Today, on International Literacy Day, the Library of Congress Literacy Awards announced the Luminos Fund is the winner of its 2021 International Prize. The International Prize recognizes an organization making significant and measurable contributions to increasing literacy levels outside the United States.
“Luminos is honored to receive this prestigious award from the Library of Congress in recognition of our efforts to advance literacy around the world,” says Luminos CEO, Caitlin Baron. “With an estimated 24 million students predicted to drop out of school as a result of COVID-19 and 617 million children affected by acute learning loss, programs like ours that promote basic, essential literacy while helping children catch up have never been more important.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, over half of children in low- and middle-income countries could not read and understand a simple text by age 10. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where Luminos operates classrooms, that number increases to 87% of children. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation more dire.
Reading is a skill that literate people often take for granted, but which has the unique power to transform lives forever. Words and sentences guide you to the correct bus to visit your family, explain how much life-saving medication to take, and inform you about breaking news. The United Nations describes education as the key to escaping poverty, promoting equality, reaching gender equity, and more. For every additional year in school, an individual’s future earnings increase by as much as 10%. For girls, the risk of teen pregnancy decreases, as does the risk of maternal death.
“Literacy is essential to set children up for success in life,” says Phyllis Kurlander Costanza, CEO of UBS Optimus Foundation: a key Luminos funding partner. “Being able to read means having the ability to learn on your own — to pursue knowledge, understand and follow health advice, and navigate and contribute to civil society. Aided by the UBS Optimus Foundation, organizations like the Luminos Fund are critical to helping the hardest-to-reach children learn to read – thereby transforming their lives and their communities.”
The Luminos Fund operates classrooms in Ethiopia, Liberia, and Lebanon to help out-of-school and overaged children get a second chance at education and learn to read. Many of our students are the first in their families to go to school. Without basic literacy and numeracy skills, these children are at risk of being locked out of the education system forever. In our program, we balance a learning-by-doing, play-based approach with a phonics-based model, gently scripted to support first-time teachers in the classroom. Children learn to read with texts that reflect their lived experience, and through games and activities that place students at the center of teaching and learning.
By creating an atmosphere of joyful learning with continuous assessments to tailor instruction, students are excited to learn to read – and achieve remarkable results. In Liberia, Luminos students start the program reading merely five words per minute on average. At the end of the program, our students read an average of 39 words per minute: an achievement few of their peers have attained.
Bertukan and Abenet are two sisters in one of the Luminos Fund’s Ethiopian classrooms and among the first in their family to learn to read. Their father, Elias, is a farmer who wants a better future for his daughters. “I want them to continue learning… to decide their own future and not marry early,” Elias explains. He attributes his difficult life as a farmer to his lack of an education and was eager to send his girls to the free Luminos program to begin their journeys to literacy and a brighter future.
Abenet now helps her parents read documents at home. “Literacy is my favorite subject!” she says. “I was eager to read and write.” Bertukan chimes in that they both like their classroom where “there are lots of posted learning materials. We like to read these materials before and after classes” – an enriching part of education made possible with their new reading skills.
Elias is proud of his girls and excited for their futures. “Education is like a torch which shows you direction – which way to go,” he says.
The Luminos Fund has helped over 152,000 children learn to read and write with the generous support of our funding partners including UBS Optimus Foundation. We are honored to receive the 2021 International Prize from the Library Congress Literacy Awards on International Literacy Day, and look forward to helping thousands more children like Abenet and Bertukan learn to read.
Thursday, September 23, 10:00 – 11:00 a.m. New York | 2:00 – 3:00 p.m. Accra | Zoom Webinar
Ghana, a leader in education access on the continent, now struggles with the same challenges as other countries. According to new CGD-IEPA research, over 85% of parents say their children have lost learning during COVID-19 school closures, and grade repetition has tripled. On September 23, please join Ghanaian luminaries, education leaders, and the Luminos Fund to discuss how to unlock Ghana’s full educational potential once again.
Now in its fifth year, the Luminos Fund’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) week event convenes key funders, thought leaders, implementers, and allies around the subjects of education and international development.
