Gail Ifshin, Executive Director, Discovery Channel Global Education Fund: Working to Bring Educational Programming to the Developing World

October 30, 2003
Gail Ifshin, Executive Director, Discovery Channel Global Education Fund: Working to Bring Educational Programming to the Developing World

We live in an age of information. Faced at every turn by wondrous products of human ingenuity — television, satellite, cellphone, the Internet — we find ourselves bound ever tighter in a web of electrons and bits, and are expert at moving, in the words of writer Erik Davis, "between actual and virtual environments, between local communities and global flows of goods, information, labor, and capital."

Contrast that with the situation in the developing world, where information communication technologies (ICT) are more rumor than fact and the gap between haves and have-nots continues to grow. The best way to close that gap, say proponents of ICT, is to provide low-cost access to information in precisely those places where the gap is widest and most persistent. Then, and only then, they argue, will we have succeeded in eliminating "apartheid based on technology."

In September, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Gail Ifshin, executive director of the Discovery Channel Global Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to bringing educational resources to children living in remote or under-resourced areas of the world, about the work of the Fund, the global digital divide, the impact of information technology on local cultural traditions, and the Fund's goals for the future.

Ifshin has worked in the international arena in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors for many years, serving as chief economist for the Hungarian-American Enterprise Fund and as program director for the Institute for Democracy in Vietnam. She has also worked in the White House for the Council of Economic Advisers and was later appointed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Advisory Committee on Emerging Democracies.

A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Ifshin studied at the University of Strasbourg, in France, and received her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Maryland.

Philanthropy News Digest: When was the Global Education Fund established and how did you become involved with it?

Gail Ifshin: It was established at the end of 1996 as a corporate initiative on the part of Discovery Communications, Inc. It turns out that Judith McHale, the president and COO of Discovery, lived in South Africa for several years as a teenager. Her father was a U.S. Foreign Service officer stationed in Pretoria. The impact of seeing firsthand the crimes and hideous inequities of apartheid in South Africa caused her to look for opportunities to make a meaningful contribution to the people of that country. In 1996 the company had just gone into Africa commercially, and Judith knew there had to be a good way to use the resources and expertise of the company to make a positive difference in people's lives there. Plus, such an activity was entirely consistent with the mission of the company. She also knew that to turn her vision into reality someone would have to work at it full time. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time!

PND: Is the Fund still affiliated with Discovery?

GI: After the project launched in South Africa the demand was so great that we realized it was beyond the means of a single company to support. So we created an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and began to seek and welcome partnerships with other corporations, governments, and NGOs. We know our name and logo may lead to the perception that we are exclusively connected to and supported by Discovery; however, that was a strategic PR decision that we believe is more helpful than harmful in terms of conveying a sense of what we do and the quality of what we do.

PND: In which countries do you currently operate?

GI: We're in ten countries at the moment. Six are in Africa — Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, and Angola — and we're also in Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador, as well as Romania. In total, we are reaching more than 250,000 children and their communities.

PND: Do you operate, or have plans to operate, any programs in the U.S.?

GI: In terms of reaching disadvantaged populations with important educational and informational tools and programming, our mandate is quite broad, so we could work in the U.S. But our project is really tailored to seriously under-resourced communities where the use of television and satellite technology as educational tools is likely to have a significant impact. Because the U.S. in general is so saturated with media, the nature of the project would change if we were to roll it out here.

That said, we are working on an adopt-a-school project in a disadvantaged community in New York State. But it's a different kind of project.

PND: Could it lead to other projects in the U.S.?

GI: It's likely that we will continue to focus our attention, project development, and funding strategies on the developing world. Our mission is most effectively achieved when we are able to bring the benefits of the information age to communities that would otherwise lack access for the foreseeable future.

PND: Let's talk about the Fund's work in the developing world. It seems to be focused on the creation of Learning Centers. What exactly are Learning Centers, and what is involved in setting one up?

GI: Our Learning Center project is a comprehensive, locally managed, technology and education project designed to provide teachers and others with the means to maximize the use of appropriate video and television as a tool for learning. They're mostly located in existing, underserved schools that request them, but we also put them in libraries, clinics, community centers, and other public facilities. Our first Learning Center launched in South Africa at the end of 1997.

"...We don't want to reinvent the wheel...The idea is to work with local officials to enhance or complement their educational efforts...."

As for setting them up, after securing adequate funding, our first step is to meet with officials from the ministry of education as well as with local government and education officials. We don't want to reinvent the wheel; instead, the idea is to work with local officials to figure out how television, video, and, in some cases, satellite technology can be used to enhance or complement their educational efforts. And there are usually ways we can do that.

