At a time when we are concerned about our children missing school because of the covid-19 pandemic, it is worth remembering that, across the world, 1-in-5 children have no access to education at all. This means that there are 265 million children who have no schooling. Even more worrying there are 69-million too few teachers globally which means that, as things stand, education targets are impossible to achieve.
In an ideal world governments should make it a priority to deliver excellent education for all citizens. But that is not happening, nor is it about to happen any time soon, and we must look at the world as it is. Building more schools is not necessarily the answer with such a massive teacher deficit, and the expense of maintaining schools. I have seen too many schools, built by well-intentioned philanthropists, that were unstaffed, unresourced, being used as storage or left derelict. Hello World was founded to find another solution to the global education deficit.
Understandably, teachers are reluctant to go to places where there is extreme need. These are tough places, right on the front line of humanitarian crises. When their very survival is an issue, it is easy to forget the educational needs of the children living in these circumstances, but we know that education is the only way to level the playing field, to start to unpick the gross inequality they face, through a mere accident of birth.
Meritocracy is a Myth
It is rare for anyone to change the situation that they were handed at birth. We love to promote the story of the outlier who breaks free of socio-economic constraints and succeeds against all the odds. The way we promote those stories makes it seem as if meritocracy is a reality. In actual fact if you are born poor, it is almost certain that you will stay poor and your children will be poor. It is no coincidence that most of our Prime Ministers here in the UK went to Eton or Harrow. The exceptions are rare. We are not electing the cream of the crop, but the most privileged, best connected men who had a lot of money thrown at their education. I would love to live in a world in which we are led by the best, cleverest, most capable and principled people among us and not just the richest.
Along with my passion for social mobility, I am committed to the idea of community-led development, to the ideal of communities having a say in how they develop socially and economically, and this is what led to the conception of the Hello World programme. A lot of charitable work has taught developing communities to wait for handouts, and be grateful for whatever they get. I am not a fan of that approach. We use the best technology we can find to teach vulnerable and marginalised communities how to build state-of-the-art, outdoor, solar-powered, internet-connected computer kiosks that are loaded with educational software. Hello World offers a window to the world and the Internet’s body of knowledge – a portal to start solving problems and getting in touch.
The technology is just a tool. The real innovation with Hello World, is the way in which we deploy the tech. It would be faster, cheaper and easier to prefabricate Hello Hubs and drop them on unsuspecting communities. As ill-advised as it may sound, a lot of organisations still use this approach when delivering aid of one kind or another. This is the exact opposite of our approach at Hello World.
We teach our host communities how to build every part of their Hello Hub; they are co-investors, co-innovators, and partners with the Hello World team. We trust them to take the lead. They are charged with managing and maintaining their Hub over the years, with our support. This radically flips the most common development paradigm. I am convinced that it is our community-led approach that has made Hello World successful and so far, sustainable.
Too often people are cooking up ideas to end poverty in think-tanks in Silicon Valley, London and New York. We do the opposite. We take our lead from the communities that we partner with. They have taught us how to do this project. They are the experts in their culture, their community, their needs, and they are the ones who can fundamentally change their outcomes in a way that will last. And often all that is required are simply some tools to unlock that capability. Access to the Internet, and the links to problem-solving that it provides, is one such tool. If you can share news of a drought or a flood with your community, you may help people avoid agricultural problems. Or on a small-community level, if you can research the latest hair braiding fashion you can offer better services to your customers, and make more money.
More importantly, and most hard to quantify, is the coming together that happens in Hub communities when they work together to build and invest in the Hello Hub. A strong community spirit remains a permanent legacy in the communities that we work in, and a strong determination to create, invent, and solve problems together.
A gateway to a better future
Some of our communities have built radio stations at their Hello Hub to share the news. A young man used his Hello Hub to make music and is now a successful and wealthy music producer in his community in Uganda. Another Hub user built a successful travel business from a Hub, advertising his tour guide services to tourists. And, in response to the Covid-19 crisis, one Hub user in Uganda has made freely available an education programme that he designed himself. Hello Hubs enable creativity: making movies, taking photos, raising your voice, sharing your story.
We know that there are immeasurable benefits in being able to research, communicate and share information – and Hello World provides the tools for these communities to take a lead and change their lives.
A chance encounter
I am not a tech expert, nor am I a trained teacher. I have had to learn a lot as I go along.
I came across Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk about his research on “The Hole In The Wall”, the school in the cloud. I was inspired by what Sugata discovered. I reached out to him, and to his great credit, he picked up the phone and taught me what he had learnt, what worked and what didn’t. In the relay race that we’re all running to achieve equality, he passed a baton on to Hello World. Sugata has described Hello World as “the grandchild of the Hole In The Wall project”.
I was not pegged for academic success because I am dyslexic and I have had to work hard to make the grade. If you had told my childhood self that I would be working in education in 20 years time, I would have laughed. Dyslexia has helped me to think laterally about what education can be. Traditional education didn’t work for me. That ended up being a benefit to my work in the long term while I grappled with how we might reimagine education in places where there are no schools.
If you’re interested in the social sector, then my best advice is to roll your sleeves up and just get started. It’s okay to work it out as you go along if you are curious, are happy to ask for advice, and if you have humility. This has been a steep learning curve for me but I would have had it no other way.
The consequences of isolation
Many of us have had to adjust to separation from family and friends during the coronavirus pandemic. We are experiencing, in a minor way, what displaced communities have to deal with on a permanent basis. Not only do they suffer from geographic separation and isolation, but they have little or no means of staying in contact with their loved ones, or with the world at large. This extreme isolation has severe consequences on the emotional health and wellbeing of displaced people. – We have come to realise that Hello Hubs serve another function beyond education and problem-solving, one that is proving to be invaluable. They are about mental health – enabling people to stay in contact with their family when they have had to flee their home country and seek refuge elsewhere. And the Hubs provide a means of enabling people to tell their stories and share their experiences, just as we are doing now when we are in temporary lockdown.