Girls at the Lamwo Kuc Ki Gen High School, northern Uganda. Photograph courtesy of Peas
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The learning curve

In 2016, commercial-scale oil production will begin in Uganda. But with only a quarter of all its children in secondary school, how can more of the people – especially girls – benefit from its new wealth?

“John-Mary has always had dreams,” says Justine Nantengo of her son, who stands smart and shy in his crisp blue shirt on the dirt floor of their tiny mud-brick home. In this district, on the western edges of Kampala, where the urban sprawl gives way to green and where tarmacked roads dwindle to rutted, rust-red tracks, if you don’t have dreams you have nothing.

For a long time John-Mary dreamed of finishing secondary school, but the few local schools were too expensive for his single mother, supporting five children on a plantation worker’s salary. Then in 2008 Onwards and Upwards opened, a secondary school run by Peas – Promoting Equality in African Schools, a social enterprise and charity hybrid. School fees were only 52,000 Ugandan shillings (£12) a term, less than half the price of the average private school and USh19,000 (£5) lower than fees at the supposedly free government schools.

John-Mary, who was then 19, enrolled, graduated with the third-highest grades in the district and is now funding the cost of studying for a degree in education at Makerere University in Kampala by teaching at Onwards and Upwards. He hopes to teach full-time, to fund his younger siblings through school, perhaps, one day, rebuild the family’s decrepit home and allow his mother to retire.

Like many countries across Africa, Uganda has made considerable progress in increasing primary-school enrolment rates. Under the UN Millennium Development Goals introduced in 2000, national governments pledged to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Across sub-Saharan Africa, this led to an increase in net primary-school enrolment rates from 18 per cent in 1999 to 76 per cent in 2009.

The Ugandan government, led by Yoweri Museveni, introduced universal primary education in 1997, three years before the UN pledge. According to Ugandan government statistics, net enrolment rates rose from 57 per cent to 85 per cent in 1997 alone, and today just over 90 per cent of children are enrolled.

But this created a second problem, says Ismael Mulindwa, head of policy and regulations at the Ugandan ministry of education. “In the space of one or two years, the number of children in primary school shot up from about two million to seven million [Uganda has a population of 34.5 million]. When these children reached their final year of primary, another question came in: where do they go now?”

Uganda took an unusual step. In 2007, it became one of the first African countries to set a goal of universal secondary education, but the government accepted that it lacked the capacity to implement the programme directly. “At that point, we had around 800 government secondary schools, which could not take up that big number of school leavers. So we now thought of forging a partnership with private schools, to help absorb these numbers,” Mulindwa told me. The government encouraged private schools to step in by offering schools participating in the programme an annual grant of USh141,000 (£35) per pupil. In exchange for accepting the government subsidy, the participating schools agree not to charge tuition fees – but most schools get around this by imposing inflated top-up charges for lunch, uniforms and books instead.

The policy has yielded mixed results: enrolment has improved, but the quality of schooling is varied and often bad. Private providers can be costly and schools have been closed down suddenly when profits dried up. Large parts of the population are still not served by any secondary schools.

Peas, however, is pioneering a new model to provide access to affordable but high-quality secondary education in those areas where the demand is greatest. The capital and start-up costs for each Peas school are raised in the UK, but the organisation doesn’t want its schools to remain dependent on unsustainable foreign donations. A combination of the annual subsidy from the Ugandan government, low fees to cover lunch costs and an income-generating activity – often a farm attached to the school – aims to make every Peas school financially independent.

“Peas is run as a social enterprise,” says John Rendel, the organisation’s chief executive, “so the capital that people invest into the launch of each school sets up a business, which will not just support one child through school, but will support that child, then their brother, their sister, and so on, ad infinitum.”

There are now 13 Peas-run schools in Uganda as well as one pilot project in Zambia, and it is already one of the largest secondary school networks in Africa. It hopes to build 100 schools in Uganda by 2017, creating 100,000 low-cost secondary school places.

The task is huge. In Uganda only one in four children of secondary school age is in school. For a boy such as John-Mary, to miss out on secondary school is to be consigned to a life of poverty in a country where 38 per cent of the people live on less than $1.25 a day. For a girl, the consequences can be even worse.

Of Justine’s five children, only Mary hasn’t completed primary school – as a girl, she couldn’t contribute to her fees by making bricks. Mary Nantume married at 15. She now sits in one corner of the room with a polite but dazed smile and lets Justine and John-Mary speak for her. She has recently left her husband, returning home to live with Justine. Under Baganda custom, her husband will retain full custody of their children, aged three, five and seven.

“Men here are not easy,” John-Mary explains. “When you’re not educated, they treat marriage as employment and when you are a poor girl, they will mistreat you.”

Marriage is often one of the very few options open to an uneducated girl living in poverty. Because it is customary to receive a dowry, marrying a daughter early can be an attractive proposition for parents, too.

Around Kampala are several large, shiny billboards of a suited man punching a well-dressed woman, with the headline “Is this a fair fight?”. Domestic violence is common and even widely accepted in many Ugandan communities – and these posters are of little value if you can’t read. Nor is it easy, in any case, to leave an abusive relationship if you don’t have independent means. In many parts of Uganda, once a dowry has been exchanged, the husband will expect a “refund” should his wife leave. Whether the dowry was paid in money that has been spent, or on animals that have been reared and resold, this is seldom possible, leaving women trapped in unhappy marriages.

