Somalia’s refugees return home to rebuild the country’s education system

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By Mike Pflanz

SOMALILAND, Somalia, 10 January 2012 – Ali Abdullah stands at the front of the class asking students their ages, how long they take to walk to school, whether they are orphans, and whether any have learning or development needs.

Mr. Abdullah, headmaster at Koossar Primary School, is one of thousands of teachers conducting an unprecedented primary school census, helping produce the first comprehensive, government-led survey on the state of northern Somalia’s schools.

“Before, the Ministry of Education did not have this correct data about school facilities. It was just theoretical information, guesses really,” he said. “Now when you have the right information, you can show how many students there are, what items are lacking like text books or latrines, and the ministry can then go to the Ministry of Finance and donors and show what really is there and what is needed.”

The survey, to be repeated yearly, is part of a broad effort to rehabilitate and improve the country’s education system – from the inside out.

Rudimentary systems

Years of civil war have left government agencies with few trained administrators. For the education ministries in semi-autonomous Somaliland and Puntland, this means school systems have been rudimentary, and improvements have been makeshift.

Many schools lack electricity, running water, text books and toilets, and do not have enough desks or chairs. Teachers’ training is limited, and their salaries are largely dependent on community contributions.

“These are very basic things that sound like they should be automatic, but in Somaliland, Puntland and South Central Somalia, they are not,” said Isabel Faria de Almeida, Head of Rural Development, Social Services and Infrastructure at the Delegation of the European Union in neighbouring Kenya.

“If the ministry doesn’t know how many teachers it has, how can they run a system? If they don’t know what financial resources they need, or how many school books they have to print, or how many pupils are attending schools, then they don’t know the needs,” she said.

Bringing experts back

To create lasting improvements, the European Union, UNICEF, the CfBT Education Trust and the Africa Education Trust have designed an innovative programme to increase capacity at the country’s education ministries. Central to the strategy is bringing professional Somalis living abroad back to their home country to work alongside senior education ministry staff, passing along their expertise.

Hassan Suleiman is one of 10 technical advisors to return to Somalia. He is supporting the Somaliland Ministry of Education and Higher Education through the Integrated Capacity Development for Somali Education Administrations (ICDSEA) programme. ICDSEA focuses on planning and policy, human resources, financial management, quality assurance, and gender equality.

“There has been a realization that the institutional capacity in terms of skills, knowledge, structure – all aspects – is not enough to deliver an adequate education system,” said Mr. Suleiman, who grew up in Britain after fleeing the Somali war. “We have relied on international consultants to produce nice policy documents, but they are just shoved on a shelf because the skills have not been there to implement them.”

Amina Osman, another technical advisor, grew up in Uganda. She working in Puntland, harmonizing the many different curricula used, and is working to ensure the consistency of end-of-term exams. Meanwhile, Abdirahman Mohamud, from Kenya, is running tests on a software package that will organize the data from the primary school census.

Each of the 10 advisors are shadowed by two trainees, Somalis hired from within Somalia who will become professional managers at the Ministry.

Once the security situation improves in the south, a similar scheme is planned for the education ministry in Mogadishu.

Reaching girls

One morning at the Ministry of Education in Garowe, Puntland, Sahro Koshin stood before a crowd of officials to help launch a scholarship fund for girls. Ms. Koshin, who grew up in Holland, is working to increase girls’ school attendance.

“Teachers are not taught about gender issues,” she said. “In a typical class you will find girls on one side and boys on the other, and the teacher is always addressing the boys, showing in an unspoken language that the girls should keep quiet and the boys should answer.”

Turning around these ingrained prejudices will “take time”, she admits. But the situation will improve if gender equality factors into all aspects of education policy.

“We believe that supporting Somalia’s authorities to build their own systems, as well as develop their own policies and competent staff, is the only way to ensure that all Somali children will have the opportunity to access a quality education,” said UNICEF Representative in Somalia Sikander Khan. And girls are sure to benefit.

“One example of this is the girls’ scholarship fund that UNICEF has supported the Ministry of Education Gender Units to establish,” he continued. “In its first year, the fund will give over 450 deprived girls the means to attend school, and hopefully with additional support, will give hundreds more of Somalia’s most deprived girls the opportunity to go to school in future years.”

“Increasing the capacity of managers here, to plan everything for the future, that is the only way to make sure things do not remain the same,” said Abdulkadir Yusuf Nur, Acting Director General of Education for Puntland. “It will work, I know. Soon, we will be standing on our own two feet.”

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