Hope in a Backpack

Hope. A compact, four letter word that carries so much depth, and so much meaning. A word that is ingrained in a young child’s life from birth:

“I hope he starts to crawl soon!”

“I hope you like your vegetables!”

“I hope you have a good day at school!”

“I hope you have a good day at school.” How many of us have walked out the door with our families calling this phrase behind us as we raced to the bus stop? Their parental concern was born out of the optimism that if they provided us what we needed for the day– breakfast, a backpack, a notebook, a school uniform– then our success was imminent. Our families weren’t just hoping that we would have a good day at school, they were hoping that what they have provided us with is sufficient; enough to keep our minds focused on our day’s lessons, and not on whether or not our backpack will fall apart on the journey home. This hope springs eternal, because the family can afford these essentials.

Do families without the means to provide their students with these basics hope for anything less? Do they send their child off to school without thinking of that child’s future? Their potential? Their dreams? Their abilities? Certainly not. In fact, families with less fortunate circumstances may even hope for their child’s success even harder–hoping that their child’s shoes will hold up during the long journey to school, that their uniform won’t be tattered before it can be replaced, that their child has something to write with to take down the day’s lessons. This hope also springs eternal, because the family, no matter the financial circumstances, loves their child.

No more pencils, no more books…

A child in an impoverished country cannot, and will not, wait for change to happen from the government or local political forces. They will adapt and move forward. Instead of replacing worn shoes, they will walk barefoot, cutting their tender feet on rocks and stones. Instead of asking for a pencil, which their neighbour may not have, they will silently miss portions of the lesson that require writing.  Even more damaging, the child may simply not attend the school at all because the challenges required to make it through the schoolhouse door are too overwhelming. [1]

Education is vital to a country’s success

Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen wrote that if you want “to build a country, build a schoolhouse”. [2] An education will lift a child out of poverty, and also provide a developing nation with a fleet of young people capable of tackling the intellectual demands that face the country. If all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, it would equate to a 12% reduction in worldwide poverty. [3]  If all children receive an education, poverty decreases in that country.

This lies in stark contrast to our childhood, and our views of education, which were shaped by where we’ve grown up. Think of the children in your neighbourhood growing up—did any of them not attend school? No matter the type of neighbourhood you grew up in, school was mandatory for all children, and provided to ensure the continuation of your country’s success. Children in developing nations are not only less likely to attend school, the poorest children of these nations are especially ill-equipped to achieve academic success due to the surrounding stressors and demands that an education requires. Studies have shown that 38% of children from the poorest socio-economic status in developing nations do not attend school. [4]

What can be done?

The poorest children are five times more likely not to complete primary school than the richest. [5] If we know that the children who need an education the most are not receiving it, what can be done to fix this situation?

The solution can lie with basic school supplies, such as backpacks, pens, books, and uniforms. If children have the tools necessary to get to their schoolhouse, which can often be hours away from their home, as well as what they need within the classroom to engage with the lesson, then we are putting the odds in their favour that they will be able to successfully complete a school year. Even one extra year of schooling can increase a child’s earning potential by 10%, which can tremendously impact that child, their family, and their community. [6]

However, how can one backpack change the world? How can small school supplies pull a child out of a dire circumstances? Let’s look at some ways that a backpack can be a powerful ally in the fight against poverty.

Four ways backpacks fight poverty

1. Higher self-esteem leads to higher academic achievement

As children, we all went back to school shopping with our mums. As soon as the adverts for “back to school sales” began, you can be assured that you were being dragged away from whatever fun summer activity you had planned for the day into a department store to make sure you looked presentable for your first day.  Some of us hated being dragged from store to store to find our new outfits for the school year, and dreaded this day as much as visiting the orthodontist. Others of us looked forward to coordinating our brand new trainers with our shirts and accessories, and couldn’t wait to show off our new looks. No matter which type of child you were, there was no doubt a moment where you caught a glimpse of yourself and thought, “I look good!”

Why should children from poverty not have this same feeling as well? A positive self-image shouldn’t be reserved for those from privilege. Every child should be able to put on a brand new backpack, catch a glimpse of themselves, and feel really good about how they look. They should feel good about one less worry throughout their day, knowing that their books will be in a durable bag during their long journey to school. This is not a vain or shallow endeavour, either.

Children who have higher self-esteem do better in school. In a 2010 study conducted over a two year period with Iranian school children, there was a significant positive relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement. [7] Children who feel confident with themselves, are then more confident in their abilities. This directly translates into increased success in the classroom, which opens up a world of possibilities. A child who has that backpack, a new vessel for their supplies, is internalising the message that they matter.  They are worthy of this backpack, this education, and this opportunity.

2. Supplies equal success

We’ve all heard the stories from our elders about the days when they had to walk uphill both ways to school, 30 kilometres, in the snow, without a complaint. While these hyperbolic tales from older generations are comical, for many children in developing nations, these types of stories are not fabricated– they are a part of everyday reality. It is not unusual for a child in a rural area to walk over 2 hours to attend their local schoolhouse through rugged, mountainous terrain. There are no “snow days” in these regions, and children will have to cross streams, slide across rocks, and navigate dirt paths in all types of weather conditions.

It’s hard to imagine why these materials need consistent replacing, because when you were a kid, your family bought a set of supplies that were for long-term use. Unless you lost your backpack, it was one that could easily be used for several years. Even when you went through a phase of marking it up with sharpies and pinning band patches on the canvas material, the backpack itself was still in good shape. The harshest condition it faced was being slung across the lunch table.

