It’s hard to grasp what 1.3 billion kids being out of school means for education systems, families, and children’s welfare. While CGD has been conducting research to advise governments on policy responses to the pandemic, we wanted to supplement big-picture analyses with an on-the-ground look at the reality of operating under the lockdown for education providers in low- and lower-middle income countries, and their roles in supporting the communities that are most affected.
“Diaries from the Frontline” is a new blog series that will feature stories from education organizations about what the crisis means for them and the underprivileged communities in which they’re working, as well as the ways that they are helping children to stay engaged in learning or helping families to cope.
For many households, the urgent need is basic sustenance. The World Food Programme anticipates that without action the number of people suffering acute hunger will almost double to 265 million. Social protection programs have grown rapidly since the start of the pandemic, although there are concerns they will miss the informal sector—80 percent of all workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, millions of children are missing out on school meals—a critical supplement for families in low-income countries, where food averages 60 percent of household expenditures.
In response, some education organizations are filling in the gaps and providing relief far beyond their usual operations. This week, we are featuring stories from two nonprofit education providers who were serving some of the world’s most vulnerable children before COVID-19 hit and have shifted to providing new kinds of support: the Luminos Fund, where Nikita works as senior director of programs, and The Citizens Foundation, where Wajiha heads the department for volunteers and higher education.
The Luminos Fund works in Ethiopia, Liberia, and Lebanon (with Syrian refugees) providing “Second Chance” education—programs focused on accelerated learning for children who’ve missed schooling because of crisis, poverty, or discrimination. More than 90 percent of Luminos students advance to mainstream government schools after completing the Luminos program.
The Citizens Foundation (TCF) is one of the world’s largest networks of independently run schools, operating more than 1,600 primary and secondary schools in urban slums and rural communities in Pakistan. TCF hires only women as teachers and principals, making it the largest private employer of women in Pakistan, and maintains a 1:1 ratio of girl students to boys.
Luminos’s experience distributing relief packages to communities in Liberia
According to the WorldFood Programme, 83.8 percent of Liberia’s population lives on less than $1.25 a day and a quarter of Liberian families spend over 65 percent of their total expenditures on food. The Luminos Fund began working in Liberia in 2016, at the end of the Ebola outbreak, and many of its classrooms are in the communities where the poorest and hungriest out-of-school children live. A necessary part of the program has been providing midday meals: Luminos provides a parent of a student in the class with ingredients including rice and beans and pays them a monthly stipend to prepare lunch.
On March 16, when Liberia confirmed its first COVID case and closed schools, all Luminos classes were put on hold and Luminos pivoted quickly to providing relief for families. The following week, in addition to distributing learning materials to hundreds of Liberian students, Luminos distributed soap and detergent for students’ families, the first time the organization undertook a mass distribution of this kind. Luminos has received special government permission to distribute these items during the lockdown.
Villagers could not congregate due to physical distancing guidelines, so team members spoke with families individually about their children’s education and to share government health guidance. When distributing supplies in late March, team members wore face masks and surgical gloves, and maintained reasonable distance with others. Taking the time to speak with families and answer their questions allowed the Luminos team to help calm fears within communities.
Abba Karnga, Jr., Luminos program manager in Liberia (who previously directed the Stop the Spread of Ebola Campaign), describes initial challenges with the distribution due to rumors in the villages:
“At first, people ran away from us—adults and children alike—and people were arguing, even though they know us! It was tense. Once we explained why we were there and our purpose, the families were very appreciative. I wasn’t surprised by people’s suspicions. It reminded me of working during Ebola when false rumors were flying that Ebola was a joke or that doctors were giving bad vaccines, and everyone was afraid…During the March distribution, it took us an hour in one community simply to relax everyone enough to then distribute the materials.”
A second emergency distribution in May includes additional learning materials, soap, drums to store water, and a bag of rice for each family. Some Second Chance parents describe much more difficult conditions, with no one in the family able to work, especially since the country entered a strict government-mandated lockdown. One out-of-work father of 11 says, “It has gotten really tough for us. We used to eat rice twice a day, but now we eat cassava in the morning and rice in the evening. My son is trying but he is missing his friends and teachers. Children want to be in school and eating.”
Many staple foods in Liberia are imported, including rice, the population’s core food, so the country is particularly vulnerable to shortages in times of crisis.
