Education bounces back in Cambodia and Ethiopia

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By Jakob Engel, a research consultant for the Overseas Development Institute

Cambodia and Ethiopia offer valuable lessons on improving access to education after conflict, the theme of the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report, The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education.

Ethiopia, long one of the most educationally disadvantaged countries in the world, has had remarkable success increasing primary enrolment. In 1992, after 15 years of civil war, almost four out of five primary-age children were out of school. Less than 20 years later, this figure had dropped to about one in five.

In the course of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, over 1.7 million people died and the education system was destroyed. In the last two decades, the gender gap at both primary and lower secondary level has effectively been closed and the country may reach universal primary enrolment by 2015.

What has allowed these countries to bounce back after such devastating civil wars? For one, both benefited from improved security, as well as increased government prioritisation of education. This has been complemented by a shift in donor priorities away from post-conflict peace-building and demobilisation, and towards heavier investments to support social services.

In Ethiopia, education was seen as central to state-building efforts. The government’s priorities in education – building schools in rural areas, gender equality, teaching in children’s mother tongue, decentralisation and curriculum reform – were intended to address longstanding sources of fragility, including high rates of rural poverty and inequality, as well as the cultural suppression of ethnic groups.

In Cambodia, inequality of opportunity is also gradually being recognized as a source of instability. The government is aiming to improve access to education not only by building schools and training teachers (“supply-side” programmes), but also abolishing school fees, establishing school feeding programmes and providing scholarships for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (“demand-side” programmes).

Over the past 20 years, the education systems of Ethiopia and Cambodia have proved remarkably resilient during a long period of post-conflict recovery and reconstruction. However, progress remains fragile and both countries continue to struggle with high dropout rates. And the poorest children, particularly those facing several overlapping sources of marginalization (such as wealth, gender, geography and ethnicity), still pay a high price to attend school in terms of lost opportunities to earn income or perform housework for their families.

In Cambodia, teachers’ poor working conditions, low pay and lack of opportunities for advancement have resulted not only in low morale but also in the continued collection of informal fees by teachers.  Low levels of student learning, overcrowded classrooms and teacher absenteeism have raised concerns in Ethiopia that the technocratic command approach that had been successful in mobilising efforts to achieve quantitative targets is less well suited to achieving more qualitative goals. It will therefore be important that ongoing efforts in both countries to gradually decentralize the management and financing of schools also aims to build administrative capacity and promote greater accountability and responsiveness to local needs.

To address these challenges, both countries’ governments, together with donors and NGOs, have further increased efforts to address deep inequalities in the education system. This has been instrumental in providing a long-term foundation for recovery and sustained progress. However, this foundation remains fragile as long as many long-term systemic challenges are not addressed.

Jakob Engel worked as a research consultant on the Overseas Development Institute project Progress in Development: A Library of Stories, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Twenty-four country case studies, covering eight areas of development, aim to outline key factors contributing to progress, lessons and remaining challenges. Case studies on education examined Ethiopia, Cambodia and Benin.



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