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Towards a New Global Education Agenda

USAID Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack visits with primary grade students in Malawi. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

USAID Senior Advisor for International Education Christie Vilsack visits with primary grade students in Malawi. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

In a small first grade class at Mikombe Elementary School in rural Malawi, a girl named Martha is receiving the opportunity of a lifetime – she is learning to read in her local language, Chichewa.

This might not sound like an incredible feat, but for many children in developing countries around the world, especially girls, literacy is elusive.

Poor education systems, untrained teachers and a lack of textbooks in local languages are just a few of the obstacles that hinder education for all in countries like Malawi.

However, what is truly remarkable about Martha is not just that she is learning to read in her local language, but that she is acquiring a skill that can lead to job opportunities her parents never had.

Reading enables education, and education opens doors.

While global health, food security, clean water and energy often dominate the conversation on ending extreme poverty, we at USAID know that education can act as a keystone for all development efforts.

The ability to read and write is essential for living in today’s world. This fundamental competency determines whether someone can understand the instructions on a medicine bottle, apply for a job, follow road signs, read a receipt, or vote in an election.

Unfortunately, hundreds of millions of children around the world are failing to learn fundamental reading, writing and math skills. For some of them, school is not accessible at all.

By increasing both quality and access to education, we can forge pathways towards ending extreme poverty. In fact, if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty.

Education takes center stage on the global policy agenda this week as a diverse group of education leaders from around the world gather for the World Education Forum in South Korea.

Martha, a first grade student in Malawi, practices reading. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

Martha, a first grade student in Malawi, practices reading. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

After looking at the successes of the Millennium Development Goals — a blueprint created by the international community in 2000 to address eight key development goals — world leaders will renew their commitments in the Sustainable Development Goals that they will create later this year.

With this backdrop, the World Education Forum offers a platform for education advocates to come together to establish a new “Framework for Action” that will guide Sustainable Development Goals for education.

USAID stakeholders will be at the table alongside our development colleagues to share our measurable successes in education projects and to recommend best practices that can be woven into the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals.

Over the past four years, USAID missions around the world have worked tirelessly towards the three goals of our agency’s education strategy. We are working to improve reading skills of 100 million children, create employment opportunities for youth, and increase access to education for 15 million children in crisis- and conflict-affected areas.

And our work is making an impact. Since 2011, USAID programs have reached millions of primary school students in 42 countries, provided thousands of youth with new or better employment, and created learning opportunities for children and youth all around the world who would otherwise be out of school.

Despite these successes, the international education community agrees that there is much work left to be done. It will take a group effort to achieve the goals that will be established at the World Education Forum this week.

It will take a particular collaboration to shift program focus to measurable learning benchmarks and not simply access to education.

A report recently released by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) titled, “Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain,” draws attention to the fact that even though enormous gains have been made in school enrollment around the world, large gaps exist in the quality of education a child receives once enrolled.

In few places is this more evident than in Martha’s native country of Malawi, where access to primary school is almost universal, yet 92 percent of the country’s youngest students cannot read a single word.

The World Education Forum is an important forum for building a pathway out of poverty through education and learning.

USAID — along with the U.S. Departments of State, Education and Agriculture — are committed to moving towards an integrated education development agenda that will achieve inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all children by 2030.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is the Senior Advisor for International Education at USAID working to ensure ALL children have access to a quality education. Follow her @ChristieVilsack.

Community Empowerment in Guatemala Through Improved Literacy

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

In chasing the “American dream,” 21-year-old Guatemalan Andrés Ixcuná Mateo tried to cross the border into the United States twice but failed. He says the experience of being arrested by immigration authorities and spending several days in jail traumatized him.

But after returning to his hometown of San Andrés Sajcabajá, he began serving as a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project to help children learn to read in the Mayan language of K’iche. The experience of giving back to his community and helping preserve their indigenous culture helped him start to overcome the emotional and physical hardships he endured in his pursuit of a better life.

Now, he’s filled with a renewed hope for a better future in his hometown.

“I suffered very much, and I do not wish that on anyone,” Andrés said at a training session for volunteers in March, about one year later. “Now that I volunteer for this project, I have realized that one can do many good things and help boys and girls so that they can be someone important.”

Implemented by Save the Children with support from USAID, the three-year project Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos — which means “reading together, learning together” — aims to improve the readings skills of children in rural, indigenous communities in Guatemala and Peru in their mother tongue. In San Andrés Sajcabajá, the program includes community action activities to improve literacy in the the K’iche language, alongside in-school activities.

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

Andrés Ixcuná Mateo, a community volunteer with the Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project, helps children learn to read in San Andrés Sajcabajá, Guatemala. / Save the Children

The project is part of USAID’s global education strategy to improve the readings skills of 100 million children in primary grades around the world. These skills are essential to students’ success in later grades and open doors to better economic opportunities once they become adults.

In the beginning, the project staff in San Andrés Sajcabajá had trouble recruiting volunteers. While searching for young people who might be willing to give up their time to help children learn to read outside of school hours, they contacted the principal of the community school, who referred them to Andrés–who had recently returned to his hometown.

Andrés, who was living at home and reflecting on what had happened to him, had graduated as a primary grade teacher before trying to emigrate. After meeting with the project staff, he agreed to join the team.

The Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos project changed Andrés’s life and encouraged him to seek new horizons in order to improve himself and improve his family. After two volunteer trainings, he came to understand that it is possible to achieve “self‐improvement through education,” as he termed it.

Andrés is one of the volunteers who continues to be committed to the project, and this year he has taken up another year‐long commitment to lead community actions being implemented by the project in his village. He has also decided to enroll in the university to continue his studies.

Andrés told the 93 young colleagues assembled at the March training: “Take advantage of these spaces for learning, and the studies that your parents are facilitating. Do not think about migrating to another country, because in Guatemala there is space for you to act and seek your self‐improvement.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anibal Barrera Santay is a Community Action Officer with the USAID-funded program Leer Juntos, Aprender Juntos (Reading Together, Learning Together) at Save the Children.

The Urgency of Education in South Sudan

Young boys sit with their rifles at a Feb. 10 ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor overseen by UNICEF and partners. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

Young boys sit with their rifles at a Feb. 10 ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor overseen by UNICEF and partners. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

While South Sudan’s warring parties have failed to make necessary compromises for peace after nearly 15 months of conflict, the people of South Sudan continue to suffer, including millions of children.

In addition to the many hardships South Sudan’s children are facing since civil war erupted in December 2013, the re-emergence of forced recruitment of child soldiers threatens to rob another generation of their potential after decades of war and lost opportunities.

UNICEF’s announcement that dozens of South Sudanese boys—some as young as 13—were abducted by an armed group while taking school exams sparked outrage. Hundreds may have been forcibly recruited as soldiers, constituting one of the gravest examples of the tragic toll this man-made crisis has had on civilians.

The children in Pibor, Jonglei State, surrendered their weapons and uniforms in a Feb. 10 ceremony overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, and the Cobra Faction and supported by UNICEF. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

The children in Pibor, Jonglei State, surrendered their weapons and uniforms in a Feb. 10 ceremony overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, and the Cobra Faction and supported by UNICEF. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

Recruitment of child soldiers is a tragic legacy of conflict that has gripped South Sudan since before Sudan’s independence in 1956. As of 2009, only 27 percent of the population and 16 percent of girls and women ages 15 and older were literate—despite the aspirations South Sudanese have long expressed for education and opportunities for youth

When I visited South Sudan in January, citizens pointed to education as a critical investment in the country’s future, even in the midst of violence. A 2013 public opinion poll found 68 percent of those surveyed across South Sudan weren’t satisfied with their government’s performance in providing education.

Yet the South Sudanese people’s hopes for greater investment in and protection of their children’s education are undermined by poor investments and continuing crises.  Thirty-five percent of teachers in South Sudan have only a primary level of education. And while South Sudan’s Ministry of Education recently reopened five teacher training institutes, officially 42 percent of the national budget goes to military and security sector costs.

An unidentified South Sudan armed group has abducted at least 89 boys, some as young as 13, from their homes in the north of the country, a UNICEF statement said on Feb. 21. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

An unidentified South Sudan armed group has abducted at least 89 boys, some as young as 13, from their homes in the north of the country, a UNICEF statement said on Feb. 21. / Charles Lomodong, AFP

USAID began building schools in southern Sudan in the late 1950s, not long after Sudan’s independence. Our support for education services in South Sudan started in 2002—despite the ongoing 1983-2005 civil war. This early efforthelped make learning possible in southern Sudan after two decades of war and displacement. Since then, USAID has supported more than a dozen substantial education projects in an independent South Sudan. Our current support includes six multi-year education projects with a total budget of more than $165 million.

Our assistance has included building or rehabilitating 140 primary schools and four secondary schools; awarding more than 9,000 scholarships to girls and disadvantaged boys; and providing radio literacy programs that have reached more than half a million children and older students who had missed out on formal schooling. We’ve helped train teachers and created policies regarding long-term education planning and delivery. Our determined commitment to support the South Sudanese in providing education has resulted in major progress: school enrollment more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, from 300,000 pupils to more than 1.4 million.

Despite these efforts and measurable progress, less than half of school-aged children in South Sudan were enrolled in school before the conflict erupted in December 2013. Since then, more than 2 million South Sudanese have been displaced by conflict, and some 400,000 students have dropped out of school. An estimated 70 percent of schools in the most conflict-affected states (Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity) were closed as of November 2014, and some 89 schools are currently occupied by fighting forces or internally displaced persons.

Given these developments, we refocused our educational activities to assist people wherever they are—educating children who have been displaced  as well as communities receiving large numbers of displaced children, establishing community schools in remote areas lacking educational access, increasing school security and safety and helping children who live in cattle camps overseeing their family livestock become literate in their mother tongue.

South Sudan will not be able to reach its potential until the country’s leaders end the conflict and commit to ensuring that their nation’s children have the opportunity to learn, protected from this senseless violence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Linda Etim is deputy assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Africa

A Thank You to our Partners in Literacy

Students using tablets during a lesson at a classroom in the Ban San Kong school of Mae Chan, a town located in Thailand's northern province of Chiang Rai. / AFP, Christophe Archambault

Students using tablets during a lesson at a classroom in the Ban San Kong school of Mae Chan, a town located in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Rai. / AFP, Christophe Archambault

We partner because we recognize that none of us can reach our goals alone. But, building and maintaining partnerships requires hard work. Partnerships require focusing on common goals while allowing give and take, different strengths and weaknesses, and attention to equity and fairness, especially in contractual partnerships like marriage or a business.