Education is not an instant cure to gender inequality, but the statistics for the benefits are unambiguous: an educated girl is seven times less likely to become HIV-positive, her children are twice as likely to live beyond the age of five and each year of secondary school can add between 15 and 25 per cent to her salary.

Onwards and Upwards has been especially successful in getting girls into school. Girls make up 56 per cent of pupils, and almost twothirds of them are boarders. “I had a parent here last week who had lots of children and has to choose which ones he will support through school this year,” the director of the Onwards and Upwards school, Moses Mwanje, told me.

“I asked him, ‘What criteria are you using?’ And he said he wanted to educate those that are most vulnerable first, so he chose his girls.”

Pregnant pause

Travel about 250 kilometres west of Kampala and you reach the trading village of Kigorobya. The whole village amounts to little more than a handful of wooden shacks and bare shops hugging close to the earth road, where children play in the dirt while their mothers do household chores. In this small and deprived outpost, Green Shoots, another Peas school, is faced with a very big problem.

Since it launched in 2010, 45 of the Green Shoots pupils have dropped out of school after falling pregnant. Six have since returned. Teen - age pregnancy rates in Kigorobya are exceptionally high, the result of a combination of poverty and a quirk of local marriage customs. “In most parts of Uganda, if a man gets a girl pregnant he will have to pay a bride price to her family,” says Christine Apiot, Peas’s senior director of education. “But around Kigorobya, there is no dowry system, so when a man here gets a girl pregnant, he doesn’t have to pay.”

Scovia Bamukuhda is one of only two girls in the final year at Green Shoots, and she believes that poverty has driven many of her peers to have children. “Maybe it is a problem of poverty, because they try to get some money. Now if they get money, they get the money through having sex,” she explains.

Stellah Kimuli, two years Scovia’s junior and quietly confident, says: “Another problem is maybe those husbands have money and will pay for them so they can go to school, and then they are getting pregnant.” It is hard to intervene because girls are often secretive about their sources of support. “You cannot know that there is someone who is paying for them,” Stellah says. “She just plays with you, socializes with you, but she doesn’t tell you. You only realize when the girl is already pregnant.”

Stellah was orphaned at nine, and now her uncle pays her boarding fees. She says she has resisted pressure to get married because she is “patient”. Although she is not sure if her uncle will pay for further studies, she wants to become a nurse, and believes the long-term benefits of education will outweigh the short-term benefits of marriage. “I am not even willing to get married. Because I can see I’m a poor girl and if I go and get married right now it’s not easy. It’s like this: as I still have a chance to be helped, let me make the most of that chance.”

To encourage more pupils to follow Scovia’s and Stellah’s lead, the school regularly invites successful women to speak to the girls, and it has arranged for them to receive free counselling and HIV tests at a local health clinic. It has launched an outreach campaign to convince parents to keep their girls in school. According to the headteacher, Simon Okwera, the outreach campaign has led to a fall in the number of girls dropping out because of pregnancy as well as an increase in the number of female boarders.

One of the community’s most vocal and longstanding advocates for girls’ education is Sarah Ntiro, Uganda’s first female university graduate, who was sponsored by the British government to study at Oxford from 1951-54. She was born in Hoima, a city a few kilometres away from Kigorobya, and still lives there today, in a neat concrete house on the edge of town.

“My mother went to school, I went to school, my children and nephews and nieces have gone to university, my grandchildren are graduates and there are people unable to read and write. In 2012. It’s shocking,” she says. “It isn’t that these people don’t see the value of education – they are not even aware that there’s a need. If they were aware they’d fear being left behind, and these people don’t want to be left behind.”

Hoima is poised on the edge of change. In 2016, commercial production is due to start at Uganda’s first oilfield, in the nearby Albertine Rift basin. There are hints of how oil money might transform the region: there’s an incongruous, shopping-mall-shaped hole in Hoima’s clapped-out downtown and, closer to Lake Albert, the occasional oil company compound stands out amid the mud-and-thatch huts. Samuel Nyendwoha, who farms tobacco here and leads the Green Shoots parent-teacher association, says local people grumble that oil companies are bringing in workers from Kampala and further afield. Uneducated locals can at best hope for casual manual labour.

In this sense, Hoima provides an example of a process that is repeating itself across Uganda, and indeed Africa. Foreign investment on the continent may be one route to more rapid economic growth, but although this will enrich a small, educated elite, the swaths of the population that lack the skills to participate in foreigninvestment- driven business will experience little improvement in their wages or standard of living. If, or when, foreign investment transforms Uganda, the uneducated will, in Sarah Ntiro’s words, be “left behind”.

Uganda cannot attain sustainable and inclusive growth if only a quarter of its children enroll in secondary school. “Education is our only foundation, our only future,” Justine Nantengo says. She could be talking about much more than her family of six and their battered mudbrick home on the fringes of Kampala.

Peas’s “Back to School” appeal aims to change the lives of over 16,000 children in Uganda by ensuring that they have a quality secondary school education over the next three years. Until 13 December, the British government will match all public donations to “Back to School” pound for pound. More details at: peas.org.uk

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge