Literacy Rates
Literacy is fundamental when investing in the future and working toward greater health, economic prosperity and gender equality and is a fair indicator of a nation’s relationship with education. Former UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova summarized this perfectly when she said “the future starts with the alphabet.” As a proven pathway out of poverty, education leads to higher literacy rates, which can ease economic burdens in developing nations.

Global Literacy Rates

According to the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), in 2016, the global literacy rate stood at 86% for individuals 15 and older in comparison to 91% for youth aged 15-24. These high percentages are indicative of increased access to basic education. Across the past 65 years, “the global literacy rate increased by 4% every five years from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015.”

However, there is a large disparity among developing countries, specifically those in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, in 2019, Niger’s youth illiteracy rate for ages 15-24 stood at 60.3%, which is a constraint for economic and social development in the nation.

From an economic perspective, any effort toward increased literacy marks a returned investment in the nation’s growth. High illiteracy rates place a financial burden on nations. The World Literacy Foundation found in 2018 that the economic cost of illiteracy in the U.S. alone is more than $300 billion, and in terms of the global economy, illiteracy costs the world $1.2 trillion.

Literacy for Poverty Reduction

Established research highlights the correlation between high literacy rates and a high GDP. Friedrich Huebler, the head of the Education Standards and Methodology Section of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, conducted a study in 2005 where he plotted the school net enrollment ratios (NER) against GDP per capita of 120 different countries. His findings showed that “the higher the income levels of a country, the higher the levels of school enrollment.”

When it comes to cost per student in regard to literacy rates, there is a stark global trend: “In high-income countries, for instance, households shoulder a larger share of education expenditures at higher education levels than at lower levels – but in low-income countries, this is not the case.” The amount a household spends on education directly correlates to higher education rates. Because of this, low-income countries are falling behind in education levels because of the low private spending on education in comparison to their higher-income counterparts.

Books For Africa Works to Increase Literacy Rates

Books For Africa is working to “end the book famine in Africa” by collecting and distributing books, tablets and computers across the African continent. Tom Warth founded BfA in 1988 when he visited a Ugandan library with an extreme scarcity of books. He went back to the U.S. and spoke with “publishers, booksellers and librarians” at the Minnesota Book Publishers’ Roundtable, prompting the start of the organization.

Through a simple idea, Books For Africa has made a profound impact on the access to knowledge in Africa. According to its website, “last year alone, Books For Africa shipped 3.1 million books, and 224 computers and e-readers containing more than 885,000 digital books to 28 African countries.”

The organization’s methodology has been proven to increase education and literacy rates. According to USAID’s research, “children and youth who learn to read are healthier, more self-sufficient, can earn a better living and have more opportunities to become productive members of their societies.” Not only does the increased access to books promote literacy but it also contributes to the development of children and communities at large.

Room to Read

Room to Read is an international nonprofit that is fighting specifically for increased access to girls’ education alongside children’s literacy. This mission is important as more than two-thirds of the 796 million illiterate people in the world are women.

John Wood founded the nonprofit in 1998 when he visited a school in Nepal with 450 students and very few resources. Wood began with 3,000 book donations from family and friends. Wood soon left his job at Microsoft as director of business development to pursue his passion for education with co-founders Erin Ganju and Dinesh Shrestha.

Since its founding, the nonprofit has reached more than 32 million children across 15 developing nations. About 20 million children have enrolled in Room to Read’s literacy initiative and the organization has provided training to more than “200,000 teachers and librarians.” Specifically, in the arena of girls’ education, 2.8 million girls have enrolled in the organization’s girls’ education program.

Room to Read prioritizes working directly with “local governments, schools, communities and families” to highlight the importance of education “and how [these groups] can play a role in enabling students to achieve their full potential.” Additionally, 87% of the organization’s staff work in their countries of origin, ensuring that the efforts are more grassroots and built from the community.

High literacy rates are paramount for economic development, and with a continued commitment to further this at the grassroots level and beyond, global poverty rates can reduce.

– Imaan Chaudhry
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tanzania's Literacy Rate
Illiteracy affects people across the world in all aspects of life. For example, people with low literacy skills are more likely to have health problems because they cannot read prescription labels. Also, they may grow isolated in a world where technology is rapidly evolving. At 77.89%, Tanzania’s literacy rate is quite positive; however, it has declined by over 10% since the 1970s. At that time, Tanzania had one of the highest in the world. That is why the government has made improving Tanzania’s literacy rate a priority.

