08/02/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

Smarter Development -- Part II: How L.E.A.D Uganda Does It Smarter

Earlier this month we discussed how to make development smarter. We started by quoting Bono, who said,

In many ways Africa is to this century what North America was to the 19th. It has 60 percent of the world's undeveloped arable land and vast resources of coal, oil and minerals, together with enormous renewable energy resources. Sub-Saharan Africa is also home to 400 million of the world's poorest people... Get the development of them right and the forthcoming financial resources -- invested well -- can transform the lives of countless numbers of people. This isn't about... committing massive new aid increases. It's about continuing present investment and making it smarter.

I argued that we have to consider Africa's greatest resource -- the mind of the African child. The minds of Africa's poor children are a vast, untapped resource that is more valuable than all the gold and diamonds the continent possesses -- and to help develop it in a smarter way by giving Africa's excluded children an excellent education at top schools.

L.E.A.D Uganda, a local, Ugandan-run educational leadership program is doing it smarter. L.E.A.D Uganda is doing what many consider unachievable. L.E.A.D has had remarkable success turning marginalized and traumatized African girls and boys who have been affected by war, AIDS and poverty into leaders. The 112 children we serve -- former child soldiers, abducted girls, child laborers, street kids, AIDS orphans and youth living in child-headed families -- are not just staying in school; the majority of our scholars maintain 1st grades (A averages) at elite boarding schools and go on to receive scholarships to top universities in Uganda, India and the United States.

The holistic approach L.E.A.D takes to catapult poor children at the bottom of society into leadership is based on two fundamental needs: family and education. L.E.A.D Uganda locates the brightest children living on the edges of society. We give our broken children a disciplined, loving family -- a clan -- so they can heal. We treat the children like we care for our own children, not as objects of charity. The Ugandan staff, acting as aunts and uncles, heals these traumatized children with love, discipline and counseling; and makes them whole again. The love we give our students is what makes the L.E.A.D approach so powerful. Once they are secure, they are ready to fly. One study validates the importance of emotional support. Researchers found that "high levels of psychological distress found in AIDS orphans suggest that material support alone is not sufficient for these children." UNICEF urged NGOs to provide a deeper level of support.

L.E.A.D's children are placed in the top schools in Uganda, where they excel academically and gain the leadership and entrepreneurial skills they need to help their communities. We do whatever it takes to help them succeed. We furnish them with everything they need to excel: books, academic tutoring, clothing, medical care, leadership training and discipline. We counsel them so they heal. We mentor them so they gain the entrepreneurial skills they need to help their communities. This high level of support enables our children to overcome all odds.

Most programs provide minimal educational opportunities in very poor, rural schools. That is not enough. Eighty percent of Ugandan children drop out of school before 7th grade . Those who suffer most are girls. Uganda has the highest school dropout rate for girls in East Africa, according to a report released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Despite the introduction of free primary education in 1996, it is now estimated that only one third of pupils enrolled in primary education end up completing primary seven. Less than 20 percent who start high school continue to Senior 6, the last year of high school. In other words, of the 20 percent who enter high school, more than 80 percent drop out by 11th grade, leaving less than 4 percent to graduate from high school. Needless to say, very few enter university.

In contrast, our students attend school with the elite of Uganda and outperform them. We enroll more students at the best boarding schools than any other NGO in Uganda. Their peers, the children of cabinet ministers, generals, doctors, and business executives, elect L.E.A.D students to leadership positions.

We access our students' progress using objective and subjective criteria. Objective measures -- grades, test results, teacher comments, and positions held at school -- tell us how students measure up to society's standards. Assessing how the students view themselves and how they interact with others provides a subjective gauge. When asked which high school he wants to attend, Moses indicated Kings College Budo, a top school, saying, "I belong there."

Our students do belong "there." In the past three years, six of our 21 high school graduates earned scholarships to elite universities. No other NGO in Uganda specializing in education has accomplished this. In a country where 26,000 college graduates can't find jobs, our students start businesses. Our entrepreneurs are making contributions to the development of Uganda. Our smarter development team includes:

• Edgar, an AIDS orphan, realized students need ID photos and printing services. He opened a business while still a student at Makerere University's Business School. He opened his second branch this past fall. He employs six people.

