An initiative of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and the Qatar Foundation, WISE was set up as a global collaborative platform to bring together a broad spectrum of educational practitioners, academics, politicians, economic players and think-tanks, in order to look at the state of global education and how it impacts the world today and for the future.
Following a rigorous selection process by an eminent jury, six projects from across the world are picked every year to receive the WISE Awards, for best practices in helping shape and build the future of education. Past awardees from Africa have included Nigeria’s Smallholders Farmers Rural Radio, led by Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, which received the accolade in 2010 for its work in improving agricultural management through educational radio broadcasts. At the inaugural WISE summit in 2009, Ghana’s Joyce Dongotey-Padi, who runs the Widows Alliance Network (WANE) for Sustainable Economic Development in Ghana, a project that empowers widows through lifelong learning, was one of the deserving recipients.
But at this year’s summit, the accolade has been raised even higher with the world’s first international prize for education. Dubbed education’s answer to the Nobel Prize, the WISE Prize for Education, will reward an individual – or a team of up to six people working together – for an outstanding, world-class contribution to any level or area of education, in any part of the world. The Education Laureate will receive an award of $500,000 and a gold medal. The winner will be announced on 1 November in Doha. In this interview WISE chairman Dr Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani tells us how it all began and more.
Q: What would you say are the most pressing educational needs and issues in the world today and particularly in developing countries, such as those in Africa?
A: I think if we take a look at what is going on in the world today, and in particular in developing African countries, it is clear that the need for innovation in education has never been so urgent. Access to high-quality education is the most pressing need as 32 million children remain out of school in Africa. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa’s five- to 14-year-olds is expected to grow by more than 34% over the next 20 years and the region will need to respond to the demands of 77 million new students. Another key issue is gender equality. Many girls don’t have equal access to education and this has major implications for society.
Q: With the dramatic changes currently taking place in many parts of the world – politically, economically and socially – is the future of education bright, and what should the world expect from the 2011 summit and afterwards?
A: This year the theme of the summit is “Changing Societies, Changing Education”. We are very aware that the world around us is changing faster than ever and is becoming increasingly interconnected and complex. Education needs to change and adapt to this evolution. The summit will explore interactions between education and other sectors, tackle challenges of development and growth, and shape effective change in education based on a global, long-term vision.
For example, we know that – despite the progress that has been made in improving access to education – even more needs to be done as many are still being left behind. About 17% of the world’s adults still lack basic literacy skills, and nearly two-thirds of those are women. At the same time, I believe there are many fresh opportunities for the future of education. New technologies and practices offer possibilities that were unimaginable 10 years ago.
Q: In a message addressed by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at your inaugural Summit, WISE was urged “to seek ways not just to enhance education for the rich, but to also help provide education for all”. Do you believe this is being achieved?
A: If we consider access to education on a global scale, we can be proud of the progress that has been made in providing primary education. The total number of children out of school fell from 106 million to 67 million between 1999 and 2009, according to The Millennium Development Goals Report published this year. But much more needs to be done, particularly in terms of providing access to secondary and tertiary education and in improving quality at every level. Achievement of the MDGs can help to reduce poverty and promote development.
Q: This year’s summit will include the announcement of the first winner of the WISE Prize for Education, and there is a lot of excitement about this as no such accolade has ever been made before, in the important area of education as a whole. Could you elaborate why and how this was decided?
A: For many years international awards have celebrated accomplishments of the highest order in many important areas, such as medicine, the sciences, economics and the arts. However, there has been no major prize for what we in the WISE community see as the main challenge of our time and the foundation of society. The WISE Prize is a major annual prize, to honour those who have made an outstanding contribution to the cause of education. Now, more than ever, it is time to promote education on a global scale, and thanks to the WISE Prize this is possible.
Q: Although you have a highly distinguished jury, the decision on the winner of the $500,000 prize – to be announced at the summit this month – must have been a tough one. How scrupulous and transparent was the selection process?
A: I am very proud of this inaugural WISE Prize for Education and yes, the selection process was very rigorous. Nominations were received between February and April 2011. They were shortlisted by a committee of experts from around the world and then assessed by a distinguished jury of five eminent individuals in September. The name of the first Laureate will be announced at the 2011 WISE Summit, during the Opening Plenary Session on 1 November. When I discussed the nominations with the other members of the jury it was clear that we were looking for people who could demonstrate a commitment to education and a talent for innovation.
Q:This year’s WISE Awards theme is “Transforming Education: Investment, Innovation and Inclusion.” Why this theme in particular?
A: We chose this theme for the WISE Awards in 2011 (as in 2010) because it embraces the key aspects of great educational projects. That is to say, projects that have had a significant impact on transforming education through innovation, investment in sustainable development, and policies and practices that promote inclusion and diversity. In 2009 we were proud to have eight finalists from Africa and one winning project – the Widows Alliance Network (WANE) for Sustainable Economic Development in Ghana, which helps widows rebuild their lives through training, support and credit schemes. In 2010 we had four African finalists and two winning projects: The Next Einstein Initiative, from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), in South Africa which trains students from over 30 countries in Africa, giving them access to leadership careers, and The Smallholders Farmers Rural Radio in Nigeria which informs farmers, most of whom are illiterate, on how to improve their agricultural, environmental and market access capacity. This year I’m very impressed by the fact that 25% of applications for the WISE Awards came from Africa and one of the finalists is Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA).
TESSA is an online network of over 20 universities and organisations from 12 African countries that works to improve access to and quality of training for teachers and student teachers across sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2005 more than 400,000 teachers and student teachers have benefitted from TESSA resources in Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Further programmes in Togo and Malawi are now employing TESSA resources.
