How To Bring Education To The Poor In Africa

Thursday, 1 November 2012
Richard Dowden

In 2006 some friends of mine were given $5 million by Lisbet Rausing for education in Uganda. They set up an NGO called Mvule (named after a beautiful Ugandan tree), and asked me to be a Trustee. We decided to spend the money on adolescents, especially girls, who had done well at primary or secondary school but had to drop out because their families were too poor to support them.

Identifying them was a labour-intensive and expensive business, but over the next five years some 2500 were selected and places in good schools found for them. They were supported throughout, not just with the fees, uniforms and books, but everything that would try to make them equal to other students, such as travel money, soap and sanitary towels for the girls. They were also provided with mentors and visited regularly by Mvule workers.

We also set aside money to track these students, interview them – and their siblings – at stages throughout their schooldays, drilling down into what happened to them, how the scholarships changed their lives and the lives of their families and communities.

The results of this study – rare if not unique in the aid world – exceeded our wildest dreams. A report entitled: ‘These days are for those who are educated’ has been produced. It has revealed a wealth of detail about the day-to-day lives, hopes and attitudes of ordinary Ugandans. Education not only utterly transformed the lives of individual students and offered them a future otherwise closed to those who do not go to school; it often transformed their families and communities. This was an indirect and unexpected impact.

Having one child in school often inspired families to find school fees for others. Mvule students also passed on their knowledge and ambition to parents, siblings and neighbours’ children. And once they graduated, they almost always paid for an average of two siblings to go to school and built houses for their parents.
These findings come at a crucial time for Africa. When I taught in a rural Ugandan school 40 years ago, almost none of the parents could read and write, but most did not feel particularly disadvantaged. Most of the children that I taught were the first in their families to learn. But we were shocked to find that less than 20 percent of the mothers of the Mvule O level students had completed primary school. It seems that little educational progress has been made in those four decades.

Today, to be without education is to be severely disadvantaged. And as African economies grow faster and faster, the illiterate will become poorer and even more marginalised. As one Mvule girl said: “These days are for those who are educated”.

This remarkable report shows just how difficult it is for girls from poor families to stay in school. It also gives glimpses of astonishing courage and despair that are deeply moving. Many students grow and sell vegetables or do odd jobs to pay for their own school fees. One girl said: “I was an outstanding (school) fee defaulter. So when Mvule Trust asked the academic registrar about needy students, he thought of me, an abduction survivor from a war-ravaged area.”

The study showed how education affected other aspects of life. It is well known that girls who are at school are less likely to get pregnant or marry early. So we asked about best friends from primary school who did not make it to secondary. The contrast was like night and day: most had five children already. The study also found that, contrary to accepted wisdom, boys who became educated were anxious to have a learned wife, not an illiterate one.

Finding these students was not easy. Rumours went around some villages that Mvule was recruiting for devil worship or prostitution. Mvule girls were often mocked because they came from poor families. But our counsellors urged them to keep their eyes on the prize, and most came through with dignity, achieving their dream of raising the education level of their family.

Nor was it cheap. Teams scoured the country to go and interview the potential scholars in their own homes, explaining to the family what this meant and getting their parents’ support. Girls especially are often pulled out of school to help with siblings and around the home. The dropout rate is high without support and mentoring teams working with the families. To find, select and support a student through even a modest upcountry boarding school for four years costs about $1780. That is about $450 – $500 a year.

Compare that to the UK and US governments which spend about $10,000 per student in secondary education each year. So be careful of charities who claim to put poor children through school for less than that, or allow ‘communities’ to choose the pupils. In a matter like this it is clear that the ‘community leaders’ will not choose the really needy and cannot provide the support to keep them in school. Aid agencies working in this area must keep track of their pupils and support them right through their education.

On the ground collection and analysis of data is essential. Too many aid donors and agencies remain in offices in African capital cities and accept whatever statistics they are given.  Every government wants to announce that all its children are in school. But trips to the poorer suburbs of capitals or distant rural areas tell a different story. The figures are not as high as governments and aid donors like to believe, and the drop-out rate is phenomenal.

This survey shows that given the funding and effective support structures, education can be made available to the children of the poor, a gift that will then be passed on and never lost. I have always believed that money spent on education is the most effective aid of all. In this report we have the evidence.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. For more of Richard’s blogs click here.