Ann Cotton: Educating millions in Africa by inspiring sustainable change

Ann Cotton [Camfed]

For someone who gave up teaching two decades ago, Ann Cotton educates an awful lot of children. Since she began her Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) in 1993, she has supported 3 million children in five countries to stay in school and will support another million over the next five years. 

“Changemakers don’t come from the elites, from the rich,” she says, but from the poor. Which is why she invests in them.

And she says that poverty isn’t something that just happens to people who are not like us.

At a time when headlines are full of stories of schools being burned down in Pakistan and Afghanistan, closed down over swaths of Nigeria and targeted by extremists in Indonesia, Cotton is seeing success, as things come full circle. She is seeing how many of those children are now in turn supporting the education of the next generation – and that really thrills her.

Related: Forget Madonna – Malawi’s parents find their own way of keeping girls in school

Last year she picked up the Wise prize at an education summit in Qatar and was recognised by OECD for best practice in development innovation. The model, she says, is to create sustainability in part through Cama – a 25,000-member pan-African network of Camfed graduates who are now rural businesswomen, and economically-independent role models. Almost 5,000 have become teachers.

Cotton says: “We only recruit inside Africa for our staff. We don’t send in outsiders to tell them what to do. And accountability is first and foremost to the child, not the donor. We aren’t swinging with every fashion, every shift in donor or government interests. You can’t raise the aspirations of a child and then leave them hanging, poverty can’t be solved by a project. Its solved by a relationship, collaboration, not coming in and making a new structure and putting our name over it and moving on.”

Born in Cardiff to parents from mining communities in Aberdare, Cotton won a scholarship to a private girls’ school where teachers promptly began the process of anglicising and gentrifying the young Welsh girl as effectively as they could.

She says: “It was different times, with antiquated methods, but it was a sharp lesson in feeling like an outsider, of loneliness.” The exclusion she felt drew her towards her first job, a teacher at a challenging state comprensive in south London. In 1991, on a trip to Zimbabwe, she ended up among the Tonga and Kore Kore people, who had been displaced by the colonial-era Kariba dam in the late 1950s and whose lives have been utterly devastated as a result. It resonated.

Cotton says: “They had unwittingly colluded with their own downfall. They were promised everything – schools, clinics, homes – and of course they got nothing, less than nothing. The more I learned the more I saw parallels between what had happened in Wales with the miners, the powerlessness, the fact that the only thing you have is your labour and the only thing you can withdraw is your labour and if you do that for too long then you won’t survive. Even with enormous community cohesion, it isn’t possible to win. It was a metaphor for the poor everywhere.

“In Zimbabwe what struck me was that I felt I hadn’t understood colonisation in all its magnitude. The more I learned the angrier I got.”

But when Cotton returned to the UK and started looking at what was being done to help, her sense of injustice only grew. She says: “I was patronised by the aid agencies. I was told ‘Oh, those people are just telling you what they think you want to hear’.

Related: It’s too easy to make Madonna the scapegoat for the Malawi debacle | Barbara Ellen

“The prevailing view was that girls weren’t going to school because of family resistance. But when I was in poor and traditional villages people were talking about making clear economic decisions. It wasn’t about culture. Boys in the wider world had the best levels of paid work so it made sense to invest in a boy to go to school. It was a socioeconomic issue. There is this sense that the poor are not like ‘us’. They are this amorphous mass of people who are not individuals but a collection of people who have things done to them by people who know better.

“I hear ‘but why do poor people make such bad decisions’. But actually their decision-making can be far more complex than that of the better-off in many ways. They’re not financially illiterate, they’re constantly weighing up choices based on the reality of poverty. Somehow the international development community has resisted accepting this.”

“There’s a history of NGOs going into areas and saying ‘let’s do this’. Poverty diminishes confidence, so if someone offers you a grain store, even if you really need a plough, you take what is offered to you.”

Cotton insists Camfed supports without imposing. “That’s why things like Madonna’s school didn’t work,” she says. “You can’t just go in and throw up a school and expect it all to work.”

Cotton is no household name, but she is a much-decorated speaker on the international stage, her speech as the present laureate of the Wise prize for education was televised internationally. She has gained supporters with her unassuming style, and easy smile, combined with a schoolteacher firmness and keen sense of injustice. Sarah Brown is a fan, as is Cherie Blair, and the Queen awarded her an OBE.

But no daughter of Welsh mining stock is over-impressed with power. “Power lies with white middle-class men,” she says. “There are other elites of course but that is the one with the most power. That gene pool is not of its nature excellent.

“We have a world with considerable problems and we are casting aside so many. We cannot ignore this lot of people and expect to make global progress.

“All countries have poor people. Yet it’s a very rare country which understands the indignities of poverty, while education systems maintain the status quo. The children of the elite go to the best schools and get the best jobs, not because they are the best. We’re not taking advantage of the intellectual power on this planet, whether in Malawi or Britain. We are casting so much of it aside.”

Subscribe to our newsletters