Playing Catch Up

Playing Catch Up

By: Caitlin Baron

This essay was originally posted on the Center for Global Development’s website as a part of a Symposium responding to Girindre Beeharry’s essay “The Pathway to Progress on SDG 4.” Girindre was the inaugural Education Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can read the introduction to the collection of essays here.


2020 shook the very foundations of education around the world. After dramatic progress in the first decade of this century in expanding access to the classroom, 1.6 billion children were cast out of school. Today, an additional 24 million children are at risk of dropping out of school in COVID’s aftermath. Not only is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 at risk, but Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 2 is as well. To return to the right course, the global education community must refocus and renew our priorities; in this, Girindre Beeharry provides us with a much-needed cornerstone for change.

Lessons from my own organization and experience align in many ways with Girindre’s call to arms. In this piece I aim to show that a focus on Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) is indeed fundamental to advancing educational opportunity across the globe, and I hold a mirror to some the sector’s efforts so far. By outlining some stumbling blocks that education funders have faced in the past, I hope to ensure that we capture this once-in-a-lifetime moment to move forward, not pull back.

As Girindre outlines clearly in his essay on the pathway to progress on SDG 4, focusing on literacy in the first three grades is essential to inclusive and equitable quality education. In low-income countries, where nearly 90 percent of children aged 10 are unable to read with comprehension, it is not only the first hurdle to overcome, but the foundation of any real progress within SDG 4’s broader agenda.

Prioritizing universal FLN in low-income countries rightly forces the global education community to acknowledge that foundational skills are the gateway to all later learning. Second, it expands our lens to focus on education outcomes for children who are in school, but also, crucially, for those who are out of the system. And lastly, it compels us to “reach the furthest behind first.” Girindre’s conviction is radical because it lays bare the global education community’s relative lack of focus to date in improving education outcomes, and the frequent disconnect between policy pronouncements and calls for further funding from the top with actual results for teaching and learning in the classroom. By placing universal FLN at the center, we can set clear and measurable targets to which we can then hold ourselves accountable. To achieve and track real progress, consistent, regular, and relevant data—currently missing from the UIS and the Global Education Monitoring Report—is essential.

Girindre’s focus on FLN is especially helpful in that it centers our attention on a clear-eyed understanding of need, and calls on us to note that gaps in FLN are more similar than different for girls and boys. Indeed, if nine in 10 children in low-income countries cannot read by their tenth birthday, we know with certainty that this is a problem for both genders.

As Kirsty Newman says, “because we see education as a solution to gender inequality… we make the mistake of thinking that gender inequality in education is the biggest priority. In fact… girls’ foundational learning levels are generally not worse than boys.” And, research shows that even when the goal of an intervention is to increase solely girls’ learning, those interventions that have targeted both boys and girls have delivered the same impact for girls as those that focus on girls alone. This subtlety is important because it means we need not waste time searching for FLN solutions uniquely designed for girls. Broad-based FLN solutions are the strongest way to improve outcomes for girls as well as boys.

A school system that keeps children in a classroom for six years or more without teaching them to read fundamentally does not value children’s time, no matter their gender. On behalf of every child, we need to demand more.

But what does getting FLN right really mean at the level of the child? As a child, I learned from my own family what a strong foundation of learning really means. My grandmother would tell me how she grew up in a village where girls went to school through grade three and boys through grade five, and that was the end of their educational journeys. With just three years of reasonably high-quality schooling though, she could read the Bible, balance a check book, and sign a mortgage. Not to mention raise five children who went on to fulfill their full potential, collecting a series of university degrees along the way. I share this not to celebrate how incredible my grandmother was, though she was, but rather to make the point that even three years of schooling can be remarkably impactful if delivered well.

Achieving FLN at scale

Luminos’s Second Chance programs in Ethiopia and Liberia show that first-generation readers can advance from reading five words per minute to 39 words per minute in merely 10 months. Through careful iteration and evaluation, we have enabled over 152,000 out-of-school children to get up to grade level and back to learning.

Along the way, we have learned a few things that are relevant to achieving FLN at scale. We know these lessons can be applied to help make FLN a reality for all. No child should be denied the right to be able to read, write, and do basic math, and the global education community has the power to ensure this happens.

Access versus quality is a false dichotomy

Against the backdrop of the many disappointments of international education detailed in Girindre’s piece, the expansion of access to basic schooling around the globe is a shining achievement that merits far more celebration.

Before the pandemic, the proportion of children out of primary and secondary school fell from 26 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2018. In 1998, it is estimated 381 million children were out of school. By 2014, this number fell to 263 million. This proves the possible: real progress can be made when the world’s education actors are galvanized around a clear, common goal, like the second MDG.

Yet the COVID pandemic threatens all that progress: even three-month school closures can cause students to fall an entire year behind. The significance of these closures is weightiest in the Global South, where some children are missing out on nearly a sixth of their total expected lifetime learning.

The global education community has spent too much time since the penning of the SDGs in debating the merits of education access versus education quality. Girindre’s essay and the World Bank’s new focus on Learning Poverty make clear that this is a false dichotomy, especially post-COVID. A drive to ensure all children learn to read with meaning by age 10 puts our focus on both access and quality, on efforts to improve instruction quality inside early grade classrooms, and on ensuring the one in five African children who still never even make it through the schoolhouse door actually have the chance to get inside.

Learning from global health

Focusing on foundational literacy is the gateway to further learning, and the foundation for unlocking better health, stronger democracy, and so much more. There is good news: even the least-resourced countries have the capabilities to deliver on FLN. At Luminos, our experience training non-formal or community teachers demonstrates that the human capital to unlock early literacy for all children already exists everywhere.

Our program shows the promise of community teachers, especially for countries with a seemingly insurmountable teacher shortage. The global teacher shortage stands at nearly 69 million teachers; 70 percent of this shortfall is in sub-Saharan Africa. The global community needs an education infantry to deliver FLN—fast. Many countries cannot graduate teachers at a rate that could fill the shortfall: South Sudan would need all of its projected graduates from higher education—twice over—to become teachers to fill its gap. The sector must be bold and think outside the box to provide basic and remedial education, as global health has to provide basic healthcare.

