George Srour on Education, African Schools, and Building Tomorrow
Dec 22 2008

George Srour, founder of Building Tomorrow, a non-profit that builds schools in Uganda, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his experience starting, funding, and running an organization that tries to change the world one school at a time. Srour discusses how he tries to make sure that his organization accomplishes more than bricks and mortar and the rewards and challenges of a start-up non-profit.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


John Shia
Dec 29 2008 at 4:29pm

I don’t see how education can be the key to future of African countries like Uganda when institutional structures are lacking which allow human capital of educated people to be utilized.

I’ve seen fair number of educated immigrants from Africa succeed in US but fail in Africa due to lack of opportunities over there.

Also, it’s my understanding that in many African countries, key employers for educated people is government sector, not private sectors.

Growing government share of GDP is not a viable long term usage of educated human capital.


John Shia
Dec 29 2008 at 4:34pm

Major reason why there is such a relative low participation of children in public school in Africa is ultra low level of per capita GDP combined with agrarian economy.

Data shows that married biological parents want their children not to work and be educated when they are no longer living at subsistence level and per capita GDP is minimally substantial (around $6,000 or higher couple of years ago).

Dec 29 2008 at 5:57pm

So John? What do you think of OLPC (one laptop per child)?

According to Nationmaster, Uganda’s per capita income was $312 in ’06. That should put everthing in a new perspective.

You always see photos of Ugandans walking around with baskets on their heads. That is because they don’t have draft animals or can’t afford bikes to lighten their loads.

Recent years have had northern Ugandan kids sleeping in the grass to avoid abduction by Lord’s Resistance Army. With a per capita income of $312 parents are not likely to spend money on a gun for self defense.

Guns might be the best gift to these people, then bicycles.

Augustine Kezzy Okello
Jan 2 2009 at 5:32am

Helo!Thanks for the great work done already.Well, my name is Mr. Augustine Kezzy Okello, Education program manager, of Lango youth Action for development(LAYAD). We work in Uganda especially northern uganda that suffered from the insuegency caused by the Lords’ Resistance Army rebels. We are happy that there is relative peace now in the region and much attention is now being given to reconstruction work. School outreaches, Behaviour change communication, girl child education program, medical support to the most vulnerable, Income generation activity support to youth out of school has been the areas of our concentration.However, LAYAD now is in the proces of putting up a school structure where children above primary school level will be taken for secondary school education. We currently need construction materials like iron sheets, cement, iron bars, wood, bricks for the above.LAYAD will be in position to provide manpower(labour), land where the school is to be located has been acquired already.When completed, we hope to admit those students whose parents can afford school fees so that we are able to run the school effective and also pay teachers’ salaries. Lango Youth Action for Development would like to inquire whether the organisation can help provide them with the materials needed for the construction work that will commence in April this year! Waiting to hear from you as we struggle to give poor children a chance to access education. Thanks alot and God bless you.Augustine Kezzy OkelloLango Youth Ation for DevelopmentTel: +256772895012

John Shia
Jan 2 2009 at 11:35pm

To mike.montchalin,

So John? What do you think of OLPC (one laptop per child)?

According to Nationmaster, Uganda’s per capita income was $312 in ’06. That should put everthing in a new perspective.

You always see photos of Ugandans walking around with baskets on their heads. That is because they don’t have draft animals or can’t afford bikes to lighten their loads.

Recent years have had northern Ugandan kids sleeping in the grass to avoid abduction by Lord’s Resistance Army. With a per capita income of $312 parents are not likely to spend money on a gun for self defense.

Guns might be the best gift to these people, then bicycles.

1. I would favor ending farm subsidy in US and Europe and other developed countries so that farmers in Africa can compete fairly in world export market. While farmers in developed market are more efficient, due to higher labor cost, odds are that manual labor intensive tasks can be done at lower cost by labor market in emerging economies.

2. I don’t favor free laptop/bicycles. I don’t think they have the infrastructure to take advantage of it. Also, for market to work properly, you need to minimize positive, as well as negative, externalities.

3. I do favor cell phone system distribution, though, at most subsidized and not given away for free. There is some evidence that cell phone in emerging market economy allow market to operate more efficiently despite relative lack of communication and transportation infrastructure.

4. some minimal distribution of guns (probably simpler and less maintenance intensive Soviet bloc AKs, RPGs, RPD, etc.) to law abiding folks will probably decrease incidences of armed attacks by warlords and bandits. There need to be some accompanying minimal instruction in its use though.


