Janine Händel is the CEO of the Roger Federer Foundation, founded by the Swiss tennis star to support educational efforts in Switzerland and Southern Africa and empower children affected by poverty with specific focus on early childhood education. The Roger Federer Foundation is finishing its fifteenth year partnering with local projects to secure greater access to quality education in an effort to combat poverty.

The Politic: In an interview with Roger Federer himself, you said that you see the foundation as a “value-driven organization.” What values drive you personally to dedicate your life to the foundation’s mission?

Janine Handel: Well, it’s not so much about my values, but more about Roger’s values the foundation is representing because it’s his foundation. I completely share these values, of course. What are they?

The most important value is Roger’s belief that every person, regardless of where he/she lives or under which conditions, has a strength. If you empower every person in this strength, he/she can reach his/her potential. That kind of value is driving us in our work on different levels. As a fundamental guideline in our projects, we not only empower children—by focusing on education as the most empowering measure–we also empower communities to being able to help themselves. We don’t do the job for them, but instead give support in conducting initiatives themselves. Furthermore, the empowerment approach also influences our choice of partners: We only partner directly with local partner organizations with financial resources, know-how and access to networks.

The second value is excellence, which drives Roger also in his sports life. If Roger does something, he wants to do it right. He gives the best he can, not only on the court, but also off the court. Questions like good governance, transparency and impact orientation are fundamental principles of our organization. Modesty is another value which I should mention. We don’t take ourselves too seriously; we believe in a journey of lessons learnt and we constantly develop as an organization.

Before we continue into the interview further, could you explain why the Roger Federer Foundation chooses to focus on education, and why early childhood education?

Education is one of the most powerful tools to achieve sustainable change on various levels. Not only is education a child’s right, but it also gives a child the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty. Studies have shown that educated people are healthier, have a more long-term vision and are better citizens. If you invest in education, you invest in the comprehensive development of a society. With regard to early childhood education, numerous studies have proven that investments in this sector have the highest possible return. A child’s brain is already developed up to 80% by the age of seven. If the gap of development is already too big by then, it can never be caught up again. Therefore, you need to invest early in order to prevent much higher costs later. Another factor is that we had to find our niche where we could really make a difference as a rather small grant-making foundation. Early childhood education is a completely underfunded sector and we are among the biggest donors in the countries our programs serve. Last but not least, I can highly recommend early childhood education because you can see the change in a child’s development and your impact on the ground within a short period of time. This is very rewarding for an organization and your personal motivation.

Right now, the Roger Federer Foundation is working to achieve an ambitious goal: provide at least one million children with access to a quality education. How did you arrive at this number and how do you evaluate quality?

It is important to note that one million children counts one million individual children with a measurable positive change in the quality of education regardless of how long a child benefits from a certain measure. That is important because not every organization defines these numbers in the same manner. We are working in more than 4,000 preschools and primary schools. The positive change varies depending on the type of program: Some children have access to preschool for the first time in their lives, which can have a decisive impact on the children’s future educational development. In other programs, we might only have improved the teaching quality of the educators. How do we measure the positive change? We look at impact indicators such as enrolment rates, pass rates, attendance rates, or use classroom observation to measure teaching quality. Once we see a certain impact on the ground, we start counting the benefitting children.

In discussing sustainability and capacity-building during one of your Foundation Talks with Roger Federer, you argue that it is “important to keep our footprint as low as possible.” How have you gone about achieving a balance between intervention and empowerment?

Sustainability is the biggest challenge in our work and it is always underestimated in what it takes to reach it. It is of utmost importance that from day one of each program or intervention, you ask the questions: What will happen if we exit of this school, this community, or of this program? Have we arranged systems, procedures around our intervention which will guarantee that the positive change will maintain and  initiatives will continue?If we feel that the local capacity will not be able to fill up our footprint and replace the external input with own resources within reasonable time, we don’t do it. That asks for a lot of discipline. Every intervention must be absorbable by the local community. I give you an example: we have a Safety Net Fund in southern Zimbabwe to support children at risk of dropping out of school. The fund covers small costs for school uniform, stationary and shoes for the most vulnerable children. We granted the seed capital and the community needs to fill up the fund through income activities. After three years, we realized that the seed capital was too high to be replaced by the community. Therefore, in the scaling of the initiative, we reduced the seed capital to a level the community was able to achieve. I would have loved to donate the whole amount to these poor communities, but in order to loosen ownership and reach sustainability for this fund it is crucial to set realistic parameters.

Do you find that sustainability is something that is easier in education? Like, you educate a child and they can’t be un-educated, or do you still feel like education has a lot more nuance than may be expected as far as sustainability goes?

Sustainability can be seen on several different levels. You are completely right–investing in education is already quite a sustainable measure because you cannot take away education from a child. However, we also need to think about the sustainability of the educational institutions and their quality and this is tougher to achieve, in particular if you are active in countries with low public budgets for education. It needs a whole system with multiple stakeholders to be created around that one kindergarten, that one school, by involving the government, communities, parents and businesses.

How do you choose what projects to partner with? How do you go about deciding something is sustainable and is going to work?