Useful lessons can be drawn from global health’s embrace of community health workers as a “last mile” extension to overstretched public health systems. Pratham’s success with the “Balsakhi” model—where tutors from the community worked with local school children—alongside Luminos’s work training community teachers, proves that high-potential young adults with minimal formal training can deliver transformative impact in FLN rates where it is needed most: rural, hard-to-reach areas (Banerjee et al, 2007; Luminos, 2017).

Reduced class size in the early years is essential for success

Entry-level literacy, especially for first-generation readers, requires a class size where the teacher can have a basic sense of each child’s learning level. My experience suggests that, heroic outliers aside, most teachers cannot effectively teach many more than 40 children to learn to read at one time.

In our program at Luminos, children begin the year at uniformly basic learning levels, but by midyear we find a wide dispersion of literacy levels within the same classroom. For a teacher to ensure every child in her class learns to read, she needs a small enough group to allow for some understanding of individual learning levels and differentiated instruction. Larger class sizes are never ideal, but older children are better able to navigate this constraint. Once literacy is achieved, it is possible for children to continue to grasp new learning, even when taught through a passive “chalk and talk” model, with limited individual engagement between teacher and learner, as is typical of large classes. But—and this is crucial—the key gatekeeping event is literacy, and smaller classes facilitate achieving that.

Reflections for education funders on driving change

I write as someone with 15 years in the international education space: 10 years at a leading international education foundation and now 5 years at the helm of the Luminos Fund. I am honored to be featured alongside this esteemed list of researchers, though I am very much not a researcher myself. Instead, I write from my lived experience, having had the rare pleasure of serving on both sides of the desk, as funder and fund-seeker. From this perspective, there are three key provocations I would like to share with funders seeking to drive bold change in international education.

Girindre persuasively highlights the shortage of investment in research and insight in international education relative to global health. While education research may indeed be underfunded, I wonder if a lack of knowledge about what works is truly a barrier to entry for a funder seeking a profound impact in international education?

Reviewing a selection of proven yet diverse FLN interventions that deliver high impact—Pratham’s Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), RTI’s Tusome project, and Luminos, for example—a number of shared elements can be discerned:

  •  Successful delivery of operational basics, including some form of textbooks, learning materials, and, ideally, midday meals
  •  Simple assessments at classroom level that allow for a tight dialogue between teaching and learning, enabling teachers to meet children where they are
  •  Activities that allow children to learn by doing
  •  Some form of scripted instruction, providing a roadmap for success in the classroom, especially for newer and less prepared teachers
  •  Project or systemwide efforts to manage from data, driving problem solving and accountability for performance

Indeed, there is an emerging consensus that some version of the above list is at the core of almost every successful FLN intervention in the sector. It may not be as certain as a “Copenhagen Consensus,” but more than enough information is available for a smart, strategic funder to take bold action. Moreover, the learning that will come from moving forward with what we know and evaluating as work advances is far more valuable than what can be achieved by analyzing from the sidelines.

As courage for the uncertain journey ahead, I offer three key reflections on international education philanthropic strategy from my own professional journey:

The who and the how versus the what

The rise of the importance of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in education has brought many important insights to the fore and allowed for the equally important result of setting aside interventions that simply do not work. An unfortunate side effect of RCTs in the education space, however, is that these studies have at times fueled the search for silver bullets. Too often, education grantmaking strategy has centered on the choice of model of intervention, rather than the quality of the implementation of a model.

Even the most evaluated and celebrated international education intervention in recent time, TaRL, provides ample proof that selecting a powerful model alone is insufficient to guarantee success. While this model has an appropriately renowned track record of success, of the 15 evaluations cited on TaRL’s website, six show little to no material impact on student results. Alongside the conclusion that meeting children where they are is a vital component of successful teaching and learning, we must arrive at the equally important conclusion that who delivers the intervention and how (including elements of both context and quality) matters.

As a sector, we should place greater value on the teams doing the work. In education, implementation is everything: the who and the how are at least as important as the what, if not more so.

For a funder, this means balancing a focus on evaluation data with the long, sometimes expensive investment in building the capability to gather, analyze, and action operating data. Our funders at Luminos love to see our past external evaluations, but it is our real-time management data that enables us to deliver targeted, transformative education to the children sitting in our classrooms today. For funders, I urge directing more support to organizations invested in the long-term, iterative search for sustainable impact, and less towards large-scale but time-bound projects that often leave little behind when they conclude. Furthermore, I urge funders to invest in the development of in-house measurement systems that make it possible for organizations to advance the ongoing, iterative search for impact.

Cursing the darkness versus lighting a candle

Girindre’s piece rightfully calls out the struggles and shortcomings of the major multilateral institutions in their quest to materially advance the quality of education around the globe. Changing some of the in-built challenges in the global education aid infrastructure will be hard though, and with uncertain success. Meanwhile there are simpler education investments, with more straightforward paths to catalytic impact, waiting to be made.

There is a rising cohort of international education NGOs ready to do far more good for the world, if only they had the financial support to further scale. I recognize I may seem an imperfect messenger for this call to action, as the head of one such NGO. But I make this claim, in heartfelt truth, on behalf of a broader coalition of excellent organizations doing remarkable work to expand educational opportunities for children globally: the Citizens Foundation, Educate!, PEAS, Rising Academies, Young 1ove, the entire membership of the Global Schools Forum, and many more. These high-impact organizations are underpowered financially. It would be an easy—and transformational—win for a foundation to invest sustained, flexible, mezzanine-style funding to take these proven models to true scale.

An important consideration to highlight here is that it is not necessary to choose out-of-school children over girls’ education or over early childhood development. Each organization above is a proven winner on their piece of the education puzzle. The world’s children would be far better off if this cohort of organizations could pursue our respective missions at some multiple of our current sizes. While lasting change in education inevitably means working within government systems, there is no effective way to do this without high-quality partners to support that engagement, and this is where high-impact, under-funded NGOs come in.

The potential for impact from a greatly expanded tier of international education NGOs should be resonant for those coming from a global health perspective. While global health has long been criticized for focusing on “vertical” or disease-centered initiatives (malaria, HIV, etc.) at the expense of mainstream health systems, this focus has also driven a revolution in health outcomes around the world. These vertical initiatives have time and again made the case to donor agencies and national governments of the positive return on global health investments. In short, this “problem” of global health is one the international education sector would love to have. Investing in scaling up high-impact international education NGOs is a risk worth taking.

