Economical innovation is key to advancing the UN’s global goal for education


  • Opinion by Jaideep Prabhu (cambridge, united kingdom)
  • Inter Press Service

Economical innovation is not cheap innovation. Rather, it is innovation designed from the ground up to be affordable, scalable and outperform traditional models. That is why it is so important to achieve UN Goal 4 for sustainable development, which is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all”.

That goal requires that education be both universally available and able to meet quality standards. So it has to be affordable, otherwise it won’t be globally scalable.

Ten years ago I co-authored an early book on frugal innovation in emerging markets entitled Jugaad innovation: think economically, be flexible, generate breakthrough growth. It targets the private sector in emerging markets such as India, China and Bangladesh. He argues that in such markets, innovation – the creation of new products and services – must be very different from innovation in the West, where it is synonymous with advanced technology, usually expensive and highly structured, and often elitist. In contrast, we argued that to reach large numbers of low-income people in informal emerging market economies, companies need products and services that are affordable and an approach that is economical, flexible and inclusive.

It was during that time that I first became acquainted with the founder of BRAC, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, and many other inspiring people at BRAC. From them I learned that the ideas we wrote about in 2012 had been discovered and perfected by BRAC over four decades, not for private gain, but for social impact.

When BRAC started education in 1985, poverty was widespread in Bangladesh. Forty per cent of primary school age children in Bangladesh did not attend school and only 30 per cent completed primary education.

At that time, as elsewhere in the world, the provision of education on a large scale in Bangladesh gave priority to developing new infrastructure: building schools and hiring qualified teachers to meet demand. But it was impossible to build new schools in every community and highly skilled teachers were scarce.

Many children could not arrange the distance to school because it was too far or unsafe – or they were needed at home during the harvest. Children from ethnic minority groups, like children with disabilities, faced additional obstacles. Most of the teachers were men, which made parents unwilling to send young girls to school.

The key to BRAC’s approach to delivering education at scale was not a new infrastructure, but a new mindset. Indeed, the features of the BRAC approach were more or less exactly those we had written about in our book Jugaad innovation: It was about being frugal, flexible and inclusive. It was all about thinking laterally and working backwards from a deep understanding of the problem facing the people in the communities being served. And it was about empowering those communities to be part of the solution.

BRAC’s final solution was ingenious. Instead of forcing students to go to remote schools, with all the associated burdens and costs, BRAC brought schools to the students.

Instead of building expensive school infrastructure, BRAC took over existing infrastructure. It brought together an extensive system of rented one-room schools in almost every community.

Instead of city-trained teachers, it trained local women to teach in grades one through five, with up to 30 children per class, instead of 50 to 60. By non-formal female teachers from the communities scaling up became possible.

The results were impressive. Nearly 100 percent of students completed fifth grade, and BRAC students consistently outperformed public school students on government tests. At its peak, this network consisted of 64,000 schools and has graduated 14 million students, mostly in pre-primary and primary education.

That is frugal innovation at its best: affordable, scalable and better. It is community based and locally run.

It is transformative on many levels: the number of children being educated; the number of girls educated; the number of communities with schools; the number of women trained as teachers; the pipeline of students prepared for continuing education.

Making significant progress towards SDG 4 requires that kind of frugal innovation. BRAC shows the way.

The author is the Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Business and Enterprise at the Judge Business School of the University of Cambridge in England.

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© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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