Rakesh Rajani, founder of Kuleana, HakiElimu and Twaweza
“We don’t think outside the box in the NGO sector, we just piggyback on what works”, Rakesh told us. A Harvard research fellow, Rakesh Rajani is an intellectual mastermind who openly criticises commonplace approaches to development. “Lots of the official development stuff is crap, it’s not working”, he said candidly. Rakesh believes that real change comes when people stop looking to God, the government or the good-old international development community to solve all their problems, and start looking to themselves.
Rakesh Rajani is the co-founder of three high-achieving organisations – Kuleana, HakiElimu and Twaweza. Respectively sized at small, medium and massive, what all of these organisations have in common is a commitment to Rakesh’s strategic ‘theory of change’. He argues that when you engage people to take action on matters which mean something to them, you create a democratic force for change that concentrates the minds of the authorities on doing the right thing. To effectively engage people, however, you need public access to independent information and, more crucially, citizens who believe their voices will be heard.
Looking at Rakesh you might assume that he comes from the well-educated Tanzanian elite – he positively oozes intellect. Though Rakesh has received a first class education, his journey to the top has taken a somewhat alternative route. At age 13, inspired by a crush on a Norwegian girl, Rakesh applied to the International School in Moshi, Northern Tanzania.
When he visited the school he was in awe. “It was like magic,” Rakesh said, “ten times more than anything I had ever seen.” So he sat the entrance exam and weeks later received his acceptance letter. The yearly fees would cost one and a half times the entire family’s annual income. His mother, herself a bright woman who had dreamt of being a lawyer, refused to accept the limitations and simply proclaimed “We will make it happen”.
Harnessing their instinct for resourcefulness, the whole family devised ways to find the money. Rakesh gave us a charming list of their money-making schemes, the best of which really brought to life his entrepreneurial streak. During a national shortage of toilet paper (the only toilet paper factory in the country had broken down!), he collected up every spare roll in his home town of Mwanza in West Tanzania and sold it to the school in return for two and a half years of fees. And it was well worth it. Rakesh’s schooling provided the platform for a degree in Literature and Philosophy in the USA, followed by a Masters and a research posting at Harvard. He cites this education, coupled with his mothers ‘can do’ attitude, as the two biggest influences on his career.
During his trips home from the United States, Rakesh became increasingly struck by the problems facing Mwanza, specifically the growing number of street children. Captivated by this injustice, in 1991 Rakesh put his academic pursuits to one side and returned home to explore the issue full-time. For Rakesh, working hands-on with children highlighted not only the power of their abilities, but also their total lack of rights. Always one to probe an issue further, he concluded that core institutions, in particular schools, were breeding a deep-rooted belief that children are inferior to adults. “Kids are silenced”, Rakesh told us passionately. “If you go to school the most important lesson you learn is that to do well you have to be quiet, shrink, don’t ask questions, never challenge and don’t think outside the box.”
It was this insight which drove Rakesh to co-found his first organisation, Kuleana. Starting out as a street children’s charity, it gradually transformed into a child rights advocacy movement. Kuleana’s advocacy campaigns covered the issues of street children, child domestic workers, expulsion of pregnant school girls, corporal punishment, women’s rights, and education rights for all children. Their campaigns were implemented through numerous methods including workshops, training sessions, distribution of publications and media, and dialogue with communities. At its peak, Kuleana was awarded UNICEF’s highest honour, the Maurice Pate Award, for its success in influencing children’s rights issues in Tanzania. Although the organisation has now collapsed due to governance problems after the co-founders left, its legacy remains.. Kuleana planted the seeds for Rakesh’s second venture, HakiElimu, which set out to address one of the most fundamental rights of every child – education.
HakiElimu, undoubtedly the most influential of Rakesh’s organisations so far, works to realise equity, quality, human rights and democracy in education by facilitating communities to transform schools. Founded in Tanzania in 2001, the organisation was born out of the frustration that education was not improving despite decades of well-meaning efforts, because, Rakesh argues, “people had been throwing technocratic solutions at political and institutional problems.”
The Tanzanian government, like many governments around the world, has a habit of only reporting their own version of the truth. HakiElimu sees it as their job to respond to government conjecture about the state of education with objective information on rights, policies and performance. This information is compiled into accessible publications (usually short stories illustrated with cartoons) which are printed in the hundreds of thousands and distributed for free through their networks, increasing local impact and engagement.
More impactful, however, is the media messaging that HakiElimu put out through radio, television and print. In particular their TV adverts, which use funny sketches to challenge taboos, have proven hugely popular with the public. Thanks to Rakesh’s passion, he was able to persuade Tanzania’s media tycoons to provide space to HakiElimu at next to nothing cost. The adverts were so powerful that at times the TV stations were compelled by popular demand to continue airing them, despite the costs coming to several times above the contracted amount. If you search ‘HakiElimu’ on YouTube you can get a real sense of the ads – even though they are in Swahili!
According to the latest figures, the majority of African countries are on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of universal primary education by 2015, with Burundi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania having made notable progress. This has been achieved through abolition of school fees, greater public investments and improved donor support. This is a great example of progress in Africa which should be celebrated. However, organisations like HakiElimu are keen to see that this improvement is kept in context. Compared to increases in enrolment rates, there has been much less success in other areas of such as the quality of education, completion rates, enrolment in secondary and tertiary education, basic education reform, and teacher recruitment.
