Hazel Healy became a co-editor at New Internationalist in 2011. She began her working life as a researcher with Colombian feminists in Medellin, coaxed peas and beans out of the soils of East Manchester with kids, and went on to do advocacy work with refugees from the Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan.

She took up journalism full time in 2007, co-founding online investigative paper Manchester Mule and going on to cover everything from campaigns by Senegalese migrant organizers in Madrid to the trials of Dominican gardeners in New York.

Since joining New Internationalist she has written on food speculation, climate adaptation and digital freedom, and keeps a close eye all things migratory. She also edits the Agenda section of the magazine.

Her work has also been featured in The LA Times, by La Agencia EFE and the Women’s Studies Review.

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Hazel Healy became a co-editor at New Internationalist in 2011. She began her working life as a researcher with Colombian feminists in Medellin, coaxed peas and beans out of the soils of East Manchester with kids, and went on to do advocacy work with refugees from the Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan.

She took up journalism full time in 2007, co-founding online investigative paper Manchester Mule and going on to cover everything from campaigns by Senegalese migrant organizers in Madrid to the trials of Dominican gardeners in New York.

Since joining New Internationalist she has written on food speculation, climate adaptation and digital freedom, and keeps a close eye all things migratory. She also edits the Agenda section of the magazine.

Her work has also been featured in The LA Times, by La Agencia EFE and the Women’s Studies Review.

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The state of education: leaving many behind

We are educating more people than ever. But despite huge gains the most marginalized – the poorest, children with disabilities, girls, and those from cultural or linguistic minorities – are still disproportionately left behind.

The Millennium Development Goals (2000-15) to end world poverty included two important education targets – universal primary education and equal enrolment for girls and boys (‘gender parity’). After the MDGs were launched, the world saw great strides towards universal education, after years of inertia. In the first five years, the number of out-of-school children dropped by 30 million. The biggest victory was increased enrolment – primary school attendance went up from 83 to 91 per cent by 2013, boosted by the widespread abolition of school fees and sweeteners such as cash transfers to parents and free school meals.

Some states – including Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Nepal – managed to increase primary completion rates by over 20 per cent. Latin American countries – in particular Nicaragua, Bolivia and Brazil – successfully reached the poorest children. But in Nigeria only 22 per cent of the poorest children finished primary school. Overall, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of out-of-school children, due in part to poverty and a major population boom.

Participation in secondary school also accelerated. Senegal’s transition rate from primary to secondary leapt from 24 per cent in 1990 to nearly 90 per cent by 2011. Pre-schoolers did well – after it was recognized they would otherwise be too disadvantaged by seven ever to catch up – increasing enrolment by two-thirds. But adults fell by the wayside, with over 730 million still illiterate.

Girls’ enrolment is claimed as the biggest victory, with two-thirds of the Global South reaching gender parity. South and West Asia made the greatest progress, reaching parity in primary and a 93-per-cent ratio in secondary. But poverty remained a major obstacle. In Niger around 70 per cent of the poorest girls had never attended school; and while wealthy children of both genders level-pegged in Pakistan, poorer girls lagged nearly 20 per cent behind poor boys. Equality proved harder to reach than parity, with schools still plagued by sexual violence and discrimination. In the words of academic Elaine Unterhalter, fixing access to education is ‘not like a polio shot, the problem needs to be thought of more like treating cancer’ – something that requires complicated, ongoing interventions.

Another battleground is improved quality. When enrolment numbers went through the roof, quality went out the window. ‘There was a huge expansion in access but not in financing,’ points out David Archer of NGO ActionAid. ‘It’s not going to help if you don’t put in more money for teachers and infrastructure.’ Enrolment figures mask high drop-out rates, and poor outcomes – some 20 per cent of school children still cannot read by the age of 10.

Mother-tongue teaching is one great hope. An estimated 40 per cent of children are still taught in languages they don’t understand. High-quality bilingual schooling has been shown to result in higher attendance, lower drop-out rates and higher scores in all subjects, including mastery of non-indigenous languages. In Mali, children who began learning in their mother tongue scored 32-per-cent higher on French proficiency than those at French-only schools.

What next? The Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2016, successors to the MDGs, have set the bar even higher, with 10 ambitious targets covering all aspects of a full, free, quality and non-discriminatory education to be achieved by 2030. ‘Some say it’s too difficult a target to reach – how can governments take responsibility for all these things?’ reflects Unterhalter. ‘But on the other hand, just registering education as a complex terrain helps to reset the dials.’

Education is likely to remain a stark reminder of inequality between nations. Niger and Central African Republic are not expected to have all children attending primary school until past 2100.

Top image: Indigenous children are disproportionately left behind. Photo ©Hugh Stitton/Corbis/Getty Images

Sources: Global Education Monitoring (GEM) report, ‘Leaving no one behind’, July 2016 bit.ly/263million; UNESCO, EFA Global Monitoring Report, 2015 nin.tl/EducationMDGs; GEM report Policy Paper 14, February 2016 nin.tl/GEMmothertongue.

Bad Education: why our systems need fixing

They are calling it ‘the intellectual massacre’. Since the attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016, he has systematically purged educators who criticize his government, accusing them of terrorism.

Teachers are one of the biggest groups to be affected by Ankara’s post-coup crackdown. Erdoğan has sacked and blacklisted tens of thousands across the country, prompting one woman to say her government was targeting their very ‘existence’ with its actions. Academics have also been fired en masse, with close to 5,000 out of work, reduced to giving symbolic lectures in parks.1

Erdoğan is not the only authoritarian leader hostile to education. Any self-respecting populist understands the importance of keeping citizens malleable and is keen to stay in control of their nation’s narratives. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set to work rewriting text books to glorify his government.2 In Hungary last April, vitriolic nationalist President Viktor Orbán went to war on the Central European University, whose mission is to promote ‘the values of open society and self-reflective critical thinking’.3 The list goes on.

Education is a key battleground – and not just for the demagogues. The attack on critical thinking comes in other, less obvious, ways as well. Recent years have seen an upsurge in private-sector activity in education, part of a package of neoliberal reforms that push for competition and high-stakes testing – and privatization as the means of delivery.

The battle over how best to educate our children and who controls this, is nothing new. But with enrolment rates rising, vast unmet global need and powerful new tech players in the mix, the subject is highly politicized – quality, public education is on shaky ground at a time when it has never been more important to defend it.

The neoliberal approach to education is spreading in new ways, often under the radar. It pops up as privatized models of schooling such as the independent charter schools in the US and New Zealand/Aotearoa, or free schools in Sweden; Australia has contracted out its national assessment programme to Pearson, the world’s largest edu-business. Across the Global South, in countries such as Kenya, the Philippines and Ghana, chains of low-cost private schools are expanding.

There’s creeping commercialization in public schools too, with companies selling services such as digital learning, data services or professional development.4 The ‘Global Education Industry’ is quite a prize, now valued at $4.3 trillion. Although it takes different forms, its economic rationales are the same: efficiency, choice and competition premised on a narrative of scarcity or failure of public systems.

The UK is grappling with the rise of unaccountable academies. Technically run as charities, they operate as semi-independent hybrids, spending taxpayers’ money but subject to fewer rules than local-authority run schools, able to set their own salaries and admissions policies and adopting private-sector managerial practices.

England has seen more than half of secondary schools and nearly a quarter of its primary schools turn into academies since 2010. Investigations by Channel 4 television found trusts that run academies to be spending taxpayers’ money on inflated wages, lavish perks and generous contracts for companies belonging to board members.5

There is less evidence of the promised ‘uplift’ for those said to be struggling in the public system. Instead, academies and ‘free schools’, are shown to drive increased segregation and to let down the vulnerable.6

‘The academy model lends itself to being fussy about who you take,’ explains Rachel Crouch, a former headteacher, who resisted academy status at her primary school in Oxford. ‘They have to show they are improving schools, to justify their salary. So of course some academies will fail pupils such as children with special educational needs. All they are after are the results – and that becomes more important than the individual child.’

Testing goes nuclear

Technology has put wind in the sails of the testing brigade. With vast amounts of comparative data now available and easily shared, teachers and administrators are held accountable for their students’ learning in new, disturbing ways. This is no coincidence – it flows from the neoliberal notion of education as a commodity. By free-market logic, the ‘product’ must be measured and compared, and those who make it valued accordingly.7

Big data has taken evaluation to new extremes. In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neill describes how an algorithm designed to assess educators led to the firing of one particularly popular, talented teacher in Washington DC, along with hundreds of others. The scoring system – which was not revealed to teachers – purported to assess their effectiveness in teaching maths and language skills. From the poor standards of work produced by children who had scored high the previous year, the unlucky teacher concluded that last year’s teacher must have cheated. But there was no feed-back loop, no amount of community appeals could fix the result. The algorithm was unchallengeable.

Cheating frequently occurs when pressure is applied to teachers to produce high standardized test results. In Atlanta, ruthless managerialism appeared to generate spectacular gains, which later turned out to be due to cheating by over 180 staff terrified of losing their jobs.7

Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it

‘You’ve got a huge industry of people who are focused on improving the assessment of learning, ranking and scoring people,’ says ActionAid’s David Archer.