I know because I’ve been married for 41 years and my husband engaged in a law practice with my father and brother for over three decades. In my personal and professional life in education, I’ve had the opportunity to work collaboratively with talented, strong-minded family and colleagues. Such partnerships are simultaneously challenging and stimulating.

At USAID we work in partnership with host country governments, as well as non-governmental and civil society organizations who implement many of our education development programs on the ground. As a bilateral donor we enter into partnership agreements with other donors, and contribute to the Global Partnership for Education, a growing multilateral donor organization. More and more, through our Agency’s ambitious reform agenda, USAID Forward, we create innovative partnerships with the private sector and work in tandem with governments and ministries to identify barriers to education and to remove them. We work across cultures, languages, and communicate through time zones.

We also partner with advocacy groups, civil society and with universities whose students and faculties share our passion for making the world a safer, more prosperous place. Through the Let Girls Learn campaign, we even partnered with Hollywood celebrities to send out a common message that young girls everywhere have the right to an education and a safe learning environment. Let Girls Learn has a ripple effect. The more people who learn about our work, the more partners we have to get it done.

As education partners, we have common goals driven by the Education for All movement and the Millennium Development Goals. As a sector, we are ready to re-commit to ambitious global goals, along with goals specific to our organizations. We all want more children in schools–particularly girls—and want quality learning to happen once a child gets there.

A Pakistani school girl attends class in Mingora, a town in Swat valley, on October 9, 2013, the first anniversary of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban. /AFP, A. Majeed

A Pakistani school girl attends class in Mingora, a town in Swat valley, on Oct. 9, 2013, the first anniversary of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban. / AFP, A. Majeed

We all want children to stay in school and agree that it’s important to provide opportunity for meaningful employment that will build prosperity and security around the world. Some of us may focus on early childhood or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), some may invest in technology or higher education, but in the end we all want the next generation to fare better than this generation and those that came before us.

We divvy up responsibilities. We maintain mutual respect for people of all nationalities, religions, races, ages and gender identities. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we revise. Together we keep trying to make each program a little better.

International Literacy Day highlights the work the world community is doing to give the next generation a chance at opportunity through education. Those of us at USAID within the Office of Education would like to take time on this day to thank the people within our partner organizations who help us to do our jobs better to improve opportunities for children.

I, for instance need to thank Ed Gragert and the folks at the Global Coalition for Education for helping introduce me to contacts at the colleges and universities I visited in April. I need to thank my husband, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for agreeing to partner with USAID on aligning school feeding programs in countries where USDA and USAID work. I thank Maureen McLaughlin from the Department of Education who helped coordinate a trip for Secretary Duncan to travel to Haiti to visit our reading programs and announce additional resources. I thank April Mora from the Basic Education Coalition who worked with me to create messages that the education sector can use to educate Main Street audiences. I thank former Prime Minister Gordon and Sarah Brown for bringing Malala Yousafzai to the United Nations a year ago to inspire the global education community.

If you receive thanks on this International Literacy Day from an education officer overseas or a program director here at the Ronald Reagan Building in D.C., please know that it is heartfelt and personal. Thank you for all that you do!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education. Follow her @ChristieVilsack

The Power of the Classroom

In certain parts of the world, how many things have to go right in order to get a girl into a classroom?

And what type of life can that education can provide her?

As the senior gender coordinator for USAID, these questions fill my mind constantly as I seek to carry out my mandate – helping empower women and girls to participate fully and benefit from the development of their societies.

Last month, I traveled to Zambia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Dr. Jill Biden, USAID administrator Raj Shah, and Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell where I was able to see them answered firsthand.

Girl students at Shalom Community School, Lusaka, Zambia

Girl students at Shalom Community School, Lusaka, Zambia / Susan Markham

The decision to allow a child to go to school is fraught with obstacles. Some are material: uniforms, socks, shoes, notebooks and pencils. Some reflect the economic and cultural realities of poverty-stricken families. But these concerns also often pale in comparison to the serious danger that many women and girls face every single time they step out of their homes to pursue an education.

In the eastern part of the DRC, I met a young woman who was kidnapped from her own home and taken into the jungle for six months by an armed militia. She had no idea where she was, who had taken her, or if she would ever see her family or home again.

In Sierra Leone, I met two younger girls from a rural area, around 10 years old, who were given to an “Auntie” in the city with the promise that they would attended school. Instead, they were held hostage in her home and made to do all of the household chores with little food and water. They suffered for months until they finally managed to escape.

But in Zambia, a young woman named Martha, orphaned by HIV/AIDS, was still trying to find a way to stay in school. Despite extreme poverty, little existing educational infrastructure, and the loss of her parents, she explained how her greatest goal was to finish her education.