Getting out of one’s own way

Leading a major portfolio at a foundation means operating in a world of awesome possibility and weighty responsibility, as I know from my decade as a leader at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. All that flexible capital naturally requires a razor sharp, insight-based strategy to guide its effective deployment. But true philanthropic wisdom involves allowing the occasional freedom to set aside rigid strategies (however elegant they may seem) and simply fund great things, regardless of how they map to a fixed strategic plan—and I say this as someone who also spent the first seven years of her career as a strategy consultant.

Anthony Bugg-Levine, another recovering strategy consultant, wrote of his time at the Rockefeller Foundation: “like most foundations, ours had a strategy and looked for grantees undertaking specific projects that fit into it.But great nonprofits have their own strategies. By pushing many of them to fit into a specific type of restricted funding, I risked not getting their best.” When you fund exclusively against your own strategy, you close yourself off to the possibility that anyone else in the sector might have a good idea of which you had not yet thought.

Careful research and deep diligence are important when planning a grant portfolio, but real learning comes ultimately from doing and applying that same rigor to evaluating the journey of the work, not simply the choice of destination.

In education in particular, we need to create space for just a little bit of magic: incredible successes we cannot quite explain lest we “dissect the bird trying to find the song.” Imagine if the philanthropists who funded Maria Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini had insisted on knowing the neuroscience behind sensorial education before committing to support the scaling of her work. Would we now have one of the most scaled and impactful education models the world has ever seen? Taking the occasional risk on something new, different, or unproven is one of the great joys of philanthropy, and very much to be cherished.

Answering Girindre’s call to arms

If there is one thing our sector needs more than anything else, it is bright, passionate minds, unwilling to compromise with the status quo of incremental progress, and hell-bent on making good on the promise of universal access to a quality basic education. As such, those of us in the sector feel the loss as Girindre steps away from his fulltime role at the Gates Foundation all the more palpably.

I first met Girindre when I had just transitioned from 10 years at a foundation into the role of NGO leader, and he had just made the leap from the world of global health to that of international education. We have enjoyed trading fish-out-of-water reflections on the fresh perspective that comes from taking up new, complex things. He treated me to a few warp-speed tours of the Gates Foundation’s evolving strategic vision in international education, keeping me on my toes as he bounced effortlessly from RCT findings to national education budgets to pedagogic frameworks. It was a privilege to be in the room with him. I have watched with admiration and a small touch of jealousy as he went on to build a grant portfolio funding all of my very favorite international education researchers to tackle some of the most pressing questions of our time.

It is hard to imagine someone having a greater impact on the international education sector in a shorter period of time than Girindre. He has gifted our sector with so many important insights, but his most important legacy is the searing and inspiring call to action in his essay.

Education is hard, and messy, and slow to show results, but it is the only truly lasting social investment we can make. Girindre poses the essential question to each of us in his piece. Complex and difficult as it is to get education right, what more worthy challenge could we possibly choose for our “one wild and precious life”?

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: COVID-19 and Education Inequality: Who Is Most at Risk of Being Left Behind?

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: COVID-19 and Education Inequality: Who Is Most at Risk of Being Left Behind?

The fifth and final blog in Center for Global Development’s “Diaries from the Frontline” series examines which children are most at risk of being left behind after the COVID-19 crisis. The original post is available at: www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontlines-covid-19-and-education-inequality-who-most-risk-being-left-behind

Diaries from the Frontline: COVID-19 and Education Inequality: Who Is Most at Risk of Being Left Behind?

By Rita PerakisMaretta SilvermanNeha Raheel and Alison Bukhari

Over the last several weeks of the “Diaries from the Frontline” series, we have shown how COVID-19 and school closures have affected some of the world’s most vulnerable students. Education organizations have had to be adaptive and responsive to meet the most pressing needs of their students and their families while trying to plan for the long-term impacts of the pandemic. In this final blog post of the series, we take a look at the impacts of COVID on the most vulnerable students.

CGD colleagues have written about how school closures are exacerbating inequality, how learning loss will be greater for children with less connectivity and parents less able to help them, and how school closures will put some children at higher risk of violence and other forms of abuse. Girls are more likely to be negatively affected by COVID-19, as 69 percent of education organizations said in response to a CGD survey.

These impacts are likely to continue to be felt in the long term. As evidence from Argentina, the United States, and Indonesia has shown, less educated workers are more affected by economic crises, and students who drop out of school or experience significant declines in learning are likely to face lower lifetime productivity and earnings. That’s in addition to the potential psychological impacts of isolation and in some cases abuse during lockdowns.

This week, we examine how one particularly vulnerable population served by the Luminos Fund—refugee children in Lebanon—has been affected. The Citizens Foundation in Pakistan describes what school closures mean for girls and their education and life opportunities. And Educate Girls, an organization based in India new to the series, shares stories from the frontlines.

Luminos: Education for refugee children during COVID-19

Lebanon is navigating economic strife, inflation, unrest, painful cross-border tension, and a pandemic, all while hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world per capita. There are 910,256 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but theactual number is likely even higher. Despite the Lebanese government’s efforts to offer school placement to refugee children,over a third of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon at the age of compulsory schooling (6-14) are out of school. For those that are in school, this academic year has had major disruptions: schools closed for weeks in the autumn due to political protests and unrest, and again beginning in March due to COVID.

In Lebanon, the Luminos Fund offers back-to-school and homework support programs for Syrian refugees, including robust psychosocial support such as art and music therapy to help students process trauma. Many students have been out of school for years, and all are learning in English and French (the standard languages of instruction in Lebanon) for the first time. These programs are an opportunity for refugee children to catch up to grade level and prepare to assimilate into Lebanese classrooms. During COVID, Luminos has shifted these programs to online and message-based learning, for example through WhatsApp, whichmany families identify as their preferred communication format.

For the refugee families that Luminos serves, financial pressure is a greater concern than COVID, which has implications for education. Mahmoud, a father, describes the stress that he feels: “My daughter receives some lessons on WhatsApp, and I go to my neighbor’s home to use their internet connection to download the lessons because I do not have enough credits for 3G. Honestly, I am embarrassed because, first, I feel shy when I go to my neighbors’ for internet connection and, second, my financial status is very bad. I am borrowing money to buy food so I don’t know how to afford buying my children notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, etc. I cannot find a job.”

