Jan 30 2012
Teaching at an international school affords me the privilege of encountering and learning from truly unique and diverse individuals. Last week, my Economics classes were lucky to have as a guest speaker one very interesting and inspirational young man named Andrew Cunningham. Andrew, originally from Vermont, graduated from Duke University in 2008 and has helped co-found a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on promoting grassroots strategies for economic development. WISER (Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research) serves a community of 35,000 in Kenya’s Muhuru Bay, an area where the per capita income is around $1 a day and 38% of the population is HIV positive.
Traditionally, less than 5% of young girls complete primary school in Muhuru Bay. In the town’s history, only ONE girl has ever gone to university (she would become the only Muhuru Bay native to complete her PhD and would eventually co-found WISER with Andrew). A combination of tradition, culture, and most importantly poverty had prevented improvements in the plight of woman in this poor corner of Africa. What was needed, decided Andrew and his founding partners, was an all-girls boarding school where opportunities for young women were promoted and academic achievement encouraged and fostered. WISER opened the community’s first all-girls secondary school in 2010 to 130 local girls who had made it through primary school.
Beyond female education, WISER have embarked on several other development projects in the last year and a half. In his visit to our IB Economics class, Andrew told the story of human development in Muhuru Bay as occurring primarily in three realms.
- health, and
I will briefly summarize the three main development strategies WISER has employed in Muhuru Bay, starting with education.
Education as a development strategy:
Education is a primary and fundamental strategy for eradicating poverty. A nation’s human capital is its most vital resource, and the road to prosperity requires an effective education system that does not discriminate based on race, gender, or socioeconomic status. In Muhuru Bay, which is 14 hours by car across un-paved roads from Kenya’s capitol, the education system had failed to achieve meaningful results, both for boys and girls. Student performance on national examinations across the primary grade levels had historically averaged around 11% passing rates. Boys out-performed girls, but as a whole only about one in ten Muhuru Bay children passed the examination required for admittance to secondary school in Kenya.
WISER wished to improve this dismal statistic. If they were going to build a secondary school for girls, they would need to first get girls to pass the national exam for entrance to secondary school, or else their new building would be full of empty desks.
Andrew first talked to my class about the traditional development community (think World Bank, UNICEF, USAID) approach to promoting education in Africa. You are probably thinking the way to help these kids is to give them resources to improve their education. Build better schools, give them textbooks and school supplies, maybe uniforms, build a library, electricity in the classroom, chalk boards, heck, how about we give them laptop computers! All of these ideas represent the traditional development community’s approach to improving education in poor countries. The problem is that these strategies focus only on the inputs into education, and completely fail to look at the output.
Inputs and outputs are common topics of discussion in any Economics class. To produce anything, three resources are required: land, labor, and capital. The traditional approach to improving education in Africa focused primarily on the land and capital. Things such as pens, notebooks, laptops, and new libraries are great, but they have little actual impact on what gets learned in a school. The neglected factor was the labor (i.e. the teachers!) In Muhuru Bay, teachers were paid so miserably and worked in such dismal conditions that the incentive to actually improve their students’ results was just too weak! With passing rates at 11% on national exams, WISER set about figuring out how to use incentives to improve the outputs of education in Muhuru Bay.
A simple and relatively low-cost plan was put into action. Teachers were told that if their students’ scores increased by only 15% on the exams, they would receive a 100% increase in their salary. Andrew and WISER worked with the national education ministry to develop interim exams that could be given quarterly to help the teachers measure their students’ improvement before the annual national examination.
With only minimal investments on the land and capital resources (i.e. textbooks and classroom materials) in Muhuru Bay schools, and by spending less than $10,000 on teacher raises, the passing rate among Muhuru Bay schools increased in one year from 11% to 36%. Hundreds of students, boys and girls, who would not have been able to enter secondary school the previous year, instead passed the exam and were eligible for a secondary education, a crucial step towards a better future!
The teachers’ incentive pay program was such a success in Muhuru Bay last year that the state government has taken notice and intends to implement it in other rural communities throughout Kenya. By focusing on the outputs (student learning), rather than the inputs (classroom resources) WISER has assured that when their all-girls school opens in January, its seats will be filled with qualified students who successfully completed their primary education.
Health as a development strategy:
The second topic of Andrew’s discussion with my IB Economics classes focused on health and sanitation, specifically solving the problem of open defecation (“OD” is a technical term used in the development community referring to the fact that in many poor communities basic latrines are non-existent, and therefore people shit in the open). OD in Muhuru Bay contributed to the poor health and low life expectancy of locals; According to Andrew an estimated 60 people were dying each year of cholera, a disease spread via human waste.
In the health realm of traditional economic development programs, the same basic dilemma between focusing on the inputs or the outputs had stymied previous attempts to reduce OD in Muhuru Bay. Recently, an outside aid organization had made loans to the community to build 30 public latrines. Within a year, however, the latrines had fallen into disrepair and were essentially useless. When Andrew and his team asked the community members why they had let the latrines fall into such a poor state, their answer was predictable. These were not their latrines, they belonged to the aid organization that had built the latrines. If they were broken, the aid organization could fix them! Such logic reflects a common problem in economics, that of the tragedy of the commons. Because the latrines were public, no one owned them. Because no one owned them, no one cared for them. When the latrines fell out of repair, people quickly reverted back to OD, and instances of cholera and other diseases increased once more.
WISER decided to tackle this problem using a similar approach as the one used to fix primary education in Muhuru Bay, by focusing on the output, rather than the inputs. In this case, the goal was simple: create incentives for people to build their OWN latrines, which they would then have an incentive to take care of and use. The strategy for promoting personal latrines they decided to employ is one that has been successfully implemented throughout the developing world, and is now funded by UNICEF, which trains facilitators to go into a community and in a very short time, and at a very low cost, incentivize the locals to take sanitation into their own hands and build their own latrines.
Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) is a mind-blowing and shockingly blunt way to promote sanitation. Rather than spending thousands of dollars to build public latrines, the CLTS approach brings community members together for an afternoon of discussion and education about sanitation issues. Locals are asked to take an index card and go to “where they shit” and collect a sample of their own waste. A large pile of human waste is placed on a table in front of a room full of locals right next to a large selection of delicious foods. The facilitator then goes about discussing basic facts related to OD in the community, such as “If you added up all the shit your community produces in a year, how many donkeys would it weigh as much as?” or, “How many bags of rice would you have to eat to create this much shit?” In the mean time, of course, hundreds of flies have descended on the pile of waste in the front of the room, and the community members look on in utter disgust as the flies jump from the feces to the food and back again.
At the end of the lecture, the facilitator turns to the food and says, “Well, it’s time for lunch, who’s hungry?” In utter disgust, the locals ask the facilitator if he has gone mad. The lesson, of course, is that the food and water the community consumes is most likely being contaminated by the waste they produce and deposit in the open around their village. Within a few weeks of the CLTS project in Muhuru Bay, 256 new latrines were built by the community members themselves. Whereas previously, only around 15% of the locals used latrines regularly, after the CLTS project around 75% had access to the “facilities”.
The total cost of the CLTS sanitation project? Around $55, a tiny fraction of the cost of building the public latrines that had previously been neglected by the community. By focusing on the outputs rather than the inputs, real development in the health of the community was achieved at a very low financial cost.
The final approach to human development in Muhuru Bay Andrew discussed with my classes focused on the economic empowerment of community entrepreneurs. Micro-lending is a much talked about and widely used development strategy that provides financial credit or technology loans to entrepreneurs in poor communities to create small businesses, ideally ones with a socially beneficial purpose. Watch the first 12 minutes of the video below to get a better idea of the history and purpose of micro-finance as a strategy for achieving economic development.