In the DRC, Therese, an incredibly talented local entrepreneur who worked in restaurants for years, managed to save enough money for engineering school. With her degree, she created several surprisingly effective traffic robots that have become functional icons around Kinshasa. The robots are the centerpiece of her company, Women’s Technologies, that she runs alongside several other women. As if that weren’t enough, she also owns a successful chain of local restaurants.

Girl students at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone await the arrival of Dr. Biden

Girl students at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone await the arrival of Dr. Biden. / Susan Markham

Everywhere I went, people seemed to intuitively understand that educating their daughters was the most important thing they could do for their future.

They might not know the statistics:  That an educated girl has a “ripple effect” in many ways. That a girl with an extra year of education can earn 20 percent more as an adult, or that a girl who completes basic education will invest 90 percent of her earnings back into her family. These effects might be invisible for the time being, but women, children, and community members are still willing to take great risks and make incredible sacrifices to stay in school, or to help their friends, daughters, and wives do the same.  Whether or not we can see it now, these benefits amplify across families, towns, cities, countries and generations.

This is why, in line with our mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient democratic societies, USAID invests $1 billion every year on education programs around the world – on programs like WASH, designed to improve clean water and sanitation facilities in schools, and EAGLE, to help girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo make the transition from primary to secondary school. And to help raise awareness on the importance of girls’ education, we launched Let Girls Learn earlier this year with the help of our friends from the arts and entertainment industry.

Ultimately, it is stories like the ones I heard throughout my trip that drove home the necessity of programs like these. We do this because around the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia, individuals and families understand that both the risks and the payoffs to women’s education are huge. Despite putting themselves in the line of fire, sometimes quite literally, mothers continue to send their daughters to school, and their daughters keep going. Teachers continue to show up everyday to pass on their hard-won knowledge and expertise to the next generation. Communities, on their own and with our help, continue to build the infrastructure, even though it risks destruction.

The resilience and bravery of the girls and women that I met is humbling and inspiring. They certainly keep me going, and I’m glad that we are here to help turn that determination and perseverance into a lasting reality.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan Markham is USAID’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. She tweets from @msmarkham

Girls Deserve To Learn: No Exceptions

As President Obama said, if a country is educating its girls, if women have equal rights, that country is going to move forward. Education is a silver bullet for empowering women and girls worldwide.

When girls are educated, their families are healthier, they have fewer children, they wed later, and they have more opportunities to generate income. One extra year of primary school boosts a girl’s future wage 10 to 20 percent and an extra year of secondary school increases that earning potential by 15 to 25 percent. Education also helps moms take better care of their kids.  According to the World Bank (PDF), each additional year of female education reduces child mortality by 18 per thousand births.

A young female student in Alma Village, southern Ethiopia. / Susan Liebold

A young female student in Alma Village, southern Ethiopia. / Susan Liebold

These are amazing statistics but I’ve also been fortunate enough to see for myself the high returns to investing in education. While in Kabul I met with an incredible group of young women who were educated entirely in post-Taliban Afghanistan. They reminded me how critically important education is to peace, prosperity and empowerment.

Those young women represent the future for a country that had virtually no girls in school less than 15 years ago.

Today, Afghan girls are more than a third of the students. I am proud that USAID is supporting community-based schools in Afghanistan and that our literacy effort is playing an instrumental role in ensuring these girls get an education; it is an investment that will pay dividends for generations to come.

In Afghanistan today, 3 millions girls are enrolled in school. A decade ago, there were none.   / USAID Afghanistan

In Afghanistan today, 3 millions girls are enrolled in school. A decade ago, there were none. / USAID Afghanistan

Globally, enormous progress has been made in closing the gender gap in primary education over the last 20 years. In most of the world today, a similar percentage of girls and boys attend primary schools. Yet disparities endure—there are around 3.6 million more girls out of school compared to boys around the world — in total, that’s 62 million girls who are not realizing their full potential. Women still comprise the majority (two-thirds) of the illiterate. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, obtaining an education remains particularly tough for women and girls. The World Bank estimates that half of the out-of-school girls in the world live in Sub-Saharan Africa and one quarter of them live in South Asia.

But it’s not just about access. Compounding the problem is a lack of quality education. For example, in Malawi robust primary school enrollment and matriculation rates are reported. However, a closer inspection of the educational system reveals that many students finish their schooling without being able to read.

That’s why USAID’s Education Strategy focuses on the quality of education – ensuring that all girls and boys leave school with the skills they will need to thrive. Specifically, the strategy focuses on improving reading for children in primary grades, strengthening higher education and workforce development programs, and increasing equitable access to education for children and youth in conflict and crisis.

We know that giving girls a quality education has tremendous multiplying effects for families, communities, societies and the world — for generations.

That’s why the United States is launching Let Girls Learn, a new effort to raise awareness about the importance of allowing all girls to pursue a quality education. In support of the effort, USAID also announced over $230 million for new programs to support primary and secondary education and safe learning in Nigeria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Jordan, as well as support for Guatemala’s ongoing, successful efforts to improve quality of education for under-served populations.

