Aid can help African children realise their potential

Developing education should be a priority.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that could afford to send me to secondary school. Because of this, I went to university, travelled, pursued a fulfilling career and became the Managing Director of PEAS, one of the UK’s fastest growing charities, which is creating a network of sustainable, high- quality secondary schools across Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa.

It may seem quite strange for people living in the UK, where secondary school education is universal, to fully appreciate the transformative power it has. But just think how many of your life’s achievements could have happened without your secondary school education.
As someone from Northern Uganda, a region well-known for its twenty-year troubles at the hands of Joseph Kony, I am all too aware that a secondary education, and all the opportunities that come with it, is an unimaginable privilege for many children born into today’s world. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa female enrolment at secondary school can be low as 7 per cent, so to be a Ugandan woman with an education, a profession and a position of leadership is all too rare a thing.
In Uganda, if a child can go to secondary school, even if they complete no further education, those four to six years will have changed their life forever. And yet this opportunity is denied to the yet 3 in 4 children in Africa that do not go to secondary school, meaning that over 20 million children are missing out on secondary education. Without a secondary school education, an individual’s opportunity to lift him or herself out of poverty is severely limited and the cost to society is huge.
For women in particular the severe lack of affordable secondary school places is crippling. For most girls in Uganda, after the age of 11, education is replaced with working in the fields and childhood is quickly replaced with early motherhood. An un-educated girl is seven times more likely to catch HIV and her children are twice as likely to die before the age of five. But, for every year she is in school, an educated girl in Uganda can add 25 per cent more to her future earnings. A huge focus for the PEAS team is to ensure more girls enrol in, and complete, secondary school. Currently, over 48 per cent of PEAS students are female and we hope to see this figure rising as we continue to make more secondary school places available.
Most people in the UK would probably agree that education should be the responsibility of national governments. And at PEAS we also think this. Education is one of the most powerful ways to reduce aid dependence and empower populations to take charge of their own futures. If international aid organisations are to accelerate this process then we believe they must work with governments to develop sustainable education models that do not rely on continued foreign investment.
This is why PEAS developed our "SmartAid" approach. PEAS uses UK-fundraised money to cover the initial set-up costs so each school can open debt free. After that a combination of local government subsidies, boarding school fees and income generating projects (such as school farms), mean that PEAS schools can cover their own running costs indefinitely and in the long term build up a reserve to cover future investments in building repairs and new equipment. This means that our schools are truly sustainable and not dependent on UK fundraising to continue providing education year on year.
A really significant part of the PEAS model is that, in each country it operates in, a central team of locally employed education and development experts are responsible for quality control, financial auditing and providing support to the schools as they develop. Too often organisations rely on international experts rather than developing the talent from within each country but education cannot simply be outsourced if it is to lead to real and lasting change. But PEAS’s approach means that, by 2021, when we plan to have a network of 100 schools in Uganda running completely self-sufficient from aid, we will also have the expertise and infrastructure to run independently from PEAS UK.
Every child in Africa should have the opportunity to reach their potential and make something of themselves, and that is what PEAS is all about. It is inspiring to know that the work my team and I do every day will have a permanent impact on the lives of children in our schools and, through these children’s ambitions to be doctors, businesspeople, sustainable farmers, teachers, lawyers, and even political leaders, will also have a permanent impact on the future of our country.
Susan Opok is Managing Director of PEAS (Promoting Equality in African Schools). PEAS is a charity / social enterprise hybrid that is working with African governments to develop a network of secondary schools to provide affordable, high quality and sustainable education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Founded in 2008, PEAS has already launched 13 public/private schools in Uganda and one in Zambia, with eight more due to open in February 2012. It aims to have launched 100 schools in Uganda by 2017 and is working with other African governments to develop similar funding models to extend secondary school access further.
The UK Government is match funding all donations made to PEAS until 13 December. To donate to PEAS Back to School Appeal and have your donation doubled by the UK government, visit or text PEAS01£10 to 70070.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.