An Even More Beautiful Story

Nick Kristof’s moving column today on Paul Lorem, a 21-year old South Sudanese refugee who made his way to Yale, recalled Frank Bruni’s recent column on Energy Maburutse, a 21-year old disabled Zimbabwean student who made his way to Lynn University in Florida. They both shared incredible triumph over long odds, personal sacrifice, and humility and wonderment regarding their current station. But while I would never turn down a chance to hear about someone like Paul or Energy, the real stories that would change South Sudan or Zimbabwe won’t be when one student gets a great university education in the US, but when thousands and thousands of South Sudanese or Zimbabweans are getting a great university education in their home country.

In my day job as Executive Director at Generation Rwanda, I interact with hundreds of students with the brains and drive to get to Yale if those doors were open. But they’re not, and more importantly, if you’re the top student in your high school, it shouldn’t take a string of miracles to get you to a good college education. Universities in Africa struggle with disorganization and academic inconsistency, but the biggest problem of all is lack of access. With access to college loans essentially non-existent and a year of tuition often running three or four times a country’s average income, local university can be as distant a goal as Yale itself. While primary and secondary education typically take center stage in discussions of education in the developing world, some governments are recognizing how important higher education is to building domestic capacity and curbing brain drain. Here’s hoping others take note.

Assessing One Laptop per Child

One Laptop per Child, the ICT program that at first sounded like a far off wish and then picked up significant steam, is shipping an additional 100,000 laptops to Rwanda this month, and is aiming to train an additional 1,200 teachers on using OLPC laptops in the classroom. But how effective is OLPC? The first major study of its effectiveness in terms of educational outcomes came out last month, and the results are troubling.
The randomized controlled trials, conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank, looked at 319 primary schools in Peru that had adopted OLPC laptops in the classroom. The IADB economists found that use of an OLPC laptop resulted in no discernible improvement in language or math acquisition over a 15 month period. Critics have focused on this fact, with good reason, but there’s more to the report. Despite the OLPC program’s poor results in math and language, trials did find improved performance on the cognitive tests they administered, including the Ravens Progressive Matrices pattern recognition test, a coding test adapted from the Wechsler intelligence test, and a fluency test asking students to name as many words as they could in 3 minutes that begin with the letter “p”.
Rather than seeing the Peru results as a failure of ICT in the classroom, perhaps there’s a dual message. If laptops are to be useful for content acquisition, then they’d likely only be so when paired with effective pedagogy that takes advantage of the technology. But it seems, at least from the Peru results, that the use of the laptop itself might be enough to spur cognitive functioning gains for students, which, combined with increased digital fluency, might not be much of a failure at all.

The Isolation of the Development Social Entrepreneur

Our previous post mentioned the difficulty smaller development nonprofits face in experimentation and measurement of their programs. A lot of this is a result of the obvious obstacles at play: lack of reliable external statistics, minimal resources, unpredictable situations on the ground. But one problem that might not be quite as obvious is the isolation many smaller NGOs face around the world. In somewhere like Rwanda, isolation might be the last word you’d think to use describing NGOs, given the vibrant and deeply networked non-profit scene . Kigali is full of small and medium-sized NGOs that help support each other the best they can. In our case, for example, Partners in Health might assist with health care supplies, while we help Indego Africa or Gardens for Health by setting up our students with internships at those organizations.

These relationships are undoubtedly helpful, but they are often oblique and tangential — committed changemakers doing what they can to support each other, despite missions with little overlap. If Generation Rwanda wanted to find a non-profit that does very similar work, it would have to go all the way to Haiti. Compare this to education non-profits in the US, where thousands of charter schools share best practices and collaborate with advocacy groups to push forward their agenda both politically and in terms of public opinion. In short: a movement. Few development NGOs get the chance to be part of a larger movement, which might suit the small social entrepreneur’s mentality just fine, but robs them of the ability to leverage their work for greater impact. Cross-national movements will never have the some momentum that less culturally and geographically dispersed domestic ones do, but it doesn’t mean they can’t exist. Large multilaterals, academia, governments, and development agencies have made huge strides in information-sharing and collaboration over the past few decades. Hopefully small and mid-size nonprofits will be next.

Thoughts on NYU’s 3/22 Development Research Institute conference

NYU’s Development Research Institute hosted a conference yesterday on debates in development. Much of the disagreement between participants revolved around (1) whether the Millenium Village Project has made enough progress to justify the enormous cost per person–nearly $12,000 in some villages by Michael Clemens’s estimate (who also expressed frustration over their lack of data transparency), and (2) whether Randomized Control Trials (RCTs), as promoted by Abhijit Banerjee, represent the best way of generating evidence for interventions or distract from time-tested trial and error, promoted by Angus Deaton.

Since education in the developing world will be the primary focus for this blog, it was disappointing to see the debate focus on health measurements, e.g. presence of skilled professionals during childbirth, instead of the trickier indicators we’re accustomed to dealing with in the classroom. A huge challenge, it seems to me, is that small and mid sized NGOs that are not focused on basic health interventions are achieving incredible outcomes, yet don’t have the capital, either human or financial, to isolate which aspects of their programs are resulting in these impacts.

One of the recurring considerations over the course of this blog will be how, if at all, can we begin to measure organizations trying to make broad, systemic impacts rather than saving lives on a micro level.