This is the third in a series of three blog posts from each of the CommonBond borrowers who joined us on our trip to Ghana with Pencils of Promise. We asked each of them to write about their experience.
Harvard Business School, Class of 2015
Favorite Moment of the Trip
Seeing Pencil of Promise's e-reader pilot program in action.
It all started with a poem I read in college.
"Take up the white man's burden, send forth the best ye breed."
Rudyard Kipling's words have haunted me since I first read them more than 10 years ago. They knocked the wind out of my bright-eyed, 18-year old self. They made me realize that some would interpret my burning desire to work in the nonprofit sector not as an enlightened career decision, but as a post-colonial intrusion into a community that was not my own. I recognized that in international development, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," and I moved away from wanting to pursue a career in international development. My primary fears were that I would cause more harm than good primarily by creating dependency upon foreign aid and not really engaging with the local community.
My trip to Ghana with CommonBond and Pencils of Promise was my first visit to a nonprofit organization in the field. It made me confront all of the original reasons that I decided not to work in international development. It also made me think hard about where I wanted to direct my philanthropy.
First, it made me realize that fear is a healthy emotion, but that I had let it drive me to inaction. In contrast, Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise, saw need and did something. Visiting Pencils of Promise (PoP), I saw a nonprofit organization operating with strong community support to build schools in areas that had been missing education infrastructure for 50-60 years. I saw a 20-year-old student puff up his chest with pride at his ability to read. I saw community members gather early on a Sunday, the day of rest, to make bricks so that their children and grandchildren could have a place to learn. Adam made a difference because he acted â€“ despite all of the challenges associated with starting an international nonprofit organization. I realized that action is what changes the world.
Second, the need for better education infrastructure in the developing world is huge. We saw beautiful classrooms nestled under mango trees in Ghana. At first, it was easy to be blinded by the beauty of the landscape and the vibrancy of the community that supported it. However, there is an irony to watching high schoolers learn about the charge of different atoms in a classroom that lacks electricity, and it was impossible for me not to compare the mango tree to the classroom where I had learned high school chemistry. The gap in resources made my heart hurt. It even inspired me to write my first non-school-assigned poem:
Today I sat under a mango tree Lovely, luscious but open to wind, rain, and the sliding, slippery creatures of the earth But this giving tree wasn't for shade or juicy yellow fruit It was a tree of knowledge—a classroom, a school with no walls.
This tree was beautiful but lacking. It could not give her students electricity for computers or printers for homework hand outs. It could not help them learn at night or in the rain.
I want to share the fruit of the tree with these students—not mangos but knowledge. I want them to drink as deeply as I do from the electronic word. To put google, Wikipedia at their fingertips to answer all their queries—yes, to help them read the economist, the classics, but also to find song lyrics, YouTube—the trappings of our modern, knowledge-based world.
G-d, thank you for blessing me with a classroom that is less romantic and pastoral, but richer with computers and books than mangoes—fruit that is better for feeding minds than bodiesPlease help me to give more communities less beautiful but more functional classrooms, better teachers, more technology so we can share, connect and walk together into this modern world—no child left behind, right this time.
In response to my fears, yes, dependency upon aid is a real problem. I strongly believe that development models that rely upon recurring revenue sources are the optimal solutions to poverty. However, not all problems have market-based solutions. Education is a public good that doesn't lend itself well to privatization or sustainable revenue models. While I might be skeptical of donation models, in this instance, I believe that better education can crowd in investment from local government by showing the power of what a stronger school system can do. If PoP can provide better infrastructure and teaching to students, they can slowly help students go from dropping out of kindergarten to staying in elementary school and even high school. While that might not seem significant, that's the difference between achieving basic literacy and not, between understanding the importance of including the decimal places when measuring the frame of a house and not.
To put this in context, UNICEF reports that literacy rates in Ghana are 75 percent—that means 1 in 4 Ghanaians lack even a 1st grade education. Improving access to primary education is a cause that can change an economy because farmers, market vendors, carpenters, etc. all benefit from basic literacy. That's a cause worthy of public and private sector intervention.
CommonBond is an example of an innovative model for sustainable support of primary education in the developing world. Through their one-for-one model, the student loan provider donates the cost of an education for every loan that they fund in the U.S.
In response to my second fear of aligning best practices with reality on the ground, PoP has done a wonderful job of community engagement to ensure they are addressing the need that exists not the need the Western world wants to believe exists. The Ghanaian country director, Freeman, is a great administrator from Eastern Ghana with strong relationships throughout the region. At every school we visited, the local minister of education and the headmaster of the school greeted us and thanked us for our involvement. In addition, PoP only works in communities that are willing to put in the sweat equity to build a school.
My visit to Ghana helped me see that it is possible to do development right and effectively. I knew that in theory but it was incredible to see it in practice. In the spirit of effective altruism, I had already decided that I wanted to donate the bulk of my volunteer time locally to my own community but the majority of my dollars abroad where my money goes much, much further. I had looked into several international nonprofit organizations, but I wanted to have more confidence in the organization than just positive reviews on GiveWell.
As a result of my trip and seeing PoP's work on the ground, I decided that I wanted to make PoP my cause and specifically, that I would use the platform of my 30th birthday to try to bring some more good into the world. With $25,000, we can build another PoP school, and with another $5,000 we can buy 25 e-readers (hardware + content costs $200 each). I am planning to raise funds by enlisting a cadre of friends and family to help plan fundraising parties and to get their friends, family, and companies. (Anybody work for someone who matches donations? Let me know.) I hope you will join me by contributing here.