• Olweny, a former child soldier, opened a photography studio to support his younger siblings.

• Bayona, an AIDS orphan, will graduate in December with a degree in Business Statistics. Bayona says, "I think I was created for a time as this because society needs people who add value, people who contribute to its' well-being... I am ready to help Uganda face the challenges of this age and beyond."

• Aloysious, an AIDS orphan from a rural village, is studying aquaculture, one of the fastest-growing segments of the global agricultural economy. Fish farming will provide more than 50 percent of all aquatic foods in the world by 2025.

• Katongole, a former quarry boy who broke rocks for 73¢ a day, received a Government scholarship to university to study pharmacy. In a year, when he graduates, he will be able to help his country which has only 300 pharmacists serving 30 million people . "I am the happiest man on the planet," remarks Katongole, "From a quarry boy to a pharmacist! It's unbelievable... I think now that nothing is impossible."

• Moses, a former child laborer, was awarded a scholarship to study Information Technology in India at St. Claret, an affiliated college of the University of Bangalore. He graduated a few weeks ago. "When my father died, my hopes were all shattered and I stopped dreaming," says Moses, "It's now clear that my dreams are becoming a reality."

• Former child laborer Jimmy Lubega and former street kid Sylvester Kassajja graduate with degrees in tourism this September.

• AIDS orphans Wasswa Charles, Hilda Kasozi, and Dorcus Nakirande are studying journalism, business, and business administration, respectively.

• Nine more students start top universities this August, including Steven Wasswa, who obtained a full scholarship to Makerere University to study business.

Our greatest accomplishment is creating a culture of success that empowers our students. Our students work together as a family. Older students mentor younger ones. High school students run academic workshops for primary kids and teach them English. Two high school graduates, Steven Wasswa and Jjuuko Joachim, are working as interns at L.E.A.D while waiting to start university this August.

Our students plan to help run our program some day. In August, 2011, twenty-nine of L.E.A.D's high school and university students formed an Alumni Committee. They signed a pledge to ensure sustainability by giving back 5 percent of their earnings to L.E.A.D Uganda after getting a job. They also promised to "mentor new students, motivate the little ones by showing them examples, and to be good leaders of our entire community."

We pay special attention to girls to help them overcome inequality. Our girls are not just surviving, they are role models for their villages and the nation. We don't have a special girls program. Instead, we place our girls into challenging situations and make sure they succeed with a high level of support. L.E.A.D is run by a strong woman, Monica Nankoma, known to our students as "Mummy Monica." Our girls gain confidence from Monica's example, and from the support their L.E.A.D sisters and brothers give them as they compete with the children of the elite.

We create change by example. Sanyu was head of her household at 10, looking after two younger siblings in a rural village without running water or electricity. She had to fetch water, chop firewood, beg for food, and cook. This past term Sanyu received a perfect 20 out of 20 (A-plus in all subjects) at the elite Seeta High. When she returns to her village during school breaks, parents bring their children to see her, telling them, "Study hard so you can be like Sanyu." Although rural women still kneel when greeting men and few are village leaders, last January the village elders met with Sanyu. They told her "You are the hope of the village." They asked Sanyu to build a medical clinic when she becomes a doctor. Sanyu agreed. We know Sanyu will help thousands. That is the payoff of putting girls into top schools.

It will be another decade before the full impact of what we are doing is seen. But we have had a big impact already. This year for the first time in the history of Uganda, Victoria, a student from a Kampala slum was elected Head Girl of the elite Budo Junior School, a school attended by 90 percent of Uganda's elite. Aringo Proscovia, who was abducted by the Kony rebels when she was seven, was elected Deputy Head Girl (vice president) of Seeta High School. We have changed the game.

If we want to manage the resources of Africa better, as Bono suggests we should, than let's not forget the greatest resource of all -- the human mind. We need to stop our ineffective educational efforts and start sending children who show promise to the best schools and training them to be innovative leaders. Now is the time to bring L.E.A.D Uganda's remarkable educational leadership initiative to scale. We need to export this innovative approach to the four corners of the earth so poor, marginalized girls and boys are able to soar to unimaginable heights and help Africa achieve it's true potential.