Is it the Leeches?

Last week, three professors were honored with the Nobel Prize in Economics – Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Michael Kremer – for their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” In particular, Esther Duflo is someone I have long followed and admired – and as the youngest person to receive the prize, and only the second woman – she is particularly impressive. A fun fact – I read Duflo and Banerjee’s book Poor Economics when I was first in Zambia in 2011.

The team won this award for their work to bring randomized controlled trials to the development world, especially focusing on education and health. And more importantly, when they find promising results, they work to help bring those ideas to scale. While this type of research approach has long been done in social sectors in the U.S. (e.g., my former employer – MDRC!), up until 20 years ago, it was rarely seen in development economics. And it radically changed the landscape – for the first time, people could know whether textbooks help improve student performance (hint – they did not), or whether cameras could improve teacher attendance (fun fact – they did). But more than these individual stories, the three of them upended our assumptions about what we believed to be working, and forced us to question how we knew something was working.

It’s why a decade ago, I was thrilled to accept a job at MDRC where I learned how to set up these studies, how to talk about them, and how to write about them. It’s why six years ago, when I started working for Impact Network, one of my main goals was to make sure we eventually had our own study – so we would know what is working about our programs, and what needs improvement. And it’s why two years ago, we began our partnership with American Institutes for Research, and our 30-school randomized controlled trial evaluation. In a few short weeks, we cannot wait to share those results with the world.

For now though, I want to appreciate the work that these three pioneers did to set the stage for all of those that followed, and for providing a practical roadmap for alleviate global poverty.

“The thing is, if we don't know whether we are doing any good, we are not any better than the Medieval doctors and their leeches. Sometimes the patient gets better, sometimes the patient dies. Is it the leeches? Is it something else? We don't know.”

-- Esther Duflo

[On another note – I highly recommend Duflo’s TED talk -].


Celebration time!


This week, our team commemorated our ten year anniversary in Lusaka with a panel discussion on reaching rural students. I highlighted our findings from our recent evaluation by American Institutes for Research (AIR), and the President of AIR, David Myers, spoke about our partnership and work together to kick-off the event. The team was honored that he was able to join us in Lusaka!

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The highlight – for everyone I’m sure – was the incredible student performances! Ms. Naomi Banda, one of our teachers at Kanyelele, led a group of five students who performed a special poem and songs for our guests. They were outstanding. But more than that, they represented everything that Impact Network has worked to cultivate in each of our 6,000 students – a mastery of language and English, creativity, and a fearlessness to perform in front of a large audience. I could not be more proud of them, and I could not be more proud of our team.


If you educate a girl, you educate the future...

“A period should end a sentence not a girl’s education.” [Pad Project Motto]

Unfortunately, this is not what is happening all over the world – in rural Zambia, where Impact Network works, a period can often upend a young woman’s education completely. Too many girls cannot afford or access sanitary pads, which means that when they get their monthly period they have to turn to unhealthy alternatives like dirty rags and old clothes. On top of the risk of infection, they also have to miss school and the more they miss, the more likely they are to lag behind their male counterparts.

While part of the struggle is financial, girls also need someone they trust to explain what is happening to their bodies. Traditionally in a typical African home, parents have limits on what to share with their children, and young girls are often told to get their knowledge from a grandmother or elder who may not include critical information.


Impact Network saw the need to teach girls how to make their own reusable pads, how to talk about their bodies appropriately, and how to take proper care of themselves. We started workshops to promote menstrual health hygiene, and ensure that girls are not vulnerable to health issues once they hit puberty. Our program is designed for girls’ ages between 14 and 18 – and we also allow space to let the girls share their views, their hopes, and their own unique dreams. We have just expanded this initiative to include all of our upper primary female students, as well as our junior league NetGirls teams. We are looking forward to rolling out the program over the next year!

It is often said, that if you educate a girl, you educate the future – Impact Network is preparing for the future with females at the forefront!

- Chitalu Kaite and Caroline Chibale

I want you to act as if the house is on fire

A couple of short weeks ago, activist Greta Thunberg landed in NYC, from the United Kingdom, in time for Thunberg to attend the UN Climate Action Summit later this month.

