, poverty, real absolute below-a-dollar-a-day-in-income poverty, is usually accompanied by misery and unhappiness.

"Poverty doesn't only condemn humans to lives of difficulty and unhappiness; it can expose them to life threatening dangers. Because poverty denies people any semblance of control over their destiny, it is the ultimate denial of human rights" (Yunus and Weber, 2007, p 104).

It would appear trying to do one's small part in working to reduce the impact of poverty, real absolute poverty as opposed to just relative poverty, on the lives of individuals would be a worthy use of one's time and energies. Do ESL and English teachers in Thailand and other developing economies have a role to play in global poverty reduction?

Research consistently has shown a strong correlation between poverty reduction and the amount of openness to international trade and integration an individual economy has with the world's economy. China and Vietnam's experience of opening their economies and encouraging foreign investment has gone hand-in-hand with the most impressive records of poverty reduction the world has ever seen. On the other hand closing off an economy from international trade and investment has a very poor track record and seems to be associated with increased incidents of poverty as the economies of Zimbabwe, Myanmar-Burma and North Korea have shown. Most of the poorest areas of the world are not being exploited by private enterprises; instead these areas are mostly being ignored.

ESL and other English teachers working in developing economies have an important role to play in creating conditions which facilitate international trade and connectivity which has an indirect, but important, impact on economic growth which is the most important factor in reducing poverty. As English has become the lingua franca of international commerce, for economic growth it is important for a country to have human bridges who can work across cultural and linguistic borders, and ESL and other English teachers have an important role in developing these human bridges.

An individual teaching English in a developing economy can have a profound and direct impact on the lives of the students that individual is teaching, but this teacher can also have a small and indirect impact on reducing global poverty through providing the skills a nation needs to integrate internationally. There are many jobs a person can have which can make the individual feel good about his or her contribution to our global society, teaching English in a developing country is one of those jobs.


Yunus, M. and Weber, K. (2007), Creating a World without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism, Public Affairs: New York

Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,

The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective,

Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries

as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics. One of his latest works can be found at this link.


Dan - How misanthropic you sound! I certainly hope you're not in the EFL industry yourself ( I assume not). I think you've been immersing yourself in a little too much Marx/Engels and it's made your outlook on the world a little too sour.

By Matt, Thailand (16th September 2011)

Ok Dan

So, I assume you will not be pre-ordering my newest book :).

I realize the world is far from perfect and is constantly changing, but in general, I enjoy this crazy imperfect world of ours and my place in it.

If you feel teaching English has a negative impact on the world it is hoped you have or are seeking different ways to make a living other than teaching English, so you can have a feeling of worth and contributing to society.



By Scott, China, at the moment (13th September 2011)

You’re describing a world which, for the vast majority of English-learners in Thailand simply does not exist. What proportion of learners of English in Thailand are paid-up members of the international bourgeoisie? 10%? Less? Even if they live the same life a dozen times over, most of the other 90% aren’t going to have the slightest interest in international trade and commerce. Their trade and commerce is exchanging a day’s labour for minimum wage at 7/11 or, for the high-flyers, avoiding the soul-destroying tedium of endless days in a provincial government office. And the only international opportunities which most are likely to come across is marriage to lonely and socially dysfunctional middle-aged men in some God-forsaken backwater of the West. They’re not having a fruitful intercultural exchange when they’re learning English; they’re learning their place in the domestic - and their country’s place in the international - pecking order. Of course, they’ll be a few for whom this isn’t true and there’s always the comforting and reassuring presence of an English-speaking elite which usually presents itself as encouragingly liberal and open-minded (talk of domestic politics aside) but for many, a lot of the time, the best that can be hoped for from learning English is that it does no actual harm. That’s not to say that the fault is entirely with learning English; the fault is predominately with an education system which is geared toward maintaining certain social and ideological structures but if you’re working in that system, unless you’re extremely careful, every morning at assembly you too are working to maintain those social and ideological structures.

As for free trade, sure it brings benefits but it does so at a price (and proponents of free trade have a goldfish-like memory for these failures). It’s of course true that 100s of millions of Chinese are materially better off as members of the industrial proletariat than they were as peasant farmers but it’s not just South Koreas which free trade creates (if, in fact, free trade did create South Korea). Mexico is going through the most appalling internal trials because of NAFTA, free trade - amongst other things - has turned Haiti into a basket case and there is no shortage of sub-Saharan countries which have listened far too closely and attentively to the free trade nostrums of the IMF and the World Bank. And within countries, free trade isn’t just the royal road to a land of Gaysorn’s and Centrals (though for the lucky, that’s certainly one place where it does lead). It’s also leads to dispossession and rootlessness and unemployment and social upheaval and deprivation.

