Every two years, the Jacobs Foundation awards the Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Prizes to trailblazers seeking evidence-based solutions to education’s biggest challenges. In this series, Annie Brookman-Byrne meets with the finalists of the 2022 awards. In part 4, Annie talks to Guilherme Lichand from Movva in Brazil.

Annie Brookman-Byrne: When it comes to education, what are the common challenges facing Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa?

Guilherme Lichand: The two regions shared similar challenges before the pandemic, and all of the countries where COVID-19 caused schools to be closed for a long time struggled with remote learning.

Before 2020, both regions had made great strides in educating children and adolescents – by providing free basic education through public schools or through vouchers for private providers. Primary and secondary school enrolment rates were at record highs. However, both regions struggled to ensure that children were receiving high-quality education. Most students were graduating without basic proficiency in reading or math. In Brazil, only half of 15-year-olds achieved minimum proficiency levels in reading, according to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment.

The pandemic made matters worse. In both regions, educational systems were making only very limited use of technology prior to the advent of remote learning, and economies were hit hard by the mobility restrictions that were imposed in response to the pandemic. The pandemic also led to pressure on children to work, as most adults lost employment and income during that period. Inequalities increased across most dimensions.

“Existing challenges were magnified, not only because of learning losses, but also because students dropped out of school.”

Existing challenges were magnified, not only because of learning losses, but also because students dropped out of school. The International Monetary Fund projects that these impacts could reduce the income-generating potential of these future workers – who have been scarred by the pandemic – by up to 10%, unless drastic action is taken.  

ABB: What is your vision for the future of education in these regions?

GL: I wish for a future in which all children can grow up to achieve their potential – no matter where they were born, their gender, or the color of their skin. That will only happen if government and civil society come together to rewrite our ongoing social contract. We are finally seeing efforts to stop and even reverse climate change so that our children will still have a world to live in when they grow up. But even if we succeed in that endeavor, the world will still be extremely unequal because quality education continues to be a privilege. 

One of the keys to unlocking a brighter future might be to expand vocational and technical education in both regions. This would allow more students to graduate from high school and then find productive, high-paying jobs. In addition, it is important for a larger share of the adult population to complete higher education.      

“I wish for a future in which all children can grow up to achieve their potential – no matter where they were born, their gender, or the color of their skin.”

ABB: What solutions are needed in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa?

GL: Teacher training is key. We need to ensure that students are actually learning. Students can only achieve proficiency if teachers not only know the content they teach, but are able to accommodate the diverse needs and backgrounds of their students so that everyone in the class can succeed.

At the governance level, successful educational systems in these regions share a culture that focuses on measuring and rewarding performance. Cross-sectoral initiatives beyond education are crucial as well: we need programs that focus on children’s health, nutrition, and stimulation even before they enter school, programs that support families’ livelihoods so that children can focus on studying rather than work, and programs that shield teachers and students from the violence that is so often present in these settings.   

GL: Movva’s work mobilizes communities around education. We send simple text messages directly to students or their families that target socio-emotional skills. These skills are a key component of the educational journey that is often overlooked by educational systems. Borrowing best practices from behavioral sciences, the aim is to build children’s self-esteem, make children aware that intelligence is malleable, motivate them to stay engaged with school activities, and help them develop the ability to recognize emotions and handle them productively.

Through these messages, we also try to motivate caregivers to follow their children’s education more closely. We encourage them to show up at school more often to find out whether their children are learning as expected, and to ask how they might help.

We have developed a machine learning algorithm, which was trained on over two million students across Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, to send the right message to the right student at the right time. Using artificial intelligence,  we can prevent students from dropping out, increase their effort at school, and ultimately improve learning.

The potential impacts of this work extend beyond primary and secondary education. In higher education, dropout rates range from 40-70% in developing countries like Brazil. If we can prevent students from disadvantaged backgrounds from dropping out, we will not only enable them to fulfil their potential, but also make these societies more productive and more equitable.

ABB:  What do you admire in the work of the other Best Practice Prize finalists?

GL: We are humbled to have been selected among such a great pool of finalists. In particular, we admire the work of Youth Impact, which supports children and adolescents with offline remedial education in Sub-Saharan Africa. We also admire the Luker Foundation‘s work supporting educational communities in Latin America through policy engagement. We hope their work will scale up to decrease educational inequalities and help children recover faster from pandemic learning losses. 


Guilherme Lichand is the UNICEF Assistant Professor of Economics of Child Well-being and Development at the University of Zurich. He is also a co-founder and chairman of Movva. Guilherme holds a PhD in Political Economy and Government from Harvard University. In 2020, the Schwab Foundation and Folha de São Paulo named him one of Brazil’s top-10 social entrepreneurs of the year (post-COVID legacy), and MIT Technology Review named him Brazil’s top social innovator among under-35 entrepreneurs in 2014. He is also a social innovation specialist at the World Economic Forum Expert Network.

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