When Mubuso Zamchiya first joined the Luminos Fund in 2017, it was a young organization with fewer than ten full-time staff. Today, Luminos has expanded its team and impact, reaching thousands more children with a second chance at education and transforming the lives of families and communities across Ethiopia, Liberia, and Lebanon. As Managing Director, Mubuso worked on nearly every part of the organization over the years, from overseeing strategic partnerships and advocacy, co-leading fundraising, convening high level discussions and events, and providing overarching leadership support. In 2020, Mubuso hosted our innovative Education Leadership through Crisis video series, interviewing eleven diverse education leaders across government, the private sector, and civil society in the midst of the pandemic.
Throughout it all, Mubuso has always held a profound passion for the transformational power of education in a child’s life. This summer Mubuso decided to continue advancing education around the world through digital learning programs and accepted a role as Managing Director at the Age of Learning Foundation.
“Luminos is one of those bold organizations that recognized a critical gap in education provision and prioritized the learning needs of out-of-school children.”
“We are so grateful for Mubuso’s invaluable support over the last four years,” says Luminos CEO Caitlin Baron. “While it’s a bittersweet moment for us, we are delighted for his new opportunity to continue spreading education opportunities across the globe at the Age of Learning Foundation. We are also thrilled to welcome Mubuso onto our Advisory Board and look forward to continuing to work together.”
The Luminos Advisory Board is comprised of top researchers and thought leaders in international education who advise Luminos on policy, advocacy, and program design. Luminos is greatly looking forward to bringing Mubuso’s wisdom and unique perspective to the Advisory Board, an entity Mubuso helped bring to fruition in 2020.
“Luminos is one of those bold organizations that recognized a critical gap in education provision and prioritized the learning needs of out-of-school children,” says Mubuso. “Luminos did so when few were paying attention. Today, everyone knows what it is like to have children out of school. My time at Luminos was a chance to deeply understand how evidence-based changemaking should happen.
“Joining the Advisory Board is an extension of a meaningful four-and-a-half-year journey as Managing Director. Now, I get to be a part of the formidable collective of thought leaders who have the privilege to contribute to the significant work Caitlin and the team at Luminos are continuing to do.”
The Advisory Board also welcomed two new members this past summer in addition to Mubuso: Professor of International Education & Development at Open University, Dr. Kwame Akyeampong, and Education Practice Manager at the World Bank Group, Dr. Harry Anthony Patrinos. We were delighted to welcome Kwame and Harry and look forward to increasingly rich discussions featuring a diverse set of perspectives.
It has been a tremendous privilege working alongside Mubuso and witnessing his leadership. We are delighted for his new opportunity, and we are especially glad that he will continue to be in close touch with Luminos moving forward as a member of our Advisory Board.
Get to know members of the Luminos Advisory Board here.
Several years ago, photographer Rosie Hallam visited a pilot of the Luminos Fund’s Second Chance program in Sidama, Ethiopia. It was a trip she never forgot. Rosie met Second Chance student, Selamaw, on that trip and spent the day with her family, taking a series of extraordinary portraits. This month, Rosie won the Royal Geographical Society’s prestigious 2021 Earth Photo competition with her portraits of Selamaw and her parents in a piece entitled, “A Right to an Education.” We spoke with Rosie about winning the award, getting to know Selamaw’s family, and visiting Second Chance classrooms in Ethiopia all those years ago.
Luminos: Congratulations on winning the 2021 Earth Photo competition! What does winning this award mean to you?
Rosie: It’s very exciting! And somewhat surprising in a way, because I felt the images I selected for the competition were quite subtle in how they might represent what Earth Photo 2021 was about.
I imagined a lot of people would think about climate change—images that people see daily of droughts and fires. But for me, it’s about the subtleties of stories. Telling individual tales about people. Amongst all the photographs I took in Ethiopia, Selamaw’s family particularly stood out for me. There was something about their dignity—I remembered them immediately and went straight to those images for the competition.
It’s a tale about a family. It could be one of millions of families around the globe. It’s quite a subtle tale of how they live their lives on a day-to-day basis.
I think education programs—lifting people up out of grinding poverty—are an amazing way of helping people, their communities, wider society, and the country as a whole.
It’s great that these photographs give people the opportunity to learn about the work that organizations like the Luminos Fund are doing. Photography is such a great way of telling those stories.
Luminos: Out of all your work, why did you choose to submit these three photos for the 2021 Earth Photo competition?