Because an educated girl is a force for change: She is the leader and peacemaker of tomorrow. Because an educated girl has a ripple effect.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carla Koppell is USAID’s Chief Strategy Officer. She was formerly the Agency’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. You can follow her @CarlaKoppell

 

In Zambia, a Refuge to Learn

If you want to see a community at work, check out the Lubuto Library on a Saturday morning in Lusaka, Zambia. Architect Eleni Coromvli has created traditional thatched structures to form the library garden compound. She explains that a Zambian home is not just one building but several with a covered outdoor space for family and friends to socialize.

The U.S. public libraries that I know, refer to clusters of computers as “the campfires of the 21st Century”, or the new places to tell our stories. In the Lubuto Library sturdy laptops line the circular walls. The children working there are often recruited off the streets by Kenny Hau, who was once a street child himself.

As outreach coordinator, he listens to the stories of traumatized children, counsels them and connects them to additional services as needed. The library stands next to a neighborhood school, so it’s difficult to tell whether the children working at the computers are homeless, out-of-school orphans or are children who attend school daily but hunger for more books and access to technology and the arts.

The Lubuto Library Project, a USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge winner, is pioneering a program creating high-quality mother-tongue materials to teach children to read using an accessible, low-cost digital platform.  Here, a young boy tries out the program on a laptop. / Robert Kent, USAID

The Lubuto Library Project, a USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge winner, is pioneering a program creating high-quality mother-tongue materials to teach children to read using an accessible, low-cost digital platform. Here, a young boy tries out the program on a laptop. / Robert Kent, USAID

On the Saturday morning I visited the library, a professional artist offered some pointers to older children bent over detailed pencil sketches. Two older boys explain to guests how they created the graphics to illustrate 100 lessons designed by librarians and teachers that are aligned with the national reading curriculum.

These reading lessons help those who know the basics practice; and help those who don’t start the process of learning to read. With help from a $300,000 USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge  grant, the Lubuto Library has worked with experts like Dr. Joseph Mwansa from the University of Zambia to align these lessons with the new Zambian reading curriculum, entitled the Primary Literacy Program. Let’s Read, Zambia is the national media awareness and community outreach program in support of the new reading curriculum for Zambia.

In the main reading room, children sit elbow to elbow listening as two volunteers read aloud, “That’s Not My Hat” and “The Giving Tree.” I tried my hand at a participatory story that I’ve been telling since I was the same age as these volunteers and a volunteer myself at Saturday morning story hours in small town Iowa. In the picture you can see us ‘searching’ for elephants. The children slapped their legs and swished their hands as we went looking for an elephant to capture on film with our imaginary cameras.

At the Lubuto Library in Zambia, a boy works on an illustration for a lesson designed by librarians and teachers as a part of the country’s Primary Reading Program. / Robert Kent, USAID

At the Lubuto Library in Zambia, a boy works on an illustration for a lesson designed by librarians and teachers as a part of the country’s Primary Reading Program. / Robert Kent, USAID

Thomas Mukonde, the Library Services Advisor, took me on a tour of the stacks. He’s going to school to get his degree in library science. There are easy reading books in local languages like Bemba and Tonga as well as biographies of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. When they were told about the original texts of Zambian books in U.S. libraries, they arranged to download them into the Lubuto database so anyone can see and read them. They plan to connect to the Internet with the help of some private partners.

Outside the Library the children presented a play about a grandfather who tricks his grandchildren into digging his garden.The actors turned into tomato plants, then became the hawkers at the local market selling the tomatoes. A crowd of more than 50 children gathered to watch.

The director of the play is a local high school student and volunteer at the library. This is Lusaka’s second Lubuto Library. A third is operating in the south and they are looking for space in the northern province as well.  No matter what country, a free library is the soul of a community. It protects the past, preserves the present and assures the future. In order to teach a million Zambian children to read better, they need to practice. Lubuto gives them a place to do just that.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education

A Tale of Two Teachers

It took about two minutes to realize that I was in the presence of a good teacher. To keep their attention, she asked the children questions about the story she was reading, pointing out details of the illustrations. She spoke the local language Tonga, so I couldn’t understand her, but her face was alight, animated, engaging. These Zambian second graders hardly noticed the Americans standing in their Mwandi Community School classroom.

Children vied for the chance to practice the lower case “c” at the chalkboard. Then she asked them to make it backwards and eventually combined them to make the letter “s.” The lesson was part science, part art. Lavis Nzabula, young and inexperienced, is a volunteer teacher in this rural community school. In villages too far from public schools for their children to walk, parents in rural Zambia took action about 15 years ago and started their own schools. Now there are about 4,000 of them.

A volunteer teacher helps her second-grade students to practice letters in a community school in rural Zambia. Because long walks often limit a student’s ability to go to school there are now over 4,000 community schools in Zambia. /  Robert Kent, USAID

A volunteer teacher helps her second-grade students to practice letters in a community school in rural Zambia. Because long walks often limit a student’s ability to go to school there are now over 4,000 community schools in Zambia. / Robert Kent, USAID

Mwandi was launched under a tree, but with donor support it now has rudimentary classrooms. Community school teachers usually have about six years of primary school education. If they’re lucky, the local parent group can afford to give them a hut, but more likely they’re paid with a bag or two of maize meal each month. In contrast, public school teachers in Zambia make a modest $300-$400 a month.

