Education in The Sundarbans
The Sundarbans mangrove forest, one of the largest such forests in the world, lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. Being the largest river delta in the world, the Sundarbans is an archipelago of islands located in the Bay of Bengal and divided between India and Bangladesh. It is home to roughly 4.5 million people that are affected by storms, cyclones and other environmental disasters. In 2011, the literacy rate of the people in the Sundarbans was 25.71% compared to West Bengal’s 76.26%. Several organizations are dedicating themselves to innovative efforts to improving education in the Sundarbans.

Keeping Children in School

The Sundarbans islanders are dependent on fishing, agriculture and the cottage industry for their income. The location of the islands, their dwindling mangrove population, breached shoreline and similarly breached tiger territories have pushed children out of school. The unique climatic and environmental situation on the islands has made innovation key in improving education in the Sundarbans. Fortunately, many organizations have found ways to bring the school closer and made it more appealing to stay in school.

School in The Cloud

The ‘School in The Cloud’ is an independent learning lab that uses solar power. The school uses a 40-foot bamboo tower receiver for its internet connectivity in the Sundarbans. It is the brainchild of Dr. Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University. He wanted to integrate Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) in order to improve education in the Sundarbans. Leadership specifically designed these learning hubs for children who are below the poverty line and thus lack access to unrestrained holistic education. The school focuses on the reading, speaking and comprehension skills of the children. This innovative institution receives funding from the TED prize money worth $1 million that Professor Mitra received.

Sabuj Sangha & Kishalay

Biplab Das, a Sundarbans native with an MBA, founded the Kishalay Foundation. The Kishalay Foundation focuses on the improvement of education for the Sundarbans’ underprivileged children. The foundation is affiliated with the government of West Bengal and serves as a learning hub for children at various levels of their education.

Sabuj Sangha works with Kishalay in its mission to retain children who have dropped out of school. Its innovative “preparatory centers” are key in rehabilitating children back into formal education. It accomplishes this by educating children informally for a year to help aid their transition. So far, the centers have successfully rehabilitated 700 children into formal education with the help of unemployed graduate teachers. The support of many donors, including the Tata group and Pepe Jeans, sustains this multi-faceted effort. The Smile Foundation is also affiliated to amplify the efforts of Sabuj Sangha and Kishalay in improving education in the Sundarbans.

The Sundarbans, through the work of its islanders and supporting organizations, can become a resourceful community for children to grow. Developing communities such as the islands of Sundarbans benefit from continued initiatives and foundational innovations. Moving forward, the work of nonprofits and educational leaders will drive community-informed and community-focused holistic development in the Sundarbans.

– Anuja Mukherjee
Photo: Flickr

The Smile FoundationIndia is one of the poorest and populated countries, with more than 1.3 billion people. Nearly 70% of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Furthermore, women and children are among the most vulnerable groups that are most affected by poverty and inequality. The Smile Foundation commits to improving educational outcomes in India so that children have a way to improve their lives and rise out of poverty.

Education in India

The National Sample Survey Organization’s 2017-2018 survey showed that roughly 30 million children aged 6-17 were not attending school. UNICEF reports that approximately 20 million children between the ages of 3 and 6 do not attend preschool. Between 2011 and 2018, literacy rates in India increased by 5.07%. However, in 2018, the female literacy rate in India was 70.3%, compared to the male literacy rate of 84.7%.

Access, availability and quality of education in India are some of the most prevalent barriers to combating poverty for vulnerable women and children in underserved communities. The exclusion of children from educational opportunities based on caste, socio-religious identification, gender and ability, facilitates even more marginalization and poverty for disadvantaged groups.

The Smile Foundation

Education in India, especially among rural communities, is a strong determinant for ensuring a chance of economic security and female employment. Thanks to the diligent work of the Smile Foundation, a nonprofit organization empowering change through education and awareness, disadvantaged women, youth and children have an opportunity to escape poverty and achieve economic security.

Santanu Mishra, the co-founder and executive trustee of Smile Foundation, refers to education as, “the great equalizer that opens new gateways and opportunities to improve the standard of life.” Mishra explains that poverty is a multifaceted state that can derive from a lack of quality educational attainment, in addition to the absence of certain knowledge, assets and opportunities. Acquiring an education in India can improve individual well-being while interrupting the generational and cyclical nature of poverty. “I believe that education is the key that can transform the story of an individual from trying to survive to thriving in life,” says Mishra.

Vision and Approach

The Smile Foundation came about in 2002 with the aim of making a positive contribution to society. Today, the organization serves more than 2,000 villages and slums in 25 states of India through welfare projects promoting education, healthcare, income and women’s empowerment.

The Smile Foundation believes that “Civic Driven Change” which upholds public responsibility to increase community-based engagement, is pivotal to achieve transformation. The organization has collaborated with local and international groups, institutions and public figures to bear global awareness and response. In 2010, the Smile Foundation produced, “I Am Kalam,” the first film created by a development organization, which premiered at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival, winning 17 national and international awards. The film addresses the issue and importance of child education as a tool to rise out of poverty.

