I was traveling in Tanzania six years ago when I met a young man named John Medo. He had that spark—a knowing eye, blinding charisma, and obvious intelligence. Despite coming from one of the poorest families in his community, John had graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. He told me he wanted to become president of Tanzania—but that he was about to drop out of school because his family couldn’t afford his $150 annual school fees.
It was so unjust as to be absurd. I soon learned, however, that John was just one of the 71 million high school–age kids in the developing world who are not in school, mostly because of poverty, according to the United Nations.
Children in developing countries drop out of school for a variety of reasons. Families in India pressure girls to stay home because so many are harassed and assaulted on their way to and from school. In parts of Africa and elsewhere, parents struggling to survive don’t want to give up the wages their children could earn as laborers. But in many cases, young people drop out because where they live, it simply costs too much. What may seem like a manageable sum to us—a few hundred dollars to cover a year’s worth of books, uniforms, and tuition—is a crushing burden to families living on one or two dollars a day.
This is bitterly ironic, considering that record numbers of children are entering primary education worldwide. Ninety percent of children in developing countries are now enrolled, bringing us close to meeting the United Nations’ second Millennium Development Goal—that by 2015 children everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.
One reason for this is that many countries have abolished primary school fees. Doing so in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, for instance, has led to major jumps in enrollment.
But the story changes with secondary school. Few low-income countries provide free secondary education. While millions more children are getting a taste of what learning means at the primary level, huge numbers of them are shut out of secondary education. In Africa, two out of three children can’t transition into secondary school—the same problem John Medo faced.
John’s story inspired me to create The School Fund, a crowdfunding platform to connect people all over the globe with high-performing students who just need a bit of help to continue their education and realize their potential. We’ve funded his education, as well as those of more than 850 other students in 15 developing countries. We’ve seen a number of moving stories from The School Fund’s community in which everyday people learn about the issue, realize how easy it is to have a profound impact on a student's life, and then are spurred to action—like these school-age California brothers who dug into their savings and started a pancake business to fund a Kenyan student’s education.
With access to education, young people’s employment opportunities broaden, their income levels increase, and even the health of the children they have improves. As John—who has now graduated and is awaiting his university entrance results—told me recently, “I believe in education.” Because of him, so do I.