How Change Happens: Improving the Education system in Niger

September 15, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

I’m always keen to pick up and explore examples of ‘how change happens’ in different situations (feel free to send suggestions). Here’s one from a conversation with Oxfam’s country director in Niger, Mbacke Niang,

As one might expect in one of the world’s poorest countries, Niger has a dysfunctional, poorly managed and inaccessible primary nigereducation sector. Adult literacy is less than 30% and rates of primary school enrolment were running at just 57.1% in 2007. The barriers that restrict access to education for children in Niger include the effects of chronic poverty, allied to traditional cultural practices and beliefs about the role of girls, particularly in rural areas. In terms of the supply side of primary education, the main constraints are a lack of resources, a chronic shortage of motivated and well-trained teachers and governance issues.

Working with a range of national partners, Oxfam in Niger decided to embark on a campaign for better education provision by government. The campaign wanted the government to build more and better schools, improve teacher training, and adapt the curriculum to nomadic pastoralist cultures.

The methods: Mostly at local level, Oxfam supported the establishment of ‘School Management Committees’ (SMCs) of parents’ and teachers’ associations and worked with parents to raise their awareness of the importance of girls’ education. At a national level, it supported teacher-training and lobbied for increases in the education budget, backed up by monitoring of education funding by civil society organizations to see if education spending commitments were actually being implemented.

Successes: The government more than trebled its education budget from 2001-10. As always, it’s hard to put the increase down specifically to the campaign, but officials have made clear it was an important factor.

schoolgirls nigerThe campaign has seen clear improvements in enrolment rates, with parents keener to send their kids to school. By 2008, all girls in the area of the project were in school.

Active SMCs now demand regular meetings with local education inspectors to raise issues like teacher absenteeism. SMCs have now been adopted as government policy and are required at every school in Niger.

Within the whole education programme strategy, Oxfam partners have piloted school construction processes that have involved all stakeholders including communities. These have been picked up by the government as better and more cost effective than traditional government building programmes, with the intention to scale them up across the country.

What was less successful: Although girls enrolled to begin their education, some continued to drop out early. Enrolment rates can be boosted by providing a conducive environment, including decent buildings, school meals, community awareness-raising, teacher training etc, but drop-out rates reflect deeply held attitudes and beliefs, for example on early marriage, that take decades to change.

Oxfam mainly works via partners, but national advocacy coalitions have been divided, leading to conflicting agendas and reduced influence. Much senior staff-time has therefore gone into building bridges between two rival coalitions, luckily with considerable success.

To build or not to build? Advocacy NGOs typically find that building a few schools is an essential ‘downpayment’ to being taken seriously by governments, whether local or national. The size of the downpayment required varies according to the issue, country, the NGO’s reputation and the attitudes of officials. In Niger, building 32 classrooms out of a total of 14,000 was enough. A good process is also important, involving officials from the outset (see similar experience in Vietnam).

All fascinating, but as always when studying any given change process, I am pretty sure this is not the whole story. What of the other usual suspects in a change episode? What were the politics of all this – was this about votes or party rivalry? Did any particular events make the authorities keener to promote education? Or were they emulating some neighbouring country? What individuals at local or national government level played a role? And are there bigger contextual shifts at work, e.g. pastoralists settling down and changing their lifestyles, or changes in gender norms? What other external actors were involved? (I notice Unicef has stuff on its website on SMCs). All comments or references welcome.

September 15, 2010
Duncan Green