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 http://www.peas.org.uk/donate or text PEAS01£10 to 70070.
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.