The classic example is edu-business Pearsons, who publish textbooks, run exam boards and invest in low-cost private school chains – and clocked up sales of over $5 billion in 2016.

‘It’s a disturbing loop,’ says Archer. ‘The more Pearsons can make the case that learning is the same wherever you are, the more they can standardize books, and exams; that means they can produce them at lower costs per unit and make bigger profits, on an industrial scale.’

To top it all, there is no evidence that improving standardized assessment will lead to improved quality of learning. ‘As the classic phrase goes: weighing a pig does not make it fatter. And what about the process? You could torture children – or drill them – to get results but that’s not a quality education. What about cultivating the full human personality?’

Low cost and for profit

The problems of privatization and standardization are not confined to the West. In the Global South, private providers now make up 13 per cent of primary school enrolment (compared to 5 per cent in the West) and 25 per cent of secondary schools.8

Private schools come in many shapes and sizes. Faith-based schools, or those run by NGOs or particular communities, have always coexisted with public provision. But there is a new trend: the expansion of chains of private-schools that target poor families. Since 2014, these for-profit low-cost schools have seen exponential growth. The most ambitious is US firm Bridge International Academies, which currently runs over 500 schools, educating some 100,000 children in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria and India.

 A child practises writing the days of the week on the wall of her house in Meme, Cameroon.
A child practises writing the days of the week on the wall of her house in Meme, Cameroon. ©Chris de Bode/Panos

Bridge’s uber-standardized, scalable model is predicated on employing teachers who read scripted lessons – devised in Boston – on an e-reader. They say they can deliver schooling 30 per cent cheaper than governments and predict net earnings of $750 million by 2025.9, 10

Omega Schools in Ghana, run by British professor and entrepreneur James Tooley, operate on similar principles. They offer standardized lessons delivered by high-school graduates, with children using a pay-as-you-go bracelet, a system praised as an innovative solution for parents with irregular incomes. If you’re charged up, you get in.11

‘Can we play with education like that?’ asks Delphine Dorsi, a human rights lawyer who co-ordinates the international Right to Education Initiative. ‘A kid’s schooling is so important for them, for society. If they miss class, how will they catch up? Can we treat students as customers, like paying for electricity, like it’s a normal business?’

Could do better

The vast majority of research suggests that low-cost schools create segregation, just like any other private school.12 By targeting the poor, not the very poor, they create what Stanford University’s Frank Adamson calls ‘meso-levels of stratification’. There is also little or no clear, independent evidence that education provided in these schools is of higher quality than the public sector, when students’ results are adjusted for socio-economic status.8 The claim that such schools are extending education to those who would otherwise not get it, is also unproven. Most out-of-school children are in rural areas, but there is scant evidence of low-fee schools in these remote places.

Civil society has issued repeated warnings about the unregulated spread of private providers. Various UN treaty bodies concerned with human rights have put out strongly worded recommendations. But donors such as Britain, the US, Netherlands and the World Bank are seduced. They have invested millions into Bridge, and other providers. With an estimated 263 million children still out of school, or in school but not learning much, the private sector has sold itself as a solution in slick keynote speeches at the World Education Forum and similar gatherings.

‘Can we treat students as customers, like paying for electricity, like any normal business?’

It’s true that public education is in a dismal state in some low-income countries whose education systems are chronically underfunded, hampered by a low tax base, insufficient aid and corruption.

‘States are struggling,’ agrees Dorsi. ‘We absolutely have to respond to that. But we cannot do so in a way that undermines the right to education. It’s not a question of ideology. It’s not that “public is better”. It’s that quality education should be accessible to everyone regardless of their ethnicity, language or wealth. All states have signed up to that.

‘Is there corruption? It’s everywhere, in the private sector too. If it’s an issue let’s fix it. If donor states are so good at negotiating tax agreements in their favour, they could negotiate transparency rules too.

‘States are struggling with other issues – disasters, war and disease. They don’t have enough money, so things go slow. Let’s work with the state to fix that.’

Reaching the poorest

‘If Bridge were going to places where education is not available, then I would be more interested,’ says Lucy Maina, programmes director at the Africa Educational Trust (AET), which works in some of the world’s most fragile, isolated places – such as Dol Dol, northeast Kenya, where it supports primary schools and runs an adult-learning scheme for Masaai women.

‘It is like the sun and the moon, if you talk of equity between here and other parts of Kenya,’ says Maina. ‘In these poorer places, everything is hard to reach, hard to get.’

Some 80 kilometres on bad roads from the nearest large town, Dol Dol has no internet and low literacy – but plenty of drought, cattle rustling, female genital mutilation, child marriage and wildlife such as buffaloes and elephants that stop children from getting to school.

Teachers often don’t last long around here. And because their kids do so badly at school, parents would often see no point in sending them. They would rather their children were herding cattle.

Over a three-year period, AET has turned the situation around. They started by coaching primary-school staff to teach younger Masaai children to read in their own language – a method that has boosted learning outcomes across the board. Then AET taught mothers basic numeracy and literacy.

‘You have to teach close to where the women are because they have so many chores,’ says Lucy. Women will often bring containers to collect water after the class, an axe to split firewood for the evening meal and grandparents to entertain the babies.

Some 400 women are now numerate, reading and able to write their names. At a personal level, it is transformative – they can receive and send money, make calls, one woman is now a polling officer and voted in the last election for the first time.

‘You could torture children – or drill them – to get results, but that’s not a quality education’

But it has important knock-on effects for some 2,000 offspring too. ‘They compete with their own children, and learn from them,’ Maina says.

These newly literate parents, equipped with the statistics on how many staff should be in their area by law, have successfully lobbied the Kenyan government to recruit 19 new local, bilingual teachers. ‘Now they see their own people come back to serve them. There is a lot of excitement about learning,’ says Maina. Already, children’s test scores are improving and there is better retention of students.

Empowering teachers

‘The World Bank talks about absenteeism and points to teachers as a cause,’ says Rene Raya, who works for the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) in Manila. ‘But it’s a symptom of neglect. Teachers are victims of a weakened educational sector – low salaries, no care for their wellbeing and professional development. They are demoralized and disempowered.’

ASPBAE is one of 5,000 organizations in the powerful grassroots Global Campaign for Education network, which spans 87 countries around the world. Raya describes how just a small intervention by an NGO – a two-week crash course on languages and social awareness – went a long way to motivate teachers.

‘Afterwards they worked hard for their students, campaigning to get them back in school,’ he says. The NGO reinvented the school board, bringing in local members and empowering them to decide on funding. Parents started to give tutorial support to struggling students.

Related: Leave no one behind? An update on progress towards the dream of universal education.

Seeing the improved public school, parents who had taken their children to private schools brought them back.

‘Actually you don’t need to spend billions of dollars to strengthen public education,’ says Raya. ‘You need recognition and a voice in decision-making.’

Critical thinking

In Pakistan, one educator is grappling with quality, specifically how to encourage critical-thinking skills.

‘As a society, we don’t question enough,’ says Aamna Pasha from Karachi in Pakistan. She trains educators in schools serving low-income groups to teach for higher cognitive skills in children aged 11-14. ‘I want children to be able to deconstruct a problem and think about possible solutions,’ she says, ‘to know that there can be more than one opinion, other perspectives.’

Pasha guides teachers – whose classes have anywhere between 5 and 60 students – how to go from being instructors to facilitators of children’s creative group work. Crucially, she adapts the curriculum to children’s different realities. So for a topic of endangered animals, in Karachi, children work on Indus river dolphins; in Gilgit, up in the remote, mountainous North, the Markhor deer. In Gilgit children took matters further, visiting and interviewing a hunter, advocating for the deer and proposing alternative career paths.

‘The children adapted very well,’ laughs Pasha. ‘It took teachers a little longer.’

Children report increased confidence, and teachers that their pupils are more engaged. The students of one NGO-run school for children of fishers that has been on Pasha’s programme for three years, just passed the Year 9 exams with As. Three years earlier, the entire cohort had failed.

Back in Oxfordshire, Rachel Crouch is singing the praises of Philosophy for Children (P4C), which has primary-school children mull over moral questions such as, ‘when is it OK to steal?’ and explore values such as honesty and friendship.

‘The schools doing P4C are taking skills further,’ says Crouch. ‘Children are becoming articulate, able to discuss and debate. When they go out and get jobs, they need to be able to do that – it’s their future.’ She’s convinced her school’s recent SATS scores (national tests for 11 year olds) – the highest ever – bear testament to that.