A girl who is a refugee in Lebanon, at a school supported by the Luminos Fund. Photo by Luminos Fund.
Before the pandemic, a refugee girl studies at a school in Lebanon supported by the Luminos Fund. Photo by Luminos Fund.

Syrian refugee children,both boys and girls, are at particular risk of dropping out of school, especially now. Boys may be needed to earn income for the household. Girls are at risk of early marriage, perhaps to a man with a degree of financial stability, and may be at greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence during the pandemic. Even before COVID, Luminos needed to adjust school hours during harvest season because children go to work, and the crisis is accentuating these hardships.

Some children are studying online, says Assem, a teacher, but adds that he sees children working, like selling napkins at a nearby traffic stop, or playing outdoors during COVID. Families report seeing some children scavenging for food or potential toys.

When the Lebanese-Syrian border reopens, some refugee families may decide to return to Syria, depending on when schools reopen in Lebanon and the family’s assessment of the economic situation—a choice that illuminates the confluence of crises these families face.

Luminos has continued to evaluate new ways to support refugee families and students through the crisis, such as by providing cell data cards to families who will have trouble accessing lessons otherwise. It has considered distributing tablets, but there is concern families may sell these devices for short-term income.

“I hope schools will open and my children return to their schools,” says Azab, a father. “I hope life becomes normal again. I think life will not be normal as it was before because life is financially harder now. Honestly, I don’t know what will happen.”

TCF: COVID, gender, and class

“What are we supposed to do with a learning continuity plan when we don’t have anything to eat at home? Our girls are better off stitching footballs, at least that way we can put food on the table,” parents told Shakeela, a TCF principal running a government school for girls in a village in Narowal, Punjab.

TCF estimates that a significant proportion of its students are currently at risk of dropping out, primarily girls and students from the lowest-income families. Boys who come from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds, especially those currently in secondary school, are also at risk of leaving school to serve as an extra set of hands in the fields or at local shops.

Principals, teachers, and community members from across the TCF network are echoing the challenge of keeping female students in school if closures persist. There’s a particular concern about girls dropping out during the transition from primary to secondary schooling, a problem which predates the pandemic but is likely to be exacerbated in its aftermath. The reasons for this are familiar: the loss of livelihood has a disproportionate impact on girls, as they are expected to take on traditional caregiver roles around the home while their mothers earn a living; distance to school and the cost of transportation; early marriages; and familial and societal pressures.

With several low-cost private schools at risk of closing due to the economic impact of COVID-19, parents are increasingly worried about their daughters’ job prospects (teaching is seen as a safe and respectable job for women, as we noted here). They are calling into question the value of educating them instead of teaching them skills such as beautician work, embroidery, or stitching.

Ahsan, aged 10, used to help his father in the fields after school, but is now working from daybreak to sunset. He says, “Every day we used to play and do activities at school. I miss meeting my teachers and friends. Without school, it’s only work.” For many boys like Ahsan, the transition back to school may be challenging or even impossible, due to the economic pressure his family is facing.

In addition to economic pressures to work, the digital divide is also preventing the continuity of learning for some students who do not have access to technology. That puts kids at greater risk of dropping out, as they’re unable to catch up.

Accounts from the field of the impact of all these factors, however, have been mixed—some TCF principals are confident that they will be able to retain all of their students, while others are much more apprehensive. TCF’s TV program, self-study magazine, and community outreach have sought to keep families and students engaged with education. Continued parental support, where we find it, has been predicated on community members feeling that TCF did not leave them behind: the relief work that TCF has done, coupled with the regular community outreach by phone from principals and teachers has meant that some parents are happy to send their children, daughters and sons alike, back to school. How long this patience will last is yet to be determined.

Educate Girls: Losing girls due to lockdown?

The team at Educate Girls in India recognizes that learning loss due to COVID is important, but has been more troubled by the possibility of scores of girls losing out completely on continuing their education as a result of the pandemic.

They have seen cases of this play out firsthand: Gita, a girl in a remote village in Rajasthan, was on the verge of completing her education when the pandemic hit and her school closed. Gita is a child bride who had been allowed to finish her education before moving in with her husband. Her family deemed it inappropriate for her (as for many girls in the area) to have access to a mobile phone—preventing her from accessing distance learning. When she did briefly use the phone to text a girlfriend, her father and brother believed her to be dishonoring her family, talking to a boy and not her husband, and sent her off to her in-laws earlier than planned. News traveled fast and three other girls in similar situations in Gita’s village were also sent to live with their husbands—accelerating their child marriages and diminishing their futures. They are unlikely now to ever set foot in a classroom again.

Another girl, Pinky, and her three sisters live in fear of their alcoholic father, even without a lockdown and now, cooped up at home, the situation is precarious. The pandemic and lockdown have increased the risks of gender-based violence, with reports of calls to national helplines rapidly increasing. With Educate Girls’ field teams on lockdown, it is hard to translate these stories into quantitative data, but the reports from staff in communities Educate Girls serves have been deeply concerning.

Girls at a school in India served by Educate Girls, before the pandemic and lockdown started. Photo by Educate Girls
Girls at a school in India served by Educate Girls, before the pandemic and lockdown began. Photo by Educate Girls.

Educate Girls, in partnership with the government of India and local communities, has enrolled more than half a million girls into school over the past 12 years, many for the first time. But the pandemic and lockdowns have created a real fear among staff that more than a decade of progress could disappear overnight. As livelihoods and health issues loom as the greatest risks, education is deprioritized. It is hard for a field worker to pick up the phone and have a conversation about school when their family has lost its income and its food.

Like many other education NGOs, Educate Girls’ staff and volunteers have pivoted to do relief work beyond their usual role, supporting over 100,000 of the worst-hit families across 1,500 villages with the highest concentration of out-of-school girls. Despite substantial fears about the impact of the crisis on girls’ education, the hope is that the crisis will be an opportunity to rethink the systems and policies that have been at the root of girls’ repression all these years—and that NGOs can help press the reset button on the systems that are holding the most vulnerable back.


