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"Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland"

This is the recap by Frank Robinson, of a presentation by Jonathan Starr, at the February 10th, 2019 CDHS monthly meeting.


Jonathan Starr spoke about the Abaarso School of Science and Technology he founded in Somaliland in 2009. Somaliland, officially part of Somalia (the textbook "failed state”), declared independence in 1991, though it isn't internationally recognized. Abaarso was conceived as a high school aiming for graduates who would go on to leading world universities, and then return to build their country.

The history of aid and development efforts in Africa abounds with disaster stories. Starr (a non-Muslim) went to Somaliland (a Muslim country) at age 32, to build this school, with no background in education, not even speaking Somali. He was breaking all the rules, and most would have assumed his venture was doomed to failure.

Specifically, Starr enumerated four hurdles. First, the seeming impossibility of an American with his limitations even getting the project off the ground in such a difficult circumstances as existed in Somaliland. Second, the unlikelihood of Somalilanders getting into major Western universities, let alone with the scholarships they'd need. Third, those students actually succeeding in those universities, in competition with privileged and well-educated kids from advanced societies. And fourth, their returning to Somaliland afterwards.

Against these seemingly impossible odds, Abaarso did succeed, on all counts. While the first few years presented horrific challenges, they were overcome. And once some Abaarso graduates did get scholarships to major universities -- an unprecedented achievement for Somaliland, making them national heroes -- the project really flourished. Today over a hundred of its students have followed in those footsteps, gaining over $23 million in scholarships.

An Abaarso poster boy was Mubarik, who started life as a nomad goat herder, so removed from modernity that the first time he saw a truck, he thought it was some kind of animal. Mubarik wound up graduating from MIT, in computer science and engineering. And he has returned to Somaliland, to set up his own local enterprise. Many other Abaarso alums have also returned.

What accounts for this success? Not luck, nor indeed talent, Starr said. But moreover, he insisted it wasn't actually against the odds; not even unlikely. Because the key factor was an intense will to succeed. Having staked his whole being on this project, its failure was not an option.

Failure was not an option for the students either. Starr talked about the environment from which they came -- one so bleak and desperate that many face huge dangers just for a chance (a small chance) to get into a refugee camp in Europe. Abaarso's kind of education represents an incredible opportunity, vastly superior to anything previously on offer in Somaliland. And students know how much their success will mean to their families and compatriots. Starr spoke of a "hurricane" inside these kids making them do whatever it takes to succeed.

Notably, he was not just talking about Abaarso's top students. This basic story is repeated for most of them. Even lower-ranked graduates have been very successful. Given the immense degree of disadvantage these kids started with, the contrast with disadvantaged kids in American schools was unignorable. The latter overwhelmingly fail, because they are in an educational culture that expects their failure. The Somaliland story shows the failure is not baked into the kids, it is baked into the schools.

More recently, Starr has opened a second Somaliland school, this a women's teachers college (Barwaaqo); and the next step, with construction just starting, is a K-12 school, where Barwaaqo graduates will teach. One might call all this "nation building."

Frank Robinson


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