Removing Barriers to Educational Success in Ghana: The IDP Foundations’ Core Initiatives

This blog features the work of Irene Pritzker, founding member, and President and Chief Executive Officer of the IDP Foundation, Inc. (IDPF). We hope you enjoy her leadership story and learning more about IDPF’s incredible impact around the world removing barriers to quality education. 

In 2008, I formed the IDP foundation with my daughter, Liesel Pritzker Simmons, after a trip to Ghana to look at microfinance initiatives. During the trip, I met Paulina Nlando, a local yam wholesaler and school owner. She had started a low-fee private school in the Agbogbloshie market in Accra to offer a safe place for children to learn. As her school’s enrollment quickly increased, there was a pressing need to secure a loan to provide infrastructure improvements. Although Paulina had proven to be a creditworthy borrower through her successful yam selling business, no bank was willing to offer her a loan for her school. As we discovered more low-fee private schools in the area, we realized that Paulina’s story was not unique and most school proprietors lacked access to capital to grow and improve their schools. This was because banks considered them “too risky”. It was these stories that moved me to forge a unique partnership with a local Ghanaian financial institution, Sinapi Aba, to provide catalytic philanthropic capital to offer loans, financial literacy, and school management training to low-fee private school proprietors. 

To me, philanthropists should strive to help entrepreneurs and organizations develop and scale self-sustaining enterprises that deliver critically needed services to underserved populations. We see “smart philanthropy” as increasing self-sufficiency at the grassroots level so that entrepreneurs and organizations can move away from aid-dependent programs. It’s less about making donations and more about creating opportunities, leveraging the private sector to empower people to take ownership of their lives so that they can become less dependent on philanthropy.

The IDP Rising Schools Program (IDPRSP), our keystone program out of Ghana, is a great example of what smart philanthropy can look like in action. IDPF seeded the IDPRSP venture using a grant followed by a concessionary debt investment into Sinapi Aba Savings & Loans. This makes possible a reduced cost of funds to Sinapi Aba, enabling it to earn a profit on the below market-rate loans it makes to proprietors — so long as the schools are successful enough to repay the loans which propels a sustainable solution. This strong partnership has lasted for over 10 years and has allowed the program to grow to serve nearly 600 schools and almost 140,000 children, with plans underway to continue its reach.

One example of the IDPRSP in action is Lily Baah, a school proprietor who began her low-fee private school, Baah Memorial, in 2005 with just six nursery students. Her enrollment quickly grew when parents noticed that the students were speaking English and performing well academically. She needed to build more classrooms to accommodate her growing student body, yet banks were unwilling to provide her any loans. Through the IDPRSP, Lily significantly expanded her school over several years through eight loans that allowed her to build additional classrooms to meet the demand from more and more local families. She also used the money to pay for a school bus, add gender-separated restrooms, and build a dormitory for the older students. Today, Baah Memorial is financially self-sufficient and provides education to students from nursery all the way through junior high. 

When working in the context of Ghana, we have learned that despite it being one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, the country is still facing steep challenges in meeting national and global goals for education. Low-fee private schools play a significant role in expediting progress towards achieving United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4 for inclusive and equitable quality education as well the Ministry of Education’s objective to ensure all Ghanaians receive an education that promotes the socio-economic growth of the country. Low-fee private schools do this by serving communities that frequently do not have a public school available nearby. Where government schools are often overcrowded and underfunded, low-fee private schools offer parents an affordable alternative for their children to receive an education where they may otherwise be unable to do so. 

However, low-fee private schools shoulder unique challenges and often operateon shoestring budgets. One such challenge is the common practice of hiring untrained teachers due to limited funds–a reality that is further compounded by these instructors being frequently excluded from existing teacher training initiatives which are only offered to the public sector. In response, IDPF is working to overcome this challenge on two fronts: firstly, we have partnered with Sesame Workshop to develop the Techniques for Effective Teaching (TFET) program, a teacher training program comprised of interactive, in-service training modules for untrained teachers to gain foundational skills focused on child-centered learning. Secondly, IDPF also partners with the Ministry of Education to develop and share evidence about the low-fee private school sector in order for government officials to effectively leverage the contribution of these education providers. However, our biggest challenge continues to be overcoming the political obstacles the government faces in fully embracing the legitimacy of the low-fee private school sector. 

Looking ahead, we are excited for the results of a current ongoing external assessment of our TFET program, which will be available in 2020. This evaluation will highlight the degree to which teachers are able to effectively adopt and implement the key TFET pedagogical principles as well as whether these principles translate to better development and learning outcomes for their students. We are also excited about expanding the IDPRSP to reach thousands more underserved children.  We look forward to sharing our results and lessons learned soon!

We thank Irene for taking the time to share some experiences from their foundational IDP Rising Schools Program out of Ghana. If you are interested in learning more about this program, or any of the other initiatives IDPF champions, please visit We look forward to sharing updates and learning more!

Paula and Maxie

Meet Irene Pritzer:

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