This keeps happening. Earlier this year, my charity applied to a Dutch organisation whose sole purpose is purveying scholarships in Zimbabwe. We requested financial support on behalf of two high school girls from the township areas of Marondera. The response was categoric: “Come back when you have A-students”. But how could any of our girls ever meet this criterium? They’re from the townships, they live in houses without electricity, they don’t have books, they walk miles to school, and when they get home, they have to cook, fetch firewood, and look after their siblings.
As the economic turmoil of Zimbabwe deepens, older girls are edged out of their houses and urged to marry to free up a space at the dinner table. Not to mention that as the price of sanitary pads has climbed out of reach of most family budgets, keeping girls in school during their periods is now an extra challenge. And this is why these girls need scholarships!
But scholarship charities behave like a sponsor giving a racket to Roger Federer and then boasting their rackets have a 100 per cent success rate. No kidding! I’d like to think that this simply stems from ignorance, but I would argue that there is a deeper logic in play: scholarships perpetuate the ideology of the ‘meritorious poor’ that justifies the enclosure of the educational commons. The reasoning goes, “Yes, education is expensive, but if you’re smart enough, diligent enough, and work hard enough, you could win the golden ticket to a top-tier education!”
The system doesn't work
The handful of students who, against all odds, are still able to pull off the feat of scoring an A are held up as paragons of virtue: “You see? The system works!” Except it doesn’t, because it simply perpetuates inequality while placing the blame and shame of educational failure on individuals rather than the system. Our girls in Zimbabwe are an extreme example, where the legacy of colonialism and patriarchy further depress their chances. But the same logic fails working-class children in Rotterdam. The measure of a successful scholarship should not be its capacity to help the very best poor students, but rather the average poor student.
So what would an effective scholarship programme look like?
To begin with, financial support alone isn’t enough, as we discovered after launching our own scholarship programme in Zimbabwe: to bring a girl from the brink of dropping out to completing high school and entering university takes a lot of human effort and investment. Financial support is just the baseline: beyond school fees, scholars in extreme poverty need bus fares, uniforms, books, and, yes, in our world of lockdowns and remote learning, they need smartphones with airtime.
But that’s not enough: even those among our girls who have supportive families do not have anyone at home who can help them with schoolwork. Many of them have illiterate parents or parents who barely completed primary school. Even if parents could help with homework, life is hard in Zimbabwe, especially after three years of spiraling inflation and lockdowns. Many parents are too busy etching out a living to provide after-school support.
Even though the Netherlands has a significantly better welfare state than Zimbabwe, working-class parents here have been hit harder and longer by the lockdowns than their middle-class peers, and working-class kids who were already struggling have been left behind by emergency remote teaching. Whether in Harare or Rotterdam, students living in poverty simply don’t have the cultural and social capital to succeed in a system that is designed for the middle classes.
Mentorship can go a long way to fixing this: we offer each one of our scholars a personal mentor who accompanies them along their journey. Somewhere between a study counsellor and an older sister, our mentors navigate questions ranging from tampons to Oliver Twist (why on Earth are Zimbabwean students reading Oliver Twist? That’s one for another time…).
I have wrestled with the objection that this approach is unsustainable because there are simply too many children in poverty and not enough mentors in the world. I can offer no better response than the one that Tina conjured when we discussed this issue: “Yes,” she said, “you can help ten, maybe twenty. But then, we will each help ten, and they will each help ten, and in the end, we will have changed the world.”
So here is my call to all scholarship-granting organisations and universities: to begin with, open up at least 20 per cent of your spaces to ‘wild card’ students. Don’t judge these students by their grades; judge them by the strength of their passion for change and the potential for exponential impact in their home communities. And if you don’t know how to evaluate that, then place your trust in community organisations who know their people. Then, set up a mentorship programme with scholarship alumni as mentors for these students, and provide a check-in system for mentors where they can flag potential issues before they get out of hand. Finally, expect to spend more on these students: they will need everything, from scratch, if they are to succeed – from toothbrushes to laptops.
This should not be too hard to organise here in Rotterdam: there are already great programmes like Mentoren op Zuid that could be financially upgraded into full scholarships to get students into and through university. But making such a move requires an ideological shift at every level of governance. In the words of Rutger Bregman: “Poverty is not a lack of character, it’s a lack of cash.” And it shouldn’t be up to charities to make this point.
Tina didn’t get the Erasmus Mundus scholarship. But thanks to my organisation, she has now graduated with Honours from the University of Zimbabwe with a C in Public Administration and is working her first job as a school administrative assistant while we prepare her Master’s degree application in Estonia. She’s living proof that a good scholarship programme doesn’t require A grades to turn underprivileged students’ lives around.