Illiteracy in Tanzania

Recent studies have shown that Tanzanian students are unable to write their own names, read a sentence or solve a basic mathematics problem. During the first two decades of its independence in 1961, adult literacy classes helped the country boost its literacy rate. Unfortunately, these classes are virtually non-existent today. Also, a reduced government budget and lower donations to fight illiteracy perpetuate the decline in literacy rates. In turn, this lower funding has led to teacher staffing shortages, overcrowded classrooms and subpar teacher training. Curricular and classroom material shortages are also results from budget cuts. Finally, these poor conditions have led to high dropout rates which accelerate illiteracy.

Government Solutions

To reach the goal of 100% literacy by 2030, the Tanzanian government has launched the National Adult Literacy and Mass Education Rolling Strategy 2020/21 to 2024/25. The plan includes reviving more literacy courses across the country. Additionally, it creates a database to track and monitor educational progress. Third, the plan funds an increase in learning materials and teacher training. Fourth, it funds research on the best literacy methods. Other plan initiatives include the implementation of multimedia technologies in the classroom and educational outreach to young women. In addition, the plan includes supplying radios to rural areas and publishing local newspapers.

The plan to boost Tanzania’s literacy rate will account for 15% of its national budget, but it is an investment the country is willing to make. Not only is it an investment in educational opportunities for children and adults, but it will also pay dividends to its economy. While Tanzania reached an economic milestone by evolving from a low-income country to a lower-middle-income country in 2020, the country’s poverty rate during that year was still high at 27.2%. James Mdoe of Tanzania’s education ministry views the literacy plan as key to combating poverty. He suggests that being able to read and write allows citizens to acquire more responsibility and perform more complex tasks. He emphasizes, “a literate and informed society is the basis for sustainable development.”

Mdoe underlines the need for considerable coordination to make the plan work. Experts will need to organize teacher recruitment. They will also need to direct research on best practices in adult literacy education. Finally, Tanzania must push continuing education for its adult population.

Looking Ahead

The government’s plan to improve Tanzania’s literacy rate will provide greater educational opportunities for all adults and children. In turn, this will help the country continue to grow economically. With this ambitious plan, Tanzania has a good chance of reaching its goal of 100% literacy by 2030.

– Kyle Har
Photo: Flickr

School Feeding Program in RwandaRwanda is a small, densely populated country in Africa, located just south of the equator. Though the country has made great strides in poverty reduction since the 1994 genocide, 55% of the population still lived in poverty in 2017. The COVID-19 pandemic halted a period of economic boom and, as a result, the World Bank expects poverty to rise by more than 5% in 2021. International aid and development programs in Rwanda are more important than ever, especially when it comes to providing reliable, nutritious food sources. Chronic malnutrition affects more than a third of Rwandan children younger than 5 and the World Food Programme (WFP) considers nearly 20% of Rwandans food insecure. One key initiative aiming to eradicate malnutrition in Rwanda is the WFP’s Home Grown School Feeding program in Rwanda.

History of the Home Grown School Feeding Initiative

The WFP’s Home Grown School Feeding initiative works with local governments, farmers and schools to provide nutritious, diverse daily meals for students and enrich local economies. These Home Grown School Feeding programs currently operate in 46 countries with each program tailored to the needs of local people.

The Home Grown School Feeding program in Rwanda began in 2016, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Mastercard. The program serves daily warm meals to more than 85,000 learners in 104 primary schools. The program benefits both students and their families in several major ways.

