February 17, 2011
NEW YORK (AP) — Logistical problems and other concerns have led Madonna to abandon her plan to build a girls-only school in Malawi, but the new leader of her effort says the superstar instead plans many more schools with educational groups already working toward that goal.
"Basically, what we'd be doing is expanding the ability for a group of nonprofits to provide education to more kids," said Trevor Neilson in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.
Neilson, a former executive with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, joins the Raising Malawi project as a partner of the Global Philanthropy Group, a leading international organization that works with organizations and governments around the globe.
He and several other experienced philanthropy experts became part of Raising Malawi's revamped team in November.
"Madonna increasingly began to have concerns about the effectiveness of the existing strategy and management team, and as a result has made sweeping changes in order to better serve more children in Malawi," he said.
The Kabbalah Centre, once a part of the project, is no longer involved, Neilson noted. Madonna has practiced Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, for years.
The bigger changes involve the scope of Madonna's educational plans in the impoverished African country. The superstar, who has adopted a boy and a girl from Malawi, had initially planned to build a school for girls, most of whom don't get the opportunity to go to school.
The school was to be on an approximately 117-acre plot of government land near the capital, Lilongwe. But soon after the location was announced, several local villagers claimed they owned the land and the government was forcing them off of it.
"Obviously, Raising Malawi didn't know anything about this, and was surprised, yet Raising Malawi paid those people over $130,000, which in Malawi is a lot of money," Neilson said.
Even after that, however, he said, Raising Malawi never got title to the land. In addition, Neilson said the school was being built in an area where there were not many children, and too much effort was being paid to the design of the building.
"Madonna was shocked to find out how much time and money had been spent on architecture," he said, though declining to give an exact estimate, simply saying, "too much!"
Instead of creating a Raising Malawi school, the new plan is to use Raising Malawi's resources to partner with other NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, already working to provide a better education in Malawi.
"Working in consultation with a series of non-profits and education efforts, we're looking at a new strategy that builds more schools, but embeds them in communities of Malawi where the students are," he said.
"Basically what we'd be doing is expanding the ability for a group of non-profits to provide education to more kids," he added.
Neilson said Raising Malawi has contacted its key donors and informed them of the change in strategy: "All of the major donors we've talked to are really excited about the strategy."
Neilson also added that contrary to reports, the charity is still working very closely with the government, and that Madonna called the president's office and explained her new plans.
New schools could be built by the end of this year, and the educational efforts, while geared toward girls, will not exclude boys, he said.
"The need is so broad that you don't want to come into a community and say, 'Sorry boys, you can't go to school,'" he said.
Neilson said Madonna would go to the region "soon" and stressed that she was still fiercely committed to the country: He said Raising Malawi has dispersed $13 million toward charitable efforts over the last few years.
"She's very frustrated that the project has not moved faster and has not reached children with these services in a faster way," he said. "Ultimately, that's all that matters, is that children go to school."
He said Madonna has also denounced Malawi's anti-gay measures, but said she would still work with the country to help the children. "I don't think that that is core to this project in any way."