But unlike virtually every other attendee from outside the NYC area, she travelled by boat. And not just any boat, a 60 ft racing yacht with solar panels and wind turbines, designed to have zero impact on carbon emissions. And not just any attendee, Thunberg is just 16 years old. And it’s not the first time she’s made waves – earlier this year in Davos, Thunberg arrived after a 30+ hour train journey in contrast to the 1,500 individual private jets.

Thunberg, of course, is a climate change activist, dedicated to reducing her carbon footprint. She started the international movement of climate strikes – starting in August of 2018 during the Swedish elections. She wanted the Swedish government to reduce emissions and protested by sitting outside the Swedish parliament for three weeks straight during the start of her ninth grade in school. After her demonstration gained the spotlight, and after Sweden’s general elections, she started striking every Friday, and over the course of a few months, helped to lead 20,000 students in protests over almost 300 cities.

Thunberg has a long list of accolades, despite her young age. But what started this all was the idea that she could change just one person’s mind about their actions on climate change. As a young girl, she convinced her family to go vegetarian, to stop flying, to buy an electric car, and to reduce their carbon footprint. This involved real changes to her parents’ livelihoods, their families, and their lives. And once she realized she could change them, she thought there was a chance she could change others.

Thunberg is most known for her ability to speak her truth, even to adults, even when it makes them uncomfortable. She recently noted that she has Asperger’s syndrome, and that she thinks of this as her superpower.


Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope, but I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.

Watching her on a recent episode of the Daily Show moved me – as someone who flies a lot, and who doesn’t always think too much of it, I was inspired to try better and try harder to do my part. Her message that we can each be better informed, make better decisions, and do better for one another and for our younger generations is one that I hope we are instilling in each of our 6,000 students.


Losing is how s/he teaches us

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Here in NYC, many people have been engrossed in the US Open, one of the main tennis tournaments in the world. And yesterday, the women’s singles tournament was won by the first Canadian to ever win – Bianca Andreescu (born in my hometown! Go Mississauga!). But today, I’m not actually here just to talk about #SheTheNorth.

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For almost 20 years, Biance Andreescu has been envisioning herself winning against the greatest female player of this era, Serena Williams. Williams won her first title before Andreescu was even born.

The Williams sisters (Serena and Venus Williams) were born in different states, but moved to Compton, California at a young age where they played tennis while being home-schooled by their father, Richard Williams. They later moved to West Palm Beach to attend the tennis academy of Rick Macci for five years – Macci spotted the exceptional talent of the sisters. However, Richard Williams pulled his daughters from the academy, preferring to take it slow and focus on their schooling, and he took over their coaching from then on. Eventually they each went on to become astonishing athletes. Venus Williams, the older sister, became a seven-time Grand Slam title winner in singles, with 22 overall Grand Slam titles. Serena Williams, her younger sister, holds the most major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles combined amongst active players, male or female.

I could go on to list Serena’s accolades, but one thing that has always struck me is how she frames losing:

I’ve grown most not from victories, but setbacks. If winning is God’s reward, then losing is how he teaches us.

These tennis champions know what many champions across the globe know – that you learn more from your losses than you do from your wins. This is true in so many facets of our lives – both physically and mentally. For our 6,000 students, it’s a reminder of how we can turn their frustrations into motivations. It means working with our scholars when they aren’t quite grasping the concepts, and understanding where they have gone wrong. It means seeing their mistakes, learning from them, and turning that process into motivation – so that every time they enter our classrooms, they are training their brains like you train a muscle.

Before this year, Andreescu was ranked 152 in the world, and no one knew who she was. But she carried so much of the spirit and confidence that Serena Williams inspired in a generation.


Doing Right

I recently reread a tribute to Howard W. Jones, Jr. – a “Pioneer of Reproductive Medicine” who died at 104. Jones pushed the boundaries of medicine, and was responsible for the first baby born through in vitro fertilization. But today’s email is not about Dr. Jones at all (despite all of the work he did) – but one of his patients, who arguably made a bigger contribution to science.

In 1951, an African-American woman showed up at Johns Hopkins Hospital because of a knot inside her stomach. At the time, Johns Hopkins was the only hospital in the area that treated black patients, and she had no other options for her care. On January 29th, 1951 she was treated by Dr. Jones who found a lump in her cervix and performed a biopsy, eventually diagnosing her with cancer. As part of her radiation treatment, cells were removed from her cervix (without her permission) and given to a Dr. George Otto Gey. In October of the same year, the woman died – a partial autopsy showing that the cancer had spread throughout her body. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she was just 31 years old.