5 Benefits of the Home Grown School Feeding Initiative

  1. Improves Nutrition. Agriculture is the basis of Rwanda’s economy, but desertification, drought and other problems are decreasing harvests. As a result, many families struggle to grow enough food to feed themselves. The Home Grown School Feeding program in Rwanda provides students with meals of either maize, beans or hot porridge. The school-provided meal is often the only regular, nutritious meal available to many students.
  2. Improves Hygiene. Along with kitchens and ingredients, the WFP also supplies schools in Rwanda with materials to teach basic nutrition and hygiene. One strategy includes installing rainwater collection tanks and connecting them to handwashing stations. Additionally, WFP workers build or renovate bathrooms at each school. Connecting the school to a reliable water supply also benefits the local community by decreasing the distance villagers travel to access water. School handwashing stations are also open to the community, improving health and hygiene for everyone.
  3. Improves Focus, Literacy and School Attendance. According to Edith Heines, WFP country director for Rwanda, “a daily school meal is a very strong incentive for parents to send their children to school.” In primary schools where the WFP implemented the Home Grown School Feeding Program, attendance has increased to 92%. With the implementation of the program, students report increased alertness in class and better grades and performance. One child from Southern Rwanda, Donat, told the WFP that before his school provided lunch, he was often so hungry that he did not want to return to school after going home at lunchtime. Now that his school provides lunch, he looks forward to class each day. Literacy rates have also improved dramatically at schools where the program operates and the WFP reports that student reading comprehension has increased from less than 50% to 78%.
  4. Teaches Gardening and Cooking Skills. The WFP develops a kitchen garden at every school involved in the Home Grown School Feeding program. Children participate in growing and caring for crops, learning valuable gardening skills that they can take home to their parents. Children are also instructed in meal preparation and in proper hygiene.
  5. Diversifying Crops at Home. Students also receive seedlings in order to provide food at home and to diversify the crops grown in food-insecure areas. Crop diversification can help improve soil fertility and crop yields. Sending seedlings home also promotes parent and community involvement in the program, ensuring the program’s long-term stability.

Looking Ahead

The Home Grown School Feeding program in Rwanda has improved the quality of life for many children living in poverty as well as their families. By fighting to end hunger in food-insecure areas of Rwanda, the WFP has improved hygiene, nutrition, school attendance, literacy, crop diversity and more. The continuation of the program in Rwanda and in other countries around the world will enable further progress in the fight against global poverty.

Julia Welp
Photo: Flickr

Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy
An estimated 750 million youth and adults worldwide can neither read nor write. This is one of the many challenges that prompted UNESCO’s 40th General Conference. The agency’s Member States proposed a solution, “Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy,” on Nov. 15, 2019. This strategy’s grand objective is to extend UNESCO’s undivided support to all countries. A special focus will be on members of the Global Alliance for Literacy, the majority of whose populations show the highest literacy levels.

Strategic Priority Areas

The Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy aligns with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Specifically, this plan follows SDG 4, “Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

The strategy has four key priority areas:

  1. Support Member States in the development of strategies and national literacy policies and strategies. To achieve this, UNESCO will work hand-in-hand with the Member States to develop learning techniques. The techniques will have a comprehensive perspective and undergo integration into public systems.
  2. Aid the education needs of disadvantaged groups, such as women and girls. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population comprises women. Consequently, UNESCO’s strategy will focus on women and other specific populations that face disproportionate disadvantages. Indigenous peoples, refugees, immigrants, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities will also be a priority in the plan.
  3. Leverage digital technologies to increase access to education and improve learning outcomes. UNESCO will help the Member States fully exploit technological innovations — such as Artificial Intelligence, Open Education Resources, etc. — that can potentially transform their learning environments. To do this, UNESCO will reinforce partnerships with outstanding research institutions and private corporations.
  4. Monitor progress and assess literacy skills and programs people’s literacy skills. To assess progress with SDG 4.6.1 indicator, UNESCO will deploy data-based learning assessment systems and powerful tools like the Global Education Monitoring Report, among others.

Literacy Despite the COVID-19 Pandemic: Attainable or Impractical?

The Coronavirus pandemic has left education systems hanging by a thread and exposed the many cracks that existed even before the pandemic. In her opening statement of the UNESCO 2020 Global Webinar, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, Stefania Giannini, encouraged nations to make literacy “a force of inclusion and resilience” as they strive to reconstruct and attain more sustainable development.

UNESCO conducted a survey on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on literacy programs in August 2020. It revealed that out of a total of 49 adult literacy programs, more than 90% underwent suspension as a way to abide by coronavirus containment measures such as lockdowns.

In response to the coronavirus, UNESCO has developed the Global Education Coalition. So far, the coalition has helped over 70 countries to counter the effects that the pandemic has had on their education systems. This platform has made it possible for 82,000 teachers and 500,000 students in Senegal to carry on with their studies through the Ministry of Senegal’s “Ministry Distance Learning” platform. Furthermore, UNESCO has projected to add another 1.5 million learners and teachers through a partnership with Microsoft.

