Why Data Is So Important to Educating Girls in Sub-Saharan Africa

Camfed wields numbers to evaluate educational hurdles, pull in partners, and maximize its success.

When it started in 1993, the Campaign for  Female Education— Camfed , for short—helped  32 girls go to school in rural Zimbabwe. Last  year , the organization directly supported  538,782 students across Ghana, Malawi,  Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Of those  students, nearly 50,000 used the organization's  safety net fund to purchase school supplies  such as school uniforms, shoes, and stationery,  and another 113,000 students received  scholarships to help defray the costs of  secondary schooling.
In speaking with Brooke  Hutchinson, director of Camfed  USA, I learned that the  organization's exponential  expansion can be credited to close cooperation  with a host of different partners—public and  private international organizations, state ministries of education, school and district-level committees,  community activists, teachers, volunteers, and  alumni. Rather than seeking to disrupt existing  institutions, Camfed invests in and works through  government schools to expand educational access.
Technology plays an important role in that  endeavor, though perhaps not in the way you  might expect. While Camfed has distributed  thousands of smartphones and e-readers (thanks  to a partnership with Worldreader ), its most  meaningful innovations happen out of sight. By  collecting data about students, mentors, and  alumni, Camfed isn't just improving its own  accountability; it's collecting data that helps  teachers track student progress, partners deploy  resources, and governments devise better  educational policy.
Why Communities Matter
Hutchinson stressed that the organization is  heavily focused on secondary education, where it  receives its largest return on investment.  Secondary education can be expensive in  sub-Saharan Africa, whereas primary school is  typically free, though Camfed can offset the cost  of incidentals. When local schools aren't available,  girls often attend boarding schools, which entail  school and exam fees. Here Camfed can intervene, and at a modest expense.
However, money is only part of the challenge.  Some girls are the heads of their households, in  which case free schooling or supplies won't help  them care for a child or parent. Camfed has  developed an extensive alumnae network and  mentorship program through which girls connect  with allies and leaders inside their communities.
Those communities shape the organization's  philanthropy. School-based committees of  teachers and parents identify girls based upon  need, assess their risk of dropping out of school  without support, and evaluate their living situation. Camfed oversees the process via volunteers and  alumnae, as well as administrative offices in the  countries where it operates.
Why Data Matters
Once Camfed sponsors a student, it begins  collecting data on her progress. However, logistical impediments abound. Because Camfed  concentrates on rural areas, participants often lack access to computers or the Internet. According to  Hutchinson, many schools aren't even on the  electrical grid.
Smartphones are indispensable to data collection.  Through Camfed-provided phones teachers and  mentors conduct mobile banking (which helps  them avoid long trips to local banks), access the  organization's mobile technology platform (what it calls the Social Education Network), and track  student progress using an ODK, an open-source  mobile monitoring application.
While it sounds technical, that ODK is central to  the organization's philanthropy. Camfed has  developed monitoring forms through which  teachers and mentors can track and upload  specific data points, such as a student's family and living situation, school performance, and bursary  status to the organization's Salesforce database.  Camfed uses an integration tool called Jitterbit to  sync the forms with that database. In combination  with FinancialForce , Camfed's database serves as  the backbone for all of its programs as well as its  financial, fundraising, communications, and HR  information.
Practically speaking, that database enables  Camfed to collect information that serves teachers, community members, and partners. A teacher can  track a student's attendance and grades. A  community member can use information about  her living status to ensure she has the supplies  and support she needs to stay in school. And a  partner can use disaggregated data to answer  questions that inform policy. Are more girls  dropping out of school because of pregnancy?  When do they get married and have children? How many graduates start their own businesses?
Why Partnerships Matter
Camfed has no shortage of partners. At last count , the organization was working with more 5,306  schools across 129 rural districts. Camfed has  forged numerous partnerships with ministries of  education, international organizations like the  European Commission and Human Dignity  Foundation, and private companies such as  Google and British Airways. The ability to access  disaggregate data (while protecting student  security) is integral to shaping public policy.


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