Can Better School Design Improve Educational Quality in the Developing World?

Over the last decade and a half there have been tremendous gains in global education enrollment. Nevertheless in 2014 the United Nations reported there that while more children than ever are going to school, many are not getting the basic reading and math skills they will need to escape poverty. In part this is due to a shortage of trained teachers, but it is also a result of the poor physical condition of many schools. The majority of schools in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, do not have access to electricity or potable water.

In order for the world to achieve inclusive and equitable quality education for all (Sustainable Development Goal 4), development practitioners are stepping up their game, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. In addition, the global development community is focused on specific populations needing special attention, including refugee children, persons with disabilities, and those living in rural areas.

Redesigning the Physical Space.

While new technology may offer some a vision of education untethered to place, others are examining ways to redesign the built environment to improve the quality of learning outcomes.

A study published in Building and Environment in 2013 reviewed learning rates and classroom design in seven UK schools over the course of a year. Researchers evaluated the classroom environment along multiple design parameters, including classroom orientation, natural light and noise, temperature and air quality, as well as flexibility of space, storage facilities, and even the use of color. What they found was extraordinary – fully 73% of the variation in student performance, driven at the class level, could be explained by the physical environment.

Redesigning the built environment presents a unique challenge, given the wide range of factors that contribute to the human experience in a particular space. What we do know, is that great designs often begin with listening.

In a forward to the book, Design for Good: A New Era of Architecture for Everyone, by John Cary, Melinda Gates talked about her experience at Microsoft, and how she learned to appreciate the value of listening to fully understand customer needs in order to design more user-friendly software.

When it comes to the built environment, it is important both to listen to what people say, as well as observe their behavior in a given space. In describing her visit to a clinic in Haiti run by Paul Farmer, a physician who co-founded Partners in Health, Gates recalled that as she approached the clinic, she saw a beautiful garden growing outside the clinic. Farmer explained to her how he had planted the garden to provide a place where his patients could rest in the shade while they awaited care.

That seemingly small act, Gates felt, reflected Farmer’s principled refusal to compromise when it came to his patients’ needs. Indeed, she says, “He wanted them to be empowered to expect more for themselves.”

When it comes to providing quality and inclusive education for all, there’s no reason that schools cannot be designed to be safe and functional, as well as beautiful and inviting places for young people to learn. Indeed, the right school design can be all of these things, and stay within budget.

Global Washington member, Sahar Education, is getting ready to build a new boarding school for girls in Afghanistan. Ginna Brelsford, executive director at Sahar, and her team worked closely with Seattle architectural firm Miller Hull on the design.

“We’ve been thinking a lot about how design promotes learning, especially in a conflict zone,” Brelsford said. “How does one build in an area of extreme poverty, and create a beautiful, safe space for girls to learn?”

As it turns out, the cost of building the new school from “ugly concrete slabs” as opposed to the exquisite architectural design they came up with was not much higher, according to Brelsford. But the students’ experience in such a learning environment will be incalculable.


The following Global Washington members promote and support a more dignified, safe and inclusive educational experience for children, youth, and adults across the developing world.

Ashesi University Foundation

Ashesi University Foundation mobilizes support for Ashesi University in Ghana. Ashesi’s mission is to educate a new generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders in Africa and cultivate within its students the critical thinking skills, concern for others and courage it will take to transform their continent. Founded in 2002 by Ghanaian Patrick Awuah, Ashesi offers majors in Computer Science, Business Administration, MIS, and Engineering, all grounded in a liberal arts core curriculum. Ashesi plans to broaden its impact by growing to 1,000 students by 2020 and adding new programs, while maintaining their strong culture of ethics and critical thinking.

Bo M. Karlsson Foundation

Founded in 2004, the Bo M. Karlsson Foundation (BMKF) awards higher education scholarships to underprivileged women in Nepal. Over the past decade, BMKF has awarded scholarships to 45 young women who have gone on to pursue careers in accounting, business management, engineering, journalism, law, medicine, nursing, public health, rural development, social work and teaching. As the majority of BMKF scholars come from remote villages, most are the first in their families to receive any education. Several scholars have a physical disability, belong to marginalized castes or ethnic groups, or have experienced harrowing civil war and human trafficking situations. All share a passion for education. BMKF is committed to helping them succeed.


For two decades buildOn has mobilized rural communities in some of the economically poorest countries on the planet. The organization builds schools with villages that lack adequate classrooms – where students learn in huts, are taught under trees, or walk miles to a neighboring villages. Or don’t go to school at all. To date, buildOn has built 1,323 schools internationally.