UNESCO has also assisted in creating educational resources, such as handouts, videos and guides for instructors and parents in Lebanon. These many programs have contributed to enhanced learning during these unprecedented times.

Not Easy but Possible

Despite the frailty that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic, UNESCO’s Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy is thriving. The strategy is concrete proof that although the journey toward literacy is not a walk in the park, the end goal is still attainable. So long as nations are willing to push for it, literacy is possible all across the world, even during COVID-19.

Mbabazi Divine
Photo: Flickr

Improve Education in BangladeshIn a speech given at a Boston high school in 1990, Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” For many of the world’s impoverished, education is not an option. Today, more than 72 million children of primary education age are not in school and nearly 759 million adults are illiterate. While many maintain the capacity to survive without an education, the knowledge and awareness garnered through school allows the impoverished to improve their living conditions and rise out of poverty. USAID and the World Bank are working to improve education in Bangladesh as a means of addressing poverty.

The State of Education in Bangladesh

In the last 10 years, there has been progress when it comes to improving education in Bangladesh. According to USAID, nearly 98% of children of primary school age are enrolled in school. In 2016, 50.9% of all enrolled students were girls, meaning total gender parity. Both of these statistics are major accomplishments but there is much more to be done to improve education in Bangladesh.

While enrollment is high, the quality of education that the children are receiving remains quite low. Reading fluency is the barometer that is used to measure a school system’s quality, and in Bangladesh, most students are unable to pass basic fluency assessments. To put exact numbers to this, USAID conducted an assessment and determined that “44% of students finish first-grade unable to read their first word and 27 % of third-grade students cannot read with comprehension.”

This lack of literacy not only puts these students at a great disadvantage but stunts prospects of economic growth for Bangladesh. Education plays a significant role in sustaining and developing countries and economies which is why USAID and the World Bank have invested in improving Bangladesh’s education system.

The World Bank’s Education Efforts

On January 18, 2021, Bangladesh signed an agreement with the World Bank, financing $6.5 million to help more than 39,000 kids receive primary school education. The package also allocates funds to vocational training schools for approximately 8,500 dropouts. Mercy Tembon, the World Bank country director for Bangladesh and Bhutan, says that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the education of children from lower-income households. The additional financing will help slum children and vulnerable youth to build the foundations necessary to improve their lives and increase their opportunities. The World Bank has given Bangladesh the means necessary to improve the quality of their education system and thus support the greater economy.

USAID’s Educational Assistance

USAID has taken a more hands-on approach in improving the quality of education. It works directly with Bangladesh’s Ministry of Primary and Mass Education to improve early grade reading for children to ensure that all children learn to read in their first years of schooling. USAID’s education programs in Bangladesh have:

  • Expanded access to schooling to almost 30,000 out-of-school children
  • Increased the reading fluency of third graders by 18%
  • Increased the first-word reading fluency of first graders by 36%
  • Trained nearly 17,000 new teachers on how to teach early grade reading
  • Issued more than two million reading materials to primary schools

Education as a Key to Poverty Reduction

Every young mind deserves the opportunity for education and with the help of the World Bank and USAID, Bangladesh has the means to offer that. Efforts to improve education in Bangladesh will uplift an entire nation. The state of education in the world is progressing and thus bringing about poverty reduction success.

Matthew Hayden
Photo: Flickr

tutudesk campaignA healthy learning environment means adequate school supplies and sufficient and quality learning materials. School desks are often less thought of but are also essential resources that impact a child’s learning. UNESCO conducted a study examining the impact of school desks on children in the learning environment and found that a proper school desk is a determining factor in how a child processes information. In another study, it was found that sufficiently designed furniture is an essential factor in the development of the capabilities of school children. The quality of the learning environment influences the quality of education that a child receives. The Tutudesk campaign has found that more than 95 million children throughout sub-Saharan Africa lack school desks for classroom learning.

Education for Poverty Reduction

An adequate education can be the deciding factor in whether an impoverished child is able to progress out of poverty in adulthood. UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring (GEM) team conducted an analysis of the influence of education on poverty in 2017. It was found that an estimated 420 million people could be alleviated from poverty with the completion of secondary education, reducing the number of global poor by half and reducing the number of poor people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by two-thirds. Since school desks are essential for education, organizations are putting desks at the forefront of their initiatives.