Once we get approval to go ahead, we select schools that meet our selection criteria. The main criterion is need — the school and community have to need the technology. But we also consider the leadership of the school and its enthusiasm and willingness to embrace a new kind of technology.

There are three main components of the Learning Center project — technology, training, and programming content. We supply each school with a TV and VCR, electricity if necessary, and satellite or cable access, if possible. Then, over the course of three years, we work through our local staff to train teachers how to use the medium in an interactive way that supports their curriculum objectives. The fact that we offer three years of training and monitoring has proven critical to the sustainability of the project.

You know, in schools that have very few resources, the introduction of this technology can make a huge difference on a lot of levels, for both teachers and students. Our evaluations have shown that schools with the project report increases in enrollment and retention; increased interest, enthusiasm, and creativity on the part of teachers and students; improved English skills — the list goes on.

Last but not least, we work very hard to create and find from existing sources content that fits the needs of the local community. The programming we create ourselves is made possible by donations from Discovery, including access to their fantastic library of documentaries. We use Discovery's footage and programming as a base from which we can collaborate with people in each of the countries where we work to create new and appropriate programming. In many countries, ministries of education have already created video programming that supports the curriculum but for whatever reason — high distribution costs, or not enough TV/VCRs, or just a lack of communication — the programming is not being utilized. So we'll help distribute that programming. Or, if there are requests for programming on different sorts of issues, say, health issues or skills training, we'll do our best to locate that kind of programming.

Again, the goal is to help people in disadvantaged communities understand what's available through the medium and then help them use it to their best advantage. So we also insist that the schools or libraries or clinics where we place this technology agree to open their doors to the community after school hours and allow other groups and organizations to meet and take advantage of the technology. One of our Learning Centers in Uganda is next door to a midwifery school, and the midwives come over and use their own programming as well as programming we've provided. HIV/AIDS organizations frequently reach out to communities through our Learning Centers. Women's groups hold meetings. In this way, the centers become multifaceted media and information hubs for the entire community.

PND: Does the programming you provide differ from country to country and from Learning Center to Learning Center? And how much of it is provided by Discovery?

GI: In addition to locating information from all sorts of different sources and making those sources available to the schools, we also create programming, as I mentioned a moment ago, specifically for the project. Initially Discovery thought that perhaps it would distribute some of its programming, which it already customizes for distribution around the world, free of charge. But we all came to appreciate the unusual importance of customizing programming for specific use in the world's most under-resourced schools. To make a difference, the programming had to be practical and locally relevant. That's really the approach we take to all that we do in this project. I mean, it doesn't make sense for us, sitting in Silver Spring, Maryland, to decide what people living in villages in South Africa or Uganda or Peru want to see in their classrooms.

So instead, we work in collaboration with committees of teachers and educators in each country to develop programming that has relevance to their needs. Now, as much as we'd like to, we don't create completely different programs for each country; it simply costs too much. However, we do do language customization — for example, we use Angolan narrators speaking Portuguese for the project in Angola — and we do use a lot of Discovery footage. Discovery does a lot of programming in the areas of history, science, technology, and culture, and it's terrific stuff. And because it is donated, it's the most economical way for us to create programming.

"...We don't presume to say to officials in a given country that this is what kids should be studying in sixth grade or tenth grade...."

Remember, none of this is core curriculum. We don't presume to say to officials in a given country that this is what kids should be studying in sixth grade and this is what they should be studying in tenth grade. In fact, we make sure to test the programs in every single country. Local educators vet the scripts, they vet the rough cuts, they're part of the production process from the very beginning.

Of course, we do get requests for programming that requires the use of footage that Discovery doesn't have, and whenever we have the resources to do programming that answers these specific requests, we'll do it. We also get a lot of requests for AIDS programming, which, because we work in Africa, is an area where we'd like to get more involved.

PND: Does the programming you create include commercial messages?

GI: No, not at all. It's completely non-commercial.

PND: How do you respond to critics who argue that, however well intentioned, your activities — and technology investments in the developing world in general — promote a homogenous, global, consumer culture at the expense of local cultural traditions?

GI: It's an interesting argument, and we've heard it before, although not so much lately. Let me start with a couple of observations. First, like it or not, there is no more powerful medium of communication on the planet than television. And second, we are not working with primitive societies or indigenous tribes in the Amazon or New Guinea. We work in areas that, although terribly poor and remote, still have schools and sometimes clinics and people who are eager to be better educated and part of the global community.

