For Maria Diarra, an educator from Bamako, Mali, the whirlwind trip through southern India last fall to learn about educational practices was as noteworthy for its informal moments between educators as for its formal agenda.

Diarra was one of thirty educators who came together from India and West and East Africa to share effective techniques for teaching children to read in the developing world.

“It gave me confidence to find my counterparts working at the same things and having the same difficulties,” Diarra says. “We could compare notes about solutions. And we saw their way of developing materials and approaches we haven’t tried.”

The Hewlett Foundation underwrote the November 2009 gathering as part of its work to improve the quality of education in the developing world. In addition to Diarra, founder and head of the Institute for Popular Education in Mali, seven other of Hewlett’s educational grantees joined in the weeklong exchange across cultures of ideas and methods.

The gathering was also an example of so-called “South-South cooperation,” a term historically used by policymakers and academics to describe the exchange of resources, technology, and knowledge between developing countries, typically those in the Southern Hemisphere. Such cooperation has been discussed for years, but really started to influence the field of development only in the late 1990s. As part of its work to improve education in developing countries, the Hewlett Foundation is supporting a number of South-South collaborations.

Hewlett’s grantmaking to improve the quality of education in developing countries represents an evolution in thinking about how to support education in the developing world, and not just with regard to bringing educators together across borders in the global South.

International organizations have worked for decades – and quite successfully – helping developing countries increase the numbers of children attending school. What these organizations didn’t fully anticipate was that attending school was no guarantee that students would master basic skills. Excessively large classes, lack of teacher training and materials, and ineffective instruction all have contributed to poor learning. Hewlett’s current grantmaking is trying to remedy these problems by funding efforts to develop effective teaching techniques and measure student achievement, particularly in mastery of reading and basic math in the primary grades.

Bringing All Resources to Bear

“This work of focusing on the quality of education has to happen at every level, from donors to governments to parents,” says Lynn Murphy, a Hewlett program officer overseeing grantmaking to improve education in the developing world. Currently, the Foundation is making grants for this work in India, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal, Mali, Tanzania, and Ghana. “Right now, even the international aid organizations, which have more resources than local schools, often don’t measure what students have learned.”

In addition to backing more effective teaching techniques, Hewlett is making grants to improve the transparency and accountability of government funding for education to ensure that these resources are well used and not diverted to other purposes.

“We’re trying to get people to see that there is something you can do about a big, complicated problem,” Murphy says. “The key is to find and develop teaching techniques that have been shown to be effective and to promote their widespread use.”

If the trip to India is any indication, Maria Diarra seems to be in tune with Murphy’s thinking. “The real thing we want to copy from India is community mobilization around reading,” says Diarra, whose organization is working in 210 elementary schools across Mali. “Pratham is using young people in the community to help with reading. Peer teaching, parent associations – they are using every resource they can. We plan to learn how they are able to mobilize large numbers of people this way.”

Part of Pratham’s model to improve student achievement is to mobilize volunteers in the students’ communities who can work with them on reading and math.

Dana Schmidt, an associate program officer who works on these education grants, says Pratham workers tell a great story to enlist volunteers. They recount Gandhi’s famous Salt March in protest of the British salt tax in colonial India, in which he mobilized thousands of fellow Indians to march to the ocean and gather countless grains of salt to evade the tax.

“Then they say, ‘You, too, can make a difference in India,’ ” Schmidt recounts. ” ‘You don’t have to march to the ocean. Just pick up a book and teach a child. Others will follow you, and we, too, can change the course of India.’ ”

Involving the Community is Key

After telling parents about current levels of student achievement, Pratham workers recruit volunteers, train them to teach, and give them materials to use. The volunteers organize classes with children on the weekends or after school.  Pratham encourages the volunteers to test reading and math abilities and focus on children who are the farthest behind. In some cases, the volunteers will work directly in the classrooms with the teachers. Last year they mobilized close to half a million volunteers across India.

Diarra says the South-South cooperation is both a matter of pride and something that makes sharing approaches to education even more effective: “Africans going to India is easy. We can understand because we are facing the same things. Their solutions are closer to what we need than some of the answers offered in the developed world, which are sometimes not applicable because of differences in the physical setting and resources. We’re not thinking about distributing big textbooks and computerizing things. We’re just trying to develop some pages to help with reading.”

Diarra also found confirmation in India for smaller decisions that she had made on her own. One was to reject the sometimes complicated spelling conventions that outsiders imposed on oral African traditions during years of colonization and missionary presence.

“We want the children to learn simple words, but sometimes their spellings are very long, and that stops students from reading quickly,” she says. “And we weren’t part of that decisionmaking process. The intention was good. But the rules are not our rules, and they cloud the children’s vision of our language.

“In India they faced the same thing, and I discovered we both spontaneously decided we would teach spelling our own way. I was a little afraid I might be wrong about doing that, but when I found they did the same, it gave me confidence it was a good approach.”

And the international cooperation goes beyond the development of effective teaching techniques.

Sara Ruto, another Hewlett education grantee, is head of a nonprofit organization called Uwezo, which is itself the product of South-South cooperation. Uwezo – named for the Swahili word for “capabilities” – was conceived in 2008 after educators from East Africa made an earlier visit to India to learn about a large-scale survey conducted there to learn the state of a community’s educational mastery.

Surveying Educational Achievement

The survey, called ASER, for the Annual Status of Education Report, is conducted each year by an organization called Pratham, another Hewlett grantee, which also operates a successful program to teach primary school children to read. Pratham’s ASER survey is issued to inform the Indian public, stimulate national debate, and create pressure for government policies that will support effective teaching. Its findings are widely publicized and have become an influential factor in state and national education policy.

Ruto and others created Uwezo to bring a similar approach to East Africa. Last October, supported by Pratham experts and its methodology, Uwezo conducted its first survey in East Africa, interviewing families in dozens of villages across seventy-two districts in Kenya. It was the largest household survey of educational achievement ever done in the region.

Ruto says she and her colleagues were impressed with the scale on which the Indian education survey was conducted and the ability to communicate the results to participants within 100 days, and have found much in its approach to be a good fit at home.

“The survey methodology and design is appealing for other reasons,” Ruto says. “India has many languages but one education system, too. When you come to Kenya, which also is multiethnic, the Pratham experience becomes handy. This isn’t something we would have gotten from Western culture.”

Another revelation, she says, was the simplicity of the Indians’ approach. “The tests are simple enough for lightly-trained volunteer surveyors to administer, and it makes it easier for the public to understand the results, so we can get them more involved,” says Ruto, who invited the Indians involved in the ASER survey to come to Kenya to advise them.

For its part, Ruto says the East Africans were able to teach the visiting Indians more systematic ways to communicate survey results to participants. “All contact is communication,” she says. “We’re providing families with information about how their children did, but also identifying those who would be interested in helping more, which will be crucial when we want to disseminate results and push for policy changes.”

As Hewlett pursues its grantmaking to support improvements in the quality of education in the developing world, Foundation program officers continue to look for ways it may support South-South collaborations.

“We may create opportunities that will help people to overcome obstacles to learning from each other, but then it’s up to them,” says Ward Heneveld, a program officer working on these grants. “With the East Africans’ visit to Pratham, we started their planning process, asked some questions, and then got out of the way.”