The Tutudesk Campaign

South African human rights activist, Desmond Tutu, founded the Tutdesk campaign in 2012 in partnership with the United Nations Special Envoy for Education. The Tutudesk campaign recognized the dire need for school desks and workstations for students throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The campaign aims to supply portable and sustainable workstations for children in need of desks both in school and at home. Made from a robust, child-friendly blend of polymers, the Tutudesk workstation can last the duration of a learner’s school career. Since its launch, the nonprofit organization has provided more than 1.5 million desks to disadvantaged children. The Tutudesk campaign believes that the Tutudesk provides a viable solution to literacy development and the general infrastructure crisis. The organization’s current goal is to combat the severe desk scarcity throughout sub-Saharan Africa by delivering 20 million desks to children in need by 2025.

The K.I.N.D. Campaign

Lawrence O’Donnell in collaboration with UNICEF launched the K.I.N.D. (Kids in Need of Desks) campaign in 2010. When visiting  Malawi school teachers expressed the dire need for school desks to O’Donnell. O’Donnell collaborated with UNICEF and a local woodworking shop to fund the production of 30 school desks. This small initiative developed into the K.I.N.D. campaign. The organization seeks to provide desks for schools in Malawi as well as secondary school scholarships for Malawian girls. The K.I.N.D. campaign has brought desks to more than 938,000 Malawian children. The K.I.N.D. campaign hopes to enhance education for children in need through its efforts.

Desks, Education and Poverty Reduction

Education is the gateway to economic progression and thus the answer to solving global poverty. School desks play a prominent role in this. Quality education can provide a way out of poverty for poverty-stricken children around the world.  By providing desks to the impoverished, the K.I.N.D. campaign and the Tutudesk campaign address both education and poverty simultaneously.

– Imani Smikle
Photo: Flickr

BOOK FAIRIES ADVANCE LEARNINGChildren are the world’s future but half of children account for the world’s poor. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 59 million children, aged between 5 and 17, work to provide for their families instead of attending school. Therefore, every fifth child ends up in child labor. Even in richer countries in Europe, one in five children lives in poverty and 25% were at risk of poverty in 2017. Since poverty and literacy correlate, both must be improved. In Africa, 48 million youth aged 15 to 24 are illiterate and 30 million primary-aged children are not in school. Globally, literacy rates have improved in the past 20 years but women and children still lag behind in literacy. The main cause of illiteracy globally is a lack of books. Organizations like The Book Fairies advance learning in developing nations and address illiteracy.

The Book Fairies

Founded by Amy Zaslansky, The Book Fairies began in Long Island, New York, as an organization accepting new and used books that are donated to libraries and schools that lack funding for educational resources for children.

Developed in 2012, The Book Fairies has donated more than 130,000 books to 25 school districts and 100 organizations across New York. Now, the organization has expanded globally, donating over two million books to date.

Partnered with US-Africa Children’s Fellowship (ACF), a nonprofit that gives supplies to impoverished schools in Africa and refugees in Jordan, The Book Fairies provided 80,000 books in 2017 to ACF. Approximately, this figure accounted for 50% of ACF’s shipped donated books that year. Every year, the organization ships thousands of books to Africa.

The Book Fairies advance learning and literacy in underdeveloped global nations such as Africa, India, China, South America and the Caribbean Islands. Even with COVID-19, students in poor communities in the U.S. and abroad still have access to books due to the organization’s efforts.

Other Book Fairies Hiding Books Globally

The influence of this organization has spread. In 2017, a similar reading organization launched in Europe, also known as The Book Fairies. To be a book fairy, a person chooses a book that they have read and enjoyed, they then put an official book fairy sticker on it that reads “take this book, read it and leave it for the next person to enjoy.” Then, the book is hidden in public for someone else to find and read. This little tradition has expanded to almost 9,000 people sharing books in over 100 countries.

Actress Emma Watson is a notable book fairy. After starring in the 2019 film “Little Women”, the actress launched a Little Women campaign. A whole 2,000 copies of the book were hidden around the world, with a handwritten note from Watson herself that promotes The Book Fairies’ organization.