Seriously equitable

Equity, an engaged curriculum, motivated teachers – these things are not rocket science, and they get results. Systems in Finland, parts of Canada and Cuba with a strong commitment to public ownership consistently out-perform free-market cousins Sweden, the US and Chile in international PISA assessments over time.13

Finland’s top-scoring public system comes with none of the intrusive testing that damages confidence. Teachers spend 10-15 per cent of their time studying, all have post-graduate level training and schools are free to set their own curriculum; there are no school inspections, but the Finnish government can call in a random sample of 10 per cent of students’ work. The country spends 30 times more on training for staff than on evaluating the performance of students and schools (in test-based education systems it’s the opposite).14

Finland’s top scores come with none of the intrusive testing that damages confidence

Finland works hard to achieve equity – striving to make sure students’ education outcomes are not determined by their wealth or background, investing more heavily in schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Ultimately, there is no great mystery as to what is required for a solid public education system: investment and good teachers. In Western countries this should be easily achievable. But low- and middle-income countries are looking at a financing gap of $39 billion per year to secure a quality education for their children. In low-income countries they are over 40-per-cent short.

Tax, not aid

Some of the gap should be met by aid – currently at $12 billion per year. But topping up to $39 billion – less than 2 per cent of what the US spent on arms in 2016 – is unlikely.15 Aid to education has stagnated and only a small percentage is harmonized, well targeted and in line with national government plans. Donors are often too keen to ‘put their flag in things’ and push their own ideas about how best to do education, David Archer from ActionAid reports.

‘In the end, it’s going to come down to tax,’ says Archer. ‘Governments need to have a big enough national budget – raised fairly through a progressive tax base – and choose to invest that properly in education.’ Ending tax incentives to transnational companies in Ghana could raise enough revenue to double its education budget; in Sierra Leone, the increase would be seven-fold.8

Brazil shows what political will can achieve. It increased its budget allocation to education from 10 per cent in 2000 to 18 per cent in 2016. Combined with a cash transfer programme to parents, the number of years in school for the poorest 20 per cent of children doubled from four to eight.8 (Sadly, the new rightwing administration has now stepped back from these important gains.)

No place for profit

The profit motive has no place dictating what is taught, how it’s taught nor how our schools are organized.

We need a system of education that redistributes investment and engagement with the aim of better quality for everybody – good teachers, a curriculum that connects, support for inclusive and progressive learning.

None of these things are difficult. They are happening all over the world, but they will need to be fought for and fiercely defended. A lot is at stake. In a world of growing demagoguery, people need to be taught how to think for themselves, to imagine better futures and harness the power of imagination.

‘The challenges of our world are so huge,’ reflects Delphine Dorsi. ‘We’re killing the planet and fighting each other. If we want equity, if we want to work together to build a better society, then education is the key.’

Top image by Chris J Radcliffe/AFP/Getty Images

Reuters, March 2017, nin.tl/AcademicsPurged; middleeasteye.net, July 2017, nin.tl/TeacherPurge
Wired, June 2017, nin.tl/ModiTextbooks
The Washington Post, April 2017, nin.tl/OrbanCET
New South Wales Teachers Federation, nin.tl/Commercialization_Australia
weownit.org.uk, nin.tl/PublicOwnershipSchools
The Guardian, August 2016, nin.tl/PovertyGapWidens
Rethinking education – whose knowledge is it anyway?, New Internationalist, 2016.
Education International, 2016, nin.tl/PrivateProfitPublicLoss
The Economist, January 2017 nin.tl/BridgeFinanceChallenge
The New York Times, July 2017, nin.tl/NYTBridge
educationinnovations.org, nin.tl/OmegaSchools
ducation Rigourous Literature Review, ‘The role and impact of private schools in developing Countries’, 2014, nin.tl/PrivateSchoolsImpact
Frank Adamson et al, Global Educational Reform, How Privatization and Public Investment Influence Education Outcomes, Routledge, 2016.
Pasi Sahlberg in School Administrator, 2012. nin.tl/FinnishEquity
sipri.org nin.tl/MilitarySpendUp

VIDEO: ‘This is cultural genocide’

‘Our children are becoming materialistic – they are forgetting where they come from and who they are,’ says Lidia del Rocio Moreno Cuastumal, an indigenous teacher for the Pasto community of Nariño, southwest Colombia.

For the past 20 years, her community has campaigned to have their beliefs and knowledge included in Colombia’s national curriculum, along with a coalition of 105 indigenous groups. They see education as central to their centuries-long struggle to reclaim their ancestral lands and to hold on to their culture, values and language.

‘The dominant education system in Colombia is top-down,’ explains Elmer Ademar Ruano Arias, a fellow indigenous teacher.

‘In this system, everything is de-contextualized,’ adds Lidia. ‘It creates disharmony among our people. They want to make everyone think in the same way, wear the same clothes, eat the same food. But they don’t take our land into account and the value of each individual. The system needs to be adapted to the needs of different communities.’

The coalition has developed the ‘Territorial Educational Project’ as a way to incorporate indigenous knowledge into mainstream schools for their children.

‘This is our chance to de-institutionalize knowledge, and take it to other spaces that you find in everyday life,’ says Fernando Guerrero, a community facilitator. A series of meetings, community assemblies and get-togethers have produced a document with guiding principles – a sort of indigenous education charter:

‘When we see that our land is our mother – a living organism that gives us food, protects us, guides us, and teaches us – that’s when culture becomes dynamic,’ they write ‘and that is where we can start to do our own readings both of our reality and other cultures.’

The coalition propose that their educational themes and approach are worked into research, practical projects and community action.

As they understand it, their very cultural survival is at stake.

‘Our elders are the guardians of our memory. From the elders we learn about the history of our land and how food is prepared. We walk our land, listen to the sounds of the mountain, páramo (alpine tundra) and jungle.

‘Without this knowledge, in the future we will have a weak education without memory. We will have a sick homeland where seeds of life and our generations to come will have no traditions – an empty space in history.’

‘We need to pass on our customs and law and way of life just as our grandparents did,’ says Lidia. ‘We need to pass on the pride of being Indian.

‘If we don’t change the way we are educated by the state, we are facing cultural genocide.’

The Pasto community shot this film as part of a participatory video project with Insight Share.

New Internationalist is now the world’s biggest media co-operative

made it.jpg

New Internationalist is now a 3,400+ members strong co-operative.

Hazel Healy looks back on the community share offer that has raised £700,000.

When I last wrote, we were walking on air. New Internationalist had just met our £500,000 target for our community share offer, with four days left to run on our Crowdfunder.

Then, something even more astonishing happened. The campaign took on a life of its own. We stretched the target to £650,000 and flew past it, alighting finally on the figure of £704,114 as the offer closed.

By this point, I was grasping for metaphors. We’d ‘climbed the summit’, ‘gone through the roof’ and now perhaps we’ve gone into orbit and are slowly circling the earth. This incredible level of support, which has taken us a clear 40 per cent in excess of our original target of £500,000 has surpassed our greatest expectations.

We are immensely grateful to all our supporters. By this we mean both those who invested personally and those who spread the word on social media and out in the real world, championing the cause of a better media and helping to secure the future of New Internationalist.

It’s early days for analysis but some things we do know. We now have 3,409 co-owners and 75 per cent of people put in £50-£100. This is truly a movement of ordinary people. With important implications for our business, as flagged by new owner Sam Turner, on Twitter.

Our owners are all ages and come from all walks of life. They range from (in his words) a ‘seasoned old timer of 80 who has been supporting the NI since the 1970s’ and young activists who have just come across us. Our youngest is an 11 year old, who was bought shares in trust by their grandmother, and the oldest owner is 98.

There’s romance in our story too. One couple bought each other shares for a 24-year wedding anniversary gift.

And our supporters are of course now part of our organization – it’s a union of sorts. As one new owner wrote: ‘Delighted for you (or should I say “us”!).’ These next few years will be uncharted territory as we embark on this great democratic challenge, blurring the boundaries between readers, owners and journalists. But all that is yet to come.

At last count, these bold media pioneers hail from 42 countries across the globe. Concentrated in our subscriber heartlands of the UK, Canada, US, Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa, our new owners can also be found everywhere from Alaska to Papua New Guinea. Do take a look at our zoomable map to see where the internationalists live:

The bedrock of our support has come from ordinary people – 75 per cent of investors put in £100 or less. But our cause was also picked up by movers and shakers in the worlds of culture, media and politics, with backing and endorsements from journalists such as John Pilger and Lindsey Hilsum, writer and performer AL Kennedy, and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

So here we are. Audience-owned, fully capitalized and in a position to put ambitious plans into action: we will now be able to embrace new technologies, revamp our magazine and build the book publishing and Ethical Shop arms of our business.

These are exciting times, full of possibility. Our socially conscious journalism will now reach more people than ever before – at a time when it has never been more needed.

For anyone who has closely tracked this campaign, you may be suffering withdrawal symptoms, as I am.

The hours after campaign-close on Thursday evening found me helplessly refreshing the Crowdfunder page – like shaking an unresponsive corpse. (Feeling a bit better today, thanks.)

If you’d like to re-live the Crowdfunder dream you can always read some of the press coverage we’ve picked up along the way.

I feel strangely sad to say goodbye but I have to remind myself that – unlike other crowdfunders that aren’t selling community shares that bestow ownership – this is just the beginning.

To be continued...


As we were. New Internationalist staff mark the end of the Crowdfunder. Now with 3,400 owners, next time they are going to need a bigger pub.