Rosie: It touched me a lot—it was just an amazing program. I don’t think any sort of charitable program has touched me as much as [Second Chance] has. Just how simple it seemed and yet how unbelievably effective it was. It literally transformed people’s lives with relatively small amounts of money.* People weren’t being given thousands of dollars, it was small seed funds. From that they were growing businesses and not just lifting themselves out of poverty, but everyone around them.
I met a lovely woman who was running a café, built from her savings group seed funding back then. Her son had completed the Second Chance program, and now all her other children were going to school because she now had the money to send them. Second Chance didn’t just impact that one child who did the catch-up program, it impacted all [the rest]. And then they’ll have children and their children will go to school. This small seed funding can impact dozens if not hundreds of people. I just thought it was amazing.
*In Ethiopia, as part of our program offering, Luminos runs savings groups for mothers of Second Chance students. Women meet weekly to save, form a business plan, and receive business and literacy training. They also receive seed funding to launch their business and are connected to local microfinance groups at the end of the school year. Eventually, mothers increase their economic stability and ability to cover the costs of future schooling when children transition to government schools.
Luminos: Where did Selamaw live and what was her life like?
Rosie: Selamaw lived in a small village with her mother, Meselech, father, Marco, and three other siblings. The school was in the center and traditional huts were spaced around it. Selamaw hadn’t been in school before because her family couldn’t afford it. She was roughly 9 or 10—the same age as my daughter at the time.
Meselech hadn’t had an education and Selamaw was her first child who was able to go to school. This was at the very beginning of the program, and already her daughter could now write her name and was learning to read. I think the mother thought it was brilliant. Meselech was really engaged in the program and fully encouraging of her daughter: she said Selamaw was working hard and would continue her education after the program.
Selamaw enjoyed being at school and learning—being able to write her name was big news. The classrooms were absolutely amazing. As you approached the school you could always hear which one was the Second Chance classroom by the level of noise. All the kids were answering and everything was very visual—lots of handmade things and the students are all wearing hats. That’s what was so lovely about it—it was really vibrant. Seeing children that were so keen to learn and that were so engaged with what was going on. That’s what I really remember from going into the classrooms: these great levels of energy.
Selamaw studied at school, but then she also did all her daily chores: sweeping out the house, picking coffee beans, going to the well to collect water like all the other children. The day I visited her family, I stayed with them all morning and we ate lunch together. To watch that meal being prepared from nothing, all from the land, was mind-blowing for me. It was a really humbling experience.
Everything they needed they had to go and get. If they wanted to eat, they went into the field at the back of the house and picked some crops. To cook the food they had to go collect the firewood to build the fire. They had to go to the well to get water. To make coffee, they would pick beans from a few coffee plants on their land, dry them out, and roast them before grinding them for coffee. Every single thing they ate and drank came from their land.
You realize how fragile people are. You look at things like environmental changes—you’d only need a flood or a drought and that’s a family who’s not eating anymore.
The whole program was amazing really. I’m glad it’s still going, and I’m glad you’re running it.
Luminos: Why do you think education is important?
Rosie: I think education is important in every single society. In London, where I live, some people are more advantaged than others. Some people have better opportunities to get a decent education than others. It’s the same around the globe. Education is both a basic human right and a smart investment. It is critical for development and helps lay the foundations for social wellbeing, economic growth and security, gender equality, and peace. These really are the cornerstones of life. Everybody benefits from having a better education.
At the Luminos Fund, we envision a world where no child is ever denied an education. We believe all children should have the opportunity to learn to read. This vision should not be a bold idea.
On the contrary, every child, whether they are born in Boston, Massachusetts or Awassa, Ethiopia, deserves to experience joyful, rich education—and the power of knowing how to read, write, and do math. However, the tragic global reality is that our vision of basic education for all, no matter their circumstances, is an ambitious goal. Even before COVID-19, millions were denied an education, often due to crisis, poverty, and discrimination. Joyful learning for all has been the Luminos Fund’s sole focus for five years and, today, our education mission is more important and urgent than ever.