Utilizing a “lifecycle approach,” the Smile Foundation aims to improve welfare by empowering children and families through meaningful education, healthcare and social skills. The Smile Foundation employs “Social Venture Philanthropy” —  a concept which means connecting social investment plans to charitable giving by focusing on reach, sustainability, a culture of leadership and clear accountability. The organization’s Outreach model reaches rural regions, enabling deeper insight into obstacles of project implementation.

Mission Education

The Smile Foundation developed Mission Education (ME), a national program providing quality healthcare and education in India to over 232,000 underserved children since 2002. The ME program guarantees unbiased access to education through a four-step approach. This involves a focus on students, a focus on teachers, prioritizing an effective learning environment and community and stakeholder engagements.

“Education of girls also gets priority, with 51% of total beneficiaries being girls. This is done by bringing about an attitudinal change in the parents’ outlook toward education,” says Mishra. In 2019, 87% of qualified students who graduated from ME centers entered traditional schools and almost every ME teacher possessed sufficient academic training.

Going Forward

Amid COVID-19 challenges, the Smile Foundation has implemented personalized, virtual education plans to guarantee disadvantaged students an adequate opportunity to succeed. The Smile Foundation also utilizes socio-behavioral guidance and capacity-building opportunities for teachers to prepare students to become active members of society.

“I often say that our vision at Smile should be that one day we should not exist,” says Mishra. Mishra explains that the Smile Foundation intends to mobilize community-based action, sensitize global responses and perpetuate government accountability to achieve sustainable change and eventually become a bygone organization.

Improving Education in India

The Indian government has taken strides toward improving the education system but further measures are crucial to combat the pandemic-induced likelihood of increased out-of-school children rates. Mishra suggests that the government should prioritize family-based social and economic assistance to encourage parents to send their children back to school. Mishra believes that a synergistic approach works best. This involves support from NGOs, advantageous stakeholders, community programs and components of an effective learning environment. In combination, this produces the greatest results for providing children an equal opportunity to thrive in life and rise out of poverty.

Violet Chazkel
Photo: Flickr

Disability and Poverty in Egypt
When people think of Egypt, they may conjure up images of the grand ancient sphinxes guarding towering pyramids or pharaohs dripping with golden threads. While this is certainly a part of the Egyptian story, it does not paint a comprehensive picture. Unfortunately, there are also strikingly high rates of disability and poverty in Egypt. While the 2006 Egyptian census determined that around 1.4 million Egyptians have disabilities, the U.N. estimates that approximately 12 million people— or almost 15% of the population– are disabled.

Statistics on Disability and Poverty in Egypt

Here are some statistics regarding disability and poverty in Egypt:

  • Of the poorest 20% of Egyptians, around 18% have disabilities, compared to only 14.8% to 15.7% of people within the other quintiles.
  • About 22.9% of disabled Egyptians considered themselves food insecure, versus 13.8% of non-disabled Egyptians.
  • As of 2018, the employment rate for all disabled Egyptians was only 44%. Not only is this quite low, but it is also a drop from an employment rate of 47% in 2012.
  • For Egyptian women, who are less likely to join the workforce in general, the disabled employment rate is a staggering 17%.
  • Illiteracy rates for children with disabilities are quite high — 61% of disabled boys and 70% of disabled girls in Egypt do not know how to read.

The Vicious Cycle of Disability and Poverty

As with many developing countries, disability and poverty in Egypt create a vicious cycle. Consequences of poverty, such as unsanitary living conditions, poor access to clean water, malnutrition and diseases regularly precipitate disabilities, especially for children. These disabilities include but are not limited to blindness, developmental and cognitive disabilities, stunting and physical deformities. Additionally, early pregnancies and high fertility rates (which correlate with high poverty rates) often result in disability. This is true for the mothers who become weak and illness-prone from so many pregnancies, and for the children born to exceptionally young and old mothers.

To make matters worse, stigma and prejudice around disabilities tend to perpetuate poverty among the disabled population, because they make it harder to find good work, if at all. Specifically, 82% of women and about 35% of men with “narrow disabilities” are not in the workforce. Many of the women who are in the workforce work in the informal sector, meaning they may do their work from home and are not on official payrolls. This puts them at a further disadvantage because they do not receive health insurance and rarely have legal labor contracts. Even employers who hire people with disabilities to official roles tend to disincentivize them from coming to work or pay unfair wages.

Policy Not-in-Action

Technically, the Egyptian government has taken steps to ensure the rights of disabled citizens. For example, article 81 of the constitution states that disabled persons must have the same rights and opportunities as all other citizens. It also promises that the State will work to provide jobs and accessibility to accommodate special needs. Egypt also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the U.N. 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. Both agreements require countries to regularly report what their government has done to help those with disabilities.

Despite this, Egypt has scarcely done anything to implement laws or policy, nor has it reported to the U.N. committees. Prejudices, such as the belief that disabilities are punishments from God or malevolent spirits called jinn, have meant officials rarely follow through with the policies’ promises.

