Geneva Global recently concluded PROSPECTS, a project dedicated to reaching internally displaced out-of-school children in the Afar and Somali regions of Ethiopia. The project, funded by UNICEF, was launched by Geneva Global Ethiopia (GGE) in collaboration with the Organization for Welfare & Development (OWDA) as implementing partner in October 2021. Due to a combination of factors, including persisting civil conflict and severe drought, Ethiopia has a significant population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In the Somali region, the worst drought in four decades has impacted 24.1 million people, displacing over one million, according to Education Cannot Wait. In Northern Ethiopia, including the Afar region, over 6,000 school buildings have been damaged by conflict and over 2.4 million students remain out of school, according to UNICEF.
Responding to this need, UNICEF engaged GGE to expand Speed School into the troubled regions, providing an accelerated curriculum—covering three years of primary school in one year—for students aged 9-14 who had missed one or multiple years of their education due to displacement. GGE also sought to improve the livelihoods of students’ families, joining their parents and guardians in guided income generation activities through Self Help Groups. Samuel Wollie, Director of GGE, explains, “The purpose of the project was to reach children in need of education through Speed School, minimizing lost educational time and preparing them to return to formal schooling. This was the whole framework through which UNICEF invited our collaboration.”
The challenges faced by these regions were quickly evinced in the implementation of the project. For one, staggering inflation, explained in part by weak agricultural production due to droughts and floods, made procuring school materials, construction materials, and classroom spaces especially difficult. Consumed by the instability caused by climate crises and civil conflict, the government had little bandwidth to assist. Although facilitator trainings went forward under high security threat, an upsurge of conflict in Afar meant some classes didn’t start until December 2021. Nevertheless, GGE remained convinced of the importance of bringing Speed School to the region. “If we waited for students to return to their old schools or for their schools to be rebuilt, students would be out of school for many more years,” notes Mr. Wollie.
The challenges of the project, however, did not end with the preparation effort. Even once classes started, GGE found that key elements of the Speed School approach faced critical obstacles. First, Speed School depends on the equal and enthusiastic commitment of parents, students, and facilitators. However, for those displaced, it is often difficult to supply such a commitment. “They don’t know what their next destination is; they are highly vulnerable and mentally nervous,” explains Mr. Wollie. Parents, students, and facilitators alike struggled to provide the same amount of energy to schooling. Consequently, the longer hours characteristic of previous iterations of Speed School were not effective. Second, Speed School also depends on the consistent supervision and support of facilitators, especially in adverse contexts. However, due to harsh weather and security risks, supervisors struggled to provide such regular support.
Even in the face of this adversity, GGE was determined to adjust its approach for success. Mr. Wollie elaborates: “The good thing from our side is that we have been very open to learn from UNICEF. We have been very eager and perseverant in responding to their comments.” With concerted reflection, regular communication with headquarters, and the guidance of its partners, GGE was able to steward the program to greater success.
First, GGE adapted its pedagogic approach to the new context. Within the classroom, facilitators were directed to adjust their teaching pace to the progress of their students. Further, GGE identified exemplary facilitators and learners to help students, during and after school hours, who were falling behind. GGE also designed specific activities conducive to the limitations of the learning environment, including for refugee camps. For example, GGE created an alphabet activity for children to practice their basic literary after school. In addition to reshaping the pedagogy, GGE increased its attention to the supervision and support of facilitators. They doubled the frequency of visits, offering closer monitoring and greater feedback. In instances where Speed School supervisors and coordinators experienced challenges in reaching facilitators, GGE staff stepped in and initiated dialogue directly with them. In cases where visits were impossible, GGE relied on a novel SMS strategy to communicate with facilitators and resolve challenges. “The magnitude of change we were able to make in our technical training of, dialogue with, and motivation of facilitators was pivotal,” explains Mr. Wollie.
The benefits of this new strategy were evidenced in the impressive performance of the students, the majority of whom performed well enough on their placement exams to transition to government schools. Of the 2,400 students enrolled in Somali, 88% transitioned to formal government schools in either grades three or four. Of the 810 enrolled in the Afar region, 97% transitioned to either grade three or four. While UNICEF’s funding for PROSPECTS has concluded, it will begin to fund a new project in the Somali region, led by Geneva Global.
Overall, PROSPECTS yielded many valuable lessons surrounding the implementation of Speed School in especially adverse contexts. Learning from the challenges in securing and preparing classrooms for instruction, moving forward GGE will better account for climbing inflation and shifting budgets through transparent and thorough discussion in the initial planning with implementing partners. Further, GGE will continue, when relevant, to rely on home- and project-based learning to compensate for reduced class hours. Important to note, not all aspects of the approach have been fully clarified through the project. A challenge still remains in adapting the Self Help Group approach to empower displaced parents, who are both in great need of immediate financial support and less able to contribute significant time and energy towards collaborative income generation activities. Geneva Global continues to think deeply about ensuring the suitability of its approaches across diverse contexts.
Nevertheless, Geneva Global is looking forward to applying its many lessons to subsequent iterations and evolutions of the Speed School program. “This is a springboard to scale up and strengthen our model,” says Mr. Wollie, “One of the greatest strengths of the Speed School model is how responsive it is to accommodate various contexts, learners, and settings. We believe this value remains abundantly clear.”