Imagine you are 15 years old, and tomorrow, just like every year since you started school, you are about to take an ICT exam. Yes, an ICT – i.e. how to use a computer – exam, even though you have never seen (let alone touched) a computer before in your life. You know that if you fail the exam you are that much closer to having to retake the entire year. And even if you do pass, you have been taught solely through photos, narrations and a blackboard, can you possibly know how to use a computer for real? This is what life for school children in rural Ghana can be like. This is what this project aims to change.
My name is Ben Michaud. I have been volunteering in rural Ghana since October 2015 where I currently teach ICT and Physics in three different schools in two neighbouring communities. Around mid-November leaders from Yabraso, one of these communities, approached me with a plan they had put together to build a computer laboratory for their, and the surrounding communities’ children. But they needed my help to make their dream true. And this is where I need your help too.
There are roughly 2000 children of school age in the five villages local to the communities where I teach ICT. Probably about 90% of these children have never seen a computer before in their lifes, let alone ever having used one. Despite this, the fact remains that ICT and how to use a computer is on the school syllabus for all school years. This means the children must learn ICT, and ICT teachers, such as myself, are forced to teach abstract notions such as changing font size on a blackboard.
The aim of this project is to raise the money to construct a computer laboratory big enough to teach up to 40 students at a time, the size of individual classes. The building would house 40 computers so each student would learn on their own computer. In addition, as the computer laboratory would be a community building, not school property an extra benefit is that it would be available to students outside school hours. This means they can learn to use computers in ways not covered by the syllabus, such as programming and other forms of entertainment.
The total amount we are looking to raise is £16,500. This looks like a large sum, but I sincerely believe it is achievable! This number was calculated from the original plan the community leaders presented me. It includes a complete analysis of the estimated costs of the project, including a step by step breakdown of the building. Broadly, the total construction of the building will cost around £10,000, this is mostly the cost of the materials as the manual labour will be provided by the community. Around a further £6,000 needs to be raised to buy the 40 computers, printers and a projector we feel essential for completion of the project. Finally, as I am using the crowd funding website ‘justgiving.com’, the last £500 is needed to cover raising the money in this way.
If you are still reading at this point then it is because you are either in agreement with what we are trying to do already and want to know what else I have to say, or that you are at the very least interested enough to want to find out more regarding the project before committing yourself to giving any money.
And I have to admit if you fall on the interested, but sceptical side, then I completely understand. When I was first approached this was exactly how I felt.
When I originally came to Ghana I brought a book with me called ‘Doing Good Better’. The main message of the book centred around the concept of effective altruism, which is essentially how to help the most amount of people in the greatest way with the smallest cost. When I first considered the project I wasn’t convinced the best use of £16,500 would be to build a computer laboratory. I though surely there were other better projects that would do more good, such as deworming projects to increase school attendance or mosquito nets to decrease mortality rates. But with continued urging from the leaders, I decided to look at the numbers in a bit more detail and the numbers seems to give a different story. Below is my analysis of the situation.
So first a bit of background. If you have not read the book ‘Doing Good Better’ or have not heard of effective altruism, I would highly recommend it. It asks several questions that need answering to work out if any given project is worthwhile. These are:
- How many people will benefit?
- How much will these people benefit?
- Is the area neglected and what would happen otherwise
Below is my attempt to answer these questions and I hope explain to you why I feel that this project is worthy of your money.
How many people would this computer lab benefit?
In the communities that would benefit from the project there roughly 2000 school-aged children that would have access to it at school or live close enough to be able to use it out of school. As this is a fairly rural and poor area, most of these children don’t have a computer at home, and the majority have never even seen a computer. Also, at a rough estimate, these 2000 children will have a ‘turnover’ roughly every 10 years. With maintenance and replacement of computers at a significant reduced cost of the initial outlay, I imagine the computer lab will last much more than just 10 years and probably more like 20to 30 years, which would mean 4000-6000 students would benefit throughout their entire school life.
