It Takes More than a Text Book
by Jonathan Lang of Ubuntu Education Fund
“South Africa’s failing school system is condemning millions to a life of unemployment, crimping economic growth and fueling crime, even as spending on education surges.” -Mike Cohen and Nasreen Seria
Headlines splashed across papers from the New York Times to Business Week continue to cite the woes of South Africa’s failing education system as the origin of post-apartheid strife in South Africa. While this is certainly one component of a multi-faceted problem, it by no means is the only culprit. Though attempting to find a singular origin is rooted in good faith, such a reductive approach is ultimately ineffective and costly.
The Ubuntu Model has evolved over ten years to become a multi-tiered approach. While our initial efforts were similarly targeted towards improving education through the introduction of new classroom materials (like computers and library books), we came to realize that we were essentially applying solutions that were applicable and effective in an environment more like our own; US solutions do not work for South African problems. Our insight came about from listening to the needs of the people of Port Elizabeth as opposed to applying a rubric derived from our cultural assumptions.
A student cannot effectively learn without proper nutrition, exceptional medical care, and a sense of psychological well-being. A child cannot succeed in school or ultimately compete in the work place without resources that go beyond a new text book or new computer. While the tools are certainly essential, their use is compromised without the most basic access to quality services outside the classroom. Our understanding while not inexpensive is most effective.
More damaging is the portrayal of South Africa’s classrooms as a de facto money pit in which educational resources are squandered. The reality is that while private, individual donations are the vehicle for real change, they will serve as little more than good intentions unless properly allocated. Too often money has been spent treating a symptom rather than the source, butcatastrophizing this misallocation not only dries up much needed donations, but reinforces long-standing, stereotypes about Africa as a ‘bad investment’. Such an alarmist outlook could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately, Ubuntu Education Fund’s efforts have never been dissuaded by the headlines.
The Ubuntu Centre (designed by featured architect Stan Field) is the embodiment of this understanding. The Centre is a holistic approach to the well-being of not only the children of Port Elizabeth, but to the community at large. Housing everything from computer classes to HIV-treatment under one roof, The Centre embraces the complex needs of children by transcending the singular, misguided belief that
new books change lives.
Changing a life is a costly endeavor, and to state otherwise is wistful at best and damaging at worse. And while the price tag for real, sustained change in South Africa may be high, the long-term cost of misallocating funds to a single source is a price the global community simply cannot afford.