By Jacqueline Gallo, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

We all already know all the rhetoric regarding the importance of educating girls: educate a girl, educate the nation; an educated girl will delay marriage and have fewer children; an educated girl will be less likely to live in poverty.

These are important findings, which I do not refute, and, indeed, I came to focus my attention on the isolated and marginalised Karamoja, Uganda, because of instructive findings. But statistical findings are only the beginning; researchers must also display a, too often absent, level of humility regarding our own importance and that of our research. Only in doing so can we work across disciplines and methodological silos to perform research which respects individuals’ dignity and do justice to alleviate systemic failures that impede the full development of a human being. 

It is imperative that researchers address the multi-dimensionality of the human experience. Single measurements can evaluate the effectiveness of foreign aid on improved school enrolment rates, but do we really think that studying teacher to pupil ratios is an accurate or appropriate way to measure the quality of education?

I call for more small-scale research which can implement a multi-dimensional and qualitative view of well-being. Nussbaum’s Capability Approach (CA) (2011) gives us appropriate tools allowing researchers to ‘take each individual as an end’, something particularly wanting when studying women. Multi-dimensional approaches can be challenged as this research is cost-ineffective, slow, and personally challenging as it forces researchers to engage on a deeply human level with people who are the focus of research, and admittedly, findings produced by this kind of research have limitations, often restricted to the study’s particular social, political, and cultural context. However, such findings are immeasurably valuable, as they provide a more complete picture of the human condition rather than reducing study subjects to objects. Single measurements can inform policy to free the world’s poorest from abject poverty but is it too ambitious to question, using multi-dimensional approaches, if people might actually live fulfilling and dignified lives?!

Jacqueline during her fieldwork

This brings us to Tamara, a young woman in Karamoja, Uganda, in her final year of upper secondary school. Using traditional single measurements of well-being, Tamara is a star. She is part of the two percent of girls from Karamoja who have completed lower secondary school and will join the one percent of girls in Karamoja who complete upper secondary school. By single measurements, she has escaped early marriage, early pregnancy. By geographic lottery, she lives in one of the most fertile areas of Karamoja, so she is less likely to suffer from food insecurity, a constant threat for hundreds of thousands of people in Karamoja. By these standards, she is a success. End of story.

But Tamara’s story is more nuanced if one utilises Nussbaum’s CA as a multi-dimensional construct to assess well-being. With CA, we acknowledge what advantages Tamara receives from her schooling accomplishments but do not end her story there. Through CA analysis, we learn that Tamara’s father abandoned the family and there is no more livestock to sell for school fees. Tamara’s younger sisters are out in school and her mother’s work cannot afford to pay even a single child’s school fees. We learn that Tamara attends upper secondary school because of the generosity of a foreign donor connected to the school administration. 

So, what can we expect in her future? For someone who demonstrates an indefatigable work ethic, good grades, and unceasing optimism, she is still trapped in what Mudimbe (1988) calls an ‘intermediate, diffused space in which social and economic events define the extent of (her) marginality’ (p. 18).

She has done everything ‘by the book’ and yet her chances of reaching university, then obtaining qualifications to make her competitive in the formal economy, are precarious at best. Economically, Tamara is a poor girl from Karamoja. Not being a member of the Karamojong community, she is not eligible for foreign bursary schemes designed for Karamojongs. Furthermore, she attends the most academically rigorous school in Karamoja but it is outside her local district; this disqualifies her from government scholarships which only support students enrolled in their home district. And the foreign donor? The school does not share donor information with recipients to avoid feelings of inferiority or indebtedness in students to their mostly white, western donors.

Socially, Tamara hopes the school will introduce her to her donors. Otherwise, she will pray for a miracle that someone successful from the alumnae group might take pity and send her to university. Considering these factors, her freedom to live the dignified life she aspires, as an accountant, is severely restricted. After all this educational investment, Tamara is still likely to rely on foreign aid and the few government supports available to sustain her throughout life.

In Karamoja, school girls fear of becoming ‘wasted’ or better put, fail to transition from dependent children to women in paid employment. If Tamara cannot transition to paid employment (which requires more than upper secondary completion), she is likely to internalise this failure of circumstances as her own. Her chances of achieving some sense of well-being are inhibited by the restrictions to pursue a dignified life. Perhaps more dangerous on a societal level, failures of circumstance like this one, will, over time, increase the likelihood that the larger Karamoja community will question the value of education, something my fellow researchers across disciplinary and methodological approaches all value.

This nuanced picture of Tamara’s life is more important than any single statistical measure – this nuance affords Tamara the dignity she deserves. 

If we are to subvert the process of ‘othering’ in our research, as Abu-Lughod (1991) advocates, then we must accept that for Tamara, completing a cycle of schooling is not enough. Therefore, single quantitative measurements of the human experience are not enough either to structure research. Since we know that completing a school cycle is not good enough for our own children, then we must not ignore that such low standards should not be held for children in our human family. 

Let us recognise the humanity, dignity, and worth of each person. We can do that by utilising more dignified and life-affirming theoretical constructs and methodologies. Nussbaum’s CA is only one approach. Consider the contributions of postcolonial and feminist thinkers which enable us become better researchers. Sriprakash, Tikly, and Walker (2019) described the problem of erasing racism from education development research, a problem that dehumanises those we supposedly want to help in our work.

We need not undersell the transformational and dignifying possibilities of becoming a truly educated person by overselling the prospect of completing school. Tamara may complete secondary school in December, but she still is far from achieving a healthy sense of well-being and dignity. Multi-dimensional evaluations of young people can more effectively support improved life outcomes. For researchers, we will help innovate policy that effectively addresses the social and economic events which define one’s marginality. In fact, we may just make schooling more educational in the process.

Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing Against Culture. In R. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present(pp. 137–162). Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Mudimbe, V. Y. (1988). The invention of Africa: gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating capabilities: the human development approach. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Sriprakash, A., Tikly, L., & Walker, S. (2019). The erasures of racism in education and international development: re-reading the ‘global learning crisis’. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2018.1559040

Jacqueline Gallo is in the final stages of completing her doctoral studies in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research is based on fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in Karamoja, Uganda.Jacqueline’s master and doctoral studies seek to construct deeper knowledge and envision a new values debate in the under-researched world of contemporary Catholic educational institutions in East Africa. You can follow her @jgallovanting.

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