Oprah’s Educational Adventure

Analyzing the Media Mogul’s Effort to Further Girls’ Education in South Africa

“Promote gender equality and empower women” reads the third Millennium Development Goal, put forth by the United Nations Development Programme, to be achieved by 2015. This is an ambitious plan: more than 115 million children worldwide do not attend primary school, of which the majority are girls. Only 43 percent of all girls are enrolled in secondary school and attend classes regularly.

This is especially disconcerting news as an increased focus on girls’ education has proved to have statistically higher social returns than boys’ schooling. A higher level of education for girls indirectly influences a country’s level of health and its growth rate, contributing to disease prevention awareness and more successful family planning.

It is also helps growing economies by creating more skilled labor and increases the potential for raising and educating a new generation of even more skilled children.

One example of an educational assistance project working on this issue in a developing country is the Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa founded by U.S. media queen Oprah Winfrey. South Africa still carries the historical burden of racial discrimination from the period of Apartheid and its traditionally-patriarchal society.

Although recent statistics and enforced quotas create the feeling of apparent gender equity in South African education, the country struggles to provide quality primary and secondary education to all children, in particular in rural areas.

The location of schools and available transport, the family’s financial situation, as well as the high number of HIV cases and sexual abuse (with over 30 percent of all rapes inflicted by teachers) prevent gender equity from becoming a reality.

Herself raised in simple conditions and raped at the age of nine, Oprah Winfrey decided to invest not less than $40 million into building her dream school.

High-profile private donations and initiatives are not rare today. Interestingly, private U.S. remittances of more than 70 billion USD per annum exceed the current 24 billion USD of foreign aid by almost 200 percent.

With an insufficient foreign aid budget of only about 0.2 percent of the US gross national income (GNI), the U.S. (like most Western nations) has continuously failed to provide the UN target of 0.7 percent towards the achievement of the MDGs and other international development projects.

Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy aims at providing excellent education to create the intellectual foundation and social skills for its students to pursue a university degree and assume leadership positions in South Africa and beyond.

The first class of 152 girls in grades seven and eight, admitted in 2007, was hand-picked by Oprah. The girls, who came from all nine South African provinces, set themselves apart through academic excellence and leadership potential. Admission is restricted by a maximum family income of about 500 USD per month, favoring girls from impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds.

With an acceptance rate of only about 4 percent (more competitive than Harvard or MIT), the school will eventually be home to 450 students from grade 7 to 12 — enjoying a student-teacher ratio of about 15:1 in contrast to the national average of about 31:1.

The campus was ornamented by 500 artists and built with great love of detail. It provides cutting-edge science and computer technology, a 10,000 book library, a theatre, sports facilities, a wellness center and accommodations on 52 acres.

The school has received international attention and praise from celebrities such as Nelson Mandela, as well as intense criticism. Although I agree that the intentions of the project are convincing, and the progress so far points to a brighter future inspiring and bringing hope to South Africans, we have to remain skeptical about the success of the highly materialist and westernized dimension of Oprah’s extravagance.

Oprah’s decision to provide more comfortable facilities than tin roof boxes is understandable, but is such an enormous investment in so few students justified and necessary in a country ranked #121 on the UNDP’s development index?

Does Oprah fully realize the dimensions and implications of the culturally-different terrain she has entered, or is she blinded by the emotionally-directed ideals of her altruistic creation?

How will children — some of them orphans coming from simple, rural communities — react and relate to splendor which is even regarded to be luxurious for US standards?

Instead of creating future leaders, Oprah runs the risk of alienating its students from its local communities, making reintegration into their original backgrounds impossible.

Local communities and parents already complain about the lack of transparency and limited opportunities to visit their children and the campus. As a media guru, how qualified is Oprah to create an elite educational system and maintain the credibility for the school’s quality and status?

This showcase project outlines the difficulties and critical factors which govern the success of this and any other similar initiatives: design with conceptual integrity, applicability and relevance to the historical and social setting, budgeting, timing of the implementation and the challenge of sustainability.

In spite of its immense capital intensity and impact still to be awaited, the concept of private celebrity development work has already found imitators. Madonna, the ‘Queen of Pop’ herself, will start the construction of her own multi-million-dollar girls’ school later this year.

Stella Viktoria Schieffer is a member of the Class of 2009.