Thanks very much to the teams at the Luminos Fund, TCF, and Educate Girls for sharing their stories. These stories have illuminated for us what new relief operations, distance learning and learning loss, the roles of educators, and COVID-19 impacts on girls and the most vulnerable populations have meant in reality. While the series is ending for now, CGD’s education team will be continuing to research these issues related to the pandemic’s longer-term effects on global education.


Center for Global Development features Luminos in its series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Preparing for School Reopening

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Preparing for School Reopening

The fourth blog in Center for Global Development’s “Diaries from the Frontline” series examines how education organizations, including Luminos, are preparing for schools to reopen. The original blog is available at https://www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-preparing-for-school-reopening.


Diaries from the Frontline: Preparing for School Reopening

By Maryam AkmalNikita Khosla and Ali Nadeem Sipra

More than 20 countries have started to reopen schools in the last few weeks, with more expected to follow suit. Many countries that have reopened schools have not seen a spike in infections follow. However, others, like Israel, opened schools only to close some of them soon after due to a surge in infections among students and staff. When to open schools is primarily an epidemiological question, and the evidence on child infections and transmission is still far from conclusive.

Policymakers making difficult decisions about when to reopen schools are balancing the health concerns of the pandemic against the social and economic repercussions of school closures. Ultimately, schools cannot stay closed forever and governments need to start planning for an eventual reopening, whenever that may be. CGD colleagues and others have published evidence-based guidance on how policymakers should plan for school reopening. The recommendations include engaging communities in school reopening plans, targeting resources where most needed, incentivizing children to come back to school, making school environments safe, and instituting plans to recover learning loss. Ultimately, any guidance will have to be adapted to different contexts, as protocols that are being implemented in one setting may be hard to implement in others.

Last week we looked at how two frontline education organizations, The Citizens Foundation (TCF) in Pakistan and the Luminos Fund in Liberia, are supporting their teachers and principals through the crisis. In this fourth installment of our “Diaries from the Frontline” series, we highlight how TCF and Luminos are preparing their teachers, principals, and children for school reopenings.

TCF tackles reopening challenges, including ways to recover learning loss

After schools closed in March in Pakistan, TCF spoke with some of its teachers and principals to take their concerns into account while planning for an eventual reopening. Many TCF teachers and principals are proactively staying connected with kids and parents during school closures through regular calls and messages. Their primary concerns are student wellbeing, particularly students’ physical and mental health, and learning loss—all of which need to be kept in focus if schools are to work for all children once they reopen.

For many students, schools offer a temporary escape from harsh conditions at home—half of Pakistanis believe that parents beat their children more during lockdown. Some areas, disconnected from traditional information channels, still lack guidance about the disease risk; in some communities kids continue to play cricket on the streets like it’s a normal day. TCF principals and teachers, who continue to receive their salaries, have been providing information to children about how to stay safe from the virus, as well as providing emotional support so that kids are able to return to school once they reopen.

“Most children I talk to ask me when they will have their old routine back. They miss their school and class fellows,” says Naila Liaqat, a principal at a government school managed by TCF in Punjab. Another principal, Saba Parveen Kayani, at a different school in Punjab says, “When some members of our community were diagnosed with COVID-19, the student body was gripped by fear. I told my students to be strong, to wash their hands regularly, and to keep a physical distance from others to not only protect themselves but also those around them.”

A teacher at a school in Kasur, Punjab stands over a class doing work
Before schools shut down, a teacher at a TCF-operated government school delivers her lesson in Kasur, Punjab. Source: The Citizens Foundation

When TCF spoke with its faculty, the teachers and principals raised difficult questions about how to plan for reopening: If schools open in July, as currently scheduled, how will children walk three kilometers or more to school in the summer heat with temperatures soaring to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius)? If schools open in August, how will teachers cover the entire syllabus by December when the government conducts the exams? It can take four weeks after the school year begins for textbooks to become available—how will learning happen without books?

“Since schools suddenly closed in March, I have been very worried about the future of my students. How will they finish the syllabus? How will teachers manage it?” says Sana Adil, a principal at a government girls’ primary school managed by TCF in Sindh.

Other teachers and principals raised concerns about whether government schools that TCF manages under public-private partnership arrangements (roughly one fifth of its total schools) will continue to receive a sufficient government subsidy, which is conditional on enrollment numbers and test scores, if students migrate back to their native villages or test scores are low. How will schools cope with the financial blow, and will teachers be laid off? While TCF’s diversified philanthropic base has meant that the organization has never needed to consider closing schools due to lack of financial support, the current economic recession comes around Ramadan, when TCF raises more than half of its total budget. In a recent CGD survey of frontline education organizations, close to three quarters of the respondents report a drop in private or philanthropic funding during the crisis.

TCF management has also been thinking about how to maximize learning once schools reopen despite the shortened academic year, which many teachers are understandably worried about. To that end, TCF has decided to cut down the curriculum in proportion to the reduction in academic hours while trying to maintain learning goals. This is possible because the government’s curriculum contains a lot of repetition and redundancy, as well as content that is disconnected from the development of literacy and numeracy skills. For example, students might learn about Abdul Sattar Edhi, a revered Pakistani humanitarian, in social studies, English, and Urdu books; or Sindhi and Urdu books will contain the same story verbatim. TCF is planning to streamline overlapping or repetitive content to ensure learning is maximized despite the shortened school year.

TCF is aware that despite these efforts, student scores will probably take a hit—TCF will not penalize teachers or principals for that. The organization’s primary goals remain prioritizing the physical and socio-emotional health of students and staff, and promoting meaningful learning as much as possible under these complex circumstances.

Luminos prioritizes re-enrollment, remediation, and resilience

In the coming autumn, the Luminos Fund plans to enroll a new cohort of students across its three programs in Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia, pending safety assessment and local government guidance. Once schools reopen in Liberia, Luminos is preparing to deliver a specialized catch-up program for the cohort of students whose program was disrupted by COVID closures.

Given the uncertainty about how the COVID-19 crisis will evolve, when schools will reopen, or how long they will stay open, Luminos’s strategy is to stay responsive, flexible, and connected to developments on the ground. Three key priorities guide the organization’s reopening strategy:

  • Re-enrollment. Conduct outreach to the most vulnerable students to encourage re-enrollment.
  • Remediation. Assess students’ learning gaps and deliver targeted remediation to help children catch up.
  • Resilience. Strengthen school systems to weather future closures and disruptions.

