E-readers in Uganda

"Folks in Uganda love your story," Elizabeth Wood, my publisher, wrote to me recently. She was referring to my children's book The Blue Marble, which has just been imported back into the country in a novel way. She forwarded an email from Daria, one of her colleagues, who is currently on a trip to Uganda for the Worldreader project:

I'm so excited! When the teachers at Humble [a school in Uganda] saw that there were African books on their e-readers they actually seemed astounded. A quick look into Humble's library and you know why: everything was American. This might be going too far but they looked like they were in a state of disbelief, almost as if they themselves had never really connected the idea of books and African authors. Actually, when Esther said The Blue Marble was by a Ugandan writer a few of them commented in disbelief. Seeing the Ugandan names actually made a few of them giggle with surprise and delight. Jackee Batanda is going to be the first Ugandan author most of them read.

Worldreader is a non-profit organization committed to delivering digital books to children and families in the developing world using e-reader technology. Already launched in Kenya and Ghana, the project seeks to promote reading through e-readers and works with underprivileged schools. Worldreader launched in Uganda last week, and, judging by the emails, Ugandan teachers are excited.

Generally speaking, teachers in Uganda have little to be excited about. Last week, I read with trepidation that the government has, for the time being, ruled out pay rises for all civil servants (except those in the security sector). This country's fixation on high defense spending over quality of education and health care bodes ill for the nation's future. Around the world, the debate on the failing education standards is growing. What are the nations with the best education standards doing right? And what are those with low education standards doing wrong?

Uganda boasts high student enrollment due to a policy of free universal primary and secondary education. The numbers look good when it comes to World Bank statistics on enrollment, but they tend to ignore the quality of education. In an op-ed he published in Uganda's The Independent newspaper last year, Bob Kasango argues for the need to overhaul the whole education system and motivate teachers. He quotes reports indicating that children who have passed through the Ugandan school system cannot tell time or do simple mathematical calculations. He argues that the need to improve education standards is of the essence.

To compete, we either must raise our educational standards or we shall be left out and left behind. But how do we do this? The answer is simple. Get more and great teachers, pay them well and treat them with the same professional respect we accord to lawyers, engineers, doctors, accountants etc. But developing great teachers requires an extremely rigorous and competitive process. They must be subjected to entry exams to a teaching job and continuously assessed and given regular periodical training to widen and upgrade their knowledge base. The teacher-student ratio must not defy the principal laws of meaningful learning....

Last year teachers participated twice in national strikes, calling on the government to increase their salaries by 100 percent. The average income of a primary school teacher is 260,000 shillings ($93 USD) per month, according to local press reports. They threatened another strike this year. Instead the government promised to raise their salary by 15 percent in the next financial budget cycle. The decision to increase teacher's pay by only 15 percent underscores the failure to grasp that more money needs to be channeled into education if we are to develop as a nation.

Civil society organizations like Worldreader are stepping in to fill the gap. The e-reader project is an example of a pilot project that promotes reading through new technologies. This is just the sort of thing the government appears incapable of doing on its own.

While money needs to be spent on the security sector, a larger amount needs to be invested in education. Investing in the education sector will ensure the growth and development of the country.


Democracy Lab

Burma's rebels: Women demand a say

Generally speaking, women have not exactly been conspicuous among the leaders of the ethnic minorities that are at odds with the Burmese central government. But that may be changing.

In late January, a group representing the Karen, one of the biggest ethnic groups in Burma, issued a statement calling for women to be given a bigger role in the peace talks between Karen rebels and the government. "Our concerns must be brought to the negotiating table, and the abuses we have suffered must be redressed and prevented once and for all," Naw Zipporah Sein, who is the General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), told me on the phone. She was speaking from a town on the Thai border. (The photo above shows a Karen girl in a refugee camp in Thailand.)

Before she was elected to that post in 2008 she served the head of the Karen Women Organization (KWO). It was under her leadership that the KWO published a widely noted 2004 report entitled "Shattering Silences," which documented 125 cases of the systematized rape and sexual abuse of women allegedly committed by Burmese military troops in Karen State over a twenty-year period. Today, despite her unprecedented leadership position in the KNU, Zipporah Sein told me that she's still unhappy with the status of Karen women. To the injury of maltreatment on the battlefield by government troops comes the insult of inadequate representation in the ruling circles of the rebel leadership.

The KNU, one of the most powerful rebel groups in Burma, has been fighting for ethnic autonomy since 1948. The government recently announced that it had concluded a cease-fire deal with them. A few days ago, however, it was none other than Zipporah Sein who called that agreement into question. The New York Times quoted her as saying that "[w]e still need to discuss the conditions."

Efforts to stop the fighting drag on. As the latest in a series of fragile ceasefire deals, the Mon ethnic group, which operates along the Thai-Burma border, announced last Wednesday that it reached "a preliminary ceasefire agreement" with Burma's pseudo-civilian government.

Similar agreements have been struck recently between the government and other ethnic rebel armies, including the Shan State Army-South, the United Wa State Army, and at least seven other armed groups. The one major exception is the continuing war between the Kachin and government troops.

Unfortunately, the participation of ethnic women in these conflict resolution processes is disturbingly low. It is a tragedy that the people who have suffered the most from these conflicts are those who seem to have the least say in the process of their "resolution."

At least a dozen reports over the past decade -- many of them produced by the women's groups associated with the ethnic minorities -- have accused the Burmese military regime of systematically allowing government troops to commit rape with impunity in order to terrorize and subjugate the ethnic populations.

Since March 2010, when the current president Thein Sein took office in Burma, the Women's League of Burma, which brings together representatives of the major ethnic women organizations, has documented 81 rape cases in Shan and Kachin States. The League repeated its allegations in a letter it sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last November, just before she made her historic visit to Burma.

According to a report by the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT), some women were gang-raped by Burmese military troops in front of their families as the military regime waged harsh offensives against Kachin rebels starting in 2010. According to Shirley Seng, the KWAT spokeswoman, although the Kachin rebels and the Burmese government are holding talks, the abuse of women goes on. "Since 2010, large numbers of Burmese troops have entered the Kachin villages," Ms. Seng told me. "Wherever they are stationed, they abuse our women and girls."

UN Security Council resolutions have specifically called for women to be involved in the peace process because that means that talks will address the issues that directly affect women.

On Sunday, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, ended a fact-finding visit in the country by calling on the Burmese government to acknowledge its past human rights violations -- and those committed against women in particular. The government, he said, will have to acknowledge its responsibility for the "violations that people have suffered" in order to "ensure national reconciliation and to prevent future violations from occurring."

Considering what they've gone through, it seems only right that women should not only have the chance to shape the conflict resolution process but also the nation-building effort that is yet to come -- assuming that all goes well, of course.