ChildFund: Addressing Education and Learning Poverty Challenges

By Aneesh Chatterjee

Chege Ngugi

Chege Ngugi, Africa Regional Director for ChildFund International. Photo: ChildFund.

ChildFund International is a global nonprofit organization with a mission to connect children in low-income communities with the people, resources and institutions they need to live at their potential throughout their lives. Founded in 1938 and funded primarily through child sponsorships, ChildFund now partners with dozens of local organizations in 23 countries to address conditions that prevent children from achieving their potential.

According to ChildFund’s 2020 Impact Report, the organization’s multisectoral approach has facilitated global increases in perceived community safety for children, basic literacy and completion of business and skills training that were noted in scores of programs implemented between 2017-19 in countries across Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

To highlight ChildFund’s work in addressing education reform in Africa, we spoke with Chege Ngugi, Africa Regional Director for ChildFund International, on the core operations, critical priorities and milestones achieved by the organization in the realm of education.

1. How does ChildFund International work with partners to address education needs for children? What kinds of solutions are provided by ChildFund?

To start with, we have a new global strategy which projects that ChildFund will reach 100 million vulnerable children and families by 2030, to help children grow up healthy, educated, skilled and safe. To achieve this bold goal, we have to work with a number of partners with different capacities. Having said that, we also look at other organizations that have set agendas, in the context of Africa.

The African Union’s 2063 agenda is a blueprint to transform Africa into a global superpower by utilizing Africa’s own human capital. For us to achieve that goal, we require collaboration from all areas through our partners in Africa. The other area we also look at are Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 4 – ensuring inclusive quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. When we look at such agendas, we realize that partnership is a critical role. We are looking for strategic, technical and operational partners in two critical areas: one is the strategy level, where they work with governments, stakeholders and donors to inform policies which can deliver education in an equitable manner. The second is the operational level, where we work with partners to implement a number of programs. We involve teachers, parents and surrounding communities, including student councils themselves, that contribute to the safe and secure operations of their learning environments. We also look at improving learning infrastructure, and this includes construction of classrooms – though brick-and-mortar projects is an area we are trying to move away from, as we believe other partners are doing that well already.

Marion, 15 and her siblings tune in to school lessons

In Kenya, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Marion, 15 (left) and her siblings tune in to school lessons remotely on their solar-powered radio from ChildFund. Photo by ChildFund staff.

We are focusing on other aspects such as learning capacity. In Africa, we are tackling an issue we call learning poverty, brought up by different organizations like UNESCO and UNICEF. This is where children around the age of ten are unable to comprehend simple text, a growing concern quantified by the 89% increase in learning poverty in Africa, reported by World Bank and UNESCO. Another report released by UNESCO, the African Union and the Association for Development in Africa, states that children in Africa are five times less likely to learn basic literacy and foundational education. We are looking into addressing this issue by working with partners to improve learning capacities for children.

We have implemented WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) facilities that ensure safe water access at schools, that allow girls access to water during their menstrual periods and discourage dropouts due to a lack of health and sanitation facilities. We also support libraries and basic learning materials to ensure that essential requirements for education are met. Another critical area is the avoidance of violence in schools. To address growing levels of violence, we are working on sensitizing teachers, students and parents in ways to avoid violence.

2. What is ChildFund’s Theory of Change for children, and how does it apply in tangible projects?

We have a broad Theory of Change that states that if we focus on children as agents of change, and get families and communities invested in the protection of children, and build a broad constituency of supporters that cater to the well-being and rights of children, then children will achieve the capacity to improve their lives. Young adults, parents and other caregivers will bring lasting and positive change in their communities by protecting and advancing the rights of children. Our core outcomes are to ensure that children grow up healthy, educated, skilled and safe.

Going through the three life stages in the Theory of Change, our first life stage – ages zero to five – states that, if infants and children have empowered and responsive caregivers, safe and caring environments, and are healthy and well-nourished, then children can develop to their full potential, enjoy good physical and mental health, and live in stable communities with stable families, interacting in non-violent ways. The second life stage, six to fourteen years, focuses on adolescents having positive relationships in supportive homes and communities, age-appropriate literacy and applicable life skills, and confident leadership skills in a supportive and caring environment, which are essential to adolescents bringing lasting positive changes in their communities.

The outcomes of applying this theory in tangible projects are shown in how our programs address issues. Keeping in mind the four desirable outcomes – healthy, educated, skilled and safe – programs that address age group zero-to-five focus on nutrition, health and overall development to ensure young children are growing up healthy. Programs that address the second age group, six-to-fourteen, focus on education plans and the deterrence of violence in schools by training teachers and families to avoid violent incidents, build comfortable and safe infrastructure for students, and engage with policymakers and stakeholders in building policies that facilitate safe and effective education.

3. Children aged 6 to 14 are of high priority for ChildFund’s education services. How has ChildFund provided access to education for this age group in Honduras, Mozambique and Timor-Leste?

When you look at our programs, a bulk of the children we assist are in the six-to-fourteen category. We focus on ensuring that the children we support have a secure and safe learning environment; we also support their parents to have proper livelihoods and social wellbeing such as medical assistance and housing.

