Guest bloggers A. Lawrence Chickering and Anjula Tyagi share the story of Educate Girls Globally (EGG) a non-profit that assists government ministries of education to reform schools by empowering girls to learn and to lead.
From the beginning of our first operations in India nearly twenty years ago, we knew we were going for it all. ‘Going for it all’ meant two things. First, for scale, it meant working in government schools, which most NGOs avoid. Second, to weaken the influence of traditional culture and help girls, it meant empowering communities (including girls) to advance beyond traditional, passive roles and to become active, entrepreneurial changemakers. Our aim was to develop for ministries of education a model and ‘tool kit’ for reforming government schools.
We developed our reform model from a number of sources: from the researches of the Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostom and Robert Hawkins, from a study we did for the InterAmerican Development Bank on four Latin American countries, and from the experiences of NGOs in Upper Egypt, the Indian State of Karnataka, and other countries. We began operations in northern India, state of Uttarakhand, in 2002.
Across the world education reform generates opposition and conflict, paralyzing reform and producing no action. Our model was (is) very simple, working from the grass roots up and solving the political challenges, generating no opposition. Departments of Education accepted the program, which ‘mobilizes community support for schools’.
Governments loved the program from the beginning. Our purpose was to transfer the model to governments and other entitles that would help us scale, and we knew we would start on the path to full transfer when a government requested us to expand to all schools in a jurisdiction. That moment arrived recently when a district government in Uttarakhand (Udhamsinghnagar) requested us to expand from 50 secondary schools (25,000 kids, two-thirds girls) to all 1,116 schools in the district, serving about 330,000 children.
The government made clear its intention to expand the model throughout the state and to other states by providing for EGG training of government officials in other places. They and we wanted the agreement and project to be a model for all of India. Our hope was that the federal Ministry of Education in New Delhi would endorse the model for every school in the country.
The challenge of culture and demand-side reform
Most education reform focuses on the supply side of schools—teacher training, curricula, infrastructure—and ignores the demand side, which is primarily about students’ motivation. Many parents believe that motivation is the most important factor in learning. They know that a motivated child will learn anywhere, while an unmotivated child will not learn anywhere.
Motivation is influenced by family and community support for education.Traditional societies in fact tend to demotivate everyone, but especially girls, whom tradition assigns to low-status, passive roles that limit individual aspiration, which is essential for learning. Thus, empowering people to advance beyond traditional to self-determined selves is a primal EGG objective.
We were determined from the beginning to show that traditional people, especially girls, are not ‘victims’ who need to be rescued from ‘oppressors’ (either powerful groups or culture) but can be empowered to play active roles in promoting change.
EGG addresses this issue head-on especially in relation to girls by empowering them to become leaders, learners, and role models. The program weakens the influence of traditional culture by empowering traditional communities and girls to advance from passive, tradition-directed selves to active, self-directed selves. People living by traditional roles are passive objects. As objects, they can play no role in promoting change. When self-directed, they become active subjects and powerful changemakers.
Although this truth is the key to development in all forms, most development ventures ignore it. Understanding that development depends on the crucial resource of people as subjects—and seeing it operationally—is evident to anyone who sees EGG’s program first-hand.
OWNERSHIP is a core concept that promotes empowerment and runs through all aspects of the program. The first community meeting addresses it with this initial question: Who owns the school? It is only when people understand that the school can never be any better than they themselves make it that they understand that they are the real owners, not the government.
The Girls’ Parliaments play a crucial role in girls’ empowerment, promoting them as leaders and role models in co-educational schools—separate from boys. They play an important role in empowering girls to advance from objects to subjects. Two empowerment moments are especially important:
- When dropout girls stand in early public meetings and ask to return to school for ‘a chance in life’; and
- When Girls Parliaments say they want to admit boys. How many? Their answer is 50-50—no advantage in numbers. Even traditional girls become ready to go toe-to-toe with boys. This is the moment when girls become genuinely equal to boys.
Neuroscience explains why the men respond empathically and embrace the girls. They move from indifference to educating girls one minute to active support for it the next minute.
Action Projects also reflect and stimulate empowerment. Led by the SchoolManagement Committees, communities establish priorities for improving schools—primarily building or repairing infrastructure (clean water, toilets, and maintenance). Ownership and self-governance mean the communities decide about what the schools most need, and they act on them. They do it without any subsidy from EGG. Empowering people to help themselves (deciding what they want to do and doing it) is very different from the common practice of experts telling people ‘what they need’.
The action projects recall a famous statement from T.E. Lawrence, writing in 1917 about the Arabs: ‘Do not try to do too much with your own hands,’ Lawrence wrote. ‘Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. . . [T]he work . . . may take them longer and it may not be as good as you think, but if it is theirs, it will be better.’
This insight first suggests the importance of ownership, which is reflected both from what people do and from deciding what to do. Focusing on ownership rather than the form of help (a well) focuses on the psychology of people helped rather than on the substance of the help. The help (a well) is about the present; the psychology of the recipient is about the future. Empowerment through ownership is crucial for sustainability. Unfortunately, it often conflicts with a primal mantra of philanthropy, which is results. Despite nearly-universal agreement about ownership, people tend quickly to forget it when making and implementing plans, which are about tangible objectives and measurable results.
Ownership is about sustainability and the future. The idea is that how something is done is more important than what is done—process over substance. This captures the essence of empowerment, which occurs when people do things for themselves—when they own what they do. This requires accepting an imperfect present for a powerfully sustaining future.
Our breakthrough moment
We chose to work in government schools to reach the poorest kids and to achieve the scale and sustainability that only governments control. Our breakthrough moment occurred when a district in Uttarakhand (‘District One’) requested us to expand to all 1,116 schools in the district—primary, middle, and secondary. The government offered to share the cost.
Showing potential government demand for the model, the district next door (District Two), mostly Muslim and of a similar size, soon informed us that they wanted a similar agreement to expand to every school in that district as well. Without any effort to market the model to them, their interest was generated entirely word-of-mouth.
We believe our model will scale most quickly by recruiting partners who want to try it. We have thus made a decision to transfer the model to any potential partner (NGO or government) willing to implement it as we designed it. We will provide training, monitoring, and evaluation. Organizations interested in joining EGG’s network of partners are encouraged to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, attention: Lawrence Chickering.
This project has the potential to change the face of India—and indeed of the developing world. We hope we will hear from you soon. You can read more about us on our website (www.educategirls.org).