What Mandela Can Teach Us to Face Today’s Education Crisis

What Mandela Can Teach Us to Face Today’s Education Crisis

This blog was first published on the Education for All blog.

On September 24 at 11 a.m. EDT, please join the Luminos Fund for the launch event of “Education Leadership through Crisis,” a new video series where diverse education leaders share personal lessons on navigating crises. In this COVID-19 moment, these dialogues will shed light on the world’s opportunity to get education delivery right. www.luminosfund.org/leadership-series.

I wonder if you have had the privilege of watching or reading President Nelson Mandela’s stunning 2005 address at the Arctic concert in Tromsø, Norway. If not, I encourage you to stop and watch. To me, the Tromsø speech stands out for its uncanny relevance to our immediate times.

Madiba began by underscoring that our world remains sorely divided. Hope and despair are paradoxically juxtaposed, sitting as closely together as the two sides of a fifty cent coin. One side boasts leapfrog gains in science and technology. The other side laments far too many children dying unnecessarily for lack of medicine and that millions of children are still out of school.

With the July 2005 G8 meetings then in the foreground, Mandela reminded his audience that much of our common future depends on the actions and plans of world’s highest decision makers. “We now need leadership, vision, and political courage,” the former President expounded with the signature raspy gravitas of his indefatigable spirit.

Then, while casting a gentle, fatherly eye across the gathered crowd, Madiba raised a somber question concerning the AIDS pandemic:

“When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?”

Nelson Mandela

An education crisis of unseen proportions

Today, fifteen years later, in the midst of a global pandemic and catastrophic moment in education, we need not listen hard at all to hear the clear, steady echo of President Mandela’s words from Tromsø. As it did then, his clarion call should prick our consciences, rally our creativity, and mobilize our voices to make the right choices for all children whose learning has been turned upside down by COVID-19.

With over one billion children out of school, education leaders today are experiencing the challenge of a generation. And yet, the novel Coronavirus is not the first calamity to put learning at risk. For education ministers and leaders in disaster-prone regions, the ability to lead through crisis with agility is an active, ongoing skillset.

Powerful lessons can be drawn from recent history to inform today’s pathways to relief, recovery, and resilience in education delivery. And, even the best leadership is lost without funding, and that is where today’s funding leaders like the Global Partnership for Education are truly on the vanguard. The emergency COVID-19 response funding that GPE is making available is exactly the support education leaders need to push through the hard process of returning to school safely and, ultimately, building education back better.

A new video series to learn from proven leaders

What can we learn from education leaders and philanthropists who have not turned their backs in past crises and, instead, navigated successfully through the breach? These are precisely the topics and themes of a forthcoming video interview series, Education Leadership through Crisis, which I have the honor to host.

We launch on Thursday, September 24 with a live webinar that will explore leadership lessons that have emerged from Liberia and New Orleans’ contrasting education recovery journeys where, respectively, the Ebola crisis and Hurricane Katrina disrupted learning for millions of children. Neerav Kingsland, Managing Director, the City Fund and former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans; George Werner, former Minister of Education, Liberia; and Dr. Rebecca Winthrop, Senior Fellow and Co-Director, Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution will share their personal leadership lessons.

The series will continue in the following weeks, featuring discussions with esteemed global leaders from across government, the private sector and civil society, including luminaries such as Arne Duncan, former U.S. Education Secretary; Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka, former Minister of Education in Zimbabwe; Fred Swaniker, Founder and CEO of African Leadership Group; and Erin Ganju, Managing Director of Echidna Giving.

Alice Albright wrote in March 2020, as COVID-19 cases spiked around the globe, that “The Global Partnership for Education was created out of a belief that in the face of great challenges, we are stronger together.”

As the COVID-19 crisis is testing the next generation of leaders across education and beyond, I am honored to amplify the voices of those who have triumphed in the face of past crises. Indeed, it is clear at this dark moment that we need to lean on each other’s wisdom if we are to have a fighting chance of providing quality education for all.

Webinar: What the Return to School after Hurricane Katrina and the Ebola Epidemic Can Teach Us in the Current Moment

Webinar: What the Return to School after Hurricane Katrina and the Ebola Epidemic Can Teach Us in the Current Moment

Thursday, September 24, 2020, 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. EDT
Zoom Webinar – Register here

With over one billion children out of school, education leaders today are experiencing the challenge of a generation. How can historically slow-moving education systems turn on a dime? What can leaders across the public and private sector do to help children recover from COVID-19 learning loss—and lift children out of learning poverty?