If you missed out on investing go to factsandheart.org to see other ways you can support the work of New Internationalist.

New Internationalist smashes through £500K Crowdfunder target

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© New Internationalist

With three days to go, there’s still time to be part of this success story, says co-editor Hazel Healy.

Readers, we did it!

At 10.06 on Sunday night, 32 days into our Crowdfunder, we hit our £500,000 target. It was an amazing moment. This bright springtime Monday morning finds us elated here at New Internationalist – this is a roaring endorsement of all that our magazine has achieved over its 44-year history and what it will now go on to be.

It’s a hugely exciting and transformative moment for us as a co-operative, but also a great uplift for the principles we all share. The success of this Crowdfunder demonstrates that thousands of people do care about the lives of others, thousands of miles away – and are fiercely committed to independent journalism that helps us to understand the world – and change it. In the words of one new co-owner: ‘turns out hope conquers fear, after all.’

Setting off on this journey was daunting, to say the least. Speaking to people during the course of this campaign more than one person asked politely – why did you set the target so high? By our calculations, half-a-million was the minimum we need to turn our business round. If that was a mountain to climb, we have now launched off in a glider, as we are now heading for a £600,000 stretch-target.

Why the stretch? The funds we have raised this far mean that New Internationalist will be able not just to continue, but to do more. This means more ground-breaking multimedia such as our After Ebola project, shortlisted by the One World Media awards just this week.

It means more coverage of communities at the heart of the struggle to save our environment, such as this one, whose story reached over 12 million during the Paris climate talks. And more magazines that uncover what’s really going on in the world, like The Coming War on China by John Pilger.

Anything more we are able to raise between now and 6 April will help us get our socially conscious journalism out to even more people and bolster our long-term prospects. Specifically, we can funnel more resources to key areas such as website development and editorial staff time, and expand the reach of our publishing in books, print and online.

As I write, things are speeding up. We have now passed £528,000. And there’s still time for people to come on board and join in with this democratic media experiment – for 3 more days. So do please check out our video on factsandheart.org, read our Business Plan and Offer, and see if this is something you would like to get behind.

If there is one stand-out fact in this campaign so far, it’s this: almost all pledges have come from ordinary people. The largest cheque, for £10,000, came in on Monday from a retired professor in Finland, who has subscribed for the past 30 years.

It feels as if we are breaking new ground. This truly is people-powered media that is defying the trend of media concentration and clickbait journalism. Our independence has always allowed us to tell stories the way they are meant to be told – without voyeurism and without spin.

It turns out that’s the thing that our supporters value most. I’d like to finish this campaign update with some of the reasons that our investors have given for choosing to become co-owners:

‘Because accurate, values-led journalism has never been so important.’

‘NI goes where the mainstream media fear to tread and holds the rich and powerful to account.’

‘Always impressive, always challenging. Always on the right side. Long may your voice be heard.’

New Internationalist Community Share Offer goes global

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West Papuan independence activist Benny Wenda explaining his experience with New Internationalist.

In under a month, New Internationalist’s innovative community share offer has already raised more than £390,000 of our £500,000 target. The number of New Internationalist co-owners has swelled from 800 to more than 1,800 people — and we’re thrilled to discover that they come from over 30 countries worldwide. As you can see in our interactive map, we’re becoming a truly global movement!


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Our new members continue to post wonderful comments on the Crowdfunder page. Quite tickled by this one, from Philip:

New Internationalist, though quite different, ranks with the New York Times as one of the best publications on the planet.

We’ve also had a few company investors, including Ethical Consumer magazine, come on board.

It already feels quite different to be part of a co-op made up of thousands, rather than 18 people. It was amazing to bump into some of our new investors face to face at the anti-racism march in London last Saturday, whilst handing out flyers.

I get the strong sense that New Internationalist will be able to achieve so much more with all of you behind us.

So let’s get over the finish line! The race is on to raise the remaining £100,000 by 6 April. If you haven’t invested yet, please consider doing so as soon as possible – we only have 10 days to go. If you can't invest or you have already, here's some simple ways to spread the word:

  • Share these ready-made messages as a Tweet or Facebook post.

  • Or cut and paste this one:
    Along with over 1800 people, I’m helping create the media I want to see. Visit factsandheart.org to join and share to spread the word!

  • Or this one:
    If you believe in more honest, independent media, invest in the New Internationalist and you can now be part of the change you want to see. Join over 1800 people all helping to build a better media at factsandheart.org. Share/Retweet to spread the word!

  • You can find more sample Tweets, social media posts and images to share (like the one below) on the factsandheart.org resources page.

    Invest in New Internationalist social media sharable

  • Send an email to family and friends. We've written some sample text that you can copy-paste.

  • If you’d like to print and stick up a flyer at work, in the staff room, or through a neighbour's door you can download flyers like the ones below. And if you’ve got an event coming up where people like journalism with integrity, email us at [email protected] and we can post you some printed flyers.

    Sample flyers for New Internationalist Community Share Offer

  • In a union or a political party? Maybe you could share the news about our share offer at the next branch meeting?

  • Organizations can invest too – are there any businesses you know who may like to join our co-operative?

Support grows

The campaign continues to attract support from political and cultural movers and shakers such as Icelandic Pirate Party MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir who had this warm endorsement for New Internationalist.

Media Attention

We’ve more from the press, including posts on the anti-privatization campaign site We Own It, The Bookseller, and Ethical Consumer Magazine, an interview on BBC Oxford (our 15-min interview comes in at 2:08 pm) and coverage in Publishers Weekly.

It’s make or break time now. We know campaigns hit a slump in the middle but with £100k still to go, we cannot afford to slow down. Let’s give it all we’ve got! Invest now at: factsandheart.org

‘We’ve never had a benefactor... It made sense to turn to our readers’

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New Internationalist co-editor Hazel Healy and Web Editorial Assistant Alessio Perrone.

What prompted New Internationalist to go down this road?

It felt like we had to do something big. Our paid subscriptions have dropped in recent years, in line with print’s decline worldwide. And that’s been a big knock for a small, independent company like ours.

At the same time, things are starting to look up. Magazine circulation has grown this year, digital sales are increasing – and we are reaching many more millions, through our website, than we could have dreamed of when this magazine was born 44 years ago.

So, we are at a point where we have a plan for how to turn things around, and where we need this uplift to get back up on to higher ground. We’ve never had a benefactor – obviously an oligarch is out of the question. It made sense to turn to our readers and others who share their values through this Community Share Offer.

Is now a good time for this?

Absolutely. With President Trump wreaking havoc in the US and the spread of fake news and zero-sum nationalism, there has never been a greater need for journalism like ours. It’s a frightening time: progressive voices urgently need to be heard; we need to be breaking out of the leftwing echo-chamber and reaching a bigger audience. The share offer will help us to do that.

There are many challenges ahead – climate change and yawning inequality to name but two. To handle what’s coming we need knowledge – not clickbait.

We need journalism that brings people together; that makes the point that we rise or fall together. This is what internationalism – and our journalism – is all about.

The public is more on board with the idea of bolstering good media. Journalism projects on the funding site Kickstarter raised over $6 million last year and over 20 per cent of those funded were established media organizations like ours.

And our subscribers are quite special – ‘idealistic, energetic and concerned about the lives of people thousands of miles away’, in the words of former co-editor Dexter Tiranti.

They stepped in for us once before, in 1975, when the oil crisis doubled the price of postage in one year. Cheques rolled in from educationalists, NGOs, individuals from across the world. Today, we have tens of thousands pledged already. It definitely feels like the right time for us to do this.

Can you explain what a community share offer is?

Say there is a community asset – like a windfarm or local shop or football club – that you want to set up or save. Well, you can do it through a community share offer.

It’s been catching on in recent years, enabling people to club together to create or support businesses with a social benefit.

If things go to plan, you may even get interest on your investment. But it is more that you buy a share to invest in the kind of world you’d like to live in.

'We write about others coming together to change things; now it’s our turn'

A world – for example – with a flourishing New Internationalist in it, producing quality journalism that makes the case for a more equal world and gets progressive political ideas out to new audiences.

In our share issue, anyone over 16 can buy shares. And a small shareholder will have just as much power as a large one.

Won’t that be a major shift in power dynamics?

It is a big, bold offer to give away power, yes. When our supporters invest, they become the joint custodians of our mission, charged with keeping us on track and ensuring that New Internationalist can never deviate from its founding principles as laid down in our Editorial Charter.

We have converted into a co-operative society, which allows for multiple stakeholders and gives us new mechanisms such as a Common Council, as a more active forum for engaging with content and direction in the company.

It will be a big cultural shift for us – as a workers’ co-operative – but there’s a certain logical progression there, too. We were founded by Peter and Lesley Adamson, then owned by the workers and now by our readers and supporters.

It’s a way to truly democratize the media and do something big ourselves – we write about others coming together to change things; now it’s our turn.

So, what makes New Internationalist special – what do you do that others don’t do?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the past six months. I’ve drawn on readers’ letters and testimonials in the process – to understand what it is people value about us.