“Luminos could not use our regular wholesaler for the rice because the Liberian government had purchased all her stock,” says Nikita Khosla, Luminos senior director of programs. “COVID made it harder for us to source rice, but this is not the first time we’ve run into issues procuring rice and other basic inputs in Liberia.”
Luminos was able to procure the rice and expects that a bag can feed a large family for two to three weeks. Abba says that Luminos’s pivot towards providing the relief that families need has been only natural: “We’re reaching children who never went to school before and getting them to a level where they want to keep going. That’s humanitarian. So, when an emergency arises like COVID-19, it’s important that we step up and revise. Providing relief during COVID isn’t strange. It’s what we have to do.”
TCF’s experience with cash transfers in Pakistan
Over 25 years, TCF has built a network of schools in 700 locations across Pakistan where children didn’t have access to schools. Based on their financial means, families pay somewhere between six cents and $3.80 a month for a child to attend a TCF school; the $12 cost per child is covered mostly through local and diaspora philanthropy. In previous national emergencies, TCF has mobilized to provide relief goods. To respond to COVID, TCF is prioritizing cash transfers.
As parts of Pakistan started going into lockdown on March 23, TCF alumni and families started contacting TCF for help. TCF quickly established a partnership with JazzCash, the largest telecom in Pakistan, with an aim to deliver cash transfers to 100,000 of the highest-need individuals in the highest-need communities. Reaching those with the most need, especially during a transportation lockdown, was a challenge that required the help of a nationwide network of over 20,000 alumni and 12,500 female faculty who live in affected communities.
TCF used its socioeconomic data on families to identify clusters of need. To identify beneficiaries within communities, TCF then gathered information through a short survey administered by volunteer alumni and faculty. “While we were surveying and identifying needy families in a slum in the remote village of Surbander, Gwadar, we came across a woman—a widow whose son had lost his job at the gas station amid the lockdown. She shared that they didn’t have anything to cook for dinner and was surprised that we had come so far to this part of the village to help,” says Ms. Farida Bibi, principal at a TCF school in Gwadar, Balochistan.
Because of a lack of phones, literacy, or connectivity, surveys often had to be done door-to-door. TCF provided volunteers with safety guidelines and 250 rupees ($1.50) to buy masks, hand sanitizer, soap, and bottled water, which was important for handwashing in many communities that don’t have running water. In communities with positive COVID-19 cases, volunteers were asked to wear an extra layer of clothing, plastic to cover shoes, a head covering, and gloves.
Volunteers identified 200 to 600 households in each community, including by consulting with local organizations and authorities to identify households outside of their networks. The transfer amounts were 2,500 rupees (about $15) on average, the estimated cost for a family of six to buy basic food supplies and soap for two weeks.
“Upon receiving the cash, people purchase groceries from local vendors, which helps in boosting economic activity in the community,” says Riaz Kamlani, executive vice president for outcomes at TCF, who is leading TCF’s COVID-19 relief efforts. There may only be one shopping area or shop in a community, and, due to social distancing measures in place, TCF had to stagger the pick-ups. Those who had the least food in their pantries (proven via a photo or self-reported) went first. In Gambat, a village in interior Sindh, TCF alumni helped 30 people collect cash transfers one at a time in a day, a total of 300 people over 10 days.
An additional challenge was a lack of mobile phones, since transfers are typically made through phones. In one community surveyed, only 70 out of 1,100 people had mobile phones. TCF convinced JazzCash to share the transaction IDs with on-the-ground volunteers, who then facilitated the collection by matching national ID cards. In one area, due to the lockdown, the JazzCash shop couldn’t officially open so volunteers made makeshift arrangements by turning a garage into a collection shop and processing transactions there instead. A few locals volunteered a tent where beneficiaries waited so that social distancing was maintained throughout the collection process. Since April 1, TCF has helped over 18,000 households in 67 communities; 82 percent of those helped are daily wage workers.
Luminos’s work in Liberia and TCF’s work in Pakistan since the pandemic hit show how education providers are stepping in to provide immediate relief in the communities they serve. Both used their links to communities to mobilize quickly, build trust, and support the hardest to reach. Next week we will look at how they have transitioned to providing distance learning, even in settings with little or no technology.
An Unprecedented Leadership Moment in Global Education
Remarks to the Advisory Board by Mubuso Zamchiya, Managing Director, The Luminos Fund
Just about two months ago, on the 10th of February, an article was published in Mail & Guardian, a prominent South African newspaper. The title of the article was The urgency of rethinking education – for Africa and the World. The piece was authored by Audray Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, and Sahle-Work Zedwe, current President of Ethiopia. These two global leaders had a pressing message they desired to share.