The Coronavirus pandemic is not the first calamity to put learning at risk. Powerful lessons can be drawn from recent history—such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or Liberia after Ebola—to inform today’s pathways to relief, recovery, reform, and resilience in education delivery. 

On September 24 at 11 a.m. EDT, please join the Luminos Fund for the launch event of “Education Leadership through Crisis,” a new video series where diverse education leaders share personal lessons learned on navigating crises. In this COVID-19 moment, these dialogues will shed light on the world’s opportunity to get education delivery right. We are honored to launch with this webinar featuring three unique education leaders.

Guest Speakers

  • Neerav Kingsland, Managing Partner, The City Fund
  • George Werner, Former Minister of Education, Liberia
  • Dr. Rebecca Winthrop, Co-Director of the Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution

Moderated by

  • Mubuso Zamchiya, Managing Director, The Luminos Fund

Please join us. Register online at https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_olxlTCCAThKAefhJviG9Wg.

Now in its fourth year, the Luminos Fund’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) week event convenes key funders, thought leaders, implementers, and allies around the subjects of education and international development.

An Unprecedented Crisis: COVID-19’s Impact on Education and Vulnerable Children

An Unprecedented Crisis: COVID-19’s Impact on Education and Vulnerable Children

The Luminos Fund recently enjoyed the privilege of hosting a key education dialogue led by Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper. Susannah Hares is Senior Policy Fellow and Co-Director of the Global Education Program at Center for Global Development. Dr. Benjamin Piper is Senior Director of Africa Education at RTI International. 

Caitlin Baron, Luminos CEO, opened the discussion by reflecting on how dramatically the world has changed over the six months between February and July 2020. Education has been severely disrupted globally. At the early high point of the Coronavirus pandemic, over 1.6 billion children were out of school, according to UNESCO. School closures still affect over 1 billion children. As national governments and members of the international development community continue to wrestle with how to respond to secure learning opportunities for children and mitigate learning loss, we at Luminos wanted our board, funders, supporters, and friends to hear from two of the world’s foremost education researchers.  

A view of the Luminos Fund webinar featuring Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper.

The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Effect on Education

Susannah Hares began with a multifaceted bird’s eye view of how the pandemic has affected education across the globe. While schools are starting to open in parts of the world, Hares pointed out that the pandemic will cast a long shadow on education in at least the following ways:

  1. Finance: We will likely see a reduction in education finance due to deflated national economic growth projections that will squeeze education budgets. Economic experts expect contractions in middle-income countries and slowdowns in low-income countries across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, and possibly continued stagnancy in global aid to education. In other words, there will be much less money available to support learning.
  2. Access: Important gains in education access over the last ten years may be rolled back significantly. Close to 7 million children could drop out of school, either long-term or permanently, due to household income shocks related to the pandemic. Notably, children from the lowest income households, girls, children with disabilities, and displaced and refugee children will likely suffer the brunt of the shocks.
  3. Ed Tech: While education technology will be harnessed to solve remote learning challenges, the sector has not yet lived up to its hype. As research and experimentation continue regarding the potent contribution teachers can play in boosting ed tech, many low-income households still lack access to internet, radio, and television. As a result, ed tech firms have low usage. For example, in Africa, just two ed tech firms have more than 1 million users.
  4. Inequality: Most obviously, school closures will exacerbate inequality. Many countries were slow to implement distance learning. In many instances, only wealthy families benefit from technology-driven distance learning initiatives. As a result, learning loss will be greater among children from low-income households. A number of countries are returning exam cohorts to school first, which presents unique challenges.
  5. Exam Culture: Many countries are returning their exam cohorts to school first (e.g., Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Ghana). But the practice of high stakes exams will likely further disadvantage certain children. Exams are used as filtering mechanisms as children transition from primary, to secondary, to tertiary education. Even at the best times, this filtering mechanism has an economic bias (children from less wealthy households do not progress as readily as their wealthier counterparts). School closures only make this worse in high stakes testing environments.
  6. Private Education: The pandemic may put vast numbers of private schools out of business or continue with very fragile business models and vulnerable balance sheets as school closures persist. This may disrupt market equilibrium, as demand for private education becomes less price elastic, and supply-side providers are forced to invest less in education quality-enhancing resources. This may also catalyze a significant shift of children away from private education to public education, resulting in permanent closures of private schools.