Our goal is to promote the use of the technology as a tool for education and information. We are not paternalistic. Our contracts with individual schools stipulate that the equipment belongs to them; they control it, they're responsible for its security, et cetera. What we insist on in our stated criteria for the project, however, is that the equipment is used for educational purposes during the day. In that regard, our local partners are welcome and encouraged to bring in their own programming after school hours. Wherever we work, the schools can access any programming that is free to air. And, if we're able to partner with a satellite distribution company in an area, or have a donor who wants to support the cost of a satellite subscription, we'll work with the distributors to donate a special programming package of what you might call "infotainment" — news, sports, National Geographic, Discovery, that sort of thing.

The kind of content we provide to schools — and we have anecdotal evidence to support this — can actually increase the sense of pride in one's traditions and culture in some of these small, isolated communities. Let me give you an example. One of our projects is located on a remote island in Lake Victoria, in Uganda. It's called Sessé Island, and where we are working there were two schools and no electricity. As a result, in order to escape their isolation, individuals would often travel to and from the mainland on rickety ferries. Mostly it was men and teenage boys, and they would travel to Kampala to watch sporting events on television and, basically, find out what was going on in the world. Well, we came in and established two Learning Centers on the island, brought in solar power, and all of a sudden, because now there was a source of information right in the village, there was less of an incentive for them to travel to the mainland and spend their resources in that way. And we've reports that the project has increased a sense of community in this part of the island.

Wherever we work, we try to provide what we can in terms of local cultural information. For example, few people in Zimbabwe have the resources to travel to the Great Zimbabwe, the great stone city and World Heritage site in the southern part of the country. But now, thanks to the twenty-one Learning Centers we've established throughout the country, Zimbabweans can see and learn about their culture and heritage without having to leave home.

"...We hear over and over again from students and parents and teachers how invigorating it is to be connected to the world...."

It's that kind of exposure to the larger world, knowing what's out there beyond the confines of one's village, that creates a more informed and open-minded perspective and a desire to know more. We hear over and over again from students and parents and teachers how invigorating it is to be connected to the world. It really does open one's mind, and a lot of people would argue that, in closed, intolerant societies, it's the first step toward building a constituency for freer societies.

Let me mention one other thing in this regard. We make the effort to translate our programming into local languages. For example, in Zimbabwe, we've translated our programming into Ndebele, which is spoken in the western part of the country, a region where some villages are inaccessible even by SUV. We partnered with a local organization that has a donkey-pulled library cart that travels, circuit-style, to villages in the region. Well, we added a solar-powered television and VCR to the cart, and now, for the first time, these villagers have access to a range of information — in their own language — from the outside world. When you hear a story like that, you can just imagine the potential there is to use innovative and appropriate technology to convey crucial messages relating to health or skills training or what have you to people in remote villages throughout the developing world.

Angola is another example. Angola doesn't have a television industry of its own, which means that most of their television programs are imported from Brazil and scripted in Brazilian Portuguese, which is quite different from Angolan Portuguese. We customize the programming we provide there into Angolan Portuguese. It may seem like a small thing, but the thanks we've received from local and ministry of education officials for taking that step has been gratifying.

PND: From the explosive growth of cellphone use in China to satellite dish vendors on the streets of Kabul, we're hearing more and more about the diffusion of technology in the developing world. Do you have a sense that the digital divide in the developing world is closing?

GI: No, not really. We still have a long way to go. Yes, we hear a lot about the spread of technology in the developing world, and that's great. But the fact remains that Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East combined account for about 7 percent of the Internet connections in the world. There are a lot of reasons for that, most of them having to do with resources, or lack thereof, and infrastructure issues. But what it says to us is that there is enormous potential for the adoption of these technologies, including television and satellite, in the developing world.

Having said that, I firmly believe — and this is sort of my bully-pulpit speech — that television and satellite are under-utilized in the developing world as tools to deliver informative, educational content on a wide variety of topics, including skills training, public health issues, literacy training, and so on. The advantages of television include the fact that the technology is widely available, robust, inexpensive to operate, and can address large groups of people, in their own language, at a sitting. Just as important is the fact that there is a tremendous body of information available via video that could be adapted to local needs.

Here's another thing we need to understand: Most television programming is designed for the kinds of people that are assumed to have access to television and satellite — in other words, better-resourced populations. There are reasons for that. For starters, there's not a lot of money to be made, commercially, in creating programming for people who are poor and have little or no disposable income. But the only way we're going to stop the spread of AIDS in the developing world and, in the process, build functioning societies that are self-sustaining is through education. That's why it's a wonderful sign, for those of us who work in education and development, to see these technologies being embraced, and why it's incumbent on us to continue to work to deliver information and programming that is useful and culturally relevant.

