Empowered Ethiopian Mothers Create Ripple Effect of Social Good

The success of this initiative cannot be denied. This program, by granting thousands of the country's most at-risk children a second chance, has essentially built a bridge over an impassable moat.
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Through the Ethiopia Speed School initiative, over 45,000 mothers across the country are keeping their kids in school, saving money and starting businesses.


Despite a vast history--it's home to the world's oldest human remains, it's Africa's oldest independent country and it's even the birthplace of coffee--Ethiopia is most often portrayed through the prism of its struggle. It's a struggle so often caricatured in the media as lacking and needing, and so often represented by figures of pity such as Starvin' Marvin, that it can be difficult to see the country beyond the images and stories that have been embedded through repetition into our consciousness.

That is, until something like Ethiopia Speed School comes along.

Starting in September 2011, the Ethiopia Speed School Initiative, supported primarily by over $5.2 million from the Legatum Foundation, was a strategic response to two dire systemic statistics: a 2010 UNESCO report (pdf here) indicating that Ethiopia was one of ten countries in the world with over 10 million illiterate adults (there were 27 million total), and 2011 World Bank data showing that the country had an estimated 3 million out-of-school children of primary school age. Through an intensive 10-month curriculum, the initiative catches out-of-school children back up to their grade-level and then provides a variety of resources to make the transition back into government school as seamless as possible and, ultimately, permanent.

A scientific evaluation by the University of Sussex found that 95% of Speed School graduates in these first three years successfully transferred to the local primary school upon graduating from Speed School. However, educational success post-transition is fraught with uncertainty. The average class size at government schools is over 70, which leads kids to feel like numbers, teachers to feel overwhelmed and even the physical institution itself to break down (crumbling architecture as well as broken and unsanitary toilets are major problems). Those same researchers at the University of Sussex found that teacher absenteeism is a major problem in government primary schools.

Still, the success of this initiative cannot be denied. This program, by granting thousands of the country's most at-risk children a second chance, has essentially built a bridge over an impassable moat.

However, with the 2007-2010 West Africa Speed School Initiative as model, Legatum and program manager Geneva Global realized an important component was missing: it wasn't adequately empowering mothers. To address this they enrolled the mothers of Speed School students into self-help savings groups (SHSGs). This component taught the mothers how to save and generate funds to support their child's continued education, and is now a much-needed complement to the Speed School.

"Empowering even one mother, making her feel the potential of the positive difference she's capable of making, creates a ripple effect that spreads throughout the entire community," says Abebaw Abetei, Geneva Global's Speed School program assistant.

"I've watched mothers who once felt helpless go on to start businesses and I've watched mothers who never had an education go on to become education activists in their village."

The addition and eventual implementation of the self-help savings groups served as the stone splashing into the pond. So began the ripple effect. In the first year 2,289 mothers participated in the SHSG. By the end of 2013 there were 12,378 and by the end of 2014 there were 31,065.

Rallying around the central idea that they want their children to succeed in school--and that their own empowerment helps to make this happen--the mothers meet each week to learn about everything from financial literacy and English-language skills to malaria prevention and how to create sustainable, scalable business models. In the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia, for example, mothers involved in the SHSG improved their monthly savings from $0.15 to $0.50--a significant amount especially when considering Ethiopia's average per capita income is $1,200.

Then there are the stories like that of Alemash Gebresilassie, a mother here in Tigray. Her son, Haftu Kidanu, is enrolled in the Speed School program, and since enrolling in SHSG she's been able to save $1.50 each month. Alemash has since created her own trading business and has a dream of becoming, "a successful business woman and a good advocate of children's education in my village."

And there are countless stories about the potential fate of particular girls had it not been for an opportunity to attend the Speed School--an early marriage, a life of child labor and/or the potential of being trafficked for sex to Addis Merkato, the open-air market in Addis Ababa referred to as the "largest collection of brothels in Africa" in the U.S. Department of State's 2014 Trafficking-in-Persons report.

During my first day visiting a Speed School site here in the Samre District of Tigray, a mother said to me:

"I feared education because I didn't have one and didn't see the benefits of what it would do for my children. I've taught my children how to work the land and now they are teaching me how to read. I hope we continue exchanging our knowledge for the rest of our lives. There is no age limit on learning."

May the wisdom of her words be carried by the wind to every part of this beautiful country, may they help to create the new prism through which her country will be portrayed.

Part of this story was first covered in the Stanford Social Innovation Review

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