Jan 6 2009 at 8:38pm

The One Laptop Per Child program reminds me of this joke from Sarah Silverman:

‘I sent a whole box full of sweaters to some children in Africa, and they sent me a very nice note to say thanks and tell me that they were delicious.’

Jan 13 2009 at 4:59pm

I found the most interesting part to be the all-too-brief discussion on the importance of a social service agency sticking to its basic mission, thereby avoiding some sort of ‘expanding mission creep.’ It seems like George has a good model going on a micro level; hopefully he won’t get dragged into the situation of trying to solve the entire Ugandan education system.

I also enjoyed the (again, brief) discussion of parental incentives in the school system. It seems to work for Ugandan parents, and, per Russ, it seems to work for the Catholic school system parents in St. Louis. I wonder if that discussion could be expanded upon in a future podcast about the US education system?

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:36Intro. Last podcast of 2008, return Jan. 5, 2009. George Srour, Building Tomorrow, charity that builds schools in Africa. How did it get started? Works with university students, young people, build schools in Uganda. United Nations world food program. Goal of raising $10,000 between Thanksgiving and Christmas; raised $45,000. Money to rebuild a school built originally by timber but subject to termites and had to be rebuilt twice a year. William and Mary College had its name behind it, on their behalf. How would building get built once the money got there? School had NGOs (non-governmental organizations) on the ground that were trustworthy, who would make sure project would be completed. School needed $10,000 for initial design; plus an Italian NGO gave more money; two more floors built. Thanksgiving of 2004, senior year. Opened school in May, 2006, 14-16 months for construction.
5:41Disparity: About 38 million kids in the U.S. go to school every day; in Africa, 46 million, revised now to 41 million who don't go to school. Inspiring people, Desmond Tutu, education will be the fundamental change. Wanted to build schools in areas that had huge amounts of children who had never set foot in a classroom before. Applied for fellowships, got Simon Fellowship for Noble Purpose; came back to Indianapolis. Met with people who had been involved with social entrepreneurship; contacts with Uganda. Needed staff and representative in Uganda; went to Uganda to meet with representative. Sometimes best ideas from folks on the ground. To do it sustainably, had to work with the government. In that part of the world, governments are not seen as the most efficient or transparent. But if you build a school and open it and there are no teachers, people will complain to their local representative; movement to staff the school. Uganda unique, one of the first to adopt primary education; has helped bring in kids, but has led to crowded classrooms and not had quality as high as it ought to be. Can't just build a school and have community like in the United States fund it. Universal Primary Education budget.
11:56There are a lot of organizations that have funded schools in various parts of the world. Could build a school and have no teachers; kids could attend but quit because they are needed for other opportunities in a poor region. How do you know you are having an impact? The ease of achievement is great, but want more than just raising money to build a building. Still trying to figure out the answer. If you build a well and it begins to work, you can see an impact in health. School's ability to make an impact is more prolonged. The newly built schools don't even have all seven grades yet because there are not enough kids yet to go into the top class. Significant part of equation: Community provides over 25,000 hours of labor. Didn't believe they would do it, needed to allow in-country staff flesh that out. Don't construct schools as quickly as if paying the laborers, but pride amongst parents and even the kids help. Parent attending debate of local government officials and one of them took credit for one of the schools; she got up and said he'd had nothing to do it. Empowerment--may not have funds to pay school fees but can contribute labor. Nice idea, but what do they know about building? Paid foreman; provides guidance. Roofing not done by unskilled laborers; critical points done by tradesmen who are qualified. Biggest enemy: trust. Western and Ugandan organizations promise things, but take the money and run; disbelief that there will be the money to complete the project. As project goes on, more and more people show up. One even came to meetings, to give sisters chance to do what he's done. Allows people to see that they can still contribute.
19:41Debate in the United States about how to make our schools better, not much success. Suggestion: the way we spend the money is the problem. No charge to the parents and students, though levied in terms of property taxes; but whether you go or don't go doesn't depend on how much you pay. Insight of private school system, head of Catholic school system of St. Louis; everybody got some scholarship, but nobody got a full scholarship--theory was that that created a kind of buy-in. Milton Friedman's insight: you spend your own money on yourself very carefully, spend other people's money very un-carefully. You take care of stuff when you spend your own money on it. Parent-teacher committees set up for the new schools; interesting to see how parents handle the issue of lunches. Kids perform better when they are well-fed; parents come to the group and ask if they are going to feed the kids. No. In some cases, where a parent cannot pay the cost in cash, parents have started to figure out the cost in maize or hours. Might not be able to afford to pay, but you can come cook porridge three times a week. Not everybody can pay in alternative ways, but experiences and discussions among parents are important. Not just building the building, but also running the school. Organization actually owns the land; rents it out. Protects the donors. World Bank might learn a lesson from that. Every school built on at least 3 acres of land, some up to 7 acres. Mostly agrarian areas; not inconceivable that schools could generate profit from produce by teaching agriculture. Could achieve better than subsistence farming. Incremental design: build classroom by classroom, labor to till the fields and take care of the schools. How many schools total? Three up and running, two more in the midst and two more to being construction in January.