2021 marks Luminos’ fifth anniversary, providing us with an opportunity to pause and reflect on just how far we have come, and to look to the future. To date, as highlighted in our new Annual Report, we have served 152,051 students, trained 20,599 teachers, supported 273,573 parents and community members, and partnered with 26 local organizations. We are incredibly proud of these numbers because they represent more than just statics. Each number is an individual life, uniquely supported and encouraged on the path to lifelong learning.
They are students like Maima in Liberia, who used to sell bread to support her family and now loves learning to read thanks to her tireless Second Chance teacher, James. They are teachers like Lominas in Ethiopia, who discovered a love of teaching math and seeing students like nine-year-old Absera master basic skills. They are parents like Sola in Lebanon, who helped her children and other students in Shatila Refugee Camp continue to learn in innovative ways during COVID-19 school closures. We share these stories and more in our 2020 Annual Report, illuminating the Luminos Fund’s expansive impact on a personal level.
Over the past five years, our programs have expanded to three countries: Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia. In addition to managing classrooms directly, we have continued to strengthen our partnerships with governments to build educational capacity at national, regional, and local levels and support Ministries of Education to adopt our model into mainstream government schools. Just this year in Lebanon, we supported the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in the digitization of key social-emotional learning (SEL) materials for national use—materials that will help both students and teachers, especially during COVID-19.
Our programs prove that rich, five-senses learning can be achieved in the poorest corners of the globe. At this critical moment in history, the global community must not narrow its vision of what is possible for educating children. COVID-19 threatens decades of progress in education, with heartbreaking impact on millions of children and families. With scarcely nine years until 2030 and the end of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), will the world rise to meet this moment?
Today calls for bold ambition to revolutionize education.
Luminos is meeting this call, equipped with a proven strategy to transform the way children learn to read and do math. With these essential skills, the door to opportunity opens. We can help millions of children. Thank you for joining us.
This essay was originally posted on the Center for Global Development’s website as a part of a Symposium responding to Girindre Beeharry’s essay “The Pathway to Progress on SDG 4.” Girindre was the inaugural Education Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can read the introduction to the collection of essays here.
2020 shook the very foundations of education around the world. After dramatic progress in the first decade of this century in expanding access to the classroom, 1.6 billion children were cast out of school. Today, an additional 24 million children are at risk of dropping out of school in COVID’s aftermath. Not only is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 at risk, but Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2 is as well. To return to the right course, the global education community must refocus and renew our priorities; in this, Girindre Beeharry provides us with a much-needed cornerstone for change.
Lessons from my own organization and experience align in many ways with Girindre’s call to arms. In this piece I aim to show that a focus on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) is indeed fundamental to advancing educational opportunity across the globe, and I hold a mirror to some the sector’s efforts so far. By outlining some stumbling blocks that education funders have faced in the past, I hope to ensure that we capture this once-in-a-lifetime moment to move forward, not pull back.
As Girindre outlines clearly in his essay on the pathway to progress on SDG 4, focusing on literacy in the first three grades is essential to inclusive and equitable quality education. In low-income countries, where nearly 90 percent of children aged 10 are unable to read with comprehension, it is not only the first hurdle to overcome, but the foundation of any real progress within SDG 4’s broader agenda.
Prioritizing universal FLN in low-income countries rightly forces the global education community to acknowledge that foundational skills are the gateway to all later learning. Second, it expands our lens to focus on education outcomes for children who are in school, but also, crucially, for those who are out of the system. And lastly, it compels us to “reach the furthest behind first.” Girindre’s conviction is radical because it lays bare the global education community’s relative lack of focus to date in improving education outcomes, and the frequent disconnect between policy pronouncements and calls for further funding from the top with actual results for teaching and learning in the classroom. By placing universal FLN at the center, we can set clear and measurable targets to which we can then hold ourselves accountable. To achieve and track real progress, consistent, regular, and relevant data—currently missing from the UIS and the Global Education Monitoring Report—is essential.
Girindre’s focus on FLN is especially helpful in that it centers our attention on a clear-eyed understanding of need, and calls on us to note that gaps in FLN are more similar than different for girls and boys. Indeed, if nine in 10 children in low-income countries cannot read by their tenth birthday, we know with certainty that this is a problem for both genders.
