In 2010, Lawrence O'Donnell forged a partnership between MSNBC and UNICEF to launch an ambitious campaign called K.I.N.D.: Kids in Need of Desks. The goal: outfit schools in Malawi with that one critical piece of classroom equipment that can make all the difference to a young learner — a seat off the floor, a flat surface to write on, a way to stay focused and excel. To date, K.I.N.D. has delivered over 235,000 desks benefiting some 938,500 students, with more on the way.
K.I.N.D. also provides scholarships to girls to help them complete secondary school, benefiting 10,663 girls so far, including 3,801 who will complete secondary school this academic year. In Malawi, school is not free; more than half the population lives on less than $2 a day, and girls are often the first to drop out when a family cannot afford to pay all of their children's school fees.
O'Donnell, who has visited the country almost every year around this time since the program launched, but could not make it this year due to the pandemic, recently connected with UNICEF Malawi Representative Rudolf Schwenk over Zoom for an update. "The desks are now an important part of the public health strategy in the schools," O'Donnell told MSNBC viewers this week during a segment for "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell."
The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
RUDOLF SCHWENK: Hello Lawrence, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to have a chat on the fantastic support that you're giving to the program in Malawi, in particular for education. It is really very special. As you know from having been here before, and visiting several districts, desks are something the country needed. And now the desks are needed more than ever because of COVID.
It was very, very important to do the school closures (earlier this year), but of course it has led to a loss in education for children. It has also had secondary negative effects — girls not being protected. We have seen an increase in early marriages, and in teen pregnancies. We are trying now to recover from that.
During the closures, UNICEF worked with the Ministry of Education to support distance learning. We set up radio programs that reached millions of children. We also started learning modules for secondary education. But schools have reopened now, and students are back in school. Those girls who had dropped out, we are working to get them back to school and ensure that they get the support and the protection that they need.
The [K.I.N.D.] program is making a great, great impact — providing scholarships for girls for their secondary education, and by continuing to provide the desks. I mean, what’s more important than a desk? We have all been to school, those of us who grew up in Western countries. I’m from Germany and I had the privilege to sit at a desk. But it’s not a privilege, it’s really a basic right.
Desk production is going on for the next batch, and that’s very good news. I’m looking forward to handing them over. We have fine-tuned the process, and they will be even better. We have a better design, and we have better quality assurance.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: Do the students get masks to go to school?
RUDOLF SCHWENK: Yes, personal protective equipment (PPE) is one area UNICEF has been supporting from the start [of the pandemic]. I am quite proud of the team.
As you know, Malawi is prone to emergencies — floods, storms, even earthquakes — so we had already sort of fine-tuned our machinery around emergency response. So when this novel emergency happened, the COVID-19 pandemic for which nobody really was prepared, our team swung into action.
We had our multi-sectoral platform ready to respond and we had our very strong partnerships in place. We could supply the PPE and also do the training with frontline health workers in infection prevention and control, which is also very important, building their capacity and keeping them safe and healthy.
Despite the global shortage of PPE, with funding from different donors and also in funding from the Malawi government, we were able to bring supplies into the country. We were also able to initiate local production [of PPE], and help develop the capacity of local manufacturers for mass production. I think it’s 2 million masks that we've procured locally, with a due process, of course, and with quality control. So we are increasing access to masks for children, and for teachers.
And by the way — we have not seen an increase in coronavirus cases due to the schools reopening, no evidence of increased transmission.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: What about hand sanitizer? I know in most schools in Malawi there is no place to wash your hands…
RUDOLF SCHWENK: That is true for many schools, but the situation is improving. There are a lot of schools now that have gained access to clean water and sanitation. One UNICEF-supported program installs solar-powered water supply systems in schools and communities. And there is soap available too from local producers. We’re also installing new hand washing stations that are hands-free, that you operate with a foot pedal.
Making sure schools have proper water, sanitation and hygiene facilities is a top priority for the new government, and we will be working with them closely on this.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: What else has UNICEF been involved in, outside of the schools?
RUDOLF SCHWENK: We have helped children and young people engage more directly with their government, with the country’s leaders. UNICEF has always encouraged young people to get involved, and to advocate for issues that are important to them.
Just recently, we arranged for about 60 children from all over the country to participate in a dialogue with His Excellency, the President of Malawi. The Girl Scouts of Malawi were there too, it was fantastic to see the Girl Scouts. The children asked some great questions, about education and about how the government plans to reverse the loss of learning for children.
And the President was really engaged. He asked his ministers to set up a dashboard, to set deadlines for progress, and he wants updates. So that is wonderful.
We had a similar dialogue when the UN turned 75, this time with university students. It was great to give them a platform. Young people have the ideas, and they have the energy. They know what the problems are, and they can come up with solutions. And we should listen.
Young people have the ideas, and they have the energy. They know what the problems are, and they can come up with solutions. And we should listen.
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL: Why do you think Malawi has been relatively successful, preventing COVID-19 spread?
RUDOLF SCHWENK: That is the big question. One thing, of course, is that people wash their hands. They keep their distance and they wear a mask. Those are the big three important behavioral changes that we communicated through traditional leaders and through district officials, through mass media, radio and television. I think that was very powerful. We reached many, many people.
I think it also has to do with the measures taken in partnership with the government and other partners. We supported screening at the borders, because there is a large migrant community. We trained health workers and we provided protective equipment. Another reason could be that life happens more outside here. And we have a young population. Children make up more than half the population of Malawi.
There could be several other factors. Studies are still ongoing; we will know better maybe 10 years from now why Africa was not hit as hard.
We cannot forget the secondary effects [of the COVID-19 pandemic]. Poverty will increase unless we act. And we know what needs to be done.
But we cannot forget the secondary effects. Poverty will increase unless we act. And we know what needs to be done. We know how to fight poverty, and together we can really make a difference.
For example, we have the unconditional cash transfer program here. I had the privilege of visiting some of the beneficiaries, families and single mothers. I have to say, hats off. What they have achieved is really remarkable — starting small businesses so they can earn and get their kids into school. These cash transfer programs really help with the socio-economic recovery. We are preparing to roll it out in the urban areas as well, together with our different partners, as part of COVID recovery efforts.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL: I wish I could be there. Thank you for the update, I really appreciate it. Clearly the need is still there for what we're doing.
Top photo: When the desks from K.I.N.D. arrived at Luwambaza Primary School in northern Malawi's Nkhatabay district, everything changed, the school's deputy head teacher, Steven Munthali, told UNICEF. Students' handwriting improved, and their enthusiasm for learning increased. Read "Desks Save the Day: Learning During COVID-19 in Malawi" to learn more. © UNICEF Malawi/2020/Malumbo Simwaka