Gender inequality has deterred education for girls in India. The gender gap in education was even wider in the state of Rajasthan. In 2011, the state’s female literacy rate was just 52% compared to 79% for men—and well below the national literacy rate average of 65% for women.
Established in 2007, nonprofit Educate Girls is focused on addressing this gap and mobilizing communities for girls’ education in India’s rural areas. CAPS (virtually) sat down with the organization’s Founder and Executive Director, Safeena Husain, in December 2020 to understand what motived her to start the organization, her journey to piloting the first Development Impact Bond (DIB) in education, and the far-reaching impact of innovative models like hers.
CAPS: Safeena, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Educate Girls’ mission is to bridge the gender gap in education in India. What motivated you to start this organization?
Safeena: Educate Girls is an extension of my own personal story. Education is a cause close to my heart; it was a transformative force in my life. It enabled me to break out of poverty and be the first girl in my family to be educated outside of India. After spending 15 years working in the nonprofit and development space around the world, I returned to India in 2004 and began the journey of starting this organization.
CAPS: Gender inequality in education is deep-rooted, and widespread. Given the scope of the challenge, how did you decide where to begin your work?
Safeena: My first step was to approach the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), which oversees the Department of School Education and Literacy. MHRD shared a list of 26 districts where the gender gap in education was at “critical” levels. Nine of these districts were in the state of Rajasthan. It was clear that this was where I needed to focus my efforts.
Armed with this information, I convinced the State Government of Rajasthan to give us 50 public schools in their worst performing villages to manage. This is how the foundation of Educate Girls was laid.
We started by focusing on the demand side of the problem. Why are families not sending girls to school? The persistent cultural stigma around educating girls was a critical hurdle to overcome. We worked both in and with communities to mobilize families to change this. It was hard. But we persisted—and made progress. And the state government noticed. At the end of two years, we were given 500 schools to manage! As we expanded to cover more schools, we also grew our educational program offerings by adding more foundational elements focusing on developing students’ numeracy and literacy skills.
CAPS: What was the government of Rajasthan looking for? What type of impact were you able to have?
Safeena: For the government, it was a question of the return on investment. The government had been plugging money into these schools, but because of their distance from the problems on the ground they weren’t able to address two critical challenges. The first was that the investment wasn’t reaching an estimated 11-15% of children who were out of school. The second was that 25-30% of enrolled students were still unable to read and write. Through our program, the government was able to amplify the impact of their investment. At the end of a three-year program, 99% of children were in school and the percentage that could read and write went from 25% to 60%.
Our partnership with the government of Rajasthan meant that the government was able to achieve improved educational outcomes without increasing their investment. For our part, Educate Girls also invested capital into these schools. Our contribution was equivalent to 3-4% of the capital invested by the government.
After we successfully managed 500 schools, the government gave us the entire district of Pali in South-Central Rajasthan to manage. We saturated the district, increasing our presence to cover all 1,062 villages by 2010.
CAPS: Why was saturation—i.e. reaching all villages in the district—important for your model?
Safeena: It was important for two reasons. The first being that educating girls is a mindset problem, necessitating a shift in the mindset of communities in order to have sustainable and systemic impact. The greater the number of communities covered, the more widespread the mindset shift.
The second reason is that this approach allows for economies of scale. We focused on the depth of our impact rather than the breadth. By taking this approach, we were able to lower the cost per child, making the catalytic funding an even more attractive investment opportunity for philanthropists. This was very important for us because we were committed to staying in these villages till the gender gap was closed. Bridging this gap was a long-term initiative and could take anywhere between 5 to 8 years. Ensuring that funding was available for the duration was critical.
CAPS: What came next after Pali?
Safeena: The district of Pali served as our unit of replication. If we could replicate this model in all 9 districts in Rajasthan that had been identified as having critical gender gaps in education, the impact could be enormous. We built a 5-year plan to achieve this, and approached donors to find an anchor funder. The Queen of Qatar, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser supported Educate a Child (EAC) and came on board as the primary investor and provided 50% of the capital needed. This initial backing gave us the flexibility to put in place the processes and operational structures that we needed. It also served as a motivator for other donors to come on board.
Soon we were launching our program in three districts every year that had been identified as having critical gender gaps in education. Very quickly, the Educate Girls program was being implemented in approximately 5,000 schools and villages in Rajasthan.
CAPS: What prompted you to set up the first DIB in education? Has the DIB helped Educate Girls move closer towards closing the gender gap in education?
Safeena: Educate Girls was scaling rapidly before the DIB. We were doubling in size every 18 months. I was concerned that we were copy-pasting our own model and questioned whether this level of scale preserved quality. This prompted the world’s first DIB in education which was intended to serve as a proof-of-concept.
A DIB is a performance-based investment tool: an investor provides upfront funding to the implementer of the program. A third-party evaluator measures and verifies the outcomes of this program against predetermined targets. And if these targets are met, an outcome payer agrees to repay the investor.
In the three-year (2015-2018) Educate Girls DIB, UBS Optimus Foundation was the investor, Educate Girls was the implementor and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation was the outcome payer.
Our success was evaluated against two metrics: enrollment and learning outcomes. The DIB surpassed targets in both metrics. After three years, 92% of eligible out-of-school girls in the region covered by the program were enrolled. And learning levels for students in the program grew 79% more than their peers in other schools. Over the course of the DIB we were able to reach 7,300 children, and cover 166 schools across 140 villages in the district of Bhilwara in Rajasthan.
CAPS: What were your key learnings from setting up the DIB?
Safeena: The DIB sharpened our connection between the problem and the result, and it provided us with some key insights. One of these was that out-of-school girls were concentrated in a few hotspots. Through our data collection we found that 40% of out-of-school girls in India were in 5% of the villages.
The second learning was that by keeping the end goal of the program clear, we were able to incorporate creative problem solving in achieving objectives. Our third learning was on the power of leveraging data for good, and using this to make more informed decisions and take targeted action.
CAPS: Are there any challenges that DIBs face?
Safeena: Yes. A lack of standardization in how and what outcomes are measured is a challenge and hinders replication at scale. The lack of industry guidelines results in DIBs having bespoke metrics, often dictated by a funder’s priorities. In DIBs in education, for example, this can lead to important indicators such as inclusion and equity being overlooked.
In addition, having the government as the outcome payer would be the ideal outcome in the long term. Private resources are limited. With an individual or private entity as the outcome payer, these limits determine the outcome for a child and how impact is measured. The government, and not private entities, is best positioned to understand the challenges and context on the ground.
CAPS: Governments are facing additional financial constraints as a result of the pandemic. Do you think DIBs other similar investment structures are still worth investing in?
Safeena: Absolutely, yes. In fact, Covid-19 having impacted state budgets presents an opportunity for governments to invest resources strategically. A DIB is an attractive model as it allows for the creation of impact with the government making a payment in the future if and only if outcomes are achieved. I think the pandemic really opens the door for governments to consider Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) and DIBs as options for creating social impact during a financial crunch.