As Kirsty Newman says, “because we see education as a solution to gender inequality… we make the mistake of thinking that gender inequality in education is the biggest priority. In fact… girls’ foundational learning levels are generally not worse than boys.” And, research shows that even when the goal of an intervention is to increase solely girls’ learning, those interventions that have targeted both boys and girls have delivered the same impact for girls as those that focus on girls alone. This subtlety is important because it means we need not waste time searching for FLN solutions uniquely designed for girls. Broad-based FLN solutions are the strongest way to improve outcomes for girls as well as boys.
A school system that keeps children in a classroom for six years or more without teaching them to read fundamentally does not value children’s time, no matter their gender. On behalf of every child, we need to demand more.
But what does getting FLN right really mean at the level of the child? As a child, I learned from my own family what a strong foundation of learning really means. My grandmother would tell me how she grew up in a village where girls went to school through grade three and boys through grade five, and that was the end of their educational journeys. With just three years of reasonably high-quality schooling though, she could read the Bible, balance a check book, and sign a mortgage. Not to mention raise five children who went on to fulfill their full potential, collecting a series of university degrees along the way. I share this not to celebrate how incredible my grandmother was, though she was, but rather to make the point that even three years of schooling can be remarkably impactful if delivered well.
Achieving FLN at scale
Luminos’s Second Chance programs in Ethiopia and Liberia show that first-generation readers can advance from reading five words per minute to 39 words per minute in merely 10 months. Through careful iteration and evaluation, we have enabled over 152,000 out-of-school children to get up to grade level and back to learning.
Along the way, we have learned a few things that are relevant to achieving FLN at scale. We know these lessons can be applied to help make FLN a reality for all. No child should be denied the right to be able to read, write, and do basic math, and the global education community has the power to ensure this happens.
Access versus quality is a false dichotomy
Against the backdrop of the many disappointments of international education detailed in Girindre’s piece, the expansion of access to basic schooling around the globe is a shining achievement that merits far more celebration.
Before the pandemic, the proportion of children out of primary and secondary school fell from 26 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2018. In 1998, it is estimated 381 million children were out of school. By 2014, this number fell to 263 million. This proves the possible: real progress can be made when the world’s education actors are galvanized around a clear, common goal, like the second MDG.
The global education community has spent too much time since the penning of the SDGs in debating the merits of education access versus education quality. Girindre’s essay and the World Bank’s new focus on Learning Poverty make clear that this is a false dichotomy, especially post-COVID. A drive to ensure all children learn to read with meaning by age 10 puts our focus on both access and quality, on efforts to improve instruction quality inside early grade classrooms, and on ensuring the one in five African children who still never even make it through the schoolhouse door actually have the chance to get inside.
Learning from global health
Focusing on foundational literacy is the gateway to further learning, and the foundation for unlocking better health, stronger democracy, and so much more. There is good news: even the least-resourced countries have the capabilities to deliver on FLN. At Luminos, our experience training non-formal or community teachers demonstrates that the human capital to unlock early literacy for all children already exists everywhere.
Our program shows the promise of community teachers, especially for countries with a seemingly insurmountable teacher shortage. The global teacher shortage stands at nearly 69 million teachers; 70 percent of this shortfall is in sub-Saharan Africa. The global community needs an education infantry to deliver FLN—fast. Many countries cannot graduate teachers at a rate that could fill the shortfall: South Sudan would need all of its projected graduates from higher education—twice over—to become teachers to fill its gap. The sector must be bold and think outside the box to provide basic and remedial education, as global health has to provide basic healthcare.
Useful lessons can be drawn from global health’s embrace of community health workers as a “last mile” extension to overstretched public health systems. Pratham’s success with the “Balsakhi” model—where tutors from the community worked with local school children—alongside Luminos’s work training community teachers, proves that high-potential young adults with minimal formal training can deliver transformative impact in FLN rates where it is needed most: rural, hard-to-reach areas (Banerjee et al, 2007; Luminos, 2017).
Reduced class size in the early years is essential for success
Entry-level literacy, especially for first-generation readers, requires a class size where the teacher can have a basic sense of each child’s learning level. My experience suggests that, heroic outliers aside, most teachers cannot effectively teach many more than 40 children to learn to read at one time.
