Campus & Community

Voices heard on African development, education

5 min read

Despite – and because of – their very different approaches, policy-makers and education specialists from UNESCO, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) convened on Saturday (Feb. 5) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) to discuss how to facilitate better interagency cooperation. They were joined by activists from several grassroots organizations. The conference, which was also concerned with evaluating and even challenging existing notions of development, was put together by Voices for Africa, a student organization at the HGSE.

Education was the key theme, and the diagnosis was often bleak. “One hundred and four million children worldwide are not receiving education. Forty million of those children live in Africa,” Chief of Section of Emergency Education of UNESCO Paris Kacem Bensalah said in the first panel on “emergency education.” “The situation in higher education is even more severe. In 1980, per-student spending on higher education was $6,300. In 1995, that figure had declined to $1,240. Strikes by university faculty are frequent. Brain drain remains a serious issue.

“Without education,” continued Bensalah, making vivid the scope of the problem, “it is impossible to achieve peace. The direct effect of good education is security, stability, democracy, peace, human rights, and governance. UNESCO is committed to the global mandate to affect the long-term visions of national governmental officials and prepare countries for peace.”

Senior Education Officer of the Women, Children, Community Development and Education Section of UNHCR Nemia Temporal spoke about “Together for Girls,” a project for enhancing girls’ education and access to sports. She pointed out some of the unforeseen consequences of well-intentioned but uninformed charitable gestures. “We once received a large donation of clothes for girls in Kenya. But most of it was shorts, which the girls could not wear [for religious reasons] because it exposed their skin.”

Temporal’s organization strives to dispatch education experts to emergency education teams within 72 hours of the beginning of a conflict to create a “sense of belonging and normalcy” for the many displaced children throughout Africa. She said that despite the obstacles and difficulties in providing emergency education to refugees, its recipients are generally grateful. “Food and other things will finish, while education will remain with us wherever we go,” she said, quoting a father who was on a parents’ board for an emergency education school.

“Because all agencies are so focused on their own mandates, sometimes it is more cumbersome to work together [than not]. But I am a firm believer in interagency cooperation,” said Temporal, referring specifically to the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, which shares information and best practices among 90 organizations, including UNESCO, UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Bank, and several NGOs.

Grassroots activists focus on daily lives

“The average African woman spends one-third of her life collecting water. Men are typically absent from the home, because they are working in the city or on the roads,” said Tiffany Zenith Ivins of World Education in the second panel, which focused on rural women.

Ivins shared the story of showing some African women a picture of a man with a stick leading his family back home from shopping in the market. In the picture the woman has a heavy basket on her head, a baby on her back, and is holding the hands of her children. “When I asked the women, ‘Who do you think has the power?’ someone immediately answered, ‘The man, because he is not carrying anything.’ But then another woman raised her hand and said, ‘No, it is the woman who has power, because she knows that unless she follows the man home, the man will starve.’ Then the women started chanting, mamtola o mama, which means ‘the mothers have power.’”

Ivins stressed the importance of further empowering women through literacy. She characterized fundamental skills such as reading and writing, critical thinking, action, and cultural expression as catalysts for social change.

Jasmine Bates, U.S. Representative for Tostan, a nongovernmental organization that implements education programs in Western African languages, also spoke of power. “Tostan means ‘awakening’ in Senegalese. By educating Senegalese in their native tongue, we empower them,” Bates said. “We use traditional African methods such as song, theater, dialogue, and debate to educate the women. Through non-formal literacy programs in the rural communities, we enable women to make informed decisions.”

“We hire only locals to implement the education programs, because we cannot expect expatriates to have a long-term commitment to stay with the people in the country,” Bates said. Ivins added, “Actually, the strongest resistance to our programs comes not from the rural villagers nor from the women but from the top-level government officials, who are frequently unaware of the pressing needs for rural women’s education.”

Atema Eclai, director of programs at the Unitarian Universality Service Committee, responded, “Governments need to become more aware of the need for long-term commitment to rural girls’ education. More publicity is necessary to mobilize resources, and issue-driven organizations need to further challenge these governments.”