Luminos’s Second Chance program enrolls some of the most economically vulnerable children who have missed out on schooling due to poverty or other barriers. These children are also at high risk of not returning to school once COVID subsides. Luminos tries to incentivize enrollment, for example, by offering school lunch in Liberia. However, there is a real worry that meals alone may not be enough to encourage families to send kids back to school—these children might now be needed to help at home or to contribute economically to the household, given the income shocks brought on by the crisis. Furthermore, those students who do make it back might have a hard time catching up on lost learning.

“Each one of my students will come back to school. Their parents are already asking about it,” says Blama, a teacher with the Second Chance program. “But I think when school reopens, some children will find it difficult to catch up.”

Two teachers lead students in a game at a school in Liberia
Luminos students and staff play a learning game before schools shut down

Luminos facilitators have continued to stay in touch with students and their families, which is essential to ensure that children return to school once they reopen. Facilitators, wearing personal protective equipment, visit students to review worksheets, check on their health and the health of family members, share educational radio program schedules, and more. In addition, Luminos teachers are planning for enrollment outreach and delivering catch up lessons to prepare for reopening.

As a part of these reopening efforts, Luminos is discussing how to manage distancing (for example, smaller class sizes and/or multiple shifts), school feeding, and more. In addition, socio-emotional support for returning students is a major concern. While Luminos already provides child protection and sensitivity training for its teachers and supervisors, it plans to train teachers to identify, support, and communicate with children who are struggling psychologically due to disruptions brought on by the pandemic.

It helps that Luminos teachers are still getting paid; some teachers haven’t been so lucky. However, there is no guarantee that Luminos will be able to keep paying teachers as COVID evolves. Donor flexibility has helped Luminos adapt its operations to the crisis so far, and the organization will likely continue to need flexibility through the next 6–18 months.

“Coming out of a crisis like COVID or Ebola, there’s a high risk that many children won’t return to school,” says Gbovadeh Gbilia, head of the Education Delivery Unit at Liberia’s Ministry of Education, adding that programs that engage communities and catch up children on learning gaps play a key role in the aftermath of a crisis.

Finally, Luminos realizes that building resilience within its school systems is hard but essential. In Liberia, COVID-19 is the second public health crisis in six years to cause prolonged school closures. In Lebanon, where Luminos also works, the current academic year has already been disrupted more than once: schools had already closed for weeks in the autumn due to political protests and civil unrest. Moving forward, school systems will need to develop the agility to close and reopen flexibly, and to pivot quickly to supporting learning at home when needed.


Next week we will look at how these organizations are addressing risks faced by some of the most marginalized groups of students.

Center for Global Development features Luminos in its series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Supporting and Engaging Teachers during COVID-19

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Supporting and Engaging Teachers during COVID-19

This is the third blog in Center for Global Development’s Diaries from the Frontline series, now focusing on teachers. The original blog is available at https://www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-supporting-and-engaging-teachers-during-covid-19


Diaries from the Frontline: Supporting and Engaging Teachers during COVID-19

By Rita PerakisNikita KhoslaZia Akhter Abbas and Nadia Naviwala

Schools in most of the world have been closed for the last couple of months and most developing country governments have not yet announced plans for reopening.

Teachers are facing a great deal of uncertainty during this time about school reopenings, the impacts of closures on children and their ability to catch them up, and, fundamentally, about their own livelihoods and the economic effects of the crisis.

Following the 2008 economic crisis, there was a dip in education spending in lower-middle income countries which did not recover for years. Case studies indicate that many places did not cut teacher salaries, but may have responded by increasing workloads or pupil-teacher ratios, or freezing teacher hiring and salary increases. The economic downturn from coronavirus is expected to be worse than the 2008 financial crisis, but even if countries choose to protect teacher salaries within public budgets, private school teachers will remain vulnerable. Low-cost private schools in particular have been unable to continue paying teacher salaries with schools closed and parents unable to pay fees.

Last week we looked at how two education nonprofits are trying to sustain learning from a distance during COVID-19. This week, we are looking at how these organizations are supporting their own teachers and principals. The Citizens Foundation (TCF) and the Luminos Fund are operating in different contexts but both have been able to sustain operations and continue to support teaching staff and other personnel. Their experiences show that teachers, not buildings, are the backbone of any school system. And even while schools are closed, there is evidence that teachers are continuing to keep students engaged with learning.

The Luminos Fund: Teaching during emergencies

Teachers in Luminos’s Second Chance programs are young men and women hired from the counties and communities that Luminos serves. Similar to students, many teachers’ families in Liberia face fragile economic situations during COVID. When the COVID crisis struck, Luminos recognized the importance of keeping staff and teachers on salary even if schools closed.

First, from an educational standpoint, if Luminos laid off teachers in Liberia, it would be challenging to be ready to reopen schools or proactively re-enroll students when the crisis ends, particularly if teachers relocate to live with family members. Second, from a humanitarian standpoint, putting a hold on salaries adds enormous financial strain to an already vulnerable population. Holding salaries would actively harm poor families.

Thanks to increased flexibility from its core funders, Luminos has been able to continue paying teachers their full salaries. This support has also enabled Luminos to pivot quickly and shift staff from core classroom programming to providing learning materials, rice, soap, and detergent to students’ homes in Liberia.

Teachers have gone above and beyond to help students continue learning during lockdown.

Varney is a Second Chance teacher who lives and teaches in a rural village in Liberia. When the government issued guidance to limit gatherings to ten people at the start of coronavirus, he continued teaching his class of 30 children, broken into smaller groups of ten or less. Since the full lockdown began and Luminos began distributing learning materials (which were designed with input from some of Luminos’s teachers), Varney walks by students’ houses, keeping a distance, to give them lessons and make sure they have completed them. He says his students are eager to return to school. Varney and his family, like many teachers, have also been personally affected by COVID: they’ve faced economic hardship and are eating less.

Another teacher, James, also goes door-to-door to check on his Second Chance students—from a distance—to ensure they are making use of the books that Luminos provided. He says his students’ families are most concerned about food security, and notes that his own family is also eating less during COVID. He is confident his students will return to school when it reopens but says it will be challenging for them to catch up. He says he hopes this academic year can be extended to ensure these children “come out victoriously.”