In our program at Luminos, children begin the year at uniformly basic learning levels, but by midyear we find a wide dispersion of literacy levels within the same classroom. For a teacher to ensure every child in her class learns to read, she needs a small enough group to allow for some understanding of individual learning levels and differentiated instruction. Larger class sizes are never ideal, but older children are better able to navigate this constraint. Once literacy is achieved, it is possible for children to continue to grasp new learning, even when taught through a passive “chalk and talk” model, with limited individual engagement between teacher and learner, as is typical of large classes. But—and this is crucial—the key gatekeeping event is literacy, and smaller classes facilitate achieving that.
Reflections for education funders on driving change
I write as someone with 15 years in the international education space: 10 years at a leading international education foundation and now 5 years at the helm of the Luminos Fund. I am honored to be featured alongside this esteemed list of researchers, though I am very much not a researcher myself. Instead, I write from my lived experience, having had the rare pleasure of serving on both sides of the desk, as funder and fund-seeker. From this perspective, there are three key provocations I would like to share with funders seeking to drive bold change in international education.
Girindre persuasively highlights the shortage of investment in research and insight in international education relative to global health. While education research may indeed be underfunded, I wonder if a lack of knowledge about what works is truly a barrier to entry for a funder seeking a profound impact in international education?
Reviewing a selection of proven yet diverse FLN interventions that deliver high impact—Pratham’s Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), RTI’s Tusome project, and Luminos, for example—a number of shared elements can be discerned:
Successful delivery of operational basics, including some form of textbooks, learning materials, and, ideally, midday meals
Simple assessments at classroom level that allow for a tight dialogue between teaching and learning, enabling teachers to meet children where they are
Activities that allow children to learn by doing
Some form of scripted instruction, providing a roadmap for success in the classroom, especially for newer and less prepared teachers
Project or systemwide efforts to manage from data, driving problem solving and accountability for performance
Indeed, there is an emerging consensus that some version of the above list is at the core of almost every successful FLN intervention in the sector. It may not be as certain as a “Copenhagen Consensus,” but more than enough information is available for a smart, strategic funder to take bold action. Moreover, the learning that will come from moving forward with what we know and evaluating as work advances is far more valuable than what can be achieved by analyzing from the sidelines.
As courage for the uncertain journey ahead, I offer three key reflections on international education philanthropic strategy from my own professional journey:
The who and the how versus the what
The rise of the importance of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in education has brought many important insights to the fore and allowed for the equally important result of setting aside interventions that simply do not work. An unfortunate side effect of RCTs in the education space, however, is that these studies have at times fueled the search for silver bullets. Too often, education grantmaking strategy has centered on the choice of model of intervention, rather than the quality of the implementation of a model.
Even the most evaluated and celebrated international education intervention in recent time, TaRL, provides ample proof that selecting a powerful model alone is insufficient to guarantee success. While this model has an appropriately renowned track record of success, of the 15 evaluations cited on TaRL’s website, six show little to no material impact on student results. Alongside the conclusion that meeting children where they are is a vital component of successful teaching and learning, we must arrive at the equally important conclusion that who delivers the intervention and how (including elements of both context and quality) matters.
As a sector, we should place greater value on the teams doing the work. In education, implementation is everything: the who and the how are at least as important as the what, if not more so.
For a funder, this means balancing a focus on evaluation data with the long, sometimes expensive investment in building the capability to gather, analyze, and action operating data. Our funders at Luminos love to see our past external evaluations, but it is our real-time management data that enables us to deliver targeted, transformative education to the children sitting in our classrooms today. For funders, I urge directing more support to organizations invested in the long-term, iterative search for sustainable impact, and less towards large-scale but time-bound projects that often leave little behind when they conclude. Furthermore, I urge funders to invest in the development of in-house measurement systems that make it possible for organizations to advance the ongoing, iterative search for impact.
Cursing the darkness versus lighting a candle
Girindre’s piece rightfully calls out the struggles and shortcomings of the major multilateral institutions in their quest to materially advance the quality of education around the globe. Changing some of the in-built challenges in the global education aid infrastructure will be hard though, and with uncertain success. Meanwhile there are simpler education investments, with more straightforward paths to catalytic impact, waiting to be made.