Since 2010 when USAID committed to getting 100 million more children reading and learning — 1 million in Zambia — we’ve helped the Zambian Ministry of Education provide the community volunteer teachers with in-service training in the 5-step process of teaching reading. In some cases the community schools are out-performing the public schools.

Wick Powers, USAID Zambia’s Education Officer, attributes this to “motivation, attitude, time-on-task and more effective pedagogical approaches to teaching reading through a child-centered learning environment as opposed to teacher ‘chalk and talk’ lecturing.”

When finances allow, the ministry has started to send trained head teachers — about 800 last year — to community schools to provide support and build capacity among the local teacher corps.

Private partners are sponsoring boxes of supplemental reading materials for children to check out and take home just like they do for the public schools. Education officials increasingly listen to the PTA’s who manage the community schools and monitor the teachers. Many community schools in Zambia upgrade their operational standards to meet the established criteria to convert or be mainstreamed as public schools in order to receive ministry-trained teachers, funding, and other benefits.

In some cases, the communities don’t want that. The volunteer teachers are friends and neighbors, young people who have potential but no access to further education. They have a vested interest in teaching the village kids to read. With the help of weekend trainings, watching experienced teachers via cell phone videos, and coaching by head teachers, these novice teachers are improving. Some of them will earn the credentials that will qualify them for salaried positions.

In Twabuka, another nearby school, a young man, Akapelwa Muimui, is doing his best to teach the children gathered around him how to read in the local language of Tonga even though he is a native Bemba speaker. The two languages aren’t that different, and he’s doing a credible job according to the experts who are with me. The closer I move to his chair at the front of the room, the easier it is to see his hands shaking, but the children don’t notice. A visit to such schools from foreigners is rare, enervating, and perhaps even exhilarating for both teachers and children alike. Later when I ask a few of them to read words from their notebooks, they sound them out phonetically just as their teacher has taught them.

A teacher in Zambia reads and engages students with critical thinking questions as he goes through the story. With the help of weekend trainings, watching experienced teachers via cell phone videos, and coaching by head teachers, novice teachers are improving their methods and ensuring their students are learning.  / Robert Kent, USAID

A teacher in Zambia reads and engages students with critical thinking questions as he goes through the story. With the help of weekend trainings, watching experienced teachers via cell phone videos, and coaching by head teachers, novice teachers are improving their methods and ensuring their students are learning. / Robert Kent, USAID

The intense teacher training and curriculum changes (Zambia rolled out an entirely new national curriculum in 2014) were largely triggered by simple comprehensive tests that USAID has helped develop and administer in countries around the world. The Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) has shown that children in grades 1-3 have not been learning to read. The evidence has forced government officials in many countries, including Zambia (which has some of the lowest scores in Africa) to take a hard look at the curriculum, the materials, training for principals and teachers, and their management and assessment systems.

The Zambian Government made a significant commitment to substantial changes that include switching to teaching reading in the seven local languages that children are born to and grow up hearing in their neighborhoods. The change has caused some controversy and a healthy public debate, but the evidence shows that children learn to read best in their first language. Once they master the process of reading, it’s easier to learn other languages including English. The government is investing in a USAID-supported public outreach campaign, Let’s Read Zambia, to educate parents and communities about the new reading curriculum, and they’re gaining the support of many parents who can more easily help their children practice reading at home or monitor their progress by checking homework on a daily basis.

As a veteran teacher myself, it’s encouraging to see the investment in teacher education — helping experienced teachers understand the need to change their tactics and helping teachers with no formal education to understand the step-by-step process of learning to read so children can eventually read to learn.

It may take a few years for the exam scores to reflect the changes and the commitment of the Zambian people and their government to their children, but the informal evaluations that teachers are taught to deliver along the way are proof enough for now that children are learning.Their parents recognize it too, and parent workshops are teaching them to take a more active role. As a parent said to me, “I used to get angry when the teacher sent homework and expected me to help. I thought she wanted me to do her job. Now I know I’m also my child’s teacher.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education

Martha Learns to Read

Martha, a first grader at Makombe Primary School in Malawi, takes the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) to test her ability to read. / Christie Vilsack/USAID

Martha, a first grader at Makombe Primary School in Malawi, takes the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) to test her ability to read. / Christie Vilsack, USAID

“How will Martha’s life be different because she’s learning to read?” I asked Dr. Mike Nkhoma, a Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Specialist in Malawi, as we were leaving the Mikombe Primary school. I had just watched this tiny first grade girl in a pink sweater struggle with the sounds that letters make in Chichewa, her national language.

Mikombe Primary is now funded by Malawi’s Early Grade Reading Activity, a government-backed program supported by USAID to improve reading for over a million Malawian children in 11 districts. This is an important commitment for a country that is the 17th poorest country on earth.

During my visit, I saw thousands of Malawian children in crowded classrooms and under trees. It’s not easy keeping hundreds of children focused and learning while they sit on the dirt or on cement shaping their letters with fingers in the air or with a nub of chalk on the floor. But their teachers have been energized by recent training in techniques for teaching reading and classroom management. As a veteran teacher myself, I was impressed with the results of teacher training that the program provides during vacation time and on weekends.

