Africa: Small is Beautiful?

Africa is huge. We all know that. That is has huge challenges ahead of it is also common knowledge. Xan Smiley, writing in the Spectator last week, highlights brilliantly the failure of British policy over many years which have inadvertently led to the propping up of dictatorships, the incoherent distribution of aid, or the lack of the necessary diplomatic support to make a real difference.

‘British diplomacy in Africa so far this century has been ineffective and inconsistent’, he says and concludes that DfID (the Department for International Development) has ‘got too big for its boots.’

Size matters.

In a previous blog, I recounted the content of our TeachabilityUK Conference at Liverpool Football Club, a first foray in promoting a global perspective to our curriculum within a group of schools. Our main work is in Sierra Leone, located in the western part of sub-saharan Africa.

Now Sierra Leone is a bit different. It is a relative success story in terms of British influence, chiefly because of what the Blair government did at the turn of the century. It invested a vast amount of positive engagement to close a bloody civil war, reduce corruption and help return the country to the current fragile democracy which, for the time being, is holding firm.

But in general, the UK’s commitment in too cosmetic, and overly-reliant on big charities and super-NGOs to effect improvement on the ground. Smiley’s criticisms of DfiD resonates with my own brief experience of meeting two DfID officials in Whitehall. We were there thanks to the support of Stephen Twigg MP, one of a number of excellent MPs representing the people of Merseyside, in an effort to promote the work of  St Vincent’s School for the Blind and All Saints (our school) on how we can support inclusion on an international level.

It was clear we were far too small to attract DfID funding, and their advice was to ‘piggy-back’ onto other charities to develop a larger bid. We’re trying to follow their advice.

Where am I going with all this, you may well ask?

Well, I’m anticipating understandable criticism of our work on the grounds that it is just another ‘giving to poor people’ act of sentimentality. It looks good on the website, makes for a good assembly and gives a few staff a wonderful opportunity to develop their professional experience.

And whilst I fully understand this, I feel it’s important that I counter any charge robustly. So take this, sceptics.

  1. It is not a short-term photo opp. We are now into our eighth year of support and we can point to some clear outcomes. 28 pupils at our partner school passed their ’11-plus’ equivalent this year, up from 4 pupils in 2012. Literacy levels are improving in this school at least.

  2. We’re in it for the long-term. This year, should we get the funding, we will employ two teachers to man a ‘teaching school’ unit which can train teachers from 50 neighbouring schools on basic phonic methodology, or how to successfully include pupils with SEND into the mainstream class.

  3. We’ve done the hard yards with partners on the ground. Our work is linked to the Connecting Classrooms work at the British Council, has the support of the Deputy Director for Education in the Western Area, and links the library and work of the Waterloo Partnership, out of which grew the schools’ link after the civil war.

  4. More partners from the UK are on board including, amazingly, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, who are keen to develop an international arm to the ‘In Harmony’ programme.

This is no flash in the pan, and DfID would do well to celebrate how schools can lead the way for development into the future. For it is only education that can make the crucial strides that everyone wishes to see happen in Africa. There is a wonderful opportunity, post-Brexit, for Britain to lead the way here. China, for example, appears only interested in pillaging the country for as many raw materials as possible.

We have some challenges ahead. We should not hold back in calling out local leaders and teachers for their treatment of women, for example, or the disproportionate importance placed on status. This hinders development and needs addressing by us on the ground.

But I hope that our work is a good example of where ‘small is beautiful’, recalling that seminal text by Schumacher that I remember reading at university.

DfID may want to see big organisations take the largest volumes of aid, but I think it is the smallest players that can make the necessary difference on the ground. Especially if the goal is sustainable educational development.

Our venture’s next event is a charity cricket match in the wonderful city of Glasgow, an ‘England v Scotland’ match with a difference. It takes place on 16th September and I shall blog all disastrous run-outs, pulled hamstrings and bucolic slog-sweeps. Let’s hope it raises enough cash so that we can fully resource our TeachabilityUK  ‘Teaching School’ idea.

If so, we can go back to DfiD with further evidence of how education is the most important arm of any development agency.

I will leave the last word to one of Africa’s finest, the recently deceased Kofi Annan.

‘Education is, quite simply, peace building by another name. It is the most effective form of defence spending there is.’

Enough said.

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