Unknown to Lacks, her cells did something remarkable – they could be kept alive and grow. At the time, cells created from other cells would only live a short period. Gey was able to isolate a single cell from Lacks’s tumor sample, and multiply it many times over. He named the line HeLa – and because the cells did not die after division, they could be used for conducting scientific experiments. And they were – to date, scientists have grown 20 tons of her cells, and there are close to 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells. Legendary medical advances in various fields have been made possible because of HeLa cells – including the polio vaccine, gene mapping, cancer research, AIDS research, human sensitivities to toxins, the list goes on and on.

Yet, it was not until the 1970s that Henrietta Lacks’s family learned about the removal and reproduction of her cells – they started getting calls to learn about the family’s genetics. By then, HeLa cells had been bought and sold in huge volumes, while her family was kept in the dark. Henrietta Lacks never consented to her cells’ being studied – she was poor, uneducated, and had no idea that the cells had been taken at all. Twenty years later, her family learned about it, and it took another 40 years until her family was included in the decision-making around the cells (the National Institutes of Health came to an agreement with the Lacks family in 2013).

Today, the story of Henrietta Lacks is used in countless classrooms at various levels of education to discuss important ethical issues related to privacy, science, race and class. A few years ago, I read the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [highly recommend, if anyone is looking for a late summer read!]. And something struck me then about the story, and continues to stick out in my mind to this day. It is that doing good is not the same as doing right. Just because HeLa cells went on to save countless lives, it doesn’t negate the unethical way in which they were derived. Johns Hopkins Hospital, a reputable and distinguished institution, has profited billions of dollars from the HeLa cell line, yet descendants of Henrietta Lacks continue to live in poverty. It took 60 years for the medical community to involve Lacks’ family in decisions, as well as formally acknowledge her as the source of the cells. For me, it’s a reminder that even though Impact Network is “doing good”, we also have to make sure we are doing the right thing at every juncture – that we are doing right by our scholars, our families, and importantly, our broader communities.


I'm not trying to kill your dreams...


Brandon Copeland is a linebacker for the New York Jets and has an interesting side gig. Last spring semester he spent Mondays in a University of Pennsylvania classroom teaching a class in financial literacy with Dr. Brian Peterson. The class, called “Life 101,” was created to give college students practical lessons on finances, such as budgeting and investing, like understanding the benefits of a traditional 401K or a Roth IRA. Copeland is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, interned 2 summers at UBS and runs his own real-estate business. 

“I don’t care if you’re an engineering student, a nursing student, if you’re going to build rockets when you grow up or if you’re going to sweep floors,” Copeland said. “You’re going to have to use something in this class.” Copeland practices what he preaches; he has saved 90% of his income. Copeland has a special way of connecting with students and many of them were surprised at his teaching skills. "The point is to go through the realities of life and all these things we have to deal with," he said. "If you make a financial mistake, you can end up paying for that mistake for 30 years of your life. The goal is to have the students in my class be able to make these big decisions and make them more confidently. I tell them, 'I'm not trying to kill your dreams — I'm trying to enable your dreams.'"

Financial literacy is not just important to college students in the United States. Impact Network has partnered with Mwabu and Financial Sector Deepening Zambia (FSDZ) to deliver a financial education curriculum for both school learners and young women in Zambia. The project, started earlier this year, involves creating a blended learning and certification program that combines face-to-face and virtual education. The lessons have been well received and appreciated by each group involved, with participants feeling that what they had learned would help them to plan, save and budget their money.

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The aim of the project is to reach 15,000 learners and it will wrap up later this year. Project facilitators are excited about the impact, as one of them noted, the content includes “knowing the basics of money, being financially fit, developing good financial habits and being able to save money. Financial education is important to women and girls of Katete because it will help them become confident and make good financial decisions. My greater hopes for this project are that women and girls will have greater income opportunities across Katete and Zambia at large.”


We do language

This week, the world lost one of the greatest writers of our time.