Learning Loss

Dr. Benjamin Piper followed with a deeper dive into learning loss and its implications for inequality. He also offered thoughts and reflections on what the opportunities might be for funders at this unique moment in history.

Pre-COVID-19, learning loss and, in particular, summer learning loss (the period between grade levels when many children experience a regression in content and skills they may have acquired in their most recently completed grade level) were already matters of concern in the education sector. Research published by Dr. Piper and his colleagues in Malawi revealed that children in transition between Grades 1 and 2 and Grades 3 and 4, were losing between 30-40 percent of their previous year’s learning. The takeaway here, is that gaps in instruction have dramatic impacts on learning.

Dr. Piper’s team then modeled data from pandemic-related school closures in dozens of low and middle income countries. The models suggest that learning loss will not affect the small percent of highest performing children. The children in the middle will lose some learning, commensurate with the amount of instructional time lost. But, for a vast number of children at the bottom of the distribution curve, pandemic-related learning loss will reduce most if not all of the skills and content they would have acquired in the 2020 academic year.  

The point of alarm from Dr. Piper’s research, therefore, is that the protracted time that children spend away from learning due to COVID-19 will have catastrophic implications on their educations and futures. Not only that, those children who are worst off will have the largest learning loss. Donors and implementers need to consider how their support to education systems will not only reduce learning loss but protect those at the bottom of the distribution who are most vulnerable.

A Word to Funders

Dr. Piper concluded his comments with recommendations for funders:

  1. Provide stability to grantees
  2. Don’t fund things that expand inequality
  3. Modest support for emergencies, sure
  4. But spend primarily on building back better
  5. Support structured pedagogical approaches that advance learning
  6. Make direct investments in better teaching
  7. Consider how to help evidence-based success models to scale

Our Gratitude

The Luminos Fund team cannot be more appreciative of Susannah Hares and Dr. Benjamin Piper for the deeply insightful wisdom they shared during this important session. This is the type of thought leadership makes us hopeful that the world will indeed see constructive, agile, and innovative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: responses that reduce learning poverty, mitigate learning loss, and give all children a chance to unlock the light of learning in their lives.

Last Mile Teachers

Last Mile Teachers

This Opinion was posted originally on Inter Press Service at http://www.ipsnews.net/2020/07/last-mile-teachers/.


By George K. Werner and Caitlin Baron

George K. Werner served as Minister of Education in Liberia from 2015 to 2018. Caitlin Baron is CEO of the Luminos Fund, a non-profit working in Liberia and across Africa to bring a second chance at education to out-of-school children.

“It has gotten really tough for us,” says James, a father in rural Liberia, of COVID-19 lockdown and school closures. “My son is trying but he is missing his friends and teachers. Children want to be in school.”

“When Coronavirus passes, will your school still be there to help us with our children?” asks Fatu, a Liberian mother of six.

Around the world, over one billion children are out of school. All will face learning losses (data from World War II and other crises offer grim indications on this) and far too many will be lost to learning forever. Estimates suggest the COVID-19 pandemic will cause this generation to lose $10 trillion in future earnings.

Headlines exclaim that the global education system has never seen a moment like this and, in some sense, that is true. However, in Liberia, where we work, this is the second pandemic in six years. Our experiences in Liberia provide important lessons for COVID-19 education system recovery in low-income countries – and the uniquely important role of “last mile teachers.”

In 2014, the Ebola crisis closed schools across Liberia for six months to a year. One and a half million children were excluded from school, in addition to 500,000 children who were already excluded before Ebola roared through the country. As Liberia’s Minister of Education, I led the country’s education response. I traveled with my team to schools across Liberia, speaking with teachers, parents, and children to assess the magnitude of the task to bring children back to learning. I concluded that the education system was failing and bold reform was needed urgently: the Ministry of Education needed to rethink everything about its education delivery system for post-Ebola Liberia. The Luminos Fund, where Caitlin is CEO, was one of several education organizations that launched operations in Liberia as part of the recovery journey following Ebola.

Reflecting on past school closures in Liberia and beyond, and our experience educating vulnerable children, we identify three key steps for education systems to come back strong after a crisis like COVID-19. First, targeted outreach must be conducted to bring the most vulnerable and older students back to school. Next, each child should be assessed to understand the extent of their learning loss, and to meet students where they are in the curriculum. Finally, remediation should be provided to bring students who have fallen behind back up to grade level.