How much will these people benefit?
Well, this project would not exactly save anyone’s life directly. But, luckily there is another way to calculate the benefit. To help calculate effective altruism the book ‘Doing Good Better’, uses the term QALY, which stands for Quality-Adjusted Life Year. In brief, one QULY means someone’s life has been improved by 10% for 10 years.
There are two points to consider here.
Firstly, let’s look at a period over 10 years. These 2000 students have no computers to use. Three times a year they have end of term exams, and as ICT is on the syllabus, one of their exams is ICT. If a student fails too many exams in a year they will fail the year and have to redo it. To complete their education each student attends three schools, primary, middle and high schools. At the end of the final year at each school the students take an external exam that determins which school they progress to. In other words, better grades results lead to going to better schools – so it is a positive feedback loop.
This is the first way having access to a computer is essential to a successful education – it would help a student learn ICT better, potentially leading getting entry to a better school and gaining a better education over all.
The second point is related to the simple fact that the Earth is progressively becoming a global community where digital and computer literacy is becoming more and more important. In order to do well or even live properly in the world, computer skills are a necessity. By not learning how to use computers from a young age a person’s potential is effectively and significantly being limited condemning them to only the basic types of jobs for life. This not only reduces that specific person’s opportunities, life-time earnings and quality of life, but if it happens on a large enough scale, it also slows down the growth and health of the country’s economy as a whole.
So what does this mean? Well it’s hard to say exactly, but if I tried to make a conservative estimate here is one set of calculations:
Say that the computer lab is shut after just 10 years and only 1000 children gain the benefit from it, and that the benefit they gain is – conservatively – assessed to give a 1% increase to their quality of life. This is 1% over their entire lives though, so from the age of 15 to, again, conservative estimate, 55 (this is the current average Ghanaian life expectancy, but is likely to change as the country develops). In reality, based on the life span of the one computer owned by a school in a different community, the computer lab is likely to be in use for up to 20 years or so.
So 40 years at 1% per year per person is 0.4 QALYs per person, or 400 QALYs total for the 1000 students for a total cost of £16,000. This works out at 1 QALY per £40.
Now it is internationally considered that 34 QALYs is roughly the equivalent to one life saved in the developing world. For us, this would mean that we are doing the equivalent of saving a life for £1360, which is pretty damn good when you consider what a western Government is willing to spend to save a life.
Is the area neglected and what would have happened otherwise?
Well, safe to say, yes it is neglected. There are no computers or computer labs in the area. To find an internet café students have to travel half an hour each way into a town called Wenchi. The travel would costs a large proportion of a daily wage and then, on top of that, the student would have to pay to use the computer. This is not practical or useful for a student at school. Additionally, if I don’t raise this money no one else will, at least certainly not in the foreseeable future, and the communities will have no computers. So if this project succeeds it would be a huge deal for the local area; if I don’t, nothing. It is an all or nothing type of thing!
So overall, the answer is yes. Overall I do think this is a worthwhile project to work on. I may not have got all my numbers or approximations correct, but small changes wouldn’t alter the fact that I believe deeply that this is a worthy thing. Consequently, over the next many months I’m going to be working hard to raise money so that the project is fully funded.
But in a way it’s more than just this. In this day and age the world is a becoming what is often called a global community or a global village. But this is only true if you assume everyone has access to a computer and the internet, and the know-how to use them. If you never learn how to use a computer, or even if you only first touch a computer at 15, you will never gain the proficiency, experience or fluidity needed on computers to be able to take full advantage of the world at your fingertips.
And that’s exactly what children in rural parts of Africa in general, and my local community in particular, have to contend with. Without this early access and chance to learn how to use computers they will never truly have the chance to engage with the wider world. Instead, the likelihood is far greater that they will be stuck in poverty most or all of their lives.
Editors Note: You may not know but Ben Michaud is the son of Michael and Joy Michaud of Sea Spring Seeds