The light of education: blind children's 'best buys'

About the author
Ehsan Masood is the Editor of Research Fortnight

It is morning and I am looking down from a balcony directly into the courtyard of the Noor school for the blind in Alexandria, Egypt. A group of boys dressed in navy-blue trousers and sky-blue shirts is kicking a football against a wall. Some are wearing baseball caps back-to-front. Children from the kindergarten class ride bicycles fixed with extra wheels to stop them falling over. Others are seated, carefully feeling their way round the wrapping of a mid-morning snack. A few tap the ground with a cane as they move from one class to the next.

Mohamed Ramadan, the school's sighted head is getting a little twitchy as he waits for the caretaker to find a key to a small storage room. The start of the week could have been better. Some of the school's teachers arrived late – it is the first day back after a long weekend. And the caretaker seems to be taking forever in finding the key.

The key arrives and Mohamed swings open the doors. In front of us is a large, industrial-sized washing machine. Mohamed grabs the machine's electric-plug and inserts it into the wall-socket. He fiddles with the dials until the machine's drum gurgles into life. On any other day, in any other place, it would be hard to get excited about a new washing machine. But I look around and see that Mohamed's enthusiasm has spread to everyone standing around him. The school has been waiting a long time for a new washing machine, he says. Clean bed-linen and fresh uniforms for pupils who are boarders mean better hygiene and fewer sick-days.

We walk further down the corridor and Mohamed opens a door to another storage room. This one is crammed full of new wooden desks. Many of the classrooms in addition already have new computers and software that can convert text into speech, new Braille printers, and a large, new electronic organ for music lessons – carefully stored in its manufacturer's packaging.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the editor of two books published in 2006 – Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He also writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network.

A selection of Ehsan Masood's articles in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO"
(December 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Language: a toolkit for life on earth"
(March 2006)

"The rocky road to citizen rule"
(April 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

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Noor, which means "light" in Arabic, is lucky. As a state-funded school it caters for children from the city's lowest-income families. Ordinary state schools cannot afford such equipment. They have little to spare after paying staff salaries and utility bills. Yet Noor school can go shopping thanks to the hard work of a dedicated, and entirely voluntary, group of fundraisers. They scour Alexandria, the rest of Egypt – and even other countries – in search of donors who are willing to donate for a specific item (such as new desks, or a new computer). In short, anything that will make a big difference to the lives of users.

In the jargon of international development, this is known as a "quick win" or a "best buy". And later that day a consortium of organisations (including the World Bank, the World Health Organisation, and – from the United States – the National Institutes of Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) launched the results of what is called the Disease Control Priorities Project at the Biovision 2006 conference, held in Alexandria itself on 26-29 April 2006. Some 500 experts in medicine, economics, epidemiology and policy have collaborated to produce a global map of healthcare priorities in developing countries. The map includes an associated list of best-buys – simple and inexpensive interventions that could make a rapid improvement in quality of life.

Take for example the fact that 82% of the world's smokers live in developing countries. An additional tax on cigarettes could help to prolong the lives of some 65 million smokers. Similarly, diseases of the heart are the cause of one out of every four deaths in the developing world. According to the project's experts, wider use of aspirin and inexpensive cholesterol-reducing drugs could "dramatically reduce" the incidence of heart attacks and strokes.

Hand by hand

In 2002, the numbers of blind people stood at nearly 37 million worldwide – half of these had lost their vision because of the formation of cataracts, which had been left untreated because of poor primary healthcare facilities. Among children, a lack of vitamin A is a leading cause of blindness and poor eyesight. In 1993, the World Health Organisation estimated that this may be the cause of eye damage in as many as 14 million children. In each case, the numbers of blind and partially-sighted could be reduced through cheap vitamin supplements and regular eye checks carried out in schools.

Back at the Noor school, I wander into a science class where a group of 16-year-old boys is revising for upcoming exams. The school is oversubscribed and entrance is gained by passing a competitive exam. Many of the pupils will themselves become much-needed teachers for the many blind and partially-sighted children who go to mainstream schools. The chatter of voices in the room is accompanied by the clatter of mechanical Braille typewriters as pupils attempt mock exam questions on human reproduction. The walls are covered with hand-drawn posters illustrating everyday science topics such as the solar system, the digestive system, and the structure of matter.

I look closer and see that the images are not so much drawn, as embossed, rather like objects that have been moulded out of clay. Aziza Azza, the science teacher, tells me what the school really needs is a device not unlike a photocopier, but which can convert ordinary line-drawings into tactile, embossed images, which pupils can recognise by touch. At present, every pupil worksheet has to be created by hand. Four years ago Aziza wrote to the government asking if they could buy the school one such machine. She shows me the ministry's response: it is a letter of rejection.

"Can your readers help us to get this machine?" she asks me. All I can do is try, I reply.