Here is the key, and challenge: all of these steps rely on the efforts and tenacity of frontline educators, but low-income countries do not have nearly enough teachers. UNESCO estimates a global shortage of nearly 69 million teachers, 70% of whom are needed in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, many countries cannot graduate teachers fast enough to fill the shortfall. South Sudan, for example, would need all of its projected graduates from higher education – twice over – to become teachers to fill its gap. Traditional teacher training alone is insufficient to meet demand, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some non-government organizations are helping address the need. The Luminos Fund manages an education program in Liberia that has achieved powerful success with a different model of teacher preparation (James’s son and Fatu’s daughter are students this year). Luminos recruits local, motivated, high potential young people with minimal qualifications as teachers. The program has shown that, with an intensive three-week training followed by ongoing classroom-based coaching, these recruits deliver transformative learning for children who are often the first in their family to learn to read. Luminos teachers are so successful that, in less than one year, their students advance from still learning the alphabet to reading 39 words a minute. After one year of schooling, Luminos students read at a rate that only 15% of Liberian third graders can match. 

Today, school systems across Africa and beyond must think expansively about the assets they can deploy to respond to the current crisis – and take action. Status quo thinking is inadequate to respond to the moment.

Here Liberia has another powerful lesson to share with this world. In the provision of basic healthcare, Liberia hosts perhaps the world’s most famous example of the creative extension of government delivery capacity through collaboration with civil society: Last Mile Health. Last Mile Health has reached over 1.2 million of the poorest Liberians through a network of 3,600 community and frontline health workers. Community health workers are paid professionals, recruited from these same poor communities and empowered to provide basic healthcare in consultation with the formal system. This model is now being scaled to reach nine million people with primary care services globally by 2030. Last Mile Health has created a model community health system in Liberia and marshalled a movement to develop the global workforce of community and frontline health workers. The same approach could be used in education and is not dissimilar to how Luminos operates. Far too often, though, the global education sector has viewed community-based educators as a threat, unlike global health’s careful but open-minded exploration of alternative models.

The world may never see another global school closure like the one we are experiencing, but in Liberia, COVID-19 is the second pandemic in six years. Low-income countries – and countries everywhere – need to build resilient school systems that can weather periodic closures and still deliver transformative learning for students. Building a global workforce of frontline education staff from remote communities to serve remote communities – last mile teachers – is a critical part of the formula.

Emmanuel, a Luminos teacher, with his class in Loweh, Liberia (2019)
Our 2019 Annual Report has arrived

Our 2019 Annual Report has arrived

The Luminos Fund is delighted to publish our 2019 Annual Report. To date, we’ve enabled 136,502 vulnerable children to receive a second chance at education – and this year was unlike any other. Our team is more committed than ever to ensuring children everywhere have the opportunity to learn and thrive, and to helping educators and governments in low-income countries develop the resiliency to weather powerful storms like COVID-19.

With over 1 billion youths out of school globally due to the pandemic, the Luminos Fund’s mission to help children get back to school is more important than ever. Our work was made for the task ahead.

Click here to read the 2019 Annual Report.

Click here for a printer-friendly version of the Annual Report.


In spring 2020, schools closed across our program countries due to COVID-19. The Luminos Fund pivoted quickly to provide distance learning for students.

Additional Resources:
The Luminos Fund 2018 Annual Report
The Luminos Fund 2017 Annual Report

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The END Fund and the Luminos Fund Align Efforts to Fight COVID-19

The END Fund and the Luminos Fund Align Efforts to Fight COVID-19

“We’re still focused on our core education mandate, but we felt we had to reach further to help during this crisis. We’re thrilled to receive this grant from the END Fund to provide essential relief to more communities.”

Nikita Khosla, Senior Director of Programs at the Luminos Fund

By James Porter and Maretta Silverman

The END Fund works to end the five most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which together affect 1.7 billion people worldwide. A group of parasitic and bacterial diseases, NTDs trap people in the cycle of poverty and, among children, infection leads to malnutrition, cognitive impairment, stunted growth, and the inability to attend school. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the END Fund is allocating grants from its COVID-19 Response Fund to assist communities affected by the virus in Africa. The Luminos Fund’s mission is to educate the world’s most vulnerable out-of-school children, but the organization has shifted during COVID-19 to provide relief, too. In this interview, Warren Lancaster, Senior Vice President of Programs at the END Fund, and Nikita Khosla, Senior Director of Programs at the Luminos Fund, discuss how the END Fund is supporting the Luminos Fund’s efforts in rural Liberia through its COVID-19 Response Fund — and what makes this collaboration unique.