Q: With the global economic crisis still biting, particularly in developing countries of Africa and Asia where funding for education is seriously constrained, what have been the most challenging issues WISE has encountered and overcome?
A: It is true that funding is a crucial issue, coupled with the rising demand for education driven by demographic change. Today, in Sub-Saharan Africa, almost 12 million girls may never enroll in school, and there are nearly 800 million illiterate adults. At WISE, we continuously work to identify new solutions and promote best practices in funding education.
To give you an example, the 2010 WISE Summit came up with some very interesting ideas on how to deal with this by looking at what other sectors are doing. The health sector, for example, has used a tax on airline tickets to raise funds for AIDS. This is something I think could be adapted to the world of education. The idea of carbon credits was also discussed, where big users of carbon give something back. This could be applied to employers who benefit from education. By giving something back to education, they could help raise funds.
I would also like to mention one of the WISE Awards Winners in 2009: The Self-Sufficient School, developed by Fundación Paraguaya, which provides high-quality education to chronically poor young people, without relying on government subsidies, donors or school fees. The school transforms young farmers into financially successful “rural entrepreneurs” by integrating the teaching of traditional high-school subjects with the running of small-scale, on-campus rural enterprises. This school has been 100% financially self-sufficient since 2007 and the model is currently being replicated in 27 countries in Latin America and Africa.
Q: We are aware that WISE is committed to pursuing its mission on a long-term basis. But bearing in mind the changing and challenging world economic landscape, is that mission still achievable? If so, what measures are in place to sustain the longevity of WISE?
A: Education needs to be a global priority regardless of the economic situation. WISE was created just after a major financial crisis, but this didn’t stop over 1,000 stakeholders coming together to address the major issues concerning education. We now have 9,000 active members within the WISE community, including academics, representatives of NGOs and not-for-profit institutions, governments and public-sector organisations, as well as the private sector, the media and – of course – educators.
I feel that it’s not just about pumping money into the system. It’s also about adapting education to learners’ needs. I see an active future for WISE. We have established solid foundations, enabling us to promote innovation in education in all its forms. Our multi-sectoral approach allows us to gain vital input from many stakeholder groups. Every country involved has the chance to be a source of inspiration. I believe that WISE has now become essential, and that all parties involved will help us to maintain this growing initiative.
Q: The inaugural 2009 summit concluded with 10 core education priorities for the 21st century, which proponents called groundbreaking, while critics said they were over-ambitious. Are you on course, and if so how?
A: The 10 core education priorities were a response to key concerns expressed during the 2009 summit. I agree that they are very ambitious, but they act as a driving force for WISE and I believe we should have great ambitions for education. Some of these may seem difficult to achieve, but we regularly work on meeting our objectives on a year-round basis.
During the 2009 summit we listened very carefully to what people, from 120 countries and many different sectors, had to say and identified common goals. Our priorities included: access to high-quality education, defining and promoting global citizenship, and innovating for new ways to learn. You could say that these priorities have helped us shape a philosophy which is shared by the entire WISE community and that they are guidelines for our initiatives.
Each year, our support for the WISE Awards and other programmes helps us meet these goals. For example, the 2010 WISE Awards winning project “Rewrite the Future”, a major global campaign that aims to get 3 million children from conflict-affected areas into school, helps achieve reconciliation. Another example from the 2010 WISE Awards winners is the Mother Child Education Programme (MOCEP), training mothers as first educators in Turkey, which helps establish education in the local community.
Q: You have been quoted as saying: “WISE has a firm commitment to move from debate to concrete outcomes.” Can you give some examples of concrete outcomes that have taken root so far, and how this year’s summit will build on those?
A: Yes, indeed. WISE certainly does have an action-oriented approach. This means we believe in encouraging people to turn ideas into action. This is reflected through the WISE Awards, which assist a growing number of projects to develop and scale up. Furthermore, one of the aims of the WISE Prize for Education is to encourage more young people to choose education as a career. The first WISE publication, which will be launched at the 2011 summit, Innovation in Education: Lessons from Pioneers around the World, will be an international reference guide to best practices on the ground. I would also like to mention the WISE Programme for Education Leadership, which took place over September 25-28 2011, in Doha. The idea of this programme, which emerged from WISE 2009, is to be a vehicle for practical help to education leaders, operating at all levels, mainly from the developing world. The WISE Haiti Task Force, an outcome of the 2010 summit, is helping the country rebuild its education system after the devastating earthquake of January 2010. This group of nine people, including Haitian leaders, representatives of WISE Partner institutions, and international experts, held a workshop in Port au Prince in September 2011 to share Haitian success stories and global experiences that can be adapted to the country’s situation.
I am convinced that WISE can broker partnerships, and when you attend our summit this year you will see how the discussions and networking lead to real achievements. The past three years have seen some outstanding work in global education being recognised through the WISE Awards
Q: Do you have any awardees that stand out most in your view?
A: Since 2009 we have selected 98 finalists and 18 winning projects. All of the WISE Awards Winners are unique and they have all had a positive impact on societies. The WISE Awards have enabled many of them to be scaled up and replicated in many countries. To give you an example, the Nanhi Kali project in India, a 2009 Laureate, was supporting the education of 50,000 underprivileged girls when it applied for an Award. Today, it reaches out to 70,000 girls and its target is to reach 500,000, which it hopes to achieve in part thanks to WISE.
The WISE Awards have succeeded in spotlighting visionary educational projects from both the developed and the developing world, creating a growing community of innovators from all educational sectors and from all levels. We have received 1,300 applications since 2009 and the six winning projects chosen every year are of the highest quality. I have been impressed again this year by the quality of the projects, so from my point of view all of these winners stand out.