We are working in long-term partnerships because a good trustful and fruitful partnership takes time to be established. Our programs and interventions want to achieve sustainable and systemic change. This cannot be done in one year but only over a long period of time. We feel privileged that we found great partner organizations that learn with us, develop with us and grow with us. How do we select these partners? This is a very cautious, timely process of due diligence, including various checks and interactions. The most important selection criterion for us is that potential partners share our values. There are not many organizations that have incorporated our empowerment. It is much easier for an organization to arrive with a truck full of food to a village and distribute it, than it is to mobilize a community to produce the food for school meals themselves. Another value is that we are looking for people who really believe in the cause and are not just doing a job. This is the best way to prevent fraud and get the motivation to go beyond the normal daily business.

Nobel Prize-winning economist argues that foreign aid “undermines the development of local state capacity.” He goes on: “This is most obvious in countries – mostly in Africa – where the government receives aid directly and aid flows are large relative to fiscal expenditure (often more than half the total). Such governments need no contract with their citizens, no parliament, and no tax-collection system.” Do you agree with this?

I admit that there is a risk of doing harm if you don’t do your interventions properly, if foreign aid comes without good governance or ownership of the population, or if it lacks of sustainability. Nevertheless, in my view, the sector has learnt its lessons. The modern foreign aid is highly professional, impact oriented and cost-efficient. There are also new innovative approaches such as direct giving or impact investing that complement the traditional foreign aid in an interesting manner. There is nothing such as the foreign aid, but a rich variety of approaches and actors in the field. This makes it also difficult to control and mainstream quality. With regard to the social contract of the local government with their citizens, the situation is complex. The so called “budget aid” has exactly this risk. But in low-income countries like Malawi where there is no tax income, where else should the public budget for school infrastructure come from? I prefer that we empower the local government to fulfil its obligation via-à-vis their citizens. At the same time, we should also empower the citizens to live the right to replace the government in case there are problems of good governance

I saw a video about the foundation’s work in Malawi and specifically, how schools became a method for children to access sustainable food sources. How have you seen your nonprofit work in education impact other areas, like food security?

In the 17 Sustainable Development Goals [developed by the United Nations], education is one of the cross-cutting topics. As I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, education is the best and most powerful tool to change various things, also food security. An educated person will handle better storage, will handle better farming, will handle better distributions, and will be more competitive on the market. So, generally speaking, education is in the long-term the key for a better livelihood.

In our short-term programs, it is the other way around. If a child is stunting the brain does not develop properly. If a child with an empty stomach cannot concentrate at school or does not even come to school for the lack of food, food security becomes a precondition of quality education. Therefore, we need to create an environment where a child has access to nutritious food.

Keeping with the foundation’s work in Africa, you have been instrumental in establishing access to education before ages 7 or 8. Could you tell us more about the importance of providing this preschool education?

Our goal is that a child should have at least one year of access to quality preschooling before entering into grade one. This is an important preparation for school readiness, as it prevents dropouts and high repetition rates and has a strong influence on the later performance of the students. In the regions we are working, we sometimes find 20% repetition rates in grade one. This generates high costs in countries that already have very small educational budgets. Particularly in Africa, we still have some development ahead until there is a 100% enrolment in pre-primary. In Malawi for example, we are at 45% of children having access to kindergarten. But it does not end with good enrolment figures. We also need to assure that preschooling is of good quality. This needs a major effort, funding and a mind-set shift of the government to set the priority on early learning!

Shifting to your work in Switzerland, I found it interesting that you focus heavily on extracurricular activities not usually available to children affected by poverty. What return do you see from this investment in social as well as intellectual well-being?

First, I should explain why we have this focus on extracurricular activities. Institutions in Switzerland on the school level are good or very good and don’t need our support as in Africa. We can say that all students in Switzerland have almost equal opportunities. The gap starts before school or during leisure time. Many children are well promoted at home and with extracurricular activities. They travel with their families, get help with their homework, go to piano lessons, and have quality day-care before starting school. In Switzerland, children enter formal compulsory preschool at the age of five. By then, some children might have never been properly promoted in their brain capacity and therefore face a gap.

One of our programs sounds very simple, but I was actually surprised about the impact myself. We finance art or sports activities for children who normally would not have money to do so. We have two impact indicators; one is the integration of the child, the other is his/her personal development. Each year, we measure if the child is motivated, engaged, accountable, and integrated. We speak with the trainers, we speak with the piano teachers, and we speak with the parents, and with the schoolteachers to find out how the child’s personality has changed. All of the results were extremely positive. Almost none of the children wanted to change the extracurricular activity – an indicator for motivation. Teachers confirmed a positive development in more than 94% of the children. Even parents (86%) stated that they have enlarged their network because of the child’s extra scholar activities. Why is this program important? Because in Switzerland, poverty is isolating: you live in a little apartment and you don’t leave it in order to save money or because of language barriers. Moreover, you don’t know where to go to get help, because you’re not informed. There are so many services in Switzerland for poor people but they are not used because people don’t know about them. With a child’s extracurricular activity, we can break this cycle of isolation.