One does not need to be super analytical, they said, to realize that as far as education goes, the world is off-track. They shared some alarming statistics. “UNESCO data shows that 258 million children are still not attending school, two-thirds of the 411 million children worldwide who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills are in school, and there are 750 million illiterate adults, two thirds of whom are women… The international community needs to act,” they urged, “and it needs to act now.”
The Director General of UNESCO and the President of Ethiopia were not only advocating for a closing of these learning and literacy gaps. They were also championing the idea that education needs some rethinking. A rethinking of what we learn and how we learn it. Especially in light of the present learning crisis and the fact that status quo education systems have not been able to meet the learning needs of all children, youth, and adults. Moreover, rapid change associated with globalization and technology advancement has shaped a learning crisis that exacerbates two major challenges identified by Rebecca Winthrop – namely skills inequality (wealthier kids getting a better education) and skills uncertainty (a disconnect between today’s education and the future of work). We need education models, argued Azoulay and Zedwe, that give young people the tools to address these challenges. “Today’s world,” they added, “is not only more interconnected, but also increasingly complex, uncertain, and fragile.”
And today, on April 15, 2020, we have firsthand experience on just how fragile the world truly is. In the 65 days since this article was published, our global society has been brought to its knees, and the global economy to a grinding halt. As countries work desperately to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the ratio of out-of-school children completely flip. It is no longer one-in-ten children who are not in school, but nine out of ten – an unbelievable 1.6 billion children. Thus, if we thought the world had a learning crisis in February, we now know that we are in the midst of a learning calamity.
Some clever work by Harry Patrinos and others at the World Bank offers an interesting lens into three possible scenarios that may result in lower levels of learning. Particularly for children who before COVID-19 were already marginalized within education systems and were experiencing high levels of learning poverty. Firstly, as the pandemic continues, almost all children are likely to experience learning loss. Secondly, as time moves on, and schools remain closed the effect of socioeconomic inequalities will increase the percentage of low-performers, as lower-income families struggle to access remote learning resources for their children. Thirdly, as household income shocks put additional strain on families, many children may actually dropout of formal learning completely and never return to school even after the crisis.
Now, this is a calamity because – as Dzingai Mutumbuka often notes – prior to the Coronavirus, many education systems in the Global South had only the slimmest chance of fulfilling the expectations of Sustainable Development Goal 4. COVID-19 has effectively suffocated those hopes.
It is a calamity because – as George Werner has regularly warned – even in the better times pre-virus, African education systems had woefully inadequate data-collection infrastructure and capabilities. Thus, rendering education reform and decision-making both anchorless and rudderless.
It is a calamity because – as Susannah Hares has pointed out – COVID-19 is likely to affect the education outcomes of girls and boys in adverse and different ways. Keeping girls in school can be transformative, both for them and the next generation. Every additional year in school increases a girl’s future income generation by 10 to 20 percent. More educated mothers can better care for their children. Staying in school also reduces the potential for early marriage, and generally reduces incidences of sexual abuse, disease, and early pregnancy. During a pandemic, household income shocks can result in girls almost entirely forgoing traditional classroom learning activities to engage in household chores or income-generating pursuits with their parents and caregivers. Households with limited resources tend to send boys to school instead of girls. As Alex Eble’s research demonstrates, this is especially the case in communities where girls already face stereotype bias regarding their ability to learn.
It is a calamity because interruptions to learning can take years to recover from. For example, reports suggests that it took two years for children in New Orleans to recover lost learning after Hurricane Katrina, and sixteen years for children living in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
The pressure is therefore great upon education ministers and government delivery systems. What must they do to counteract the negative effects of Coronavirus on children’s learning?
Well, George Werner offers four lessons learned from Ebola that can apply to COVID-19. He argues that ministers should:
Firstly, fight the disease by providing age-appropriate information to help students and their families understand the pandemic and its risks.
Secondly, deploy alternative out-of-school and distance learning solutions as rapidly as possible to prevent dislocation and to keep children and parents engaged with the school system.
Thirdly, coordinate by tearing down the walls within government, and between government and the civil sector, so that children have access nutrition and healthcare, are protected from abuse, and can continue learning.
Fourthly, when schools finally open, ministers should act on the opportunity to implement radical reforms that can dramatically improve education delivery.
Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares add that (i) ministers should be prepared for school closures to last months, not weeks; (ii) they should adapt their plans, but stick to their broad mission and key goals; (iii) they should protect their people, both by observing health and safety protocols, including social distancing in service delivery, but also by addressing the needs of the most vulnerable children and youth; (iv) they should communicate, motivate, and engage learners, parents, and educators in productive ways; and (v) they should collect evidence, and learn from the actions that they take.
As governments and the international community respond to our new heightened learning calamity, Rebecca Winthrop identifies a selection of threats and opportunities. In terms of threats, she cautions that (i) distance learning practices may reinforce teaching and learning approaches that we already know do not work well; (ii) educators may not be adequately supported and may become overwhelmed; (iii) child protection may be harder to safeguard; (iv) learning inequality may increase significantly; and (v) poor experiences in education technology during the pandemic may make adoption of good solutions more difficult later.
However, the pandemic may also result in opportunities: (i) blended learning techniques may more broadly be tried and tested; (ii) teachers and schools may receive more respect, appreciation, and support for their important role in society; (iii) quality teaching and learning materials may be better curated and more widely used; (iv) teacher collaboration may grow and improve learning; and (v) the crisis may help us all better come together across historical boundaries.
Now, this cannon of insight and advice points to some important conclusions. In order to transform the existing learning calamity to a learning opportunity, governments, their non-government partners, and the international community must exhibit the type of leadership that empowers education systems to build back better. And building back better, as we have noted, requires laser focus on three important objectives:
Relief: ensuring that children, parents, educators, and local communities have what they need to survive the crisis.
Recovery: executing the plans, preparation, and processes that will enable children to get back to school safely and productively as soon as the pandemic ends.
Resilience: weaving innovation, shock-absorbency, and agility into the fabric of the education system so that it can ramp up and ramp down as needed while still delivering quality learning.
These three Rs are challenging expectations in any time. And they require special leadership. The type of leadership, like that of Dzingai Mutumbuka, who was able to sow the seeds of effective learning under the exposed trees of the African bush during the Zimbabwean liberation struggle. Seeds, which during the first ten years of Zimbabwean independence, sprouted into one of Africa’s best education systems, and one of the few to ever achieve universal primary enrollment.
It requires leadership like that of Carol Bellamy, who during her tenure as Executive Director of UNICEF bravely prioritized and inspired the world to pursue five major objectives: (i) immunizing every child; (ii) getting all girls and boys into school; (iii) getting all schools to offer quality basic education; (iii) reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and its impact on young people; (iv) fighting for the protection of children from violence and exploitation; and (v) introducing early childhood programs in every country.
This type of leadership certainly must manifest within government. But it is also needed within the non-government organizations that also play a key role in supporting and advancing children’s education. Organizations like the Luminos Fund. Thus, as we galvanize our hearts and minds and ready our hands and feet in response to the world’s learning crisis and calamity, we at the Luminos Fund could not be more encouraged. Encouraged because we are surrounded and supported by such an illustrious and accomplished Advisory Board. Leaders with the right knowledge, experience, and expertise to guide Luminos and help us make the greatest possible difference in such difficult times as these. Friends, it is our great delight and humble privilege to welcome you to the Luminos Fund Advisory Board. On behalf of our entire team and the children we serve, thank you for your support in our mission and work.
To learn more about our Advisory Board, click here.
“We’re reaching children who never went to school before and getting them to a level where they want to keep going. That’s humanitarian. So, when an emergency arises like COVID-19, it’s important that we step up and revise. Providing relief during COVID isn’t strange. It’s what we have to do.”
— Abba Karnga Jr., Luminos Program Manager in Liberia
Updated: May 2020
At this time, the Luminos Fund’s classrooms across Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia are on hold due to COVID-19. To help keep our communities and team safe and to mitigate the spread of the virus, all Luminos staff are working remotely and in-country teams are limiting travel to the field (where it is still permitted).
During this challenging time, we are working to support our students and provide relief to families where possible. For example, in Liberia, we are distributing learning materials for students to work on at home, as well as rice, soap, and drums to store water for families. Our team is managing resources closely to leave room to respond in new ways as the crisis evolves: we want to both respond now and plan ahead for the long term.
Luminos is in dialogue with our funders and other education providers on the latest and to share best practices. Where possible, we are working with governments and partners to coordinate our response on the ground.
