Saturday 6 January 2007

Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls

Thank you, very much, Oprah

I had not meant to comment on the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) which opened in South Africa earlier this week, but having read a few comments that seem to have missed the point of this philanthropic event, I am compelled to add a view or two to this debate.

What gets to me is the liberal egalitarian view that any act of philanthropy that is offered to an elite – elite, in the sense of people selected by certain criteria for a purpose – rather than to the generalised and un-assessed masses, attracts unwarranted opprobrium.

Philanthropy should not be about the armchair convenience of Utopian altruism, rather, it should be the determined purpose to make a qualitative, radical and appreciable difference; the circumstance has to be affected for the better.

It should not be about the paltry give a man a fish to feed him for one day, but it is the involvement of teaching him how to fish and during that process, you will be feeding him, provide a boat, provide the fishing nets, sustain his dependants till he can stand on his own feet and having learnt how to use the resources he has, he can be fed all his life.

If you have not read that Chinese proverb to that depth, you have not understood the concept of philanthropy that does make a difference from a dole out that just meets an immediate need.

I am particularly of the view that when an individual or private organisation decides to invest philanthropically in any project, it is first their prerogative and they are at liberty to decide how that philanthropy is channelled.

The job of governments

However, it is the job of established organisations of government to raise whatever standards and services they offer to improve the lot of the masses and where possible meet the standards of the more exclusive or sophisticated outstanding philanthropic acts that have posed a challenge to the lack of vision, leadership and purpose of organs of government that oversee the economy, health, education, infrastructure and opportunity.

I would rather see an extraordinary act of philanthropy that makes a radical difference than a thinly spread activity that hardly affects all concerned, it is in that light that I commend Madonna’s adoption of David Banda into her privileged family and the “lavish” educational facility that is the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

Thanks to Nkem on African Shirts, I viewed the interview Oprah Winfrey had with Gavin Esler a couple of times, since I could not find a transcript and noted some points which need to be highlighted.

One person impact

The first point to note is that Oprah Winfrey has spent $40million in building just the academy, compare that with the $200 million that the United States Government in the whole of Africa over 5 years in the Strengthening Basic Education in Africa Initiative.

The US initiative is a mass appeal project that is almost definitely spread thinly across Sub-Saharan African and is probably unduly consumed by administrative processes and bureaucracies than being actively employed in the intended activity.

Oprah highlighted some specific goals in creating this school, it was going to bear her name, it meant that she felt a responsibility to ensure that it was to the standard that she felt comfortable with, hence her involvement in all the minutiae that pertained to the academy.

Oprah recognised that coming from a poor background, the way to create lasting impact that changes people’s lives is to move them out of their everyday environment and change their perspectives.

Changing the perspective

We all very aware of the difference in outlook between children who attend state schools and those who have the privilege to attend public schools; the ones in the latter only see themselves as leaders of tomorrow being prepared to make a difference to their society, I am not a left-wing apologist.

In another interview, she lamented the fact that children in inner city schools in America defined their needs in terms of material things like the latest fads, gadgets and fashions whilst those in Africa had a yearning for education, there was a hunger for opportunity, the opportunity to change their lives and that of their communities.

Building the academy also presents an open challenge to those who have more resources than Oprah has, in that they would realise that one person can really do so much and it really can be done.

Knowing what you can do

Oprah was not going to settle for the mediocre and this does really cost money, the idea that the $40 million spent could have gone into building 40 $1 million schools fails to see that beyond building the schools, they have to be staffed by suitably qualified personnel who have to be paid and maintained through the lifecycle of every students’ tenure.

No one person can sustain that kind of venture and there is no guarantee that if this was done in cooperation with the government, the governments would maintain the standards and aims that accompanied the original purpose and agreements.

OWLAG would be completely run and sustained by Oprah through the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, it covers, tuition, boarding, books, activities, staffing and all incidental and operational costs of the academy that would eventually accommodate 450 students.

When these girls come into their own, I could see a vibrant alumni association giving back to their alma mater with selfless enthusiasm; this is a vision built to last generations, I am in awe.

African girls deserve the best

When Oprah said the library has a fire place and the kitchen has marble tops, she was highlighting a rather subtle point, which was, there were people who did not believe that African girls should have beautiful surroundings.

I cannot argue with that, she was bringing class into education and by doing so challenging the girls to expect nothing less of themselves as they avail themselves of the golden opportunity they have been offered.

These girls would also become ambassadors of light to their communities as other girls outside the academy now redouble their efforts to become one of the chosen few, teachers might even work harder to prove that schools without facilities can perform just as good – it is now a whole different ball game with education.

Oprah has thrown down the gauntlet for philanthropists to consider how to get involved when giving back to their communities and governments have to catch the vision of leadership to make education available to the poor – expose them to the opportunities and see how they realise their power and ability to change their society.

I only have praise for Oprah in this venture and I shall be making a donation to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation.

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