Alleviating Illiteracy and Poverty Through Books

The main missions of book organizations such as those above are to end the cycle of poverty by improving literacy. The Book Fairies advance learning by providing books of all kinds to poor communities and countries and give children a fighting chance to take themselves out of poverty.

– Shelby Gruber
Photo: Flickr

Poverty in Liberia
Extreme poverty is a persistent challenge in the West African Nation of Liberia, where people continue to feel the after-effects of a 14-year civil war and the 2014 Ebola epidemic. The World Bank estimates that 54% of Liberians live on less than $2 per day and 59% of eligible children attend school. Despite these realities, the future has promise: the growing Liberian Youth Orchestra (LYO) is working tirelessly to empower children and target poverty in this country.

The History of LYO

In 2018, Julie McGhee, a musician from Canton, MI, formed the Liberian Youth Orchestra (LYO) string program. The program runs at Heart of Grace School, in Lower Johnsonville, just outside Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. McGhee recalls that she had traveled to Liberia on three prior mission trips before she visited any schools. When she visited Heart of Grace School in 2016, she discovered there were no developed music programs. McGhee states, “Some schools had choirs, but that really was the extent of music education in Liberia.”

The path to securing the LYO was quite difficult, requiring took two years of planning, securing donations and overcoming major obstacles. For example, Liberian customs held LYO’s donated string instruments in customs for five months, delaying the start of the program. As a last resort, McGhee emailed Dr. Jewel Howard-Taylor, a senator who would eventually become Liberia’s vice president. Dr. Howard-Taylor was able to free the trapped shipment from customs, and in November 2018, the LYO officially launched. McGhee traveled to Liberia again and spent six weeks conducting a string orchestra camp at Heart of Grace School. She has continued LYO’s impact by regularly teaching lessons via video call from her home in Michigan, as well as intermittently traveling to Liberia. Meanwhile, McGhee’s teaching assistant, a young Liberian man named McGill Kowula, handles on-the-ground operations.

LYO’S Impact on Children

LYO has quickly become a source of pride in the community, as involvement in the orchestra is helping children learn to read. Literacy is a requirement to enter the LYO, motivating children to study and work hard to enter the program. In 2020, 12 prospective orchestra members learned to read and obtained acceptance into LYO.

Several of LYO’s 43 string students have experienced other dramatic academic successes after becoming members of LYO, McGhee said. One such student was Mary, who began formal education in 2016 at the age of 11 but failed her first year. She transferred to Heart of Grace School in 2017, where she began playing in the LYO the following year. After involvement in the orchestra, Mary not only became a better student but jumped two grade levels. McGhee interviewed each student at the beginning of the string program and again a year after it started. According to McGhee, “I noticed that by the second interview, Mary told her story in a completely different way. She said, ‘I played my violin in front of the president, and that’s something no one in my family has ever done.’

LYO Needs Sustained Support to End Poverty in Liberia

State schools in Liberia are available at no cost, but many families prefer private schools. Unfortunately, 25% of young Liberian children report sexual abuse by a staff member. Many often consider private schools to be safer. However, the high rate of poverty in Liberia means that many families may struggle to afford private school fees, which are equivalent to about $100 per year. As a result, LYO students often receive sponsorship to stay in school, which may come through private donations or through other means. For example, the Jewels Starfish Foundation (JSF) is a female empowerment organization, run by Vice President Howard-Taylor, that sponsors education for girls grades 7-12. JSF currently pays tuition for 11 girls at Heart of Grace School.

Though McGhee is hopeful that she will be able to start a youth orchestra at another school in Liberia, LYO needs $44 per month per student to cover operational fees, and the current chapter of the orchestra has not received enough funding for the 2020/2021 school year. According to McGhee, LYO benefits greatly from sustained monthly giving. In fact, donations large and small are helping LYO to continue its work and to reduce poverty in Liberia.

– Andrea Kruger
Photo: Flickr

Create Sustainable Change
A new resource center in Jua Kali, Kenya is using the community to maximize its impact and create sustainable change. It is working with government and school officials to provide free, life-enrichment services not previously available to locals.

Although Kenya boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, 36.1% of Kenyans live below the national poverty line, according to the latest report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. The Leo Project targets Kenyans aiming to empower marginalized communities.

