Ten Innovative NGOs in Education

Education is one of the most powerful weapons in fighting poverty. However, countries lacking substantial educational infrastructure can face a number of unique problems: rural access, gender inequalities, child labor, and more. These problems required equally unconventional solutions–here’s how ten NGOs are working to solve the education gap.

Barefoot College

Founded: 1972
Primary Work: Capacity building in rural villages
Located: India
Website: http://www.barefootcollege.org
Interesting fact: The entire campus is run on solar power

Barefoot College (originally “Social Works and Research Centre”) started when Megrhaj–a man from the rural Indian villiage of Tilonia–and Sanjit “Bunker” Roy–a graduate of Dehli University–met, became friends, and discovered they shared a common goal. They sought to apply the wisdom of traditional knowledge to contemporary problems through knowledge-sharing between skilled, highly educated professionals (engineers, geologists, economists, doctors, social workers) and the poorest of the poor in rural India.

Today, the organization helps train local community members as teachers, solar power engineers, and specialists in other fields. Quickly realizing that most children were expected to work in the home or graze flocks during the day, the Tilona campus rescheduled classes for nighttime. One of Barefoot’s central beliefs is “that ‘literacy’ is what one acquires in school, but ‘education’ is what one gains from family, traditions, culture, environment and personal experiences… [and] Both are important for individual growth.” In addition to its educational efforts, the organization also seeks to demystify and decentralize technology use, promote female empowerment, and develop villages from the inside out–rather than vice-versa. Barefoot College was ranked number two in educational NGOs by The Global Journal for 2013.

Room to Read

Founded: 2000
Primary Work: Building literacy and gender equality
Located: 10 countries in the south of Africa and Asia
Website: http://www.roomtoread.org
Interesting fact: The program employs local authors to write children’s books in the mother tongue

Room to Read’s efforts are focused into two main areas: building literacy and the habit of reading among primary school children, and empowering girls to complete secondary school and succeed beyond that. One of the elements that makes this organization unique, however, is the way it goes about its global outreach. Following a model similar to Amnesty International, Room to Read has become one of the most prominent international education programs with a university following; the organization boasts 50 chapters in 16 countries, with over 11,000 volunteers. Their documentary, Girl Rising, has become well known throughout the United States (watch a trailer).

Along with creating a global movement, the more concrete aspects of the Room to Read model include: programs to support girls both financially and emotionally, both in school and after graduation; building new schools and providing training or supplementary materials to teachers; establishing and stocking libraries;and publishing books in the local language. Room to Read was ranked third in educational NGOs by The Global Journal for 2013, and received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator. Among its other accomplishments, the organization has founded over 15,000 libraries and impacted the lives of 7.8 million children.


Founded: 1994
Primary Work: Education and vocational training
Located: India
Website: http://pratham.org/default.aspx
Interesting fact: Just over half of the 600,000 Indian villages have a Pratham volunteer

Pratham’s mission, “Every child in school and learning well,” began with pre-school education in the slums of Mumbai in 1994. Originally a collaboration between UNICEF and the state of India, the organization quickly began establishing a grassroots movement based on community spaces and volunteerism. The organization soon expanded to help improve reading, writing and basic arithmetic skills of children between six and fourteen years old through their flagship program, Read India. This program alone has reached more than 2.4 million children and trained over 61,000 teachers. In most states where Pratham intervened, nearly 100 percent of children know at least the alphabet, and the proportion of children able to read simple sentences has increased by nearly 20 percent. Other efforts seek to measure child enrollment and progress throughout the country; combat child trafficking and aid vulnerable children; teach English as well as vocational and technological skills; and promote literacy for mothers. Pratham was named a “standout organization” and number one in developing-world education in 2011 by GiveWell, a charity research organization. It was one of The Global Journal’s top 100 NGOs in 2013.


Founded: 1991
Primary Work: Community development education
Located): Djibouti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia, The Gambia
Website: http://www.tostan.org
Interesting fact: At least nine positions in the 17-member, democratically-elected Community Management Committee in each village must be filled by women.

