Civil society voices were prominent at last week's annual World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) in Qatar, arguing that governments should welcome the work of non-governmental organisations in improving access to education, especially for rural communities and girls.
For Robbie Gow-Kleinschmidt, executive director of the Western Cape-based Association for Educational Transformation, the summit highlighted the contribution civil society could and should make to a country's education. "By the government involving NGOs, we can assist in ensuring that incidents such as the Limpopo textbook crisis never happen again," Gow-Kleinschmidt said at the summit.
The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development launched the Wise summit in 2009.
This year's summit, titled Collaborating for Change, drew more than 1 000 delegates, including educationists, politicians, civil society leaders and private sector representatives, from 100 countries. More than 150 international NGOs were represented, 30 of them from Africa.
South African NGOs were not just "watchdogs", Gow-Kleinschmidt said, referring to the spate of litigation initiated by civil society organisations this year regarding long-standing problems such as access to education, infrastructure and learning materials, including schoolbooks.
He pointed out: "We're not just waiting for things to go wrong. We work on the ground throughout the year. There are many NGOs in South Africa doing good work and, because we are key role players in education, the government should consult and collaborate with us."
Lindela Ndlovu, vice-chancellor of the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe, believes NGO activism in Africa needs to be strengthened. "We do not have enough activists," Ndlovu said. "We need to encourage our people to question things in education and challenge the status quo – in a peaceful manner, of course."
Other African delegates spoke about how the summit's emphasis on collaboration could help NGOs to establish their voices in their own countries. Hilda Tadria, a girls' education activist in Uganda, said she went to Wise looking to "learn new ideas about how I can improve" access to quality education for girls in her country. "But I'm also hoping I can influence the world's thinking towards education for girls."
Tadria founded and heads the Mentoring and Empowerment Programme for Young Women, an NGO focused on keeping rural Ugandan girls in school. During a plenary session to discuss education and the workforce, she spoke from the floor about the need for concerted efforts to ensure that girls in African countries complete their schooling.
"There are many girls in rural areas in Uganda and on the African continent who do not finish school. We need to deal with that," she said, adding that this would help to combat poverty and improve health.
She said organisations had to go beyond talking about problems and solutions during summits. They needed to "work with local schools and be willing to put resources into reaching girls in rural areas. In Africa we have to focus on girls, giving them the vision that if they finish school they'll have a brighter future."
Neighbouring Uganda to the north is South Sudan, Africa's newest country, which is still in the process of developing its education systems. Leaders of NGOs described how civil society could work with the country's government to achieve this.
Besides the need to build new schools in the country, "we need to find teachers and train them" to ensure that all children of school-going age were able to access quality education, Fazle Hasan Abed, a 2011 Wise prize laureate, told the summit.
New doors for partnerships
Abed is the founder of a large NGO that has helped millions of rural children in his native Bangladesh and other countries to gain access to education. Given the limited pool of qualified teachers in South Sudan, Abed said a strategy had to be developed to ensure the country attracted teachers from neighbouring Uganda and Kenya.
For Robert Otu, president of the African Youth Movement, the summit opened new doors for partnerships with role players from across the world. The Nigeria-based Otu said he had started discussions with potential private sector and university partners at the summit. "I met people who are willing to come and set up basic libraries in Nigeria free of charge," he said.
Some private sector delegates argued that business and corporate interests had to be allowed greater influence in education policymaking. But collaboration with the private sector should not narrow education into a tool that only trained people for the job market, civil society representatives countered.
"We'd miss a big portion of what education should contribute to society. Education should be producing a good citizen who can function economically, politically and socially," said Zimbabwe's Ndlovu.
But he agreed that the private sector could shape some educational policies. "In my part of the world and most of Africa, the private sector is not being allowed to play a big role in education."
Business could be "involved in some of the decisions about the curriculum", Ndlovu said. "I would not agree that they should drive [the curriculum], but they should contribute to it in some way.
"They can drive the [skills development] agenda quite effectively. It's in business's interest that we come with the right skills that they require so that they don't waste money on retraining [people]."
Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, chairperson of Wise and president of Qatar's new Hamad Bin Khalifa University, told delegates: "Wise has identified many islands of excellence all over the world. We must learn from them, replicate [them] and adapt their programmes.
"The fastest way to make progress is through collaboration."
Bongani Nkosi was a guest of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development at last week's World Innovation Summit for Education