Ann Cotton is the founder of the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed), which she established in 1993 to support children in staying in school. Over the past 28 years, the organization has helped over 3 million children in five countries, with a plan to support another million over the next five years.
Cotton believes that changemakers do not come from the elites or the rich but from the poor, which is why she invests in them. She also emphasizes that poverty is not something that only happens to people who are different from us.
Despite the challenges facing education in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Indonesia, Cotton has seen success in her work. She is pleased to see that many of the children Camfed has supported are now helping to educate the next generation. Cotton has been recognized for her work with several awards, including the Wise prize at an education summit in Qatar and the OECD’s recognition of best practice in development innovation. The organization’s model involves creating sustainability, in part through Cama, a pan-African network of over 25,000 Camfed graduates who are now rural businesswomen and role models. Almost 5,000 of these graduates have become teachers.
Cotton says: “We only recruit inside Africa for our staff. We don’t send in outsiders to tell them what to do. And accountability is first and foremost to the child, not the donor. We aren’t swinging with every fashion, every shift in donor or government interests. You can’t raise the aspirations of a child and then leave them hanging, poverty can’t be solved by a project. Its solved by a relationship, collaboration, not coming in and making a new structure and putting our name over it and moving on.”
Born in Cardiff to parents from mining communities in Aberdare, Cotton won a scholarship to a private girls’ school where teachers promptly began the process of anglicising and gentrifying the young Welsh girl as effectively as they could.
She says: “It was different times, with antiquated methods, but it was a sharp lesson in feeling like an outsider, of loneliness.” The exclusion she felt drew her towards her first job, a teacher at a challenging state comprensive in south London. In 1991, on a trip to Zimbabwe, she ended up among the Tonga and Kore Kore people, who had been displaced by the colonial-era Kariba dam in the late 1950s and whose lives have been utterly devastated as a result. It resonated.
Cotton says: “They had unwittingly colluded with their own downfall. They were promised everything – schools, clinics, homes – and of course they got nothing, less than nothing. The more I learned the more I saw parallels between what had happened in Wales with the miners, the powerlessness, the fact that the only thing you have is your labour and the only thing you can withdraw is your labour and if you do that for too long then you won’t survive. Even with enormous community cohesion, it isn’t possible to win. It was a metaphor for the poor everywhere.”
Ann Cotton’s experience in Zimbabwe made her realize the full magnitude of colonization, and she became angrier when she returned to the UK and saw what was being done to help. She felt patronized by aid agencies, who believed that girls weren’t attending school because of family resistance. But when she talked to people in poor and traditional villages, she discovered that they were making clear economic decisions based on socioeconomic issues.
Cotton believes that the international development community has resisted accepting the complexity of decision-making in poverty, and that there is a history of NGOs going into areas and imposing solutions without truly understanding the needs of the people they are trying to help. Poverty diminishes confidence, so people may accept what is offered to them, even if it is not what they really need.
Cotton emphasizes that Camfed supports without imposing, stating that “You can’t just go in and throw up a school and expect it all to work,” which she believes is why initiatives like Madonna’s school failed. Despite not being a well-known figure, Cotton is a highly regarded international speaker who has received numerous awards, including the Wise Prize for education. She has gained a following with her unpretentious demeanor, friendly smile, firmness as a schoolteacher, and keen sense of injustice. Supporters include Sarah Brown, Cherie Blair, and the Queen, who bestowed upon her an OBE.
Cotton recognizes the importance of power dynamics and acknowledges that power largely rests with white middle-class men, although there are other elites as well. She believes that the world cannot afford to ignore the poor and marginalized and expect to make progress. She notes that education systems perpetuate the status quo, with the children of the elite attending the best schools and getting the best jobs, not necessarily because they are the most capable. Cotton believes that we must leverage the intellectual power across the globe, whether in Malawi or Britain, rather than squandering it.