The world is 4 million teachers short. Here's how to solve that.

Innovation Hub
Children at school in India.

Children at school in India. 

Courtesy of Tim Carter

The developing world faces a whole lot of challenges and shortages. One of the most acute: the lack of well-trained teachers for all the would-be students around the globe.

“Even in the short term, to meet our goals for 2015, we need an additional 4 million teachers just to meet the universal primary education goal," explains UNESCO's Jordan Naidoo.

There's a shortage of doctors as well — particularly when it comes to fields like mental health.

“Let’s imagine the ratio of psychiatrists to the population in the US, and let us apply that ratio to a country like India. If we had the same number of psychiatrists to the population as the US does in India, with a population of 1.2 billion people, we would expect about 150,000 psychiatrists. The actual number is about 4,000," says Vikram Patel, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

A possible solution to both issues? Training more civilians to fill in the gaps. 

Patel’s work is focused on task-sharing, an approach that provides training to members of the community so they can address medical issues where they live. For example, someone who’s been trained in task-sharing would meet with a depressed individual and help them undergo talk therapy. It doesn’t solve the issue of the lack of medication, but it has been shown to help. For a mental health community that, Patel feels, has grown unnecessarily complicated and specialized, this method could address some of a community’s needs. 

But those needs don't end with medicine. Countries like the Central African Republic - which has a teacher to student ratio of about 1 to 80 — desperately need legions of educators. And training them in the standard Western way — with a bachelor’s degree plus a two-year teaching program - is far too slow for the immediate needs of developing nations.

Naidoo is quick to caution that this doesn’t mean anyone off the street can become a teacher. But he feels that: “if you get somebody who’s really committed, and has a sense of caring, a sense of conviction to impart knowledge, if they have certain basic knowledge in terms of the content, I think we can give them the skills to make them more effective teachers.”

The rise of mobile technology helps in both medicine and education; teachers can be trained via online resources and video chat sessions, and community members can connect to trained psychiatrists.

Neither Naidoo nor Patel see civilian-training programs as the be-all, end-all for shortages in the developing world. Especially in psychiatry, there are problems that non-doctors would have trouble coping with.

In Patel’s opinion, “there are limits to how much you can task-share. For example, the more complex psychological treatments, I don’t think can be task-shared very easily...more serious psychoses, more serious personality disorders, I haven’t come across anyone who’s successfully been able to task-share those.”

But training civilians means there’s someone filling these shortages — and that, both Patel and Naidoo feel, can make a world of difference.

This story was adapted from an interview on the PRI radio show Innovation Hub.