Co-Impact’s Rakesh Rajani shares lessons from Shakespeare, a leader, and a winning coalition.
Once upon a time there lived a leader who cared deeply about education. He wanted everyone — not just the children of moneyed elites — to have access to schooling. He understood that the true power of education lay in the learning outcomes in the lives of girls and boys — that their ability to read, write, and count, as well as to analyze and think critically, was more important than schooling inputs, such as desks, textbooks, and classrooms.
The leader was an education expert, and got to work on his mission, not letting himself get distracted by people who did not share his passion. He wrote a proposal explaining the case for education for all. He marshaled evidence of what worked. He made a detailed plan that included activities, timeframes, and budgets.
Armed with this document, he went to see the Minister for Education. The minister listened and promised to share the proposal with his senior staff.
And then, nothing much changed.
To be fair, there were speeches, conferences, and policies that said all the right things. But the government officials seemed to be keener about tangible things such as school buildings than children learning. Some of them even brought computers to schools, which were stored in the headmaster’s offices to keep them safe.
The leader was disappointed but did not give up. He gathered like-minded friends together. They researched more, they wrote more, and they spoke more. They created newsletters, graphics, and policy briefs and disseminated them widely. They formed an Education Sector Working Group to channel ideas to policymakers at local, national, and international levels. They garnered coverage in the education section of leading newspapers. Eventually, the leader’s work earned him a prestigious award from an international agency.
Back home, however, little had changed in education.
One year, a young intern joined his organization. She was assigned to edit research reports and write policy briefs, and asked to conclude her assignments with a list of clear recommendations and a plea to the government to heed the evidence.
One day she came to the leader to suggest that instead of the recommendations, they quote Shakespeare. “Why would you want to do that?” asked the leader. “We do education policy, not literature.” She explained that the Minister for Education is crazy about Shakespeare. He asked how she knew that. She told him that she was in a book club with the minister’s daughter. The club meets at his house, where he frequently regales the group with quotes from the bard. The leader was unconvinced but let the intern quote Shakespeare.
To the leader’s surprise, soon after publication the minister called. He wanted to discuss the brief and asked him to come to his house for tea. The leader happily agreed and asked the intern to help him prepare. “We need to summarize all the data and action points,” he said. But the intern suggested a different approach: instead of restating our goals, which the minister already knows, how about trying to connect with him, to understand what he cares and worries about?
A fool thinks himself to be wise,
but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.
At the minister’s house, the leader remembered that the minister had been a professor of literature and a playwright. They traded stories and discovered they had mutual friends and that they both loved roasted cassava with tons of lime and chili. Just when it seemed like they would never get to talk about education reform, the minister unexpectedly remarked: “You must be frustrated that we don’t implement your recommendations. I am sorry, but the fact is that the Minister for Mining won’t let me.” The leader realized that the minister understood the evidence well, but that his cabinet colleague held an inordinate amount of power in cabinet, and sought to maintain traditional roles for women, to which progressive education was a threat.
Back at the office the leader pondered what to do and called the intern over to discuss. She asked for time to research and came back a week later with another idea: to see the Catholic Bishop. The leader thought she was crazy. “Why him?” he asked. The intern replied that the Mining Minister was a devout Catholic. She had gone to his church and seen him listening intently to the Bishop. The leader was beginning to enjoy this line of thinking. He worked with the intern to learn more about the Bishop, who turned out to have progressive views about gender and education. They put together a case, based on case studies of real people from the Bishop’s diocese, rather than data and charts. The meeting went well. The Bishop suggested that they form a task force called “Education Justice for All God’s Children” involving both ministers, the leader, and others, including women and businesspeople who attended the Mining Minister’s church.
The task force met in informal settings where things could be discussed openly, and there was little of the defensiveness and evasion the leader had seen in formal meetings. Finally, there was progress. The government agreed to publish literacy and numeracy rates and to recognize effective teachers.
So the leader was surprised when, soon after, the intern announced that she was concerned. She had been reading about the history of education reforms and observed that it was easy to lose connection with reality on the ground. She asked the leader to invite the teachers’ union and grassroots organizations to participate in the task force, and to establish a mechanism for getting systematic and regular feedback from key constituencies — such as parents, teachers, and students. The Bishop liked the idea and persuaded the others to give it a try. The expanded membership changed some of the focus of the group — it became concerned with the daily hardships teachers face, and logistical challenges such as distances to school and teachers being pulled out to run government projects like the census, voter registration, and immunization drives. The leader worried they would lose the focus on learning outcomes, but as the chairwoman of a grassroots group put it, teachers can only work on learning outcomes when they are not distracted by life’s pressures and can focus on students.
As the intern’s year was winding down, she offered one final idea. Her friend had worked at a livelihood organization in an impoverished state in India, made up of groups of women across thousands of villages. The women’s groups now constituted the single-largest organized voting bloc and politicians of all parties could not ignore them. In fact, the women had recently pushed the state to declare itself a “dry state” (not selling alcohol) because of its association with gender-based violence. Could we, asked the intern, use our funds to convene the grassroots women’s groups together to discuss education reforms?
The leader smiled. Next year was election year. Almost three decades after his initial proposal, he was finally beginning to understand how to effect change.