Other Second Chance teachers do not live in the communities where they teach and, due to the lockdown and curfews, have few options to ensure their students are making progress on the reading and math materials that Luminos provided, or help students on a day-to-day basis. In these cases, Luminos supervisors check in with the students weekly.

Luminos’s experiences could provide lessons for Liberia more broadly and other countries. George Werner, former Minister of Education in Liberia and a member of the Luminos Fund’s advisory board, recently observed that the organization’s model for recruiting and training teachers could be scaled to build a cadre of “emergency teachers” to work alongside mainstream systems and provide rapid response capacity to get children back to school after crises like COVID.

“The Luminos Fund hires high potential young people who are often only Grade 10 graduates and provides them with three weeks of intensive training followed by weekly in-classroom coaching,” Werner says. “For countries with massively stretched school systems and average class sizes already in the 50+ range, this is an effective, practical auxiliary option to educate children.

“Education is in an emergency now worldwide, but for many countries in Africa, education has been in an emergency for decades. Normalcy does not apply in an emergency. All emergencies need radical thinking.”

TCF: Supporting female teachers

Imagine writing your employer a thank you letter for paying your salary. That’s what happened at TCF last month. When salaries were disbursed in the days before May 1, principals and teachers responded with letters of appreciation, including messages like, “When our world is in lockdown, jobs and salaries are not safe, our organization did not abandon us… Even in this lockdown, we were given our salaries at our doorsteps in a respectful manner. It is rare to find such examples among other organizations.”

TCF employs only women on its faculty and is the largest private employer of women in Pakistan. Often, these are young women who got permission from their families to work as teachers because it was seen as a safe and respectable way to engage in employment, even in a small village or katchi abadi (informal settlement or slum). Now with COVID-19, they may be the only ones in their households who are still receiving paychecks on time (or at all) when their husbands, brothers, or fathers may not be. This impacts their role and the way their employment is perceived by their families.

Continuing to pay and support teachers and principals has enabled TCF to concentrate on ensuring that children in their schools are cared for and have access to learning materials. Like a group of Teach for Pakistan fellows who evolved theidea of a WhatsApp-based school, TCF school leaders have, on their own initiative, been collecting the phone numbers of their students and forming WhatsApp classrooms using videos, voice notes, and text messages. “Our WhatsApp group has a timetable. Teachers assign tasks based on the timetable, and students share their work on the group, which teachers give them feedback on,” said Sumaira Aslam, a principal in inner-city Karachi. “There are many students who don’t use WhatsApp. For them, we send them the same tasks over SMS. For students we haven’t reached, we have put a sign on the gate and asked teachers to convey the message throughout the community.”

Sajida Ambreen, a principal at another school in Karachi, has made students responsible for collecting the phone numbers of their friends. She monitors the participation of students and teachers. “Girls have the strongest participation,” she said, “The boys are busy. But they can listen to the voice note lectures when they get off from work.” She said despite the lockdown boys were working as shopkeepers, drivers, tailors, or doing overnight shifts at the nearby textile mills. “In our community, kids support the parents to run the house. Some parents have just let go and the kids pay their own fees. Others have fathers who are ill.”

TCF principals connecting with students via WhatsApp.

These programs are led by TCF’s principals. To reach the many students who do not have mobile phones or internet, another principal posted notices on the school gates and enlisted the chowkidhar (gatekeeper) to deliver the message to families. Alongside these faculty-led initiatives, TCF is designing learning materials that can be exchanged with teachers via drop-off points in the community.

Although families pay a small fee for children to attend schools, TCF operates mostly through philanthropic donations. The current economic recession, combined with the cancellation of fundraising events, could be a threat to TCF’s ongoing ability to cover costs. However, TCF’s philanthropic base is diversified, with a mix of local, diaspora, corporate, foundation, high net worth individuals, and crowd-funded philanthropy. Also, a large proportion of giving to TCF is motivated by zakat, a religious requirement that Muslims must donate 2.5 percent of their wealth. Zakat is calculated as a proportion of wealth, rather than income, so it is less affected by economic cycles of growth and recession. In these uncertain times, these aspects of TCF’s funding model can help protect their large school network.


Next week, we will take a deeper look at how these organizations are planning to prepare teachers, school leaders, and children for school reopenings.

Center for Global Development features Luminos in its series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Distance Learning for Offline Children

Center for Global Development Diaries from the Frontline: Distance Learning for Offline Children

This blog is the second installment of Center for Global Development‘s new series: Diaries from the Frontline. The blog is available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-distance-learning-offline-children and included below.


Diaries from the Frontline: Distance Learning for Offline Children

By Maryam Akmal, Marriam Musa and Maretta Silverman

With schools out, countries around the world are grappling with distance learning initiatives to keep kids learning and engaged. Distance learning is a big challenge in low-tech environments where children have minimal access to digital media, though many digitally advanced countries are struggling as well. According to CGD’s COVID education policy tracker, only 29 percent of low-income countries are providing some kind of distance learning program for their students. But even in low-income countries that do have distance learning programs, many students might be left out due to poor access to the TV, radio, or internet. For example, a new survey from Kenya suggests that only one in five children are accessing online learning during school closures. In addition, language of content, access to books at home, and parental literacy and involvement can further exacerbate inequalities.

In the second post in our “Diaries from the Frontline” series, we continue to examine how frontline education organizations are adjusting to the crisis. Last week we took a look at how The Citizens Foundation (TCF), which operates more than 1,600 primary and secondary schools in urban slums and rural communities in Pakistan, and the Luminos Fund, which  provides accelerated learning for children who have missed out on school due to poverty, crisis, or discrimination in countries including Liberia, shifted to providing food and relief to families. In this post, we examine how TCF and Luminos are supporting distance learning efforts for the students they serve.

TCF’s Ilm Ka Aangan TV Show in Pakistan

Less than a month after Pakistan closed schools, the prime minister announced a new state television channel dedicated to lessons aligned with the national curriculum, PTV TeleSchool. It was the first time in decades that Pakistan had a local language children’s TV channel. Television was a natural choice. Roughly two-thirds of households in Pakistan own a television set. In contrast, the percent of households that have a radio and internet connection are 6.4 percent and 11.8 percent respectively.  While TCF has found its teachers taking the initiative to use a variety of media, including WhatsApp, SMS, and word-of-mouth to ensure the continuity of learning in communities it serves, television stands out as a medium to reach and engage a large number of children from schools throughout the country.