27:14Russ saw some photographs of starting to build the school. Always enthusiasm at start of project; hard to sustain that. Any disappointments, setbacks? Over course of a project that can take up to a year, definitely frustrations. Schools supposed to open in February didn't open till June. Sit down with Ugandan staff, comes down to a number of deaths in the community and local custom that you take 3 days off. Death every two weeks halted work. How big is the community? Needs assessment, look at context, up to 2 kilometers of a walk to get to school. Some areas have ten villages, each with 100 people or so. Youngest country in the world, half population is under 15. Found areas with at least 600 kids who don't have access to school. Motivator for parents to come and work, preference for enrollment. Incentives matter. Built 3, two more about to come on line. How many ultimately? On pace to have 10 open by 2010. What happens to a student when finished with primary school. Girls likelihood of contracting HIV AIDS if they get past 7th grade; can get job that sustains them. Don't want to do too much too fast. Looking at possibility of working on secondary schools. Easterly's work: not very grand, feature not a bug. Not trying to transform whole educational system of Uganda. Grand but not grandiose. Key to successful entrepreneurship. Marathon, not a sprint. Can't measure success by dollars raised, size of staff, kids in school. Specialization is a really good thing. Don't want to stretch too thin.
36:00[Conversation on Dec. 11] Indianapolis far from Uganda. What are the challenges? Price of land for someone from the West is three or four times than for a Ugandan. Need staff on the ground. Keep in touch weekly; they spend a lot of time in the field. Fundraising, administrative things. No idea at first that there was so much to be done. Go about three times a year to Uganda, travel in the U.S. to meet with donors. Side-comment: death in those places. Malaria and AIDS work plan? Strength is with schools. Malaria easier to deal with: bed net or treatment. HIV AIDS completely different story. Couple of funders interested in improving the health of the kids in the new schools; have to figure out what's appropriate to get involved with. Money to de-worm the kids, but community suspect or may not realize that kids need to be de-wormed. Cultural things, difficult to convey to a well-intentioned donor that these things need to be figured out and discussed. In these communities, are you the only school? Only formal school; sometimes schools operating without government sanction, glorified day care, no accreditation, teachers uncertified. In America, certification is a barrier to education; professors can teach in universities but not in public schools; certification hoop to jump through to discourage there being too many teachers. In Uganda? Bit of both. Certification reaffirms that you actually want to do this for a living, teaching not the most glamorous job; by virtue of being in Uganda, systems left over from being British protectorate that may not have much relevance today. Significant overhaul; teacher-trainer on staff. Running a classroom challenging. What do teachers earn? About $100/month; average income is maybe $285/year in Uganda. Well-paying job. Teacher housing difficult. Bikes for teachers to get back and forth. Nice to build a school but quality of education. Apartment building on that 7 acres. Don't want to portray idea as being out of the league of the young people being worked with. Don't want to alienate people.
47:12What proportion of funding from individual college students? About 15 chapters now; most funding from college students. Any imitators? William and Mary chapter now has trouble raising money: original round was indication that something like could be done. Habitat for Humanity, Save the Children: main target has been older people with deeper pockets. Main goal is to try to work with young people. How long will you be doing this? No idea a month before graduating college. Is it fun? Some days more so than others. Most frustrating and most rewarding? Most frustrating: stories about corruption in Uganda, people ought to complement the work you are doing by making better decisions. Most rewarding: walk into a classroom and see kid write on board "How do fish breathe?" Imaginations triggered. Rewarding to talk with students on this side of the water who have been involved, maybe been to Uganda. How many have made that trip? Forty kids over the last two years, another trip coming up. Help build, stay with family, very packed 2 weeks, eye-opening. Advice for people who want to change the world? Be diligent and persistent. Living initially upstairs in parents' house. Complete 180 in terms of methodology: initially thought they would build schools for existing schools, bricks and mortar and walk away; now actually start the schools. Have to get approval from Ministry of Education, etc.