PND: You've described your engagement with people on the ground in many of these countries as a continual learning experience. What has most surprised you about the reception your efforts have received?

GI: I'm surprised when the uptake of the project goes beyond what I imagined, or when the spinoffs from a project are creative in ways that I never could have imagined. Because we often work in what, for lack of a better expression, I would call more or less forgotten communities, our presence, just by virtue of the attention we're able to give a community and the introduction of the technology itself almost always results in a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and gratitude. The technology is something we take for granted in the developed world, and yet to actually see educational information delivered in this way generating so much enthusiasm and excitement is always surprising to me.

PND: Do you encounter the same kind of enthusiasm from your colleagues in the education and development fields?

"...Once they understand what it is we do and how benign it is, it's like pushing on an open door...."

GI: You know, we have to explain ourselves. It's just too easy for people to hear our name, realize that we're working with television programming, and think something like, "Oh, so you're just giving away televisions and Discovery programming. What good will that do?" But that's not what we're doing, and once governments and others understand the sound development practices we use, the fact that we listen and work through local staff, that we value above all appropriateness, impact, and sustainability, no one wants to stand in our way. Many governments in the developing world are understandably suspicious when someone bearing the name of a commercial company approaches them and says they want to do something in their schools — of course they're going to be wary. They want to know exactly what we provide and how we work; they want to review all the programs and the teacher resource guides, they do all the due diligence you'd expect. But once they understand what it is we do and how benign it is, it's like pushing on an open door. In some cases, we'll even have a donor who has given us money to establish a handful of Learning Centers, and, as happened in India, the minister of education will say, "Well, we have a million schools. Go ahead. Do them all."

PND: Do you have a formal application process?

GI: Unfortunately, we don't have a pot of money that we can use to fund requests. Instead, we try to connect, through one means or another, with donors and partners who will give us resources to establish a certain number of Learning Centers in a particular country. For example, we're working with ChevronTexaco in Angola, and Motorola brought the project into Latin America. Discovery is a partner in all of the Learning Centers. Once we get permission from the government to go ahead and have completed all the paperwork, we initiate a formal request process from the schools.

At that point, we also make some decisions about where in the country we want to work. We believe in working in clusters, so we look for five or six schools within a hundred kilometers or so of each other and visit every school. If they meet our selection criteria, we ask them to write us a letter of request and, if selected, to sign an MOU, a memorandum of understanding, that delineates what we're committed to doing and what they're committed to doing. And then the project rolls out after that.

PND: Do you accept donations from individuals as well as from corporate and foundation sponsors?

GI: Oh, yes.

PND: Is that something individuals can do through your Web site?

GI: Absolutely. [Laughs.]

PND: The Fund is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary. What are your ambitions for the Fund over the next five years?

GI: You know, we've created a sort of turnkey project that has proven its adaptability to different countries and cultures. As a result, we're in a hundred and forty schools in ten countries today. Our goal for the next five years is really more about depth than breadth, in that we want to reach as many children living in remote and underserved areas as we possibly can. We have a short-term goal of reaching a million children by the end of 2005, and we're almost a third of the way there. Five years from now, we hope to triple that and reach at least three million more kids.

PND: And do you plan to seek partnerships with other content providers?

GI: Oh, yes. Our goal is to seek partnerships with everyone! We hope to partner with other content providers and dramatically increase our partnerships with other corporations and individuals, with governments, and with NGOs. From the outset, by design, there has been nothing proprietary about this project. The Fund simply wants to do what we can to support effective educational outreach through the medium of television to people most in need. After more than five years of careful project development, we have something to offer that is tested and proven, that has enormous flexibility and potential, and can complement and enhance the work of our partners in the field. We know the value of partnerships, of ensuring that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In fact, I believe we've come as far as we have, on a relatively modest budget, precisely because we do leverage every dollar that is donated through these kinds of partnerships.

One of the things I most appreciate about Discovery is its deep belief in the importance of education in the developing world. It is in the self-interest of all of us to share in that belief. Healthy, productive societies are built on the framework of a good education. I believe we should all get together and answer a call to action to make a meaningful and lasting contribution to education in places around the world where the power of technology can make a gigantic, positive, and immediate difference.

PND: Well, thanks for your time this morning, Gail.

GI: Thank you.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Gail Ifshin in September. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at