WISER was able to secure several technology donations, including a copy machine, several laptop computers with cellular internet connections, a foot pump for water, and a digital LCD projector. WISER then solicited loan requests from several “young entrepreneurs”. Young men and women wrote business plans outlining how they would use the technology loans to generate income for themselves and the community, and provide services that would benefit others in the Muhuru Bay community. The technology would not be donated to the recipients; rather they would be required to pay back the value of the capital through their business revenues.
It is simply amazing how a few pieces of second-hand technology, items that we in the rich North would take for granted as relatively common and thus of very little social or economic value, can completely change a poor community in Africa for the better. Here’s how some of the capital Andrew and WISER loaned to young entrepreneurs were put to use to achieve meaningful development in Muhuru Bay:
- The copy machine was installed and powered by a generator. It was the first such machine ever installed in Muhuru Bay. Local businesses, students, job seekers and other could now, for a few cents, photo-copy their documents locally, avoiding the two hour drive previously required for such a service.
- The laptops were installed in an internet café and made available to local students and businesses. Farmers and fisherman could check product prices in the cities hours away, increasing efficiency and bargaining positions when middle-men came to town to buy their produce. Job openings in the city newspapers’ classifieds could be printed and posted for the local community to see, improving information symmetry between the poor countryside and the cities where job opportunities existed. The cost of access to these services was cheap, yet the entrepreneurs who were granted the laptop loan were able to pay back the cost of the technology in no time at all, and the community as a whole benefited from their existence.
- My favorite entrepreneurial venture involved the LCD projector. This piece of technology, which now hangs from the ceiling of thousands of classrooms around the rich world, had never before been seen in Muhuru Bay. You may think it ended up in a classroom or in an office building, but no; the entrepreneurs who received the projector hooked it up to a satellite dish which captured and projected English Premier League football matches onto the wall of a large room in a local building. The business was to sell tickets to local football fans who were more than happy to pay to watch English football matches in full color on a wall-sized screen. Before the projector, dozens would have huddled around a tiny television with poor reception to watch football matches. The “football theater” business was the most successful of all, and paid back its loan fastest.
All three of these entrepreneurial endeavors were very low cost, using donated technologies. The reason for their successes, however, must be attributed to the model for implementation. They were not simply “given” to the community. Such a strategy would certainly have led to the same “tragedy of the commons” experienced when the outside aid organization funded the construction of public latrines. The capital would have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. By lending the technology to businesses, however, the incentive for innovative and socially beneficial ventures was created, and a business model was developed to best utilize the resources in a profit-earning, sustainable manner. With very little inputs, fantastic outputs were achieved, enriching not only the entrepreneurs, but the entire Muhuru Bay community.
Economic Development the WISER Way:
Andrew’s visit to Zurich International School was eye-opening in many ways. He brought to light both the successes of WISER and other community projects in rural Kenya, but also shined a light on the failures of the traditional development community’s agenda. When I think about the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been committed to economic development in Africa over the past decades, and on into future decades, I wonder whether the diplomats and the politicians in the “aid community” have any idea how much has been accomplished on the ground in places like Muhuru Bay thanks to community-based organization like WISER.
With so little, so much can be accomplished. The poor of Africa and the world need resources, but more importantly they need education, health and sanitation, and business opportunities so that they can enjoy the benefits of development from the bottom up. Development aid, as it has traditionally been distributed, comes from the top down, funneled through national governments. Waste and corruption are rampant, and typically only a fraction of what has been given ends up on the ground in places like Muhuru Bay. Even when it does, the tragedy of the commons often results in inefficiency and waste, as the “inputs” are managed and distributed from the top down, leading to uncertainty of ownership and misaligned incentives once the resources are on the ground.
Perhaps aid from the outside is still needed, but Andy’s visit showed me and my students that something much more basic lies at the core of successful economic development. Education focusing on outputs rather than inputs, sanitation focusing on outputs rather than inputs, and entrepreneurship that empowers business leadership, have improved the lives of thousands in one Kenyan community. What could such a re-thinking of development strategies do for the rest of Africa and the developing world?