True to its mission, HakiElimu has got people speaking out about education. As a result of their work thousands of letters have been written to the editors of newspapers by citizens concerned about educational issues. If you ask anyone in Tanzania if they know of HakiElimu, they will usually say yes. Rakesh told us that a nationwide survey conducted in 2006 revealed that 79% of Tanzanians knew about the organisation and could cite their core messages. Brand recognition rates reach levels that most multinational organisations would die for. This can in part be attributed to the power of their Friends of Education Network, a 40,000 strong group of people across the country who are dedicated to furthering both citizen involvement in and the quality of education. . In greater part, however, this level of recognition relates to the media furore surrounding HakiElimu during its early years.
One of the most significant and long running campaigns in HakiElimu’s history was also very nearly its downfall. In 2001, with input from stakeholders including Rakesh, the Tanzanian government produced a landmark Education Development Plan for the expansion and improvement of primary education. Sadly, however, the vast budget required to implement the plan induced an upsurge in waste and in part corruption. Money wasn’t reaching the schools and even the most basic resources (books, tables, toilets) were lacking. HakiElimu used their popular publications and mass media campaigns to expose the truth. What started out as a polite request from the Minister of Education for Rakesh to stop his work, soon escalated into a full-on battle. The government banned HakiElimu’s materials and the President condemned their work in more than one public address. But the popular public support for HakiElimu was so strong that the issue became one of freedom of speech, and the might of the government was not able to shut down the organisation.
Events came to a head in 2005. The Minister of Education, with full support from the President, went to press claiming that HakiElimu was in breach of the nation’s constitution. To the embarrassment of the Minister, however, HakiElimu discovered that he had quoted an outdated version of the constitution. The subsequent fallout, covered in the nation’s media and wide public debate, left the government humiliated. A year later, with a new leadership in place in government, HakiElimu was able to negotiate a resolution through which every single restriction against it was removed. What amazed us about this story was the enormous power an organisation can create when it has the people on its side. Over several months in 2005, HakiElimu was the second most covered topic in the newspapers after the elections. And this story was not the only example where HakiElimu calls the shots. Funding challenges have been an unsurprising theme across all of the projects we’ve profiled so far. So when Rakesh said to us that “Money is the last thing we worry about”, we were fascinated. Rakesh’s strategy is to go out to donors with the aim of creating “mutual deals discussed on equal terms”. He’s very firm about what he lays on the table and refuses to bend over backwards for donors with bespoke requirements.
In a challenge to all the organisations who struggle year on year to raise the funds they need, Rakesh discourages people from using a “begging bowl approach” and insists that “If you can’t raise the money, you may need to look at the mirror”. In the twenty years since he’s been in the sector, Rakesh has raised millions of dollars and hasn’t been afraid to play hard ball. At one point, the Department for International Development (DFID) wanted to fund HakiElimu’s 2004–07 plan but in order to guarantee the money, the organisation was required to produce additional reporting – something Rakesh wasn’t willing to compromise on. Six months later, according to Rakesh, DFID changed its rules and returned to HakiElimu, but this time the organisation said “thanks but no thanks” because it was already fully funded.
So how on earth do you get to a place when you can keep this much power in your court? Having a cause which resonates with the agenda of international donors has definitely helped Rakesh along the way, but the main reason he’s been so successful is because his organisations have a reputation for hard work and great results. He communicates his impact with absolute clarity in a half year update, a comprehensive annual report and meticulously audited accounts.
Though Rakesh would have you think otherwise, he’s also an eminent name in the world of citizen engagement. Having stepped down from the helm of HakiElimu in 2007, in 2008 Rakesh kicked off an even bigger initiative called Twaweza (meaning ‘we can make it happen’). With $68m of funding from the likes of the Hewlett Foundation, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), Rakesh described the organisation to us as a “bold experiment”.
Working across Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, their goal is to broker partnerships across existing networks and communications channels (including religious communities, mass media and mobile phones) to provide millions of people with the information they need to drive change within their own communities. Using close monitoring, they aim to understand whether information delivered in this way actually leads to sustainable development, driven from the bottom up.
Through Twaweza, Rakesh is also engaging in a global effort to create more transparent, effective and and accountable governments. Working with progressive government and civil society leaders, Rakesh served as one of the more influential founding members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). At the OGP’s launch in 2011, Rakesh shared the podium with President Obama of USA and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, and delivered stirring remarks on the importance of open government, civil engagement and access to information. By the end of 2011, over fifty nations worldwide had joined the OGP, pledged to become more accountable and have their performance measured against rigorous benchmarks.
Whether working locally or globally, Twaweza represents Rakesh’s belief in addressing issues at scale. “It’s unconscionable to analyse a situation as affecting 40 million people and have a response that benefits only 400 or 40,000 people. That’s a failure of the imagination”, he declared. Rakesh also believes in looking at the root cause of an issue rather than putting a plaster over the outcomes. The more people we profiled for this book, the more we realised that there’s a real spectrum of ways to address a problem; from tackling the source to treating the symptoms. Some, like Rakesh, have firm views that without the former, the latter is a waste of time.
Rakesh achieves a great balance of analysis and action. He’s able to think big and deliver big, too. On paper he’s a prime time candidate to be a CEO of a multinational conglomerate, but Africa is lucky that, thanks to his Tanzanian roots and his unfailing social conscience, he’s chosen to work on the social advancement of his country and region instead. The greater the number of people who become armed with, and empowered by, the independent information he promotes, the greater the pace of change in Africa will become. Quite a legacy.
For more info visit:
Open Government Partnership: www.opengovpartnership.org
 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), EFA Global Monitoring Report: The Hidden Crisis – Armed Conflict and Education (2011)
 Africa Progress Panel, The Transformative Power of Partnerships, Africa Progress Report (2011)
 African Development Bank (AfDB), African Union (AU), United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Assessing Progress in Africa toward the Millennium Development Goals (2010)