The first time I picked up a Toni Morrison book, I was in my late teens and was assigned The Bluest Eye for a class I was taking. I remember feeling drawn into the myriad of stories that she crafted skillfully – but also feeling like I was learning about someone else’s experience for the first time. It felt like I was reading poetry, but I didn’t have to work quite as hard at it. The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s debut novel, written in the early morning hours before her children woke up. She went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel Prize in Literature just five years later.

I could go on and list her never-ending list of accolades, but the most impressive thing about Toni Morrison to me is how much she paved the way for other writers. So many of the books I enjoy today were influenced by Morrison’s storytelling, her honesty, and her identity. She found a way to break through the surface, to be prolific and beloved, to be critically acclaimed but also a best seller. She told history through fiction and before her words, I didn’t know that was possible.

I spent some time this weekend reading and re-reading some of her words, and in particular, her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In it, she says:

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?

Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

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I sort of wondered at that last statement – We do language, that may be the measure of our lives. In today’s world, it was a reminder to me, to be more careful with the words I choose, the words I choose to consume, and maybe most importantly – the words I choose not to consume. May she rest in peace.

The full speech is available here:


21st Century Skills for the Future

Over the past month Impact Network has actively been thinking about how we can expand upon our existing curriculum to ensure that we set our students up for success in the years to come. But how do you prepare young people for the future, when you don’t know what the future will look like?

In the past, a mastery of core academic subjects was a testament to a good education and would ensure a pupil a job upon graduation. But in today’s increasingly globalized, interconnected and rapidly changing world, the value for content knowledge and memorization is less important with access to information available to anyone with a smartphone. Today, 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration are more important for students than ever before!

Students need to be able to navigate increasingly complex societies with a critical lens, creativity and effective communication. To be able to thrive they need to collaborate with their peers and engage with information and communications technologies to solve multifaceted problems. Moving away from rote-memorization and archaic ways of teaching and learning, young people need to be equipped with foundational literacies (literacy, numeracy, ICT literacy, financial literacy etc.)key competencies (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication) and a range of character qualities (curiosity, initiative, persistence, adaptability, leadership), which will allow them to conquer challenges thrown at them in the future.


In addition to utilizing 21st century skills, Impact Network wants students to care more for the climate, human rights, gender equality and leading healthy and happy lives. Being a global citizen and caring about everyone’s collective wellbeing feels more important now than ever before.

As we take on this project to expand upon the values, content and skills promoted through our classrooms and curriculum, we are redefining what we want young people to be able to do in the future!

Over the coming months a team of staff at Impact Network will be grappling with all of these questions and ideas on how to make them a reality within our context. Stay tuned to how the project unfolds, with more updates to come. Onwards and Upwards!


The language of mathematics...

Next month marks the birth date of a somewhat obscure mathematician – Giuseppe Peano. Born in 1958 in Piedmont, Italy, Peano was born and raised on a farm, going to school locally before attending the University of Turin. It was in Turin that Peano realized his love and talent in mathematics, and graduated with a doctorate in maths in 1880.


While you likely have not heard of Peano, you most definitely know and have likely used his inventions. That’s because Peano essentially was the founder of symbolic logic – using symbols to convey mathematical equations. In 1891, Peano started The Forumulario Project – designed to be an Encyclopedia of Mathematics containing all known theories and formulas using a standard notation that he invented. The first five book sets were released in 1895, and contained much of the notation we use today – including ∃ and ∩. Peano wanted to create a language of mathematics that was more easily understood by individuals, regardless of their mother tongue. To that end, he went on to create an international auxiliary language called Latino sine flexione, which used Latin language but simplified the grammar and removed inconsistencies.


Peano’s work is a simple example of the thousands of inventors, mathematicians, linguists, and scientists who have brought mathematics and the language of mathematics to where it is today. When our Impact Network scholars learn about sets, algebra, etc. they learn the same mathematical language that I learned, and that you learned. When mathematicians from around the world work together, they can do so by practically speaking to each other in one common language. Both of these things happen because of Peano and his followers and their quest to create an international language. In my time with Impact Network, I have observed scores of teachers and hundreds of lessons that cover multiple subject areas. But the ones that are the most engaging for me to watch are the lessons in maths, because regardless of the language of instruction, I can follow along, and I can see whether our students are following as well. And more than that, this universal language ties together nations towards a common goal of understanding and progress.