Part of the training involves coaching from Primary Education Advisors who observe classes and make concrete recommendations. The advisors might suggest a song to transition between lessons or instruct the teacher in more clearly pronouncing letter sounds unfamiliar to them. Teachers also learn to use impromptu day-to-day assessments that give them real-time feedback on what’s working. Reading instruction is closely tied to the Early Grade Reading Assessment, a test developed by USAID and used in the field globally to provide data to local ministries about learning outcomes.

A second-grade girl at Mphanje School in Malawi demonstrates skills learned through USAID’s Early Grade Reading Activity by reading aloud from her school textbook. / Oris Chimenya/USAID

A second-grade girl at Mphanje School in Malawi demonstrates skills learned through USAID’s Early Grade Reading Activity by reading aloud from her school textbook. / Oris Chimenya, USAID

So the U.S. is making an investment in Malawi–almost $100 million dollars over five years. But how is this going to change day-to-day life for a girl like Martha?

I asked Dr. Nkhoma about this. If Martha learns to read, he explained, she will be a more informed adult. If she goes into farming, which is likely because her village is surrounded by small corn fields, she will be able to learn about better agricultural practices. “If she can’t read, she’ll stick to the old ways of doing things,” says Dr. Nkhoma.

As a farmer, Martha might need credit, inputs, and price information—things that many smallholder farmers need but are unable to access.  Women constitute 70 percent of the agricultural labor force and produce 80 percent of household food but they have poorer access to extension services than men.  Reading is the first step in narrowing this gap and preparing girls for productive farming careers.

Martha will probably be a mother someday. Malawi’s population is growing more rapidly than most other developing nations, and 47 percent of children under 5 are stunted. We know that women who know how to read choose to space their children, have fewer of them, and are better able to understand nutritional needs. The result: children of literate women have a better chance of living past five years old.

Martha is one person. But as Dr. Nkhoma explains, “this one person sets an example for her daughters and her neighbors.

My father was the only person who had schooling in my whole community. He insisted that we had to go to school even if our friends weren’t going…When all the daughters in other families were getting married people laughed at my father for sending my sisters to school. My sisters ignored what people were saying…In the end the outcome of school was a better living. Parents whose children went to school are getting support from their children. The others saw this and said to my father, ‘I think you were doing the right thing.’ Then they wanted to send their children and grandchildren to school. It spreads out from one person and changes the community.”

When Dr. Nkhoma’s sisters were Martha’s age, they were the exception. At Martha’s school today, there are as many girls as boys attending through 4th grade. It’s our collective challenge to teach them to read and to keep them in school as long as possible. An investment in early grade reading means there’s hope for Martha and hope for Malawi.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for International Education

Ending Child Labor

Global social movements have proven we can end child labor. An ambitious social movement to eradicate child labor globally came together two decades ago – and has enjoyed unprecedented success. Civil-society organizations in over 100 countries on every continent launched a Global March Against Child Labour in 1998. The march crossed 103 countries and culminated in a conference at the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva in June 1998 where activists called on governments, international organizations, companies and civil society to come together to end child labor.

A young girl is forced to work at an unlicensed loom in the Bhaktapur district, Kathmandu, Nepal. This exploitation is a form of modern slavery. / © U. Roberto Romano

A young girl is forced to work at an unlicensed loom in the Bhaktapur district, Kathmandu, Nepal. This exploitation is a form of modern slavery. / © U. Roberto Romano

The ILO launched the World Day Against Child Labour in 2002. Each year on June 12, the day brings together governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, civil society and millions of people from around the world to highlight the plight of child laborers and what can be done to help them.

The movement is succeeding in its ambitious goals. In the late 1990s, the estimated number of children in various forms of child labor was nearly 250 million. Today, that figure has dropped to 168 million. The decline has particularly benefitted girls; total child labor among girls has fallen by 40 percent since 2000, compared to a drop of 25 percent for boys.

Child labor is defined as work that is hazardous to a child’s health, education, or physical or mental development. Too often, it traps children in a cycle of poverty. Too many children in the world still work instead of going to school. For example, an estimated 98 million children worldwide work in agriculture. Children harvest tobacco, cocoa, rubber and other global commodities. Children also work in dangerous industries like shipbreaking in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in services such as construction and restaurant work. However, the U.S. Government has made a substantial contribution to ending this vicious cycle for tens of millions of children.

Kiran, age 10, stares through a carpet knife while weaving in Jaipur. Despite laws prohibiting it, child labor is rampant in India’s rug industry. “Carpet kids” suffer a tragic array of physical trauma, including respiratory illness from inhaling wool fibers, cuts and bruises from sharp tools, and spinal deformities from sitting in cramped positions. / © U. Roberto Romano

Kiran, age 10, stares through a carpet knife while weaving in Jaipur. Despite laws prohibiting it, child labor is rampant in India’s rug industry. “Carpet kids” suffer a tragic array of physical trauma, including respiratory illness from inhaling wool fibers, cuts and bruises from sharp tools, and spinal deformities from sitting in cramped positions. / © U. Roberto Romano

What have we learned about what works?