Tostan means “breakthrough” in Wolof, a language indigenous to West Africa. After spending time in Senegalese villages in the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer, Tostan’s founder Molly Melching recognized the need for a system of development that was tailored to individual communities, and therefore more relevant. Her unconventional model combines education and development goals in a “three year nonformal education program,” which seeks to help rural communities develop their own localized strategies for development.

The Tostan model begins with a facilitator, who is assigned to live and work with a community for three years. Two classes with 25-30 community members are established, one for adults and one for adolescents. In the first phase of classes, students are introduced to basic human rights concepts and health practices through traditional and nonformal teaching methods. The second phase focuses on reading and mathematical literacy, as well as project management and income-generation. Tostan also helps train a 17-member “Community Management Committee,” which is elected by the community to implement development projects. According to Hillary Clinton, “Tostan’s approach succeeds because of its deep respect for the people it serves.” Over 200,000 people have directly participated in Tostan’s programming since it was founded. The organization was named one of The Global Journal’s top 100 NGOs and has received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for five consecutive years, among other accolades.

Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE)

Founded: 1992
Primary Work: Education advocacy
Located: 34 African countries
Website: http://www.fawe.org
Interesting fact: The Tuseme (“Let Us Speak Out”) initiative uses drama, song and creative arts to train girls to identify and understand the problems that affect them, articulate these problems and take action to solve them.

Five female ministers of education came together in 1992 to create the Forum for African Women Educationalists, the first organization of its kind on the continent. Unlike many other education organizations, which focus on improving conditions in one particular region, FAWE concentrates the energy of its multi-national coalition on advocating before governments and communities, and encouraging the adoption of education best practices across Africa. As a pan-African NGO, FAWE acts as a network of researchers, education advocates, and government leaders–with the goal of strengthening capacity for individuals and organizations seeking to influence policy-making. Thirty-four of Africa’s 55 recognized states have a national chapter.

One of FAWE’s primary concerns is promoting education for girls. They have a number of initiatives, including Gender-Responsive Pedagogy (GRP), which was introduced in 2005 to train teachers in strategies of promoting female retention and success in education. Another youth empowerment program helped reduce sexual harassment and gender discrimination by both teachers and male students, reaching 80,000 students (both male and female). FAWE was recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative in 2011, and ranked in The Global Journal’s top 100 NGOs in both 2012 and 2013.

CARE Education

Founded: 1994
Primary Work: Teacher training and issue-based education
Located: 36 countries worldwide
Website: http://www.care.org/careswork/whatwedo/education/index.asp
Interesting fact: CARE’s “The Girl Effect” video shows how reaching a girl before adolescence can change the course of her life.

The original creator of the “CARE package”, the organization has since expanded its aid program to include a wealth of education services. It is especially well-known for its efforts to rebuild education systems in post-conflict states, as well as other countries in crisis–whether the catalyst is political disorder or natural disaster; However, CARE has a number of other educational initiatives which are less well known. CARE programs seek to help cushion education systems against the impact of HIV/AIDs–particularly through addressing the emotional needs of orphans and institutional needs of systems in areas with devastated adult populations. There are also specially-tailored programs designed to reduce instances of child labor, and initiatives prioritizing gender equality in education.

In 2012, more than 2.3 million people gained access to education or technical training through the CARE’s services.

Escuela Nueva

Founded: 1989
Primary Work: Addressing social and educational issues
Located: Colombia, has inspired reforms in 16 other countries
Website: http://www.escuelanueva.org/portal/en.html
Interesting fact: Escuela Nueva projects and intervention have worked in the following countries: Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, India, Mexico, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, East Timor and Vietnam.

In the 25 years since its founding, Escuela Nueva has drastically improved the quality of education in Colombia, as well as the 16 other countries following the same model. The program was originally developed to provide training and educational strategies to teachers of rural, multigrade classrooms. Through transferring the educational focus from teachers to students, and establishing active, participatory, and cooperative class styles, Escuela Nueva engages the students in an educational environment that is tailored to their needs and their resources. The Escuela Nueva model includes the curriculum itself, outreach and community participation, the administration, and training and evaluation. Since 1993, studies undertaken by the international community have demonstrated that the model leads to improvements not only in academic strength, but also in students’ self-esteem, cooperation, and gender-equality.