But how does one accurately identify what a community needs to empower itself and create sustainable change? The team at The Leo Project has come up with a simple solution: just ask. By working with community leaders, schools and locals, The Leo Project has created a model of community-driven, positive social change centered on the idea that Kenyans know best what Kenyans need to create sustainable change.

The Leo Project

Jessica Danforth, executive director of The Leo Project, founded the organization in honor of her best friend Caitlin O’Hara who died of cystic fibrosis in 2016. The mission of the project is to move beyond the limits of a traditional classroom. Moreover, it intends to provide supportive services and create opportunities not traditionally available to vulnerable populations in Nanyuki, Kenya.

Schooling in Kenya is highly focused on students passing two standardized examinations that determine whether they can progress to the next level of education. As such, formal classroom settings tend to only offer subjects or activities pertaining to standardized exams. To address this issue, The Leo Project partnered with two local primary schools to teach students computer skills, digital literacy, coding, music and art. It also worked to provide them with tutoring, a library, counseling and mindfulness services.

“I think part of the reason that we opened the project is to open kids’ eyes to different opportunities that there are available for them,” Danforth said in an interview with The Borgen Project.

Danforth explained that children in Kenya often want to become lawyers, doctors or accountants because they do not have exposure to the alternatives. Part of the mission of The Leo Project is to give them exposure to opportunities in fields such as graphic design, art, coding or therapy.

Creating Sustainable Change Through Community Participation

Since the resource center’s opening in January 2020, The Leo Project’s mission and services have evolved based on conversations with community leaders and members, resting on the idea that Kenyans know what Kenyans need. The Leo Project uses these conversations to both confirm that Kenyans need the services it plans to offer and to discover new areas to dive into.

During pre-opening meetings, heads of schools expressed the need for literacy classes, because parents would come to them unable to read their child’s report card, Danforth said. The Leo Project’s numeracy and literacy classes emerged from this conversation.

Mental Health Services

According to government statistics, around 11.5 million Kenyans have suffered from a mental illness at least once in their lives, but cultural stigmas surrounding mental health prevent people from seeking help and create a lack of qualified professionals who can provide treatment. In Kenya, there are only 88 psychiatrists and 427 psychiatrist nurses trained in the mental health field. As a result, when Danforth and the team approached community leaders and heads of schools about the mental health services they planned to offer, leaders jumped at the idea.

Engaging the Community

“Spending time with the community and actually getting them very involved and hiring people from the local community and not trying to impart our beliefs or our views as an American, I think, is really important,” Danforth said.

Additionally, Danforth explained that the fact that The Leo Project is not a school or government entity has allowed it the freedom to pilot programs, react to real-time feedback and adapt as necessary without the hindrance of bureaucratic red tape.

“We’re hoping that The Leo Project becomes a place where the community can sort of unite as a whole,” Danforth said, “and we’re hoping to educate as many people as possible.” To reach more people, Danforth hopes to replicate this model across Kenya with the first step being to conduct more fieldwork and data analysis in other communities to better understand their needs, noting that every community is different.

The Leo Project currently partners with the Africa Yoga Project, Daraja Academy, Flying Kites and Education for All Children is looking to expand its partner base. The creation of sustainable change in a community is a large-scale project. The more people and partners working on a project, the broader the knowledge-base that shapes that change and the more effective it becomes. As a result, the goal is to partner with as many organizations as possible and, by doing so, make The Leo Project more sustainable in the long run, Danforth said.

The COVID-19 Shift

The Leo Project is located just outside Nanyuki, Kenya and was serving around 4,000 beneficiaries until the coronavirus pandemic hit. Despite having closed its doors in March 2020, The Leo Project has transitioned to providing relief services to its community and those farther away.

Other educational organizations in Kenya have made a similar shift in activities in response to the pandemic. Danforth and The Leo Project team have been in contact with partner organizations to discuss both strategies for aid and best practices in this new environment, applying the project’s pre-pandemic model of communication to ensure a positive impact and basing pandemic-time services on community need.

Danforth explained to The Borgen Project that people had issues getting incorrect information about COVID-19 in Kenya from social media platforms. In an effort to combat this, The Leo Project created an online learning platform where Kenyans can access factual information about the virus. Through this platform, the center has also continued its adult literacy and numeracy, financial literacy and computer classes.