Help is on the Way

Lack of governmental action does not mean that there is no hope for disabled Egyptians. Many organizations are giving individuals with disabilities the tools to succeed in the workplace and minimizing the stigma around disability in general. For example, the Egyptian nonprofit Helm has equipped more than 1,500 disabled people with the skills they need for a variety of jobs. They also train employers to create accessible and equitable workplaces and have already trained more than 5,000 corporate employees. The nonprofit has also won multiple awards and gained support from American institutions, such as MIT and Harvard for the work they have done. From curb ramps to corporate guidance, NGOs like Helm are creating inclusive work environments so that people with disabilities can avoid or transcend poverty.

Corporations are also joining in the fight to empower disabled workers and erase the stigma around disability. One such corporation, the mobile phone company Orange, is partnering with the Smile Foundation, a nonprofit that has already provided skills training to hundreds of neurodivergent Egyptians. The Smile Foundation also recognizes the connection between socio-economic status and disability, so it focuses its efforts on people coming from poverty. These efforts mean many disabled Egyptians can become equal members of the workforce and work their way out of poverty. Additionally, the Smile Foundation has organized multiple campaigns that convince the public that people with disabilities are capable employees and hard workers who deserve respect and equal rights.

The Positive Perfect-Storm

Disability and poverty create a negative feedback loop that can seem inescapable. However, a nonprofit advocacy and government policy can also work together to create a positive self-reinforcing cycle. First, many groups are already working to minimize the stigma around disability in Egypt. Less stigma will make authorities more likely to intervene when there are breaches of disabled people’s rights. Moreover this, in turn, will give current government policies more power to improve the lives of people with disabilities. These improvements — specifically equal treatment in the workforce and quality education — provide clear paths away from the spiral of disability and poverty in Egypt. As a result, while the present may seem bleak, change is emerging right over the horizon.

– Elyssa Nielsen
Photo: Flickr

Health Care in India
India, the second-most populous country in the world, faces a surprising paradox in its health care system. Though it has become a hub for high-quality medical treatment at supposedly affordable costs, health-related expenses cause as many as 63 million people in India to fall into poverty annually. As a result, it is essential that the country makes improvements to health care in India in order to improve its accessibility to those in poverty.

Fixing a Faulty Health Care System

As of 2015, prime minister Narendra Modi proposed the National Health Policy (NHP) to provide universal health care in India, regardless of socioeconomic status. This new policy also guarantees free public health care for those living below the poverty line.

This policy suggests an ambitious reform. Private practitioners continue to dominate India’s health care market. In fact, the private sector provides approximately 70% of health care.

Many more barriers come with delivering a new and improved health care program. With a severe shortage of medical professionals, financing issues and the public’s general lack of trust in the country’s ability to implement effective health care resources, India faces a problem in reforming its health care system.

This has presented a problem for citizens and the government alike. The government wastes expenditures on underutilized resources. Meanwhile, the private sector could include illegally trained doctors and possible medical malpractice, which may entail dangerous treatment and unnecessary expenditures for citizens. The prevalence of private health care partnered with poor insurance regulations results in up to 70% of medical costs from out-of-pocket expenditures, which exacerbates the economic stresses that the nation’s poor feels.

Lack of Public Trust

The driving force behind the underutilization of health care in India is public mistrust. People typically seek help from village doctors first, who are typically closer in proximity to their homes. Many citizens are also wary of poor service in public systems: many patients experience disrespect or the public systems overcharge them for various medical expenses and treatments.

Many citizens hesitate to turn to public hospitals until it is their last resort. There are cases of individuals earning less than INR 10 per day who would seek private care facilities rather than obtain government-granted medical care.

Cases like these are some in a pool of many. There are cases of mothers waiting hours before receiving help in labor, or individuals struggling to pay for necessary medications.

The expensive price tag of private practitioners makes quality care essentially inaccessible to those living in poverty. The prevalence of many low-income individuals desperate to pay high price tags for private care as opposed to visiting free, government-funded institutions presents a clear exclamation: health care in India experience reform to prioritize the trusts and needs of its residents.

Addressing the Problem

As low-income individuals face difficulty in obtaining quality health care, a number of organizations that readily seek to help continuously emerge.

HelpAge India has been around for multiple decades and has earned multiple accolades (NGO Leadership & Excellence Award, Times Social Impact Award, etc.) for its continued support of elderly populations in India. This NGO provides free medical care (cataract surgeries, cancer care, etc.) that would otherwise be unaffordable to many individuals in India.

The Smile Foundation has also focused on providing equitable medical care, especially to underprivileged families. The Smile Foundation provides easier access to health care in slums and lower-income communities and also promotes health care awareness within these communities.

The Rural Health Care Foundation also provides health care to low-income communities all across India. It provides primary care diagnoses, medications and cataract/cleft lip surgeries for those who are unable to pay for these procedures.

These organizations are a few of many seeking to improve systems of health care in India. The implementation of a new and improved health care system is ongoing. However, a combination of both newfound public optimism and institutional change is necessary to ensure health care access to everyone.

– Vanna Figueroa
Photo: Flickr