In 1989 the Escuela Nueva model was recognized by the World Bank as being one of the three most successful public policy reforms in developing countries around the world. Additionally, in 2000 the Human Development Report by the United Nations selected Escuela Nueva as one of the three greatest achievements in the country. The organization was also ranked in The Global Journal’s top 100 NGOs.

Center for Digital Inclusion

Founded: 1995
Primary Work: Making technological education accessible to marginalized communities
Located: US, Spain, UK and and Latin America
Website: http://cdiglobal.org
Interesting fact: CDI partnered with Free Library of Philadelphia Tech Mobile to provide Philadelphia residents with free access to the internet via pop up computer labs

The Center for Digital Inclusion’s programming operates under an expanded definition of vulnerable communities–encapsulating not only low-income and indigenous groups, but also psychiatric clinics, hospitals for the mentally and physically disabled, and youth or adult detention facilities. CDI seeks to familiarize members of these communities with technology, as well as build technological competency. In the 18 years since it was founded, CDI has reached 1.54 million people, empowering changemakers through local ownership and its no-handout approach to development. The organization’s programming allows students to use technology to implement a “social advocacy project” over the course of four months–collaboratively identifying a common problem in their community and coming up with an action plan to overcome it. Realizing the impacts of the “digital divide” on economic and social stratification, the Center has focused on making technology more accessible to otherwise vulnerable groups. In addition to recognition by the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, CDI has received the Humanitarian of the World Award, as well as a number of other awards.


Founded: 2007
Primary Work: Creating educational programming, capacity building
Located: United States; Kenya, Phillipines, Haiti,
Website: http://litworld.org/
Interesting fact: Solar Lanterns subsidized by LitWorld replace kerosene lanterns in family homes, helping to save money, prevent unhealthy fumes, allow for studying at home, and save the environment!

LitWorld trains local community members to start LitClubs in their area, where children are taught the LitWorld seven strengths: Belonging, Curiosity, Kindness, Friendship, Confidence, Courage, and Hope. The program seeks to build resilience and cultivate literacy skills among its students by helping them create and write their own narratives. Not only does the organization seek to empower youth by engaging them in reading and writing, LitWorld also intentionally creates safe spaces for children to develop their craft and their identities. Volunteers help conduct summer learning bridge programs, called LitCamps. Beyond these initiatives, LitWorld also supports community growth by promoting reading and good health through their World Read Aloud Day and solar lantern campaign.

In 2012, LitWorld was ranked third in “Inspiring Literacy and Educational Non-Profits” by Goodnet–a social media platform which curates a collection of nonprofit organizations in order to connect individuals with opportunities to “do good”.

Reach Out to Asia (ROTA)

Founded: 2005
Primary Work: Rebuilding educational systems in crisis countries
Located: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria
Website: http://www.reachouttoasia.org/
Interesting fact: Over 25,000 participants engaged in 66 youth-led community service projects for the launch of ROTA’s Global Citizen Corps.

A member of the Qatar Foundation, Reach out to Asia zeroes in on “crisis countries” to help reconstruct fragile education systems. With nine different areas of focus–including teacher training, youth empowerment, and environmental education–ROTA establishes a number of programs in each target country to help a nation recover and rebuild even stronger than before. Through partnerships with local nonprofits, ROTA is able to build concrete and sustainable programming. One of their unique programs provided sahur and iftar (morning and evening meals eaten during the Islamic holy month, Ramadan) to disadvantaged youth during disaster preparedness and risk reduction programming. Another initiative provides safe education spaces for children in the Gaza Strip. Additionally, its innovative use of technology has allowed over 2,000,000 students worldwide to connect and engage in collaborative projects through the organization’s iEARN-Qatar project. In one year, nearly 100 buildings were reconstructed or rehabilitated and over 30,000 students were provided with access to education in safe, secure and/or flood resistant school buildings.  In 2009 ROTA was granted special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC)

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