Abaarso Tech, run like a business, brings top-notch education to Somalia

Jonathan Starr founded Abaarso Tech in Somaliland to unlock the potential of the country's brightest boys and girls.

Patrick Adams
Muna Siciid Salaat, age 12, is a student at Abaarso Tech in Somaliland, where students are immersed in English and other disciplines with the hope that they will become a new generation of leaders in a country besieged by drought and famine.

[This is part of a Dowser.org series highlighting innovations and possibilities for action for the famine in Somalia. Most news frames the famine and political conflict as nearly unsolvable; we're examining the on-the-ground measures that can help – from the large scale and political to the local and preventative.]

At the start of every semester, Mohamed Abdirahman fills the back of his rattletrap station wagon with fresh fruit and vegetables and hauls it all to a tightly secured compound on the outskirts of the aptly named village of Abaarso (Somali for “drought”) where his teenage son goes to school.

“Just about everyone finds a way to pay something,” says Jonathan Starr, who several years ago quit a career in finance and used the millions he made on Wall Street to conduct an experiment in education on the parched, windy plains of western Somaliland, a mostly stable, autonomous region of Somalia.

Mr. Starr, 35, wanted to find out what happens when you immerse Somaliland’s brightest boys and girls in a “culture of English” with plenty of books and computers and a staff of dedicated teachers from some of the best schools on the planet. Abaarso Tech, the nonprofit organization he cofounded in 2008, is designed to do just that.

It’s also designed, he says, “to be run like a business with the Somali people as both shareholders and customers.” And it’s in this respect that the former financial executive has most pointedly parted ways with convention, bringing a level of accountability to aid work that its critics have long found lacking.

“Two key elements necessary to make aid work are feedback and accountability, the absence of which have been fatal to aid’s effectiveness,” wrote the economist William Easterly in his 2006 book “The White Man’s Burden,” a brazen assessment of the failings of foreign aid.

Echoing Easterly, Starr recently asked readers of the Wall Street Journal to imagine if Marriott operated without any revenue or room-rate data. “Suppose it remitted money to cover salaries and other expenses, without knowing if any of it was producing a product for which customers were willing to pay…. You don’t have to run a Fortune 500 company to know how quickly such a system would run amok.”

Yet, he wrote, when it comes to international aid, that’s precisely the system in place.

“Without revenue or other customer satisfaction metrics, NGO executives and donors have no way of knowing whether employees on the ground are providing a product of value to their impoverished ‘customers.' ” He says that’s because those executives aren’t on the ground themselves.

Starr, on the other hand, is on the ground year round. From the office he shares with a staff of 18 teachers, he can watch his students play soccer on a sandy pitch and the guards as they pace the length of a nine-foot security wall with their Kalashnikovs and two-way radios, holdovers from the Somali civil war.

That war began in the mid 1980s, when dissident groups rebelled against Siad Barre, Somalia’s Soviet-backed military dictator. In 1988, Barre’s air force bombed Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, as well as several other towns, devastating the country’s infrastructure, including many of its schools.

And perhaps none was a greater loss than the once-renowned Sheikh Secondary School.

Founded by the British when Somaliland was still a protectorate of the crown, Sheikh was for many years the country’s premier prep school and a veritable pipeline to higher education abroad. As such, it produced many of the leaders of current-day Somaliland society, including the president, H.E. Ahmed Mohamed Mahamoud Silanyo, and several members of his cabinet.

But Sheikh is no longer what it was. Abandoned after the war, it was closed for more than a decade before being reopened by an Austrian charity in the late 1990s. Then, in 2003, the school’s headmaster and his wife, both highly regarded educators, were gunned down by members of the violent Islamist rebel group Al Shabab. Ever since, Sheikh has struggled to recruit teachers, and only a handful of graduates have gone on to universities overseas – none of them in the US.

Abaarso Tech, with its goal of preparing students for top-tier institutions in the US and UK, aims to fill that gap, and to do so with a focus on financial sustainability. The school’s 100 students, selected from among the top 250 scorers on Somaliland’s national 8th grade exit exam, pay what they can, while revenue-generating programs like adult English courses and an undergraduate school of finance make up the shortfall in tuition.

And whereas other recent Western-led efforts to educate African children have spared no expense – Oprah Winfrey’s $40-million Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa features, among other extravagances, a yoga studio and a beauty salon, and the manager of Madonna’s recently aborted $15-million all girls’ academy in Malawi made what auditors described as “outlandish expenditures on salaries, cars, and office space,” according to the New York Times – Starr economizes wherever possible, most notably on staff salaries.

Abaarso Tech teachers, who have included Ivy League graduates, PhDs in physics and chemistry, and professional engineers, are paid just $3,000 a year – proof, he argues, of the primacy of passion, not money, in creating positive change.

• This article originally appeared on Dowser.org.

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