Where the Poor Get the Richest Education

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the organization Camfed is giving the region’s most disadvantaged girls an education in radical empowerment

“To care for yourself, you need first to care for others ,  so that you feel valued,” a teenage girl reports in front of her class, reading from notes.

Jordan Shapiro

“What about accepting your strengths and accepting your weaknesses?” a classmate interrupts.

“And having the confidence to speak out!” the presenter retorts, grinning. The room erupts in laughter.

I’m sitting in the back of this schoolroom in rural Tanzania to observe classes like this, tailored and offered to girls in impoverished, rural sub-Saharan African communities by Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) — an organization that works with local community leaders and families to create networks providing support to keep girls in school.

Since 1993, Camfed and its community partners have directly supported 1,603,674 girls in schools throughout Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi. An estimated nearly four million have benefited from the “improved learning environment” that their work provides. And from where I’ve been sitting, it’s remarkably impressive, deceptively simple, educational work.

Just moments before reading her notes, for example, the teenage student at the head of the class was huddled in one of many small groups, discussing the day’s reading from the Camfed text, My Better World. Students are asked to reflect on some of life’s major philosophical and life skills questions. What does “taking care of yourself” mean, for instance, and how do you do it? How do you know which goals to set for yourself and how do you accomplish them? How can you develop true competence and assert your expertise with confidence? What are basic human needs?

Over the course of my visit, I’ve heard students engaging with My Better World curriculum in class, with each other, even with me. “Basic human needs are not just food and shelter, but also love and health,” a girl reflected poignantly, as she and several of her classmates were sharing their thoughts with me after class one day.

“Accept yourself for who you are,” another My Better World student once remarked in Swahili. “Many people want to be rich, but if you don’t accept that you are poor, you will want to steal.”

My Better World focuses precisely on the sort of autonomy, voice and empowerment that all tweens and teens will need to thrive in a secular, post-industrial global economy. Indeed, researchers have linked this sort of identity exploration to “intense engagement, positive coping, openness to change, flexible cognition and meaningful learning” (Kaplan, Sinai, and Flum 2014).

How often are students in the U.S., Europe, and the U.K. are ever asked to reflect on questions like these at school?

In the U.S., the poorest students get drilled on grit, perseverance, and eye contact, while the wealthy get creativity, purpose, and empathy. Yet here in one of world’s most impoverished regions, the least advantaged students are given a sense of purpose, hope, belonging, respect.

It is impressive, stunning. And it is all the work of Camfed.

Camfed has the same core mission as many international non-profit humanitarian organizations: to reverse-engineer poverty and inequity. But Camfed’s approach to solving this problem has always been grounded in the belief that girls’ education is the first step in galvanizing “the leadership potential of groups of girls and women at the margins of society,” according to its mission statement, creating “a multiplier effect like no other, delivering the only sustainable and scalable way of addressing the world’s problems with the urgency required.”

That sounds like a tall order, but Camfed is as practical as it is ambitious. For one, the organization makes it possible for those girls with zero material resources to attend school, gratis. Tuition, transportation, books, uniforms, sanitary protection: covered.  But Camfed’s major contribution is investing in girls’ lifelong success: through My Better World courses, mentorship programs, post-graduate teacher training, alumnae networking groups — even interest-free loans to start or develop their own businesses.

Camfed has directly supported the education of more than a million and a half girls in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi. An estimated four million sub-Saharan girls overall have gotten the benefit of its Learner Guide program, Camfed alumnae who return to teach in their local schools in order “to support marginalized children in their studies, help them succeed, and create a better world for themselves and their communities.”

Its Learner Guide program, an initiative which brings alumnae members back to their local schools in order “to support marginalized children in their studies, help them succeed, and create a better world for themselves and their communities.”

Student performance has increased by unprecedented degrees at schools where Learner Guides teach the My Better World curriculum. I also know that the simplicity of the phrase doesn’t do justice to the organization’s intricate approach to work with, and respect for, local communities’ “knowledge capital, social capital, and institutional capital.” Retention of marginalized girls has also improved: They are 38 percent less likely to drop out than girls at comparable schools.

What’s more, 84 percent of head-teachers said My Better World sessions helped students feel more confident about school. Nearly 100 percent of students agreed, saying that My Better World sessions “made them feel more positive about the future” and helped them shape their goals. Again, all but 5 percent of the students said that Learner Guides were “role models.”

I’ve seen enough data about girls’ education in the developing world to recognize the accuracy of Camfed’s slogan: “When you educate a girl, everything changes.” I also know that the simplicity of the phrase doesn’t do justice to the organization’s intricate approach to working with the local community, knowing that girls’ lifelong success starts at home. That is, Camfed’s work depends on a local community’s “knowledge capital, social capital, and institutional capital.”

These are the terms that Camfed’s founder, Ann Cotton, used when I first met her after she won the 2014 WISE Prize. Knowledge capital, she explained, “resides in the community itself,” that they will always know more about what they need than any outsider. In Cotton’s words: “You need to honor and dignify what already exists.” Camfed helps build on and up from there.

To learn more, visit Camfed.org.

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