Q. How did the grant to the Luminos Fund come about? How does the grant fit in with the END Fund’s COVID-19 Response Fund?

Warren Lancaster: Since I was familiar with the Luminos Fund’s Second Chance program being embedded in communities, I thought it was an ideal platform for community-level COVID-19 mitigation interventions especially hand washing and community information.

Rural villages are the communities most affected by intestinal worms (soil-transmitted helminths) and schistosomiasis. Breaking the fecal-oral route is a key strategy to break the transmission of intestinal worms. However, behavior change around sanitation practices can be very challenging due to constraints in poor, rural villages (e.g. no running water or electricity). Intervening to help directly with a perceived need where hand washing is suddenly seen as a positive community good contributed to an immediate need — COVID-19 — and a longer-term one as well — ending neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

Q. The Luminos Fund’s mission is to help vulnerable and out-of-school children with education. How does this COVID-19 Response funding align with your work?

Nikita Khosla: It’s true: at Luminos, our mission is to ensure no child is ever denied an education, whether by poverty, crisis, or discrimination. It has come as a surprise to everyone at Luminos that we would face one of our busiest moments when all our classrooms are closed due to this pandemic. We’re now providing distance learning and relief.

My colleague Abba Karnga Jr., who manages our program in Liberia, might have explained our pivot best so I’ll quote him: “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.”

We’ve been staying in close contact with colleagues and partners in the countries where we work, and even surveying teachers and students’ families on the frontline to stay abreast of the crisis. It’s been both inspiring and heartbreaking to see how communities are coping. We’re still focused on our core education mandate, but we felt we had to reach further to help during this crisis. We’re thrilled to receive this grant from the END Fund to provide essential relief to more communities.

Q. What was the END Fund’s motivation to provide COVID Response funding in Liberia?  

Warren: Liberia requires treatment for four of the five NTDs we work on, including schistosomiasis and intestinal worms. We used to be very involved in NTD programming in Liberia but that project came to an end. With hand washing having a dual benefit for NTDs and COVID-19, the funding fit in with our COVID-19 Response Fund in a country we were already familiar with. 

From left: A girl uses a hand washing station during COVID-19, thanks to the END Fund grant. A Luminos student and her mother receive relief, like soap and other supplies.

Q. What does this funding from the END Fund mean for the Luminos Fund’s COVID-19 response in Liberia?

Nikita: Thanks to the END Fund’s grant, Luminos is providing 37 hand washing stations, buckets, soap, and bleach to remote villages, as well as mobilizing and training community teams to carry out monthly door-to-door awareness efforts regarding hand washing. The community teams will speak to families and hand out printed health flyers that have text and visuals. These are communities without running water or electricity and many adults who cannot read, so these efforts will have a material positive impact. In fact, we’ve already begun this work. The first supplies were distributed, and a second round of supplies was distributed the second week of June. We’re receiving very positive feedback from families and our team in Liberia.

Q. Given the END Fund and Luminos Fund’s roots with Legatum, what makes this grant unique? Why are you excited for your organizations to work together on this? 

Warren: The motto of Legatum is to look for the great beyond the good. The Luminos Fund’s program is already great; this just makes it “greater!” We were excited to bring two members of the Legatum family together in a way that adds value to the missions of both organizations. 

Nikita: I know I speak for the Luminos team when I say we’re thrilled to have this opportunity to partner with the END Fund, especially on something as important as COVID relief for vulnerable communities. I’ve been at Luminos over four years and, in the back of my mind, I feel I’ve been looking for ways to work with the other wonderful organizations — like the END Fund and Freedom Fund — that were initially funded by Legatum. 

Legatum focuses on unlocking human potential and creating sustainable prosperity. Helping Liberian families sustain through this dire crisis so they can continue their education and livelihoods on the other side feels very aligned with Legatum’s mission — and our missions at Luminos and END. So, while the circumstances are somber, this is a pivotal moment to align our efforts.


To learn more about the END Fund’s work to end neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), visit https://end.org.

To learn more about the Luminos Fund’s work ensuring no child is ever denied the chance to learn, whether by poverty, crisis, or discrimination, visit https://luminosfund.org.


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