Our readers often talk about our attention to facts, the opportunity to go in-depth into a subject (which of course we love as journalists and editors). Then there is also the way we tell our stories – giving people a dignified platform. Never talking down to our readers.

And, the way we bring to life the realities of people thousands of miles away connects us to one another in way that a mainstream-media piece about, say, ‘100 girls undergo female genital mutilation in a day’ will never do.

The final factor that sets us apart is, of course, our concern with justice – knowing that the way things are is neither natural nor inevitable. We lay out alternatives and introduce the people working to change things for the better.

We have distilled all that into the campaign slogan ‘Buy into a Better Story’ with the tagline ‘facts and heart’ – which was actually based on a comment from a Canadian subscriber about the Ebola magazine in June last year.

You are going for £500,000 ($635,000) and this is an all-or-nothing campaign on Crowdfunder. If you don’t raise the money you will have to return what you raise. Why the radical step?

We got to this target after a lot of number-crunching. And we think this is the minimum we need to turn our business round, scale up and flourish into the future.

You have to remember that a share offer is substantively different to a funding drive – which says ‘fund us to continue doing what we do’. In this case, we are saying ‘invest in us, to help transform our organization’.

With that sum, we will relaunch the magazine, hugely increase our digital output and grow our book publishing and Ethical Shop social enterprise. Anything less will only be a sticking plaster. See factsandheart.org for the full business plan…

OK. I’m in – I want to buy into a better story! How do I invest?

Excellent question! Go to factsandheart.org or call us on +44(0) 1865 413304 (UK) or (613) 826 1319 (Canada/US)

Before you go...

It’s a critical time to build media that brings people together – not drives them apart. That means journalism that creates an inclusive global community, and emphasizes that the struggles of people are often in opposition to the same elite-driven globalization and share the same aspiration to a global, common good.

At New Internationalist, we have never had a rich benefactor or a media tycoon bankrolling what we do. So it makes sense for us to turn to our readers to help shape the kind of journalism that makes the case for something better.

On 1 March, we launched an ambitious Community Share Offer, opening up ownership of New Internationalist to ordinary people all over the world. If you are interested in joining us, visit factsandheart.org.

Jeremy means Jeremy – and so, to work

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Parliamentary politics and social movements converged at the Momentum fringe festival at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool. by Hazel Healy

While the parliamentary Labour Party licks its wounds, the rank and file are inspired, practical and focused on the business of winning elections. Hazel Healy reports from the Labour conference.

Heather Reilly rushes up, out of breath, waving a selfie with Jeremy Corbyn on her phone. The 25-year-old lawyer got the snap as Corbyn did the rounds of the stands in the exhibition hall on day two of the Labour Party conference on the Liverpool docks.

‘I see the effects of the bedroom tax and cuts to welfare every day – it breaks my heart,’ she says. ‘Jeremy is the only politician who represents the end of austerity, that’s what’s so exciting about him.’

This is her first Labour Party conference. She doesn’t just identify with his policies, she thinks he can win. ‘My brother’s 16 and he can’t wait to vote for Jeremy in 2020. He has engaged a whole new generation of young people that will hopefully vote Labour for the rest of lives.’

For all his unpopularity among his own parliamentarians, Corbyn has swollen the Labour ranks by over 400,000 – making this the largest party in Western Europe

Corbyn’s superstar status since his re-election as Labour party leader with 62 per cent of the vote, two days previously, has also spread to other members of the shadow cabinet. I overhear an older Labour party member whisper to a friend with reverence: ‘I touched John McDonnell! He said thank you.’

John McDonnell, Labour Party MP, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Hazel Healy

But if some are still in the first flush since Corbyn’s surprise election to the party last year, others are settling down to make the relationship work.

The mood on the conference floor on Monday among the party faithful – even those that voted for challenger Owen Smith – seemed to be more of relief that the bitter leadership contest is settled, than rancour.

Retired engineer Tony Lees, the chair of the Constituent Labour party in Maldon Essex is sitting quietly after a ‘shake up your branch meeting’ training session. He voted for Smith, but bears Corbyn no ill will.

‘I’m not about to resign from the party,’ he says. ‘Corbyn’s principles are fine and genuine. I was disappointed that MPs don’t support him more.’

He has seen Labour party membership double over the past year to reach 300 in Maldon – a solid Conservative stronghold since 1955 – but regrets that meetings seem to be stuck at 30. He’s taking a practical approach, planning on attending another session on ‘retaining, engaging and inspiring’ new members later this afternoon.

And the new members continue to flood into the party. For all his unpopularity among his own parliamentarians, since Corbyn became leader in 2015, he has swollen the Labour ranks by over 400,000 – making this the largest party in Western Europe.

One of these new members is Mika Minio Paluello. She has spent the last 15 years involved in climate change and anti-war activism and has come to the conference to influence energy policy.

‘I used to feel that decision-making processes in the party were very top down and hierarchical. Trying to influence Labour felt the same as putting pressure on the Tories,’ she says. ‘Now it’s different, there’s a lot more openness. It feels like we should seize our opportunity.’

She is also now a branch officer for Walthamstow, breathing new life into meetings with film screenings and debates. ‘Meetings in Walthamstow used to number less than 10. Now we have 50 people plus.’

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Momentum conference. Hazel Healy

Up the road at the World Transformed event organized by Momentum – the grassroots group that has sprung up in support of Corbyn – there are queues snaking round the block for sessions to debate Proportional Representation, tackle austerity and re-nationalize the NHS.

The festival is run like clockwork by young graduates in blue T-shirts. There’s not a Socialist Worker paper in sight.

Labour Party members and activists are rubbing shoulders – a slip stream, a new space has opened up in the wake of Corbyn’s renewed mandate.

The media has cottoned on, they’re here in force – The Guardian, Independent, Spectator – an unusual sight at an activist fringe event. With a Trot exposè proving elusive they are running humorous pieces on leftwing paraphernalia, and, maybe, just maybe, starting to take this movement seriously.

‘In the past, it used to be people protesting outside the conference,’ muses Colin Chalmers from Twinning Against Austerity at a Spanish tapas bar across the road. ‘Now there’s a new generation of activists who are joining the Labour Party. This is something new.’

‘People are talking to each other,’ agrees Hilary Wainright, the editor of Red Pepper magazine. ‘There is a new level of confidence to bring about change.’

This enthusiasm is also felt on the streets of Liverpool. ‘I really do think Corbyn could get Labour elected, there’s an unbelievable amount of older people who are rejoining,’ says taxi driver Brian Harding.

He believes Corbyn’s anti-austerity message is starting to be heard by the people on the hard edge of Conservative cuts. ‘All you’ve got to do is look at the food banks. I’ve known people who’ve gone days without food so they can feed their kids,’ he say. ‘Seeing Jeremy has given people hope – it’s something different. That’s what people have wanted for years. And they are starting to fight back.

The young lawyer Heather Reilly expects MPs hostile to Corbyn to fall in line. ‘They’ve had their say but the members have spoken. The backstabbing has to stop.’

This doesn’t feel like a protest party – the accusation levelled at Corbyn by his critics. This feels like a party coming of age, in metamorphosis – a party of possibility.

Hazel Healy is co-editor of New Internationalist magazine.

After Ebola – in pictures

EbolaPhoto09 - Holding a photo

by Hazel Healy

The world’s media has moved on but people in Sierra Leone are still living with the consequences of the most deadly outbreak of Ebola in history. In this photo gallery, we look at out how they are coping, two years on. Photos and text by Hazel Healy unless otherwise stated.

A promise

Above, Alhassan Kemokai holds a picture of his mother, Madame Basheratu Kemokai who caught Ebola at Kenema Hospital. She was one of more than 40 hospital staff to die at Kenema – site of Sierra Leone’s only isolation ward – which, in the early days of the epidemic, was overwhelmed by cases. On her death bed, she took the hands of her eldest son in hers and told him he should not forget his younger siblings; Alhassan survived Ebola to find himself at the head of a vastly expanded family.

‘We are jam packed!’

The family of Alhassan Kemokai (pictured centre) grew exponentially from two boys, aged 2 and 9, to 17 orphaned children and young adults from his extended family (front row: left to right: Titi (3), Alhassan (31), Kumba, Alhassan’s girlfriend, and Mansoor their son (2), backrow left to right- Zeinab (12), Kumba’s sister who has been drafted in to help, Halima (9), Issatu (17) and Agustin (11)). Alhassan, is energized, and coping – just – thanks to a job at German NGO Welthungerhilfe, but talks of a ‘deficit every blessed month!’ and worries that he may have to give up the youngest child (his niece Titi, on his lap) for adoption. Alhassan is still plagued by aches and pains and advocates for other survivors in the district of Kenema, Sierra Leone to help them access promised free health care.

