Saturday, March 15, 2014

Frugal tools for change: the notebook

Thursday evening I was invited to hear Brett Wigdortz, Founder and CEO of Teach First, the UK-based partner of Teach for All (formerly Teach for America).  The basic, very simplified premise is to get high potential women and men graduating from university to spend two years teaching in the classroom of a disadvantaged or low-income school.  Many are spreading the model worldwide, and this year the first cohort of Teach for Bangladesh teachers are classrooms across Dhaka.

Teach First has achieved some amazing improvements in the education quality provided to low-income students, especially in London.  Nationally they account for 2 out of every 7 teachers in low-income schools, and also have a number of alumni (they call them "ambassadors") as head teachers, and policy-makers.  Teach First recently became one of the top recruiters of graduating university students in England.  It's no wonder that the president of a British teacher college recently mentioned in a speech that Teach First has "detoxified the teaching profession" and made it an exciting option for many young adults.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Revisiting the starfish story

I’m sure you’ve heard some version of the Starfish story:
An old man comes out on the beach one morning, and like every other morning, he sees that the ocean’s tides have washed up dozens of star fish.  There is a young boy patiently picking up starfish, one by one, and tossing them back into the ocean.  “What are you doing, son?”  The old man asked, “there are hundreds of starfish beached.  You’ll never be able to get them all back in the water.  What difference does it make to toss a few back?”

And then punch line: 
The boy silently throws one back to the sea and says, “It made a difference to that one.”

And there we have it.  The notion that what matters is just what we do—the number we help.

This thinking pervades development.  Look at any annual report and you’ll see the “number of people served” in various forms—i.e. number of surgeries performed, assets distributed, people trained.  We’ll call this the “starfish mentality.”

My problem with this mentality is that is ignores the denominator—that is, what is the size of the total population that need this support?  Is it 50 or 5 million?  What percentage of the people that needed help were you able to reach?

At an event last week in Chennai, I was really inspired by a story that I heard about India's Aravind Eye Hospital.  After avidly reading about them for years, it was really exciting to hear in first person about their operations and strategy.

Aravind is the largest eye hospital in the world.  They perform many surgeries to restore eyesight and using a tiered pricing structure, are able to provide a number of free and reduced costs procedures while remaining sustainable.  They perform close to 370,000 eye surgeries a year, which just as a point of comparison, is about equal to the entire number of eye surgeries performed in England annually!