The Great Equaliser: One man helping pave the way to universal education

The Dialogue sits down with inspirational people from across the globe with links to the Middle East and North Africa. Guy Shone explores what drives these extraordinary individuals.

Education is a human right – a childhood necessity enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Access to the best teaching can prevent poverty, help children unlock their potential and unleash a world of opportunities.

It’s this which drives Leonardo Pinheiro in his work at the Qatar-based Education Above All Foundation (EAA)*. “We are the most educated generation in history, but as we get close to the finishing line, those who are left behind are the ones that are the hardest to reach,” Leonardo tells The Dialogue.

As part of his work as Executive Director of Strategy, Policy and Research for the Foundation, Leonardo is looking at how to address those issues. “Once we do that on scale, we are very close to reaching the targets of universal primary education,” he says. But he’s clear that won’t happen without “a lot of political will.”

The Foundation, the brainchild of Qatari Royal Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, does that by identifying barriers and finding solutions. “Sometimes it can be a transportation problem,” Leonardo explains.

“We have a project in Bangladesh that during the monsoon, the roads will flood, and children cannot go to school because they cannot reach the school physically,” he says. EAA’s answer to this quandary wasn’t to build another school but to build a boat that would go from house to house and take the children to school.

Education caught Leonardo’s attention in Brazil during the 80s. He outlines that it was a difficult time when poverty was rampant. Yet, his personal experience of him was very different.

“I was in a privileged position because I had access to education,” Leonardo states. “[B]ut I was asking myself why everyone in my classroom just looks like me? If I go on the streets, I see all types of different people, and that stuck with me…why they were not having the same opportunities.”

Curiosity led Leonardo to want to learn more about how democracy worked, how public policies are created and why certain groups benefit from this while others are excluded. His real engagement with him was ignited when his home city of Rio de Janeiro hosted the 1992 Earth Summit.

“It was the first time that people were sitting together to discuss the future of the planet,” he says. “That was really an eye-opener for me about diplomacy, politics and civil society participation.”

That summit and how world leaders agreed on issues sparked a life-long passion for Leonardo. He soon became involved with an environmental NGO, where he first learned the importance of engaging local stakeholders in decisions about their community’s future.

“We were getting funded from the outside, and the funding was coming with some instructions. This is how we should use the money for this and for that,” Leonardo explains. “When we were working with the local communities, they were saying, ‘Oh, this will not work.'”

Localization, the idea of ​​allowing a community to have a say in how projects pan out, is one that has remained with Leonardo to this day. “It is very important…not to be arrogant, to think that you know what’s the solution, that you are the only one who can solve the problem,” he says bluntly.

Leonardo has been buoyed by seeing the successes of local projects, not only those run by EAA. “I remember 10 or 15 years ago…there was a theater afterschool program and the project was amazing because those kids, they never thought about acting,” he says.

A few years later, Leonardo was bowled over when he saw one of the children from that afterschool program taking a leading role in the 2002 Hollywood movie, City of God. “[T]hat kid really broke through,” he says. “I was very proud to see his accomplishments.”

For Leonardo, education is the key for all children to be able to be their very best. “It’s really amazing the power of education to shape dreams,” he says. It’s this ability to dream that he believes has the potential to change lives forever.

*Education Above All Foundation works to ensure equal access to education and harness the power of quality education for positive, sustainable, and inclusive change. The Foundation has secured more than $2.2Bn (USD) in funding to provide educational opportunities, transforming the lives of millions of marginalized children and young people.


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