In 2012, 1.7 billion people live in poverty – including 1 billion children. One billion, at first glance, is quite an impressive number (- and it is still such a couple of seconds after). So let us look at some more facts to get a clearer picture. What is meant by poverty? Absolute poverty, by definition, refers to those who lack certain basic human needs. These needs commonly include water, nutrition, healthcare and education. Especially the lack of primary education represents a root cause for another generation in poverty. For decades, International Development Aid was trying to improve the situation. But despite numerous school programs, too many kids in the slums of Southern Africa, India and other developing countries still suffer illiteracy. Currently, there are 121 million children hungry for knowledge who have no access to primary school.
There are reasons for that. For people living from less than 1 dollar a day, education is a luxury they simply cannot afford. In African slums where 64 percent of the children are poor, priorities are set following a simple rule: belly first. Consequently, starving families more likely require their children to work in order to spend the income on a little more food. Imagine you meet one of these tough kids from Alexandra, a township in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the one hand you have a BigMac with large fries and a diet coke – a classy McMenu. In the other hand, however, you carry Brealey & Myers’s “Principles of Corporate Finance 10th Edition”. Seriously: who on earth would be crazy enough to choose the book? Anyway, the Menu-choice would possibly be made by many people regardless of their social and economic status. But I guess you got our point: In places like Alexandra, children do actually not have the choice. It’s belly first.
Fortunately, we can observe several promising approaches. New takes on education deficits involve a paradigm shift from traditional classes to more individual and pragmatic learning models – by always keeping an eye on the cost-efficiency. In the following, two inspiring projects will be discussed in further detail.
Having no significant economic importance, slums are often excluded from a developing country’s infrastructure. In such remote areas, mobile communication networks are frequently seen as the only key to social and economic interaction with its surroundings. A limited infrastructure, indeed, is better than no infrastructure at all. In fact, mobile has therefore already been used several times to provide access to education for the handicapped inhabitants. The potential of mobile phones to boost connectivity everywhere including rural areas gave birth to a range of ambitious projects. Unsurprisingly, these pioneer programs showed a large appetite for creative mobile learning solutions.
An example for a very successful venture that involves the concept of individual mLearning is “BBC Janala”. Janala (‘Window’) is generating opportunities for millions of people in Bangladesh by offering a language education platform accessible via cell phone, TV or internet. Our example kid from Johannesburg – suggested that she moved over to Dhaka – can now pick the BigMac without feeling bad about it. As she can learn English via her mobile phone while enjoying the burger at the same time, she is actually not missing anything. Basically, all she has to do is calling 3000. She may now choose among thousands of 3-minute-audio lessons, offering teaching sequences from a first time learner to a business English level. In addition, she is able to record her own stories, as well.
Thanks to the Janala program, learning English is no exclusive privilege for the rich any more. For just 1 Taka (1 pence) per minute, more than 50 million mobile users in Bangladesh can afford complementary language skills – anywhere, anytime.
The advantages of mLearning are groundbreaking and applicable to multiple problems. Most of all, it pushes forward the issue of equal opportunities. Many kids drop out of school because they simply do not understand the language spoken in class. Others are not able show up to lessons due to disabilities or alternatively need to contribute to the family household. In this field, the flexibility of mobile learning opens a wide window of opportunities. (Check out this paper on the opportunities of mLearning to get more information about the topic) .
“Balsakhi” – The Child’s Friend
Besides mobile learning, another pragmatic approach raised our interest. Already in 1994, Pratham (NGO) was searching for a cheap and simple way to improve the quality of education. Mainly operating in India, Pratham’s team had a closer look on Indian schools in Mumbai. Their examinations showed clearly: Not every random donation aid automatically ensures effective and sustainable learning success. Having in mind that every school term a child attends makes its future income rise by 20 percent on average, the effectiveness of tuition classes obtains vital importance.
Many people tend to link the buzz words “flexibility”, “effectiveness” and “cost-efficiency” directly to IT-solutions. Indeed, studies like these prove computers to enhance a child’s learning progress. On the other hand, computers are expensive and development funding resources are limited. Generally, Pratham was ambitious in finding a solution that can be financed independently by the Indian schools themselves.
The answer responding to the credo of cost-efficiency was a network of Balsakhi teachers. Every government school participating in the project was provided with an additional Balsakhi (usually a young woman, recruited from the local community, who has finished secondary school). Children identified as falling behind their peers take additional classes 2 hours a day with the ‘Balsakhis’ (‘the child’s friends’). Well trained, genuine and fairly paid, Balsakhis turned out to be a cheap and even more effective measure than IT-donations.
Looking at these two successful examples may lead us to the following conclusion: Neither BigMac donations (you might have guessed this beforehand) will fight poverty effectively, nor will tons of finance books or computers end illiteracy. We need to rely on such unconventional entrepreneurial spirit that fosters a paradigm shift to pragmatic and sustainable thinking in contrast to traditional development aid programs. And we need to keep our eyes open for solutions that really work.