If a child doesn’t have the materials they need to make the journey to school, the hope of that child continuing their daily trek becomes greatly diminished. These gaps in education interrupt the flow of a child’s instruction, which curtails their academic success. If a young child is learning to read, and misses a month of instruction where the alphabet and phonemic sounds are being covered, how will they recover that missed learning? Once an achievement gap appears, it grows exponentially over their school career, leaving a child several years behind their peers once they reach older grades. [8] Children who have proper supplies, such as backpacks, are less likely to miss school, less likely to miss vital instruction, and more likely to encounter success in the schoolhouse.

3. A backpack carries books… and change

According to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “education is a vital human right.” No child should be denied access to an education because of poverty. Children who receive an education are better equipped to participate in governmental affairs, resolve conflicts peacefully, and provide stability to an unstable region. [9] Those who remain uneducated are unable to advocate for themselves and their community at a level where their voice will be heard. The backpack that a young child carries contains maths, reading, writing, spelling, and science books, but it will ultimately carry the ability for that child to play a major part in creating, and maintaining, a peaceful and well-constructed society. The more children with backpacks full of potential, the more quickly a community and nation can arm itself with the knowledge necessary to solve serious problems, such as providing clean drinking water and quality health care for its citizens.

While this may sound like a romanticised picture of education, it has been shown to work in countries like Japan. In the 19th century, many Japanese citizens were poor, illiterate, and lacked formal education. In 1872, the government created a “Fundamental Code of Education”, which set out to make sure that there would be ”no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” [10] While still a poor nation, within 50 years of this decree Japan was producing more books than the UK. Once the turnaround begins in a nation, the results can grow rapidly. More backpacks means less missed instruction, which results in higher self-esteem, which results in increased achievement. The more often this occurs, the more quickly the turnaround can happen.

4. Backpacks can reduce a child’s mortality and increase a nation’s health

Remember when you were a child and you thought that you could get “cooties” from kissing someone? We can laugh at those uninformed ideas as adults, but this is because we were taught that “cooties” do not exist. If a colleague of yours chatting around the water cooler very matter-of-factly mentioned the fact that he believes he got “cooties” from his date last night, you wouldn’t be laughing– you’d feel sorry for his lack of real-world knowledge.

In developing nations, there is a lot of misinformation about HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other life-threatening diseases. For children lacking a formal health and science education, these stereotypes and stigmas continue to flourish, and these diseases continue to spread. According to UNESCO, women with post-primary education are 5 times more likely than illiterate women to be educated on the topic of HIV and AIDS. [11] Education is the first step in creating awareness, and allowing both men and women to maintain healthy and safe practices to keep themselves alive. If a child’s backpack broke on the way to school on the day this information was being presented, they would continue to believe the untrue information that may be passed around their town about the spread of these diseases. Having the supplies necessary to make it to school can ultimately save a child’s life, and prevent the spread of devastating diseases.

Being a young mum in any circumstance is challenging, but even more so when that young woman does not have a completed education. She may have been unaware of the availability of contraceptives, misinformed about how pregnancy occurs, and unsure about how to receive medical care for herself and her child.  One quarter to one half of girls in developing nations become mothers before they are 18 years old, and are at a much greater risk of having complications or dying during childbirth. [12] Girls in developing nations are especially vulnerable, and keeping them in school is the best protection not just during their school-age years, but also throughout their lives. A young girl with a backpack full of books will ultimately become a woman armed with knowledge that can protect her, and her children from a variety of ills.

Hope in a backpack

Children in developing nations suffer from a drought of hope. From a young age, the odds of completing school are against them in much higher numbers that their peers from intact families.[13] Without an education, these are the children who are most susceptible to repeating the cycle of poverty in their community. Who knows among those young children who has the potential to do incredible things for their community, their country, and their culture? Access to supplies can be the key to helping a child’s self-esteem, academic achievement, and potential to unlock a very bright future. Backpacks, uniforms, school supplies, and textbooks can be the tangible equivalent of “I hope you have a good day at school.” When children have access to the supplies they need, the drought of hope that has infiltrated their life can be flooded with a deluge of opportunity.



[1] Lacour, Misty. “Effects of Youth Perceptions of Opportunity on Academic Achievement.” Kids Don’t Want to Fail Oppositional Culture and the Black-White Achievement Gap 6.7 (2011): 522-27. Academic Journals. Educational Research and Reviews, July 2011.

[2] Sen, Amartya. “To Build a Country, Build a Schoolhouse.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 May 2002. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

[3] Counts, Education. “Education Counts Towards the Millennium Development Goals.” Ec-4-50 (2010): n. pag. UNESCO. UNESCO, 2011. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[4] Engle, Patricia L., and Maureen M. Black. The Effect of Poverty on Child Development and Educational Digitial Commons, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016

[5] “Education for All 200-2015.” UNESCO, n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.

[6] Counts, Education. “Education Counts Towards the Millennium Development Goals.” Ec-4-50 (2010): n. pag. UNESCO. UNESCO, 2011. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[7]  Mohammad Aryana , 2010. Relationship Between Self-esteem and Academic Achievement Amongst Pre-University Students. Journal of Applied Sciences, 10: 2474-2477.

[8] Wagner, Tony. The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–and What We Can Do about It. New York: Basic, 2008. Print.

[9] “Education for All 200-2015.” UNESCO, n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.

[10] Sen, Amartya. “To Build a Country, Build a Schoolhouse.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 May 2002. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

[11] Counts, Education. “Education Counts Towards the Millennium Development Goals.” Ec-4-50 (2010): n. pag. UNESCO. UNESCO, 2011. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[12] Counts, Education. “Education Counts Towards the Millennium Development Goals.” Ec-4-50 (2010): n. pag. UNESCO. UNESCO, 2011. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.

[13] “Education for All 200-2015.” UNESCO, n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.



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