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Education is key to ending poverty

By Claudia Brooks

When Chris Murdoch, head of global strategy and Asia programs at Opportunity International Australia, was based in rural Northern India, he learned Hindi so he could speak directly to Opportunity’s loan recipients. “Kumna,” he says, “that is the Hindi verb to wander . . . I did a lot of that there, and I spoke to a lot of women.” He wanted to ask them one question: “What is it you hope for?”  He was trying to get at the core of why people would burden themselves with microfinance debt. “Why would women want to borrow money and build small businesses? What’s the underlying purpose?” What took Chris by surprise, was the consistency of their reactions.

“The women would look at me like I was either insane, or stupid,” he says. “The answer seemed so painfully obvious to them, and that was: ‘I do not want my children to live the life I have lived. The reason I operate a small business, is because I do not want them to replace me. I don't want them to repeat my life.’”

This poignant message was one of many at Opportunity’s recent ‘What if?’ event. An evening of powerful conversation addressing the central premise: A small loan to build a business can be life-changing for a family in poverty . . . but what if . . . they face violence at the hands of a family member? Or a lack of clean water and toilets means they keep getting sick?

Chris spoke about Opportunity’s school improvement loans to school leaders, addressing the question: But what if . . . the education isn’t all that good? What if the teachers don’t teach?

“Every Indian woman,” Chris says, “knows that a good education is paramount if you want to avoid your children replacing you as someone living in poverty.” A crucial issue with this however, is that whilst a lot of money that women earn is diverted to educating their children, in very many schools in India (and indeed in Indonesia and the Philippines), children arenotlearning anything. “Either the teachers don’t teach,” Chris says, “or they don’t show up at all.” What this means, is women are spending hard-earned income from small businesses to support their children through school, but they aren’t seeing a return on investment.

Andrew McCusker, Head of Opportunity’s education finance program, is passionate about solving this very problem and improving the quality of education in developing countries. “The issue with the Millennium Development Goals,” Andrew says, “is they aimed to get kids into school, and they largely achieved that . . . but there’s 350 million kids who go to school who don't learn basic numeracy or literacy.” Chris concurs. “Globally, there’s been tremendous success in getting children into school . . . the value of that schooling however, is really very low,” he says.

Opportunity’s education finance team aims to shift the focus from the quantity of kids in school, to the quality of the education itself. “We need to address the quality of what the kids are learning when they get there . . . and the results have the potential to be truly transformative,” Andrew says.

Opportunity, seeing this critical issue, is involved in the ‘supply side’ of education: what is going on in the schools, and what can we do to grow the supply of schools that are producing high quality learning outcomes.  And Andrew says the results of Opportunity’s investment in school improvement are transformative. When Opportunity conducted studies to measure the impact of its school improvement loans in Sub-Saharan Africa, it found that instead of 50 children to every teacher, that number reduced to around 30, one which we are far more familiar with here in Australia.

Another key improvement was in that of school facilities, including washroom facilities and water availability. When it comes to keeping girls in school, access to these facilities is paramount. “One of the very common dropout processes,” Chris explains, “is when girls begin to menstruate they can’t go to school one week out of every month as the facilities simply aren’t adequate.” The result—girls stay away from school, and it becomes very easy to never go back.

Andrew illustrated the impact of school improvement loans with the inspiring story of Top Junior High School in Uganda. “The proprietor opened in 2005 with 24 pupils,” he says, “and now, after a series of loans, there are 913 kids at the school. And the most incredible part,” Andrew says, “is that the proprietor used the loans to add boarding houses on campus for girls, to stop them from dropping out when they reach lower secondary school.”

These are strong examples of how investing in schools can produce high quality educational outcomes for children living in poverty. The results, according to Chris, “Are a tremendous start . . . but we are keen to see if we can do better, and better again.” Small loans are an incredible building block for people in poverty to become architects of their own destiny, but it’s these ‘What ifs?’ that we must listen to, and act upon, if we are to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty for good.

Education, and indeed Opportunity’s education finance program, is pivotal for this reason. “We are on the cusp of finding fabulous ways to reinforce the impact of microfinance activity,” Chris says, “to take it, and make it richer and even better than it has been in the past.”

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