Sharing is not easy

Kumba Kendema absorbed nine children orphaned by Ebola from her partner Alhassan Kemokai’s family. ‘When they call me mother it makes me happy – we treat them all equally,’ she says. ‘I want them to feel they are our own.’ Her two-year-old son Mansoor, pictured, is less pleased about sharing his parents, she admits, and tries to keep the other children away from her. She baulked at the added responsibility at first but friends talked her into staying put, convincing her that things will change. And so she shouldered this formidable domestic burden – laundry alone takes 3-4 hours a day – drafting in her sister, and aunt (pictured below) to help.

Satta and Paul

Not all orphans have a solid foundation to fall back on. Ebola survivors Satta (3) and Paul (6) are now being cared for solely their 22-year-old aunt Serah, who is also bringing up five other cousins, in Koindu, Kailahun district the early epicentre of Ebola. Both children suffer Ebola after effects, with chronic eye problems and relapses into fever. Serah has been unable to finish her own schooling or find work, and relies on a charity Smile With Us to feed and educate the seven children in her care, which it does entirely through donations raised by the Sierra Leonean diaspora in the US and Australia. The charity Street Child estimates that over 12,000 children have lost their primary care giver to Ebola, and over 3,200 have lost both parents.

Back to school

Ebola spread haphazardly through Sierra Leone, devastating some areas but skipping others altogether. The remote small town of Kamakwie in the northern Bombali district had just one positive case, after local communities organized an Ebola task force, support by the NGO Health Poverty Action, to keep the disease at bay. But residents country-wide were all affected by measures to stamp out the virus, such as closing down schools for a year. At the time of this photo, 14-year-old Andrew Kayo (pictured above, known as City Boy as he comes from the capital Freetown) was prepping for an exam the following week, struggling to catch up on a year of missed schooling. Pictured below, Mariama Kamera, Balza Sesey and Mbulu Kamara.

Picking up the pieces

Laurence Ivil

Elizabeth Katta has taken charge of the baby boy of her 14-year-old sister who became pregnant during Ebola. Her sister is one of many girls exposed to sexual exploitation during the financial hardships of Ebola when teenage pregnancy jumped as much as 60 per cent in some areas, according to research by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium. Elizabeth’s intervention means that her sister has been able to stay in school – but one far from home. ‘My sister loves Munda, she rings for news of him every day,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But she was so ashamed the father did not recognize his son that she has gone to live with another sister, and studies 100km away.’

Rebuilding trust

Maternal health promoters Fatu Bangura, Foudea Turay and Memuna Bangura (left to right), who are trained and supported by Health Poverty Action, spent a month visiting villages to persuade pregnant women and nursing mothers to return to their clinic in Kamakwie. Sierra Leone already has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates and during the outbreak at least five women in the area died in childbirth after shunning the clinic for fear of infection. But on the day of the photo, Fatu was satisfied their work had hit its target. ‘People know us – and respect us, they listen to us,’ she explained. The previous day had seen a full house of breastfeeding mothers, and 65 immunizations against measles, BCG and yellow fever.

They brought us on board too late

Pa Mohamed Sesay is a paramount chief and head of a secret society in Makeni. Responsible for performing traditional burials, the societies inadvertently helped spread of the disease by washing and burying the dead when the bodies of Ebola victims were highly infectious. But after influential society members were engaged in the Ebola response and trained by Health Poverty Action, the secret burials stopped and people began to hand over their sick to the Red Cross. Sesay always believed in the disease. He says community resistance came partly from poor messaging saying Ebola had no cure. ‘People said, “why would I bother going to the hospital, if I go there to die?”’. He is anxious to perform rites and bless those who died while traditional ceremonies were banned, so they can have eternal rest.

Surviving stigma

During the outbreak, many Ebola survivors were ostracized by communities afraid of catching the virus. Nine-year-old granddaughter Christina (second on the left) was rejected by her school mates until a teacher Joseph Ali Kanu – who was trained by Health Poverty Action as a ‘psycho social’ worker to help reintegrate survivors – won them round by hugging Christina whenever he could declaring: ‘this is my school girl! She’s your sister – your friend!’. Christina’s grandmother, Esther Turay (pictured centre) fell sick after her husband Agustin, a community health worker died from Ebola, swiftly followed by her six-year-old grandson and her son, a miner, who was also the family breadwinner. Ester is struggling to make ends meet: she has suffered chronic joint pain since Ebola, and is unable to do her previous work of making bread and farming; government help for survivors has dried up.

Seeking closure: The final resting place

Biosafety imperatives rode roughshod over social rites during Ebola, especially during its peak, with loved ones buried far from home, sometimes in unmarked graves. Families, who were left ignorant of the fate or final resting place of the sick who were taken away, are still trying to trace their dead. Mariama B Jalloh lost her father and 27 other relatives when Ebola ravaged her hometown of Kumala in northeast Sierra Leone. He was taken to a treatment centre hundreds of kilometres away, where he died alone. Eighteen months later, she came in search of his body in an overgrown, neglected Ebola graveyard in the southern city of Bo.

Grave 187

Mariama Jalloh collected her father’s death certificate from the council with the number 187 of his grave. After hours of searching (‘it felt like a disaster, I nearly lost hope’) she found the faded stick (pictured above) in the chaotic burial site with the help of a gravedigger who remembered where her father was buried from the date of his death. She arrived just in time. But it will soon be too late for hundreds of other families – unable to afford the journey to distant graveyards such as this one – to find the graves of their loved ones as temporary markers fall away from graves, and with them the only means of identifying them as someone’s lost child, mother or brother.

‘I feel he is with me’

Laurence Ivil

After Mariama bought a permanent metal marker, gravediggers cleared the soil around the grave of her father, Alhaji Musa Jalloh, and prayed with her. ‘I was able to say the prayers that you must say when a Muslim dies in Sierra Leone,’ she said. ‘I asked god to take care of him, the way he took care of me when I was small. I felt closer to him, I felt he could see me.

‘When my father died so far from home it caused my family great pain. They did not bury him with respect. Now that I have identified him, my family can come – they will not need to suffer as I have.’

Offering solace

Michael Duff

Moved by the distress of families like Mariama’s, the charity Concern Worldwide took over ‘safe and dignified burials and body management’ in and around the capital Freetown, in October 2014. Over the next 18 months, their workers would dig more than 16,300 graves at the cemeteries Kingtom (pictured above) and Waterloo, each grave marked with a permanent headstone. Families trying to trace those who died still arrive daily; Concern – which was recognized by the EU for its Ebola response work – has also bussed people in from nearby villages and run radio jingles inviting families. Unlike the forgotten burial site in Bo, on arrival in Kingtom mourners are given a condolence card, with a name and number. ‘It’s good to be able to offer some solace in the face of so much sorrow,’ says Fiona McLysaght, Concern Country Director in Sierra Leone. ‘We had a survivor looking just last week for their grandchildren, daughter and son-in-law. When someone has lost most of their family, you can at least make sure they are able to find the graves.’

Known unto God

Michael Duff

During the fear-filled, chaotic early days of Ebola, many bodies that came for burial could not be identified; some were buried in mass graves. They were those who had come to clinics already sick and delirious, or had died on arrival. They were the unaccompanied under-fives or those people whose bodies were found in the street. In Kingtom cemetery in the capital Freetown, there are 665 unnamed graves marked only as ‘known to god’ that date back to this time. If bereaved families have the date of the death of a loved one, Concern Worldwide’s Family Liaison Officers are often able to pinpoint the area of the graveyard that the person is buried in, so that, even if there is no named headstone, families have a place where they can come to pray.

All the children

Michael Duff

Stillborn babies and under-fives accounted for almost half the burials in Kingtom and Waterloo cemeteries, highlighting the inherent weakness of Sierra Leone’s health system. Not all deaths were due to Ebola, but during the outbreak all burials had to be treated as suspicious and be carried out in 24 hours. Since November 2015, normal, non-medical burials are allowed again, but all dead bodies are still swabbed and four burial teams are still on standby for suspicious cases.

‘The best gift is to be alive’

A brilliant young army medic, Boie Jalloh, ran an Ebola Treatment Centre (ETU) on the outskirts of Freetown, just months after completing medical school. He went on to treat 1,000 patients at the ETU – which was set up and run by Sierra Leoneans and had impressive survival rates – and has since won a presidential award. Despite the suffering he witnessed, he says the epidemic changed him in a good way – ‘I am more humble. And I appreciate life more now – I was sure I would not escape Ebola.’ Jalloh will go abroad to specialize in infectious diseases but will return home – refusing to join the exodus of trained professionals seeking better opportunities in the industrialized word. ‘We are the most experienced people in the world [at fighting Ebola],’ he says. ’I love my country, but also I will have more responsibilities here. Elsewhere, as a noncitizen you only go so far.’

Moving on

‘I’m looking for a loving, caring man – with money,’ says Mabinti, pictured here doing Kadikadi’s hair before a community dance organized by the women’s group of Magazine Wharf, a former Ebola hotspot, one of Freetown’s largest slums and source of the last cases in the capital. The group of smoked-fish sellers has called the first dance since the time of Ebola ‘Pick someone up’. ‘We want to talk together, eat together and dance – for our good health,’ says Kadikadi, who is being filmed for the Back in Touch digital feature.