Now came the harder question: how do you get school from a TV? For TCF, the answer was simple: You don’t. Lessons from education response efforts in West Africa after the Ebola crisis emphasize that education’s primary role during a crisis should be that of positive engagement, mitigating psychosocial impacts of the disaster, and establishing routine—not just ensuring the continuity of academic learning.

In response to the government’s call for academic content for the TV channel, TCF adapted its play-based curriculum for a new filmed-at-home-but-made-for-television show, Ilm Ka Aangan (The Courtyard of Knowledge). The content focuses on building functional literacy and numeracy through engaging activities, with a key focus on socio-emotional learning.

Figure 1. TCF’s Ilm Ka Aangan uses play-based learning and storytelling to keep children engaged

Source: The Citizens Foundation

The show uses storytelling, which can be an effective way to not only cultivate literacy and social skills, but also explain concepts from science and social studies while keeping kids engaged. For example, the story “Emaan the Scientist” is about a little girl who wants to fly, and illustrates the scientific method. After several failed attempts, her mother reassures her that if she keeps experimenting, as scientists do, then someday she will fly. Eventually, she does, with a hot air balloon. The protagonist, along with the show’s host, also offer positive role models for little girls watching. Despite the effectiveness of storytelling, only 3.5 percent of kids in Punjab have 3 or more books to read at home.

Recognizing that children of many ages are watching at once, the show’s content is multi-grade with a focus on basic concepts targeted at ages 5-10. This is in contrast to other distance learning content being aired in Pakistan right now that is structured in a grade-wise manner—despite the fact that many students are already behind their grade level. Data from the Annual Status of Education Report suggest 75 percent of grade 3 children in urban Pakistan cannot read a simple story in their local language at the grade 2 level.

The learning doesn’t stop once the show ends. The host assigns “homework,” for example playing a game to learn a concept or solving a math problem. However, the most popular homework is the host asking children to submit a drawing based on the episode.

The day after the launch, the show received 20,000 text messages from a wide range of urban and rural areas, a response that has fed into how the program is evolving. Since the most marginalized children will not have access to TV, mobile phones, or electricity, including most of the communities that TCF serves, the organization is also piloting a purely offline version of Ilm ka Aangan: an edutainment magazine focused on building early grade skills through do-it-yourself activities, stories, and comics, which can be exchanged with teachers via drop-off points, such as grocery stores. Anticipating that school closures may be extended, TCF is designing similar magazines for secondary school students. For now, Ilm Ka Aangan, through television and the offline magazine, seems to be providing much needed engagement, learning, and a sense of routine for millions of children stuck at home.

The Luminos Fund’s Efforts to Support Learning at Home

After schools closed in Liberia, the government launched a radio schooling initiative. Unlike Pakistan, Liberia has a relatively higher rate of radio penetration and lower rate of TV access. Roughly half of households possess a radio, whereas roughly one-fifth possess a television and approximately one-tenth of the population has access to electricity. However, that means that while radio schooling is more scalable, half of Liberian households still may not have access. And even among those households with access to a radio, children might not have access to learning materials such as books and stationery.

Luminos has sought to provide access to some of those learning materials. In late March and early May, Luminos distributed learning materials to hundreds of Liberian students for home-based learning, including readers, math workbooks, pencils, and pencil sharpeners, as a part of relief packages that also included soap and detergent for students’ families.  Through this process, Luminos facilitators found that in most cases, the materials they provided are the only books the family has.

A student in Liberia receives her learning material to continue studying at home
Figure 2. A student in Liberia receives her learning material to continue studying at home

Radio or texting might work elsewhere,” says Abba Karnga, Jr., Luminos program manager for Liberia, “but not where we work. Most of our parents don’t have radios, and kids shouldn’t gather around one anyway due to distancing. If we sent a text, many of our parents couldn’t read it. The best thing Luminos can do is distribute the readers, worksheets – learning materials – for students to work on at home, speak to the families, and then for our facilitators or supervisors do their best to monitor.”

Apart from providing textbooks, Luminos Fund facilitators have tried to stay engaged with students and ensure that they are using the learning materials. Varney, a facilitator who lives and teaches in a rural village in Bomi, walks by students’ houses—at a distance—to tell them the lesson for that day and to ensure that children are using the books. Then, that afternoon or the next day, he checks to make sure they have completed it.

One father, who is literate, says of the Luminos reading materials, “My daughter can read the whole book now. Even last night she was working on it.”

The initiative has had challenges. First, not all facilitators are able to check in with their students, especially those who live in faraway villages. Second, distributing materials in remote communities is time-consuming and can be stressful when local community members are suspicious of visitors wearing medical masks and personal protective equipment, especially due to heightened distrust of others from experience with Ebola.

Despite these efforts to promote distance learning, facilitators and parents have expressed concerns that students will fall behind, especially students who were struggling already. For now, everyone is worried about what will happen to this particular cohort of students, and eager for the virus to pass so schools can reopen and life can return to normal.


Next week we’ll take a look at what TCF and Luminos teachers are doing and how operations are being sustained during the crisis.

Center for Global Development features Luminos in its series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.

Center for Global Development features Luminos in “Diaries from the Frontline”

Center for Global Development features Luminos in “Diaries from the Frontline”

Center for Global Development features Luminos in its new blog series: “Diaries from the Frontline.” The series focuses on education organizations that are pivoting during COVID-19. Here is the first installment, which is also available at www.cgdev.org/blog/diaries-frontline-how-education-organizations-are-providing-food-and-relief-during-covid-19.


Diaries from the Frontline: How Education Organizations Are Providing Food and Relief during COVID-19

By Rita Perakis, Nikita Khosla, Wajiha Bari

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 World Food 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.

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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.  


Learn more the Luminos Fund’s response during COVID: https://luminosfund.org/covid-19s-impact-on-our-classrooms-and-mission/

Learn more about Center for Global Development: www.cgdev.org

Learn more about The Citizens Foundation: www.tcf.org.pk

71 Commercial Street, #232 | Boston, MA 02109 |  USA
+1 781 333 8317   info@luminosfund.org

The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

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