Construction for Change

Construction for Change partners with organizations that provide life-changing resources but have outgrown their current facilities or want to expand the services they offer. It designs buildings that match the needs of the people who use them, because great work is even better in great spaces. Construction for Change builds to last; its facilities meet the highest standards of safety and durability. Through natural disasters, time, and difficult environmental conditions, its structures stay standing to provide space for positive change.

Mission Africa

Mission Africa believes that education is the key to ending generational poverty and that investment in education can have a profound impact on communities. Many African countries do not offer free education and Mission Africa is dedicated to ensuring that all children regardless of their income level have access to quality education. In the past ten years, Mission Africa’s academic scholarship program has awarded 795 scholarships and has allowed more than 300 students in rural villages in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Togo, Rwanda and Uganda to graduate high school and continue on to college or vocational training. Mission Africa has also shipped 10 40-foot containers filled with books and school supplies to children and families in Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania.

Mona Foundation

Since its founding in 1999, Mona Foundation has had a simple but compelling goal — to support grassroots educational initiatives that build stronger and more sustainable communities and ultimately alleviate poverty. Mona partners with organizations that work to reduce the barriers to education, improve quality of learning and cultivate agency of the individual. The foundation’s programs use an integrated approach to develop academic skills, and creative and moral capabilities, to transform young people into agents of change in service to their families and communities. Mona Foundation has awarded more than $12 million to 38 initiatives in 18 countries, providing access to quality education and training for more than 258,000 students, teachers and parents annually.


NPH USA supports Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (Spanish for “Our Little Brothers and Sisters”) which is raising more than 3,400 orphaned, abandoned and disadvantaged boys and girls in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. NPH believes that a quality education is the key to a better life. Many children arrive at NPH with little or no formal schooling. Each child is given a strong foundation of basic academic and interpersonal skills and provided with an extensive variety of educational opportunities. Nearly all of NPH homes feature on-site schools from Montessori preschool through middle or high school, as well as vocational trade certification courses. In 2015, NPH supported 369 students in university – the most in the organization’s history. An additional 2,100 children who live in low income areas outside the homes receive scholarships to attend NPH schools.

Rwanda Girls Initiative

Rwanda Girls Initiative’s mission is to educate and empower girls in Rwanda to reach their highest potential. The organization’s vision is for students to graduate as inspired young leaders, filled with confidence, a love of learning and a sense of economic empowerment to strengthen their communities and foster Rwanda’s growth. The Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology (GGAST) is an innovative and socio-economically diverse model upper-secondary STEM school designed to provide a “whole girl” education. GGAST provides a rigorous college prep academic program, combined with leadership training and extra-curricular activities that fills girls with confidence so they can pursue their dreams of university education and impactful vocations. Since opening GGAST’s doors in January 2011, Rwanda Girls Initiative has educated 270 girls each year with a 93 percent matriculation rate to universities in 16 countries, including 153 in the U.S. and Canada with over $30 million in scholarships.

Sahar Education

Sahar provides access to education in Afghanistan and supports an educated future for Afghan girls, enabling them to actively participate in social, political and economic arenas in their communities. Sahar builds schools, computer centers and teacher training programs, utilizing local labor and community support. Since 2009, Sahar has invested over $2 million in building, repairing and supplying schools in Afghanistan, a country in which 45 percent of schools operate without adequate buildings. Sahar operates 13 schools, 9 rural and 4 urban, and 87 classrooms have been built or renovated. Sahar impacts 20,000 girls annually and serves girls from Uzbek, Tajik, Pashto and Hazar ethnic groups. In total, Sahar’s programs have impacted more than 200,000 girls.

Schools for Salone

Schools for Salone is a non-profit that revitalizes Sierra Leonean communities, empowers children and improves socioeconomic conditions for families, communities and future generations. The organization improves access to and quality of education, and has built 18 schools and three libraries since 2005. Schools for Salone also trains teachers at intensive summer institutes. With a proven track record of working with Sierra Leoneans as they rebuild after a ten-year civil war, the organization builds new schools within three months after funds are raised. Through opportunities that only an education can provide, Schools for Salone strives to break the cycle of poverty, one school at a time.


Spreeha empowers underprivileged people by providing healthcare, education, and skills training. Spreeha’s work in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh builds on its core values of empathy, creativity, lean methodology, continuous learning, and partnership. The objective is to create longer term positive changes like healthcare and education for women and children.  In most cases, those being served are pregnant and rape victims or children who have been orphaned. Spreeha’s early childhood development centers aim to create a safe and supportive learning environment for the refugee children with pre-school education.  Spreeha strives to create lasting impacts on the lives of those who are in the most difficult of situations.