‘People are very excited that Ebola has gone,’ says citizen reporter Mohamed S Camara, whose mother is one of the organizers. ‘Women have a hard life, they need to relax. Tonight is about dancing, and forgetting.’

The After Ebola project was a partnership with On Our Radar supported by the European Journalism Centre’s Innovation in Development Reporting grant programme.

It funded an investigation in our June 2016 magazine into the humanitarian response to Ebola, as well as the Back in Touch webdoc by citizen reporters, which has been nominated for the AIB Media and Lovie awards.

Did we learn the right lessons from Ebola?

Nurse in Sierra Leone

Nurse Nafisatu Jabbi worked throughout the Ebola outbreak in a remote community clinic. The sole survivor of her four-woman team, she is currently working for free while she waits to go on to the government pay roll. © Hazel Healy

The final day of Sierra Leone’s most recent ‘Ebola-free countdown’ in March 2016 coincided with news of a fresh incidence of the killer disease in neighbouring Guinea. A mix of scientists and government officials were picking over the lessons learned from the epidemic at a symposium in the capital Freetown.

‘The WHO [World Health Organization] can stop announcing that we are “free of Ebola”, said Professor Radcliffe Lisk, vice-president of the West African College of Physicians. ‘It is absolutely futile and irrelevant, considering what happened in Guinea yesterday. You can only be free of an epidemic.’

‘We should talk of when, not if,’ agreed Tina Davies from Sierra Leone’s ministry of welfare. A row of grim faces on the platform suggested that everyone knows they are in this for the long haul.

Sierra Leone has learnt the hard way – after over 14,000 infections and nearly 4,000 dead. There is resolve: ‘Let us understand one thing,’ says Stephen Ngoujah from Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response Co-ordination (NERC). ‘The scope and magnitude of this epidemic will not happen again.’

For now, Sierra Leone is on high alert. The virus is known to linger on in the bodies of survivors and can be sexually transmitted. Dead bodies are still being swabbed, a skeletal response infrastructure is still in place. But how do we keep West Africa safe from this – and other epidemics – in the future?

The answers have less to do with medicine than you might think. The first place to look for them is in the nature of the response to the outbreak, which allowed things to spiral out of hand.

A botched response

Sierra Leoneans are no strangers to deadly disease: life expectancy, at just 46, is one of the lowest in the world and one in ten children do not live past five. But the Ebola virus was different, in part due to its terrifying 60-per-cent mortality rate and the way that it killed. This was a disease spread by love – through those who cared for the sick. It wiped out entire families in one fell swoop, especially in the early days.

Deaths were undignified, often delirious. Households were cut off from one another, all social gatherings banned and people went hungry, quarantined in their homes and neighbourhoods. No-one escaped the economic impact of the stringent measures put in place to stop it – restrictions on movement that brought trade and agriculture to a standstill.

‘It’s not easy to forget my colleagues. The ones who lost their lives weren’t even being paid’

We’ve known about Ebola since 1976, but the previous 26 outbreaks – mostly in Congo and Uganda – were brought under control within three months. The failure to contain it successfully in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea this time has prompted a slew of soul-searching – and at times anguished – reports from medical and multilateral institutions and NGOs. They concur on a chronic lack of leadership from the WHO, and accuse national governments of being painfully slow to act. (The WHO, in turn, blames its inertia on deep budget cuts.)

The Sierra Leonean government now openly admits that it was not prepared. Even though, in the words of Stephen Ngoujah, they ‘knew it was coming’. In March 2014, when the first cases crept in, Ebola had been slowly spreading through neighbouring Guinea and Liberia since the beginning of the year. With just 136 doctors for 6.2 million people, a dearth of hospitals, equipment or centralized logistics, Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health didn’t stand much of a chance.

But instead of admitting that it could not cope, four months of unproductive high-level meetings ensued. Repeated, frantic warnings from Médicins Sans Frontières – the first NGO to respond – were ignored. It would be five more months, and nearly 1,000 deaths, before the WHO declared Ebola an international health emergency that would prompt the influx of funds and resources to help bring the virus under control.

Spreading fear

In 2014, the Ebola haemorrhagic virus spread through West Africa. It was the longest, and most widespread outbreak in history, killing more than all past episodes combined. Check out our fact spread on how Ebola impacted Sierra Leone.

In the early days of the epidemic, public health messages were confused. Perhaps the most pernicious message was that Ebola had no cure. This served to reduce trust and confidence in an already dysfunctional and long-neglected health system and encouraged Ebola sufferers to turn to the supernatural for solutions, seeking cures from traditional healers. The sick would break out of clinics, preferring to take their chances in the bush.

As Shek Ahmed Bobor-Kamera, an emergency programme officer with Christian Aid, explains: ‘The messaging was really bad. It failed to look at culture and tradition and how people respond to situations like this. In our tradition, if one of my people dies, I have to stay with them until the end. The message was: “Don’t touch the sick! There’s no cure!” This is my mother, my child. I have to abandon my child? When they took them, you didn’t see them again – they never came back to report on that person’s progress.’

Shek Ahmed also says the initial emphasis of the Ebola response was too focused on medical solutions (‘it was all “treatment, treatment, treatment!”). The influential locals – faith leaders, traditional healers, mammy queens and paramount chiefs – who were best placed to communicate with people at risk were not involved in the response until far too late. Once communities were enlisted, though, evidence suggests their impact was decisive.1

‘They accepted the message from us: “Ebola will leave us, if you do this,”’ as Moses Escanu, a teacher who was part of a local Ebola task force in Binkolo, Bombali District, explains. He was part of an army of volunteers, supported by Health Poverty Action, who enforced a set of draconian bylaws that stopped movement and forbade hiding sick people, refusing an Ebola test or ‘harbouring strangers’. First thought up by paramount chiefs in Kenema, the bylaws were so effective that the government rolled them out nationally.

‘You couldn’t bring in enough doctors and nurses,’ says Mike McDonald of the Global Health Response and Resilience Initiative. ‘You had to stop the transmission – mathematically, that’s what had to happen to shut down the epidemic. Communities did that themselves.’

Enter the internationals

The global humanitarian response, when it came, midway through the crisis, was truly impressive. Countries from across the world from Togo to Liechtenstein all threw something into the pot, alongside international banks and institutions. The US and Britain were major donors, mobilizing $2.1 billion and $687 million respectively, and by October 2015, $4.6 billion had been disbursed, in grants and loans, according to the Office of the UN Special Envoy on Ebola.

Ground zero: in the words of its paramount chief, Koindu was destroyed first by Sierra Leone’s civil war and then by Ebola. Just across the border from Guinea, the town and surrounding villages were the early epicentre of the virus. An ongoing ban on Sunday trading – instigated to quell the epidemic – has also robbed the town of its main market day and livelihood, leaving the streets quiet and empty.

Hazel Healy

Alongside 39,000 local health workers, and large numbers of surveillance and community mobilization staff, some 1,300 foreign medics took part (including 850 volunteers from other African countries and a delegation of Cubans) and over 1,000 WHO and UN logistics personnel.

It was a generous display of solidarity. But it came too late for many Sierra Leonean health workers, who were working in unprepared, overwhelmed facilities. The World Bank has reported that Ebola killed five per cent of doctors, and seven per cent of nurses and midwives.

Nafisatu Jabbi was the only survivor of her four-woman team, who ran a maternal health post in Koindu, Kailahun district, the early epicentre of the outbreak. ‘It’s not easy to forget your colleagues. The ones who lost their lives were not even being paid,’ she explains. Their situation was not atypical: in Sierra Leone’s chronically underfunded health system, trained nurses are expected to volunteer for years before earning a salary.

Her best friend Mercy was among those who died. It was early May 2014, just days before the first confirmed case. ‘We thought Mercy had cholera. I cleared up her vomit, felt her skin, took her temperature,’ she says. ‘We trained together; we were like sisters.’ Five other nurses they trained with went to visit Mercy when she was sick, and later died. Nafisatu herself never contracted Ebola. With all the other clinic staff either dead, infected or having fled, she ran the centre alone, delivering babies in the morning and staffing an Ebola holding-centre in the afternoon, while caring for Mercy’s three orphaned children. Later she would earn some hazard pay, at $80 per week.

Nafisatu’s experience raises questions around the allocation of resources. The science journalist Amy Maxmen has documented how Save The Children spent an $18.9 million grant from Britain’s overseas aid office DFID to set up an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU). The ETU treated some 280 patients, after opening in stages in November as infections peaked. Staff salaries and living expenses spoke for $12 million of the grant. From all the millions that flowed in, Maxmen found that less than two per cent was earmarked for frontline hospital workers. This imbalance is symptomatic of a wider problem in the humanitarian industry, which tends to exclude the locals. Last year’s World Disasters Report shows that just 1.6 per cent of funding to tackle global crises went to in-country NGOs, while just three per cent went to national states.