Social mobilization and awareness-raising: Like so many of the world’s ‘wicked’ problems, addressing child labor requires a concerted effort by multiple stakeholders acting together. Work to promote awareness of child labor among citizens and consumers in developed countries, and among families and communities in developing countries where children are at risk, has proven to be an important part of the solution. U.S. Government agencies, in particular the U.S. Department of Labor, have produced important reports documenting the issues thoroughly. Recognizing that raising public awareness also requires compelling photo and video documentation, in the mid-2000s USAID supported the creation of a photo and video repository, in particular to document conditions faced by girls. This material was ultimately turned into a film, Stolen Childhoods. The film documented not only the problem but examples of what interventions could help working children – such as a new USAID-supported schoolhouse in communities of coffee pickers in Kenya, creating opportunities for children who had been working on coffee farms to attend school for the first time.

Another very important part of the solution is mobilizing communities and empowering them to work at a grassroots level on practical solutions to address root causes of child labor. For example, through our Global Labor Program, USAID has helped workers in the rubber sector in Liberia to organize, mobilize and negotiate with their employer to end exploitative wage practices that compelled rubber tappers to bring their children to work. In the early 2000s, the problem of child labor on the world’s largest rubber plantation in Liberia came to light. Adult tappers were compelled to bring their entire families to work with them just to meet their daily quotas. Following the exposure of this problem, a transnational campaign emerged, linking civil-society organizations and trade unions in Liberia with consumer, labor and human rights groups in the United States. Through USAID’s Global Labor Program, the Solidarity Center was able to work directly with rubber workers in Liberia and assist them to organize, join unions and negotiate better wages and working conditions for themselves and their families. Today, thanks to the combination of effective awareness-raising, campaigning in the United States and the work of trade unions in Liberia to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, there is a school on the rubber plantation where all children attend school while their parents, the adult workers, are paid a living wage.

Ruben Barwon, 13, walks around his campus at the Firestone Junior High School system.  / Solidarity Center, Bill E. Diggs

Ruben Barwon, 13, walks around his campus at the Firestone Junior High School system. / Solidarity Center, Bill E. Diggs

Businesses are also an important part of the solution to the child labor problem. Awareness-raising campaigns have succeeded in flagging this as a business issue for many companies worldwide in many industries, and those companies and industries are working on innovative new approaches to ensuring their supply chains do not exploit workers. Goodweave is one of the best-known examples of a program effectively addressing child labor in a sector where it was endemic, the carpet-weaving sector in India. Goodweave is a certification system that works with retailers, rug importers and exporters, and looms to ensure that child labor is not used in carpet production. The program is active in the ‘carpet belt’ of India and Nepal, and recently extended into Afghanistan. The program provides educational transition programs and works with schools to ensure that children that are found working receive the assistance and support they need to go to school. By building awareness about the widespread use of child labor in the rug industry and creating an effective market-based solution, GoodWeave is ending child labor one rug at a time. Since 1995, 11 million child labor free carpets bearing the GoodWeave label have been sold worldwide, and the number of ‘carpet kids’ has dropped from 1 million to 250,000. GoodWeave’s work in Afghanistan is supported by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Finally, governments also have a very critical role to play in addressing child labor, through their role in establishing laws and policies to protect children, and equally important, their role in ensuring that all children have access to basic education. USAID’s Education Strategy is working to increase access to education for all children worldwide, and in particular for children in crisis and conflict environments. To achieve these goals, USAID is committed to working closely with host country governments and civil society to contribute to shared goals. For example, we are supporting a multi-million dollar initiative in Haiti, Room to Learn, that is working to provide universal, compulsory access to education in Haiti. USAID works closely with the Government of Haiti to build up the education system and provide safe, equitable education to children. USAID and the Government of Haiti are planning to work together to offer schooling to working children. Last March, USAID Assistant Administrator Eric Postel visited Haiti to set priorities for the design of the program. Postel visited an evening school for working children with former Minister of Education Vanneur Pierre. A study commissioned by the USAID/Haiti’s education office estimated more than 24,000 children work as domestic servants. Most of them are teenage girls whose education level is low. The Room to Learn project will work with the Haitian Ministry to offer improved services for these girls.

Sorbor S. Tarnue, 17, Student at the Firestone Junior High School sits to read over her notes after taking an exam. / Solidarity Center, Bill E. Diggs

Sorbor S. Tarnue, 17, Student at the Firestone Junior High School sits to read over her notes after taking an exam. / Solidarity Center, Bill E. Diggs

This year’s theme for World Day is Social Protection: Keeping Children Out of Work. This theme builds on last year’s World Report on Child Labour [PDF]. As we learn more and more about the root causes of child labor, we also are moving further back toward addressing those causes and preventing child labor from taking place at all. We now know that poverty and shocks play a significant role in driving children into work, and also in driving adults into forced and trafficked labor. Development assistance will have a very significant role to play in addressing these issues. With more support for social protection programs that have been proven to play an effective role in helping poor families cope with various types of shocks, we can keep even more children in school and continue to ensure children receive other basic protections.

Support for the World Day grows every year and today we look forward to even wider support from governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, NGOs and civil society, international and regional organizations and active citizens worldwide. You can add your voice to the millions worldwide that will celebrate our continued progress toward ending child labor.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bama Athreya is the Senior Specialist for Labor and Employment Rights, USAID/DCHA/DRG

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