How The Leo Project Inspires Other NGOs

The organization has had a number of other NGOs reach out about using the model for their own projects post-COVID-19, Danforth said. With the help of chiefs, community leaders, government officials and locals, The Leo Project has been distributing two-month supplies of food to the most vulnerable families in the surrounding communities. As of Aug. 18, 2020, The Leo Project reached over 1,000 families and plans to continue this until January 2021 when Kenya has scheduled the reopening of schools.

When the pandemic hit, The Leo Project also hired local women to make masks for distribution and built hand-washing stations throughout Jua Kali and in surrounding communities.

The organization’s model of community participation to create sustainable change has driven its efforts during the pandemic, as it has worked with local leaders, community members and partner organizations to aid Kenyans through the crisis.

– Olivia du Bois
Photo: Jessica Danforth of The Leo Project

Data Literacy
Since 2015, Nepal has been on the rise from a period of political turmoil. The country faced social unrest, economic instability and a shift to a three-tiered government. After a difficult transition, Nepal adopted a new constitution in 2015 and held elections for government members. These democratic changes brought Nepal some peace as well as hope for a better and more consistent future. One key element of a Nepali future hinges on data literacy.

Nepal’s new government aims to achieve the status of a middle-income country by 2030. To achieve this goal, it is imperative that all members of society are able to access and properly use data. Citizens need to have data literacy to inform decision-making, create developmental opportunities and much more.

What is the Power of Open Data?

Prioritizing the collection and making official statistics accessible to the population is essential in boosting policymaking and delivering public services. Professionals possessing data literacy can use data to change these systems in evidence-based ways that better serve the population. For example, education or sanitation fields can improve with a greater understanding of how they currently function within the country. If Nepal wants to transition to a middle-income country by 2030, data collection and analytics will be essential to making evidence-based fiscal decisions.

The public in Nepal has had access to government data since 2007. However, reports state a limited public understanding of how to request such information. There is also a widespread “culture of secrecy” in regard to public data. Another barrier to accessing open data is internet speed and access to an internet connection in private households.

What is Nepal Doing to Encourage Data Literacy?

Nepal launched the Open Data Awareness Program in 2017. It aims to bring awareness to Nepali youth about data literacy, as these youth are the future generation of leaders and policymakers for the country. The program strived to raise awareness through training sessions at colleges and youth organizations. The program then culminated in a hackathon event where youth from all over Nepal collaborated in data-oriented problem-solving.

In 2019, the World Bank worked with Nepal to create a 100-hour Data Literacy Program. The first phase of the program involved 40-hour in-person training on data literacy. During the second phase, program participants trained people in their community using the information learned in the first phase. The third phase was another in-person training, this time 60 hours, involving participants from various diverse Nepali organizations. This training also covered data literacy topics such as python, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Later that year, the World Bank, Asia Foundation and UKAID collaborated to organize a two-day Solve-a-thon at the Kathmandu University School of Management. This event provided a platform for professionals with backgrounds in programming, research, development and data science to collaborate on data projects to further development in Nepal. These participants worked in teams on different projects that tackled issues such as air pollution, gender equality and tourism. The program held open debates on complex issues and how to use data to find efficient and effective solutions. Youth and professionals were able to come up with interesting prototypes from the Solve-a-thon. Two creations were a chatbot that tracks Nepal’s air quality and a dashboard that monitors tourist flow.

Data Literacy During the Pandemic and Beyond

In most recent news, the Nepal Data Literacy Community on Facebook that emerged from the Data Literacy Programs in 2019, decided to tackle COVID-19, by providing the correct information using open data as its resource. The community came up with initiatives to inform the population as well as collect and spread COVID-19 crisis management information. Its initiatives aim to remove language barriers on information, investigate the relationship between air pollution and COVID-19 mortality, make data on COVID-19 publicly available and analyze global media trends around divisive pandemic narratives.

Other initiatives have also come together to launch Open Nepal, a community knowledge hub. The group produces, shares and uses data to further development in Nepal. The site is a diverse platform for organizations and individuals to share their experiences and bridge the gap in data literacy. Open Nepal involves the public and private sectors to make sure no one is left behind in the fight for Nepali development.

Giulia Silver
Photo: Flickr