‘I felt some foreign agencies prioritized health worker safety over patient care,’ says young military medic Boie Jalloh, specifically in relation to one medical NGO’s policy not to administer intravenous fluids for Ebola patients.2 Jalloh was 29 and less than a year out of medical school when he set up and ran an ETU in a former police training school on the edge of Freetown, where he would go on to treat over 1,000 patients.

‘We needed these people. They did very well. They were very swift at opening ETUs and raising the alarm,’ he says. ‘But if it happened again I would do things differently. By setting the goal as isolating patients, that put people off coming because everyone died.’

Check out Back in Touch our interactive web documentary feature co-produced with On Our Radar. This is just one of 8 in an extraordinary collection of citizen reporters' tales of love, loss and re-connection in post-Ebola Sierra Leone.

Post-Ebola

Ebola has added another layer of trauma to an already fragile society. When the virus hit, Sierra Leone was still recovering from a vicious 10-year civil war that ended in 2002. Some 70 per cent of people lived below the poverty line. The epidemic wiped out a recent financial upswing, with the economy taking a double hit from the trading restrictions, withdrawn investment and blocked foreign trade provoked by Ebola, and the collapsed price of iron ore, a key export.

Eighteen months since the peak of the outbreak, the recovery has barely begun, as any Sierra Leonean will tell you. Both of the country’s main occupations of farming and petty trading suffered in equal measure. The farmers missed two growing seasons. They were forced to eat their seed stock of ground nuts and rice to survive. In a similar fashion, traders were forced to use up their assets, or ‘eat our business money’ as market trader Theresa Jusu put it, becoming unable to start up trade again.

Still, it is Ebola survivors, orphans and their carers who bear the greatest burden. While less stigmatized than in the early days of the disease, some 17,000 survivors across West Africa suffer chronic ill-health, with acute eye conditions, debilitating joint pain and loss of hearing. Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are widespread.

Survivors often double-up as carers for orphaned children. Alhassan Kemokai caught Ebola from his mother Madame Basheratu, who worked at Kenema hospital. As she lay dying, she held out her hands to her eldest son and blessed him. ‘She told me not to forget my younger sisters,’ he recalls, explaining how he survived the disease and emerged to find his belongings burnt – for fear of contamination – and a much larger family to care for. His carefully planned household of two well-spaced children has expanded from four to 17, after he became the breadwinner for seven orphans plus young widows and siblings (aged between 4 and 22).

‘We are jam-packed!’ he says of the new house that he has rented on the edge of town, where the family lives on simple meals of rice and pepper with palm oil while desperately trying to keep all the children in school. He seems at once exhilarated and overwhelmed by the challenge, while his partner, Kumba Kendema, is exhausted by the washing (three to four hours a day) but wants the children to feel they are her own. She has bussed in her mother and aunt to help prepare meals.

Alhassan has a desk job with a German NGO and they are just about surviving – many are not so lucky. But he is not sure how long he can cope, and is considering an offer from a Guinean family to adopt the youngest orphan. Alhassan’s case is typical of many extended families – elastic at the best of times – that have been stretched to the limits by Ebola.

Alhassan Kemokai with his partner Kumba Kendema and their youngest child Masour, who just acquired 11 new siblings after his parents took in the orphaned children of relatives lost to Ebola.

Hazel Healy

Positive changes

Sierra Leoneans will also point out that Ebola has brought some changes for the better. For one thing, the country now has a fledgling mental health service, with 20 nurses operating across all districts who are able to offer counselling and support for some of the many thousands left traumatized.

Standards of hygiene and care in hospitals are also improved. ‘It used to be hard to see a packet of gloves here,’ remarks Mark Ali, the medical officer in charge of a freshly painted emergency ward at Connaught government hospital in Freetown. ‘Now things are easier.’ He is working alongside Kings Sierra Leone Partnership, a British charity that builds up health systems through long term co-development. One positive legacy of Ebola is that Kings has scaled up from a $146,000 per year operation to close to $2.9 million. That means, among other things, that Connaught now has piped oxygen (which has led to a 20-per-cent improvement in mortality rates in the hospital) and a functioning triage system.

Outside the emergency ward, Spanish doctor Marta Lado is standing at the entrance to another Ebola legacy – Sierra Leone’s first infectious diseases isolation unit, which can now serve patients with TB, Lassa fever and cholera. Lado was working as a clinical manager for Kings when Ebola hit, and refused point blank to leave. She cared for over 1,000 patients in an improvised isolation ward at Connaught with a British nurse and a handful of local staff in very difficult conditions. ‘The way I coped with the terrible things that I witnessed is that I stayed on. Now we start to see the real value of partnership,’ she says. ‘The new unit is run entirely by the nurses. Healthcare workers have this new confidence and pride in what they do; they want to improve the hospital. And that came from Ebola. Don’t ask me how, but it did.’

‘It was a steep learning curve but we are all experts now – our clinicians are the most experienced in the world,’ says Boie Jalloh, whose outstanding role in the response won him a presidential award, which he shrugs off. ‘Thousands of others did more than me, in their quiet corners. I am just happy to be alive,’ he says. It is a point of pride to him, however, that the ETU he managed was set up and run by Sierra Leoneans. He wants to see local research capacity enhanced so it is not just international experts presenting papers on Ebola at conferences.

Another unexpected legacy is a more united country with a stronger civil society. ‘We have seen what was possible, we can build solidarity and act together,’ says Fatou Wurie, an activist who runs the Survivor Dream project. ‘We have to hold Sierra Leone to account. It’s not enough to say health or women’s rights is a government priority.’

‘Healthcare workers have this new confidence and pride in what they do – and that came from Ebola’

Meanwhile, the Budget Advocacy Network is pushing for changes in tax regimes for mining companies that would see more money available for public services, and for an IMF debt write-off. They want action on illicit capital flight to the tune of $71 million per year over the past decade. This is money that could and should have been spent on the people of Sierra Leone.3

It’s a civic confidence that will be sorely needed to keep the government on track. Much work lies ahead for a cash-strapped executive whose first challenge is to keep its promise to employ the Ebola health-worker volunteers – or risk losing that expertise and momentum. There is also the small matter of a missing $3 million from the government’s own Ebola response funds, which has yet to be resolved.4 And the authorities will need to fight IMF restrictions if they are to increase public spending.

The road to rebuilding health systems will be a long one. Ebola exposed the intense vulnerability of a country to epidemics when 30 per cent of people are too poor even to seek care. The international spread of Ebola has also turned the world’s attention to the value of shoring up weak health systems and has helped to bring Universal Health Coverage – the dream of free healthcare seen off by IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies of the 1980s and ’90s – back into the frame.

Sierra Leone has taken small steps towards this with its free healthcare initiative for pregnant mothers and the under-fives, launched in 2010, but still has among the highest child and maternal mortality figures in the world. For systemic change, more funders must eschew ‘single-issue’ high-profile diseases and quick fixes, in favour of the more hum-drum business of public health.

The country will need support for some years to come. With $1.6 billion dispersed and over $3 billion pledged in global ‘Ebola recovery’ funds, there is some evidence of international commitment. But it will need to be the right kind of aid that enhances capacity, and builds up national systems. Success, says Shek Ahmed, will come from support ‘that goes direct to local partners or in direct cash transfers – not on expat salaries’.

On high alert, post-Ebola: Nafisatu Jabbi (centre right) at the Koindu community clinic, accompanied by a newly replenished staff team, including Community Health Officer Alfonsus Vandi (centre left).

Hazel Healy

Frontline champions

Back up at Ebola champion Nafisatu’s station in Koindu, a new team of maternal health promoters are in post. She reports that there are more medicines and equipment available – though she is still waiting to go on to the government payroll.

Outside, men are working on an isolation unit and new nurses’ quarters have been built – both evidence of Phase 1 of the government’s plan to upgrade healthcare facilities, post-Ebola.

An energetic Alfonsus Vandi has just taken up the job of Community Health Officer. ‘We’ve got some idea about how to protect ourselves,’ he says, pointing out a biohazard safety box. ‘Infection Prevention Control is now creating an impact. Even the communities have learned!’

Ebola exposed the intense vulnerability of a country where 30 per cent of people are too poor even to seek care

He is full of optimism. He says outreach work by staff is bringing people back to the clinic. Anxious for the ambulance service – currently banjaxed by a sick driver – to come back on line, he talks about how medical supplies should reflect the needs of the area.

The success of his remote outpost will be a key test of an effective decentralized health system, and the ongoing community engagement that will be essential to keep Ebola at bay.

It would be good to think the world has got Vandi’s back. Let’s hope we have learned the right lessons from Ebola. We owe it to the victims, and the people standing guard. Explore our interactive digital feature 'Back in Touch' in collaboration with On Our Radar which tells the stories of life after Ebola

  1. Africa All-Party Parliamentary Group, February 2016. nin.tl/LessonsCommunities.

  2. Read more on this controversy in The New York Times: nin.tl/EbolaDoctorsDividedIVTherapy

  3. Health Poverty Action, 2015. nin.tl/HealthyRevenues

  4. The Guardian, February 2015. nin.tl/NationalAuditorReport

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