On Making A Difference in Math Education (Day 9 of ASRI)

A flag to be proud of (Constiutional Court, Joburg, February 2016)

A flag to be proud of (Constiutional Court, Joburg, February 2016)

It’s week three of ASRI and the theme of this week is “Civil society and NGOs”. Today began with a visit from CIVICUS, a global alliance of citizens and civil society groups striving to protect, enable and enhance civic action and civil society around the world. They are a membership network with 2100 members in 160 countries with partnerships with global regional, national and local CSOs, and I’m so grateful that they had time to speak to us. It’s been a while since my second year international relations classes; more recently most of my attention has gone to local poverty issues, but I thoroughly enjoyed their presentation and hearing them speak was inspiration and a reminder to follow international politics more closely. What surprised me most was how unaware I was in 2015 of international politics and their presentation was a great way to catch up on things I missed this year. I wish they had had more time to speak; they were so engaging that we all had lots of questions for them and they weren’t able to get through most of their presentation, but I still want to learn more.

Here are a few terms I learnt from their presentation:

SDGs: The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) replaced the MDG (the Millennium Development Goals) that expired in 2015, and chart a course for all countries to decrease poverty and inequality and to fight climate change over the next fifteen years.  While the MDGs were defined by world leaders through a largely insular process, the SDGs were informed by Action 2015, a coalition of over 2200 organizations committed to fighting for a better future. Action 2015 comprised of 31 million campaigns in over 157 different countries and was the biggest global movement of its kind. It was fascinating to hear about Action 2015 from CIVICUS because it was I confess, the first time I was hearing about the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, and I want to learn more about them. When the MDGs were first set I followed them closely, and the SDGs sound like even more important goals.

COP21: France chaired and hosted the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21/CMP11), from 30 November to 11 December 2015. The result of the conference was a new international agreement on climate change, applicable to all, to keep global warming below 2°C. (From the COP21 Website). The website also outlines the series of climate talks and agreements over the past several years and helps you keep track of how COP21 fits into what has transpired previously.

The Rome Statute: The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is the treaty that established the International Criminal Court. It was adopted at a diplomatic conference in Rome on 17 July 1998 and it entered into force on 1 July 2002.  (Source; Wikipedia)

Hearing about how Action 2015 informed the SDG goal setting process reminded me of a goal setting workshop that we did last week in our Thursday Personal and Professional Development seminar. In that session we went from a vision of our lives to setting concrete goals that help us move toward that vision and developed action plans to help us take steps towards making those goals a reality. Part of developing an action plan is “checking for congruency” where you must assess whether your goal is something that you really really want, and not something that simply “sounds good”, whether you have the necessary motivation and energy to bring this goal into reality and whether the goals you are stating are in line with your values. Congruency also means checking that you don’t have competing contradictory goals. It’s interesting to apply these concepts to country and worldwide goal-setting processes, and  given that the SDGs had a great deal of public and citizen input, hopefully these “congruency indicators” translate into these objectives being pursued with energy over the next fifteen years.

The other part of the CIVICUS presentation that was eye-opening was hearing about how other countries in the world have legislation allowing them to clamp down on activism and NGOs, and in particular, to clamp down on NGOs that challenge the government. While there are measures at the UN to speak about these violations of civic rights, many times when the country in question (for example Ethiopia) is a country in which Western economic interests are involved, the West and the US in particular remains silent. These international tools and forums are important but there are power dynamics at play that result in human rights being ignored when it is convenient and economically beneficial to do so.  The CIVICUS team also spoke about the South African Constitution, and how although South Africa has its issues, the Constitution is truly one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and is a constitution that encourages collaboration between civil society and the government. Though there is so much I find different between South Africa and Canada, there is so much also to be impressed about, and one of those things is that the level of civic engagement and political awareness I’ve seen in South Africa is unlike any other place I’ve been before.

Our second presentation was by Ahmed “Smiley” Ismail from Siyafunda, an organization that seeks to bring internet access to communities that do not have internet access. This was a fascinating, inspiring and complex presentation and it was interesting to hear about the number of partners that they work with. What I found most interesting about his remarks though was his comment that although Siyafunda is a social enterprise, in South Africa you cannot be classified as a social enterprise, you have to be either a nonprofit or a for profit enterprise. The dialogue around social enterprise is just starting. This was fascinating to me because in other parts of the world the conversation and dialogue and resources around social enterprises is quite developed (when I think of Toronto, there are spaces like MaRS, the Centre for Social Innovation, Social Enterprise Toronto and more. Without the same set of resources, passionate individuals and organizations in South Africa are doing incredible work. Seeing Siyafunda was a reminder that we all have so much work to do and a responsibility to contribute the knowledges and skills we have to South Africa. I also really liked the founder of the organization, he was so authentic and passionate and his commitment to the cause shone through.

The third presentation was by Numeric, an organization that aims to improve math education in South Africa. The presentation began with the startling statistic that of every 100 South African children that start Grade 1 (across public and private institutions), 48 will finish matric (the equivalent of Grade 12),  22 will take math as a matric subject (as opposed to Math Literacy), 10 will get 30% in their final result and only 4 will receive 50% or above in the subject as their final grade. These are staggering numbers, and these poor math results translate in South Africa not having the doctors, teachers, scientists, nurses, and other professionals it so desperately needs. To help improve math education, Numeric focuses on primary school math interventions with impressive results. Like Siyafunda, I also really liked Andrew Einhorn, the founder of Numeric and am so glad that his organization exists South Africa. He spoke in his remarks about fear and failure and vision and about how he went from doing his undergrad at Harvard and working at an investment bank in Cape Town to start Numeric and I felt very inspired.

Our final presentation was Ms. Mary Gillett, the founder of JOSH, Johannesburg Services to the Homeless. I can’t quite articulate it, but I did not like this organization at all. Something about their plan to address homelessness and their organization did not sit right with me, and the feeling I had all day of being inspired by speakers just evaporated away. The organization has a wide-ranging plan to address homelessness, but parts of the project include (they are a month old) selling a book of meal vouchers that you can purchase and give to the homeless at intersections/other places. Homeless individuals can then go to soup kitchens at participating churches to redeem the vouches and access counselling and other services to help them “change their mindsets” and become job ready. The organization also plans to have a soccer club that has soccer games during lunch hours with corporates and a running club (Someone asked why and the founder responded by saying the soccer club is another way to change mindsets and show that the homeless are helping themselves by becoming fit.) I confess, I don’t know a lot about homeless issues, but the whole thing felt very capitalistic and didn’t have space for individuals who are not ready to work but simply need rehabilitation or simply care and support. It felt like a system to conform to society and so much about it felt wrong to me.

All in all though this week is so exciting, and I’m so looking forward to our other speakers this week and learning more about NGOs. Hearing today’s speakers have made me realize I really want Seriously Planning to get involved in strengthening libraries in Joburg, and I’m hoping this week will provide interesting food for thought as I think about my ideas further.

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