But you’re right that you don’t need to study economists to know this (and perhaps it’s not such a good idea anyway. I saw in The Guardian the other day economists described as ‘a specialist hybrid of charlatan and witch doctor’ and it is undoubtedly a ‘science’ which will in the future be filed alongside alchemy). I’m surrounded by garlic farmers who can no longer sell their product because they’re undercut by Chinese imports. I’m sure when they get back from the fields and crack open their Ricardo they comfort themselves with thoughts of comparative advantage and how much better it is to get into debt, sell their land and work on a building site in Bangkok (destined no doubt to be another luxury shopping centre from which they will be banned from entering) but you have to wonder why it is that the flag of free trade is always waved by bankers and financiers and capitalists and economists who all the while claim it’s going to free the poor from poverty, while organizations that are actually made up of the poor say something that’s remarkably close to being its exact opposite. When, for example, was the last time you saw La Via Campesina calling on the WTO to speed up its work or on the IMF to push through a few more structural adjustment programs? Of course, organizations composed of workers and peasants don’t tend to supply footnotes and in any case they’re just made of ignorant, benighted, unschooled brown folks who’ve probably never had the benefit of meeting any EFL teachers, so what do they know?

By Dan, (13th September 2011)


Thanks for your comments

The world is full of inequities and imperfections, and if one wants to find these there is no real challenge in doing so. Few things in the world bring only good, in fact the world is full of tradeoff where we have to take the good with the bad in our choices and judge based on overall effect.

I strongly feel my life has been greatly enhanced by my interactions with people from other cultures and international travel; although I also know there have been a few uncomfortable moments. Yet the overall effect has been positive.

I suspect the lives of our students who are learning English are also having their lives enhanced by increased interactions with those from other cultures and increased international opportunities.

As English is the lingua franca of international travel and trade, teaching them English allows our students to engage more efficiently in the wider world. I can not see how removing these opportunities of increased international contacts for our students would make their lives or their societies better.

While of course there are few remaining anti-globalization activists around (driven by ideology and not evidence), it is a near unanimous if not unanimous conclusion of all serious researchers on poverty reduction, those with right and left leaning, as well as those from both the West and developing economies (e.g. Sachs, Sen, Becker, Prahalad, Vanderberg, Son, Ali, Yunnas, Zhuang and so many others), that economic growth driven by the private sector and openness to the world’s economy have been and will continue to be the greatest drivers of poverty reduction. Poverty reduction specialists may disagree on details, but accept the overwhelming evidence that history has shown us that open societies with vibrant private sectors have done far more in reducing poverty than have closed societies where the economy has been dominated by the state.

But one does not have to have read all the academic and empirical reports to know this. Looking around the evidence is overwhelming. Starting in the 70s, Thailand was on a path to openness to the old world’s economies which saw the life expectancy and child mortality of the country go from rates similar to those found in sub-Saharan Africa to those of today which are close to those of a developed economy. While next door, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge closed its borders to foreign trade and interactions with devastating effects.

Today, we see Myanmar-Burma, a country that used to have a more developed economy than Thailand, closed off from international trade through both economic sanctions and the country’s own policies resulting in increasing the poverty in the country, one of the few places in the world, alongside Zimbabwe and North Koreas which have also tried to limit and restrict the role of private businesses and international trade, that has an increasing percentage of its population in poverty.

If there was any doubt left, the experiences of China and Vietnam in poverty reduction after opening their economies to international trade should remove all doubt that there is some causation between the activities of private enterprises, international trade and investment and poverty reduction.

Academic evidence, common sense and personal experience all make me reject your arguments that those of us in international education do not make a positive (although limited) impact on the world.



By Scott, China, at the moment (11th September 2011)

Rather than regurgitate half-digested neo-liberal platitudes about the virtues of free trade, do some real research. You can being by reading Ha-Joon Chang, who has shown fairly comprehensively that the 'developed' economies did not get rich by free trade. They practiced, and continue to practice, free trade only in so far as it enables them to exploit others.

As for English being a route out of poverty, anyone who has worked in Thailand can't fail to notice that one of the primary functions served by English is the allocation of social roles. That's not poverty reduction; it's the ossification of class hierarchies. Another major role is the creation of new markets, ready for exploitation by local and international capital. It's comforting to think that if you teach EFL, you're saving widows and orphans but you're not. Half the time, you're just handing people the means of their own exploitation.

By Dan, (9th September 2011)

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