From February 7-11, 2020, Christie’s New York hosted an innovative exhibition, Educate: A Charity Exhibition, Benefiting the Luminos Fund, that raised over $80,000 for children’s education. Luminos works to ensure children everywhere get a chance to experience joyful learning, especially those denied an education by poverty, conflict, and discrimination. We believe rich “five senses” learning is possible even in the poorest corners of the globe.
The lively Educate Opening Reception on Friday, February 7 spanned multiple galleries at Christie’s Rockefeller Plaza location, featuring an exhibition of 38 up-and-coming artists, silent auction, a SPIN ping-pong tournament, and live performances. Student artworks by Syrian refugee children in the Luminos Fund’s Lebanon program were also exhibited and auctioned. Artnet News highlighted the event as “not to miss.”
“All 38 artists in the exhibition generously donated a work
to the silent auction, the full proceeds of which were donated to the Luminos
Fund,” said Celine Cunha of Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art and
co-Chairman of Employee Initiatives, who spearheaded the exhibition. “I am
humbled to report that over $80,000 USD was raised for Luminos through the
silent auction and ticket donations.”
Celine explained her vision for the event: “As an art lover
and a Contemporary Art Specialist, I’m aware of the transformative power of art
and of the difficulty to be discovered as an artist. It was very important to
me, and to my CSR team, to use the Christie’s space, which has been used to set
so many world records, to give back to the artistic community directly. It was
imperative to me that Educate: A Charity Exhibition serve a charitable
purpose by giving back to the larger disenfranchised global community. The
overarching purpose of Educate was to highlight and support The Luminos
Fund, which provides joyful learning to refugee children in Ethiopia, Lebanon
and Liberia, aiding those denied an education due to poverty, conflict and
A Shared Worldview
The Luminos Fund and Christie’s met one year ago when
Luminos hosted a small exhibit of some of our students’ artwork, thanks to the
generous support of one of our funders. Christie’s employees, including Celine,
graciously volunteered their personal time as docents for that event.
Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, said, “Connecting
through our students’ artwork, we realized the Christie’s team and Luminos
share an understanding that the drive to create is universal: that the artistic
impulse is as strong in Bushwick, Brooklyn as it is in the Bekaa Valley in
Lebanon. We also share a belief that every child has the right to learn and
grow in safe, creative spaces.”
Educate: A Charity Exhibition was a remarkable expression of this shared vision.
Oh, What a Night
At the Opening Reception, Christie’s broke a record for
number of guests in their galleries. Over the weekend, roughly one thousand
people of all walks of life and ages viewed the exhibition.
“The overwhelmingly positive response to Educate has been heartwarming and inspiring,” Celine said. “We were blessed to work with Luminos, who practices what they preach, providing hands-on work in disaster regions and giving the greatest gift of all to children in need: an education.”
The Luminos Fund team felt similarly fortunate to partner
with Christie’s on such a unique fundraiser. For Luminos colleagues at the
Opening Reception, it was humbling to view the beautiful galleries and artworks,
and to speak with many of the artists and guests.
A Second Chance at Education
The outpouring of generosity from Christie’s New York,
guests, artists, and SPIN will give more than 500 underprivileged children a
second chance at education through Luminos programs — providing learning,
creativity, joy, and opportunity to young people who can use it dearly.
Addressing the audience at the Opening Reception, Caitlin said,
“We are deeply grateful to Christie’s and all the artists and supporters who
have helped make this ambitious exhibition a reality. It is truly incredible
what a small group of dedicated people can achieve.”
The Luminos Fund extends heartfelt thanks to Christie’s,
especially Celine Cunha and Matthew Capasso, for their generosity and creative
vision, and looks forward to continuing this unique collaboration.
Educate: A Charity Exhibition at Christie’s New York Benefiting the Luminos Fund
On Friday, February 7, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. EST, an opening reception will be held at Christie’s New York commencing a charity art exhibition benefiting the Luminos Fund.The Luminos Fund is a philanthropic organization which aims to bring the life-changing opportunity of education to the most disadvantaged children around the world. The night will include live performances, complimentary refreshments, and a SPIN New York sponsored ping-pong tournament open to the public.
The reception will inaugurate a group exhibition of global emerging artists of diverse styles, and mediums. Each artist will donate a single work into a silent auction with proceeds fully benefiting the Luminos Fund. Additional works will be available for purchase directly from the participating artists. The silent auction and artist’s exhibition will remain open to the public until Tuesday, February 11, 2020.