There is a rising cohort of international education NGOs ready to do far more good for the world, if only they had the financial support to further scale. I recognize I may seem an imperfect messenger for this call to action, as the head of one such NGO. But I make this claim, in heartfelt truth, on behalf of a broader coalition of excellent organizations doing remarkable work to expand educational opportunities for children globally: the Citizens Foundation, Educate!, PEAS, Rising Academies, Young 1ove, the entire membership of the Global Schools Forum, and many more. These high-impact organizations are underpowered financially. It would be an easy—and transformational—win for a foundation to invest sustained, flexible, mezzanine-style funding to take these proven models to true scale.
An important consideration to highlight here is that it is not necessary to choose out-of-school children over girls’ education or over early childhood development. Each organization above is a proven winner on their piece of the education puzzle. The world’s children would be far better off if this cohort of organizations could pursue our respective missions at some multiple of our current sizes. While lasting change in education inevitably means working within government systems, there is no effective way to do this without high-quality partners to support that engagement, and this is where high-impact, under-funded NGOs come in.
The potential for impact from a greatly expanded tier of international education NGOs should be resonant for those coming from a global health perspective. While global health has long been criticized for focusing on “vertical” or disease-centered initiatives (malaria, HIV, etc.) at the expense of mainstream health systems, this focus has also driven a revolution in health outcomes around the world. These vertical initiatives have time and again made the case to donor agencies and national governments of the positive return on global health investments. In short, this “problem” of global health is one the international education sector would love to have. Investing in scaling up high-impact international education NGOs is a risk worth taking.
Getting out of one’s own way
Leading a major portfolio at a foundation means operating in a world of awesome possibility and weighty responsibility, as I know from my decade as a leader at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. All that flexible capital naturally requires a razor sharp, insight-based strategy to guide its effective deployment. But true philanthropic wisdom involves allowing the occasional freedom to set aside rigid strategies (however elegant they may seem) and simply fund great things, regardless of how they map to a fixed strategic plan—and I say this as someone who also spent the first seven years of her career as a strategy consultant.
Anthony Bugg-Levine, another recovering strategy consultant, wrote of his time at the Rockefeller Foundation: “like most foundations, ours had a strategy and looked for grantees undertaking specific projects that fit into it.But great nonprofits have their own strategies. By pushing many of them to fit into a specific type of restricted funding, I risked not getting their best.” When you fund exclusively against your own strategy, you close yourself off to the possibility that anyone else in the sector might have a good idea of which you had not yet thought.
Careful research and deep diligence are important when planning a grant portfolio, but real learning comes ultimately from doing and applying that same rigor to evaluating the journey of the work, not simply the choice of destination.
In education in particular, we need to create space for just a little bit of magic: incredible successes we cannot quite explain lest we “dissect the bird trying to find the song.” Imagine if the philanthropists who funded Maria Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini had insisted on knowing the neuroscience behind sensorial education before committing to support the scaling of her work. Would we now have one of the most scaled and impactful education models the world has ever seen? Taking the occasional risk on something new, different, or unproven is one of the great joys of philanthropy, and very much to be cherished.
Answering Girindre’s call to arms
If there is one thing our sector needs more than anything else, it is bright, passionate minds, unwilling to compromise with the status quo of incremental progress, and hell-bent on making good on the promise of universal access to a quality basic education. As such, those of us in the sector feel the loss as Girindre steps away from his fulltime role at the Gates Foundation all the more palpably.
I first met Girindre when I had just transitioned from 10 years at a foundation into the role of NGO leader, and he had just made the leap from the world of global health to that of international education. We have enjoyed trading fish-out-of-water reflections on the fresh perspective that comes from taking up new, complex things. He treated me to a few warp-speed tours of the Gates Foundation’s evolving strategic vision in international education, keeping me on my toes as he bounced effortlessly from RCT findings to national education budgets to pedagogic frameworks. It was a privilege to be in the room with him. I have watched with admiration and a small touch of jealousy as he went on to build a grant portfolio funding all of my very favorite international education researchers to tackle some of the most pressing questions of our time.
It is hard to imagine someone having a greater impact on the international education sector in a shorter period of time than Girindre. He has gifted our sector with so many important insights, but his most important legacy is the searing and inspiring call to action in his essay.
Education is hard, and messy, and slow to show results, but it is the only truly lasting social investment we can make. Girindre poses the essential question to each of us in his piece. Complex and difficult as it is to get education right, what more worthy challenge could we possibly choose for our “one wild and precious life”?