Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Interview with Dr. Grace Akukwe, American Institutes for Research

24 June 2013

Dr. Grace Akukwe is a principal project specialist with the International Development, Evaluation and Research Program at American Institutes for Research (AIR). Dr. Akukwe has over fifteen years’ experience working in developing country contexts focusing on education. Her area of research interest is in the sustainability and institutionalization of effective governance systems. Her project management portfolio in conflict and fragile contexts at AIR include USAID’s education reconstruction project in Cote d’Ivoire.

In this interview, Dr. Grace Akukwe speaks with Marianne Baesa, INEE Education and Fragility Communications Intern, about AIR’s current projects on education and fragility, the importance of private sector engagement, and shares her perspectives on the opportunities and challenges in education and fragility Post 2015.

What are your responsibilities as the Principal Project Specialist in AIR?

I provide technical assistance on education programs in my areas of specialization- specifically on education policy and reform analysis, system design, and education governance. My geographic focus is mostly in Africa – working in conflict, fragile or stable development contexts. 

What activities related to education and fragility is AIR currently engaged in?

AIR continues to strengthen its work related to education and fragility. AIR’s project in Cote d’Ivoire – a country that is going through a phase of education reconstruction – is called the Appui au Developpement Assistance Internationale pour le Developpement de l’Education Cote d’Ivoire (AIDE-CI), which is funded by USAID. AIDE-CI objectives are to support the Ministry of Education’s infrastructural investments in middle schools; work with communities on the importance of children’s safety within the school environment (especially girls); and strengthen the education system through better stakeholder engagement.

These objectives are to be achieved by creating strong local ownership of schools, by reinforcing community values around schooling and education as viable investments for their children.  The over-arching goal of this project is to develop a replicable model of private sector and community engagement to support the government of Cote d’Ivoire’s education reconstruction initiatives. 

AIR also has two projects in Egypt - both funded by USAID. The Egypt Education Support Program is primarily a teacher professional development program that also includes working with Ministry of Education officials at the governate level on disaster risk reduction awareness. The second program is the Career Education and Training institute (CETI) and focuses on strengthening the workforce transition process for youth in higher education. The program’s objectives are to improve career guidance and job placement.

Additionally, AIR is undertaking a research activity on teacher retention in refugee contexts funded by UNHCR. AIR conducted a literature review; collected data via interviews and focus groups at refugee camps in Pakistan, Algeria and Ethiopia; and developed a quick survey for teachers in UNHCR’s priority countries and for UNHCR field staff. AIR will use these findings to provide recommendations to UNHCR on how to better retain teachers in refugee settings.

AIR continues to support the INEE Working Group on Education and Fragility on exploring opportunities for private sector engagement in conflict-affected and fragile contexts.  There is an on-going funding shift within the donor community with sequestration, budget cuts, and less government resources available for education. The rationale for private sector engagement is their longevity and long-term investments in developing contexts which places them in a strategic position to support education initiatives and build better communities. It thus makes good sense to engage the private sector in the process by helping define the parameters of their involvement and providing them with relevant tools.

Which areas of education and fragility do you think are in need of more research right now?

There is currently an intense focus on evidence-building. Everyone wants to see the results and the outcomes from their investments. For that reason, research around evidence that shows the effectiveness of interventions, best practices, and lessons learned about how to improve programs and systems to better to deal with conflict and fragility are much needed.

AIR does significant work in research and evaluation and intends to reinforce the value that technical assistance and program implementation have to be driven by best practices and lessons derived from research and evaluation.

What do you think are the perspectives, opportunities, and challenges for education and fragility in the post 2015 context?

There are many challenges, but the areas we need to focus on are social protection, psychosocial support through education, peace education, and conflict-sensitivity in programming and investment in education.

I also think ensuring children have a safe environment to go to school, and that teachers and students have safe passage to school in times of disaster and conflict are important. We cannot understate the importance of education in conflict and fragile settings. Sometimes schooling could be the only thing that’s familiar for children during times of conflict, so we do not want to take away that one safe support that children could count on - where they feel they can be a child.

There needs to be more support from governments which have plenty of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. Even though international donor agencies and other humanitarian agencies provide assistance during disasters and complex emergencies, it is still a government’s responsibility to provide services and protection to its citizens.  Helping governments to understand disaster prevention and preparedness; and to prepare them to accommodate IDPs and refugees are very important.

How do you see the role of actors like INEE, and particularly INEE’s Working Group on Education and Fragility, in the promotion of education in fragile settings?

INEE is the biggest network that brings education professionals working in or interested in education in emergencies together. It is doing a wonderful job in supporting a community that’s committed to that field with the few resources that they have. INEE has been key to leading the way on cutting edge research in the field, engaging stakeholders in finding solutions and generally raising awareness on the impact of conflict on education.

The INEE tools have been helpful for field practitioners who often work in isolation with little to no guidance.  INEE helps reinforce that the work we do as an individual or organization is important, and provides us with tools as additional support when we need them.