In the case of Mozambique, a good example is our efforts to build numeracy and literacy competency for children. We do this by organizing reading and writing fairs where children practice and compete among themselves. We have supported the building and equipping of three libraries in the country. Another program we have is called Cycling to the Future.

Children with bikes

Many children in Zavala District in Mozambique’s Inhambane Province walk an average of 8 km to school and back every day, which makes them late, exhausted, unsafe and more likely to drop out. ChildFund recently distributed 96 bikes in the district. “I am so happy to have received this bike,” says Feliciana, 14. “Now I know I will be able to get to school without being late, in time to attend all the classes.” Photo by ChildFund staff.

Mozambique is one of the least developed countries in Africa, and children have to walk long distances for school. We have provided bicycles – especially for girls – and this has proven to be very successful, as it retains girls’ attendance in school by facilitating easier commutes. We have a number of programs to address learning competencies to keep children in school.

In Timor-Leste and Honduras, much like in Mozambique, we also have education programs that focus on infrastructure, environment and capacity-building for teachers [the work in Timor-Leste now continues under our fellow ChildFund Alliance member ChildFund Australia]. In many countries, there are instances of teachers being untrained who have just come out of schooling and have not gone through formal training programs for teachers. We help the government provide training support for teachers to provide a richer educational experience for students. Overall, our programs focus on policy, infrastructure, and capacity-building.

4. What are some of the most impactful education-based projects coordinated by ChildFund International?

One program we are very proud of is in Senegal, which focuses on menstrual hygiene management in schools. The goals – to teach health management and keep girls in school – educate girls on managing their menstrual timing, how they can respond, and how they may be supported by their peers. The programs also provide sanitary pads for students, alongside the provision of private, safe spaces for girls to access health and hygiene facilities and access to clean water. We help girls develop action plans to challenge cultural norms around menstrual hygiene. We enable them to push for change in their communities, in cultures that may have harmful traditional practices.

Another program I’m happy to share is one in Ethiopia, called Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women. This project, funded by World Bank, helps improve the economic wellbeing of women so they may provide for their children. It enables women to engage in economic activities while their children are looked after in government-mandated facilities.

Askale, 16, and Kibnesh, 17, read using braille slates and styluses

Askale, 16, and Kibnesh, 17, read using braille slates and styluses at a ChildFund-supported primary school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. ChildFund’s support for children with special needs in the school includes braille slates, styluses, canes for blind students, and brail and audiobooks available at the school library. Photo by Genaye Eshetu.

A third project we have is implemented in Brazil, Ethiopia, Honduras and Uganda, which provides parents and caregivers with strategies to participate virtually in their children’s education through radio communication, providing parents with the opportunity to be involved and provide support.

Another very successful program supports the technical supervision and monitoring of schools. In collaboration with the government of Uganda and other stakeholders, we conduct in-person inspections of schools to identify their needs, what their gaps are and how we can support them.

One critical area across Africa is the capacity of teachers. There is a big [imbalance] in the teacher-student ratio. According to UNICEF standards, a single teacher should be teaching up to 40 students; instead, most countries have a hundred to two hundred students per teacher. It’s not practical or effective. We therefore work with stakeholders to provide training for teachers, reduce their burdens and encourage better performance in schools.

Climate change has led to the destruction of school infrastructure. In Kenya, we recently rebuilt a whole primary school on higher ground after the old school was completely submerged by rising waters from Lake Baringo and Bogoria.

It’s becoming very clear that school-based violence is a growing issue in Africa. Programs that focus on the avoidance of school-based violence aim to work with school communities and policymakers to ensure secure environments, reduce stigmatization and alleviate feelings that students are not accepted in their communities.

These programs are examples of some of the best practices to build on, even as we move into the age of digital transformation. When COVID came, most schools were closed and students could not access learning. The shift to digital learning has made students vulnerable to online exploitation and abuse. We are working with a number of donors along with the African Union to address child abuse online, which is another growing area of work under the umbrella focus of digitization.

5. Many of the regions ChildFund operates in may be prone to conflict, climate instability and geographically remote populations. How does ChildFund tackle these challenges?

If you look at what’s happening in Kenya now, there are about four million people without access to food due to drought. Conflict areas like northern Ethiopia have large numbers of displaced persons. It is an area of concern for us. What our country offices have [focused on] are emergency preparedness plans, disaster risk reduction and building resilience in physical, communal and social contexts. Climate change is also a growing area of concern – how do we address and respond to the effects of climate change?

Angela and friends attend a Jukumu Letu child-rights club meeting at her school

Angela (12) and friends attend a Jukumu Letu child-rights club meeting at her school. ChildFund’s Jukumu Letu (“Our Responsibility”) project in Kenya (2018–2021) saw 80-90% increases in children’s involvement in their own protection, including in children’s voices being considered on protection issues affecting them, children empowered to actively speak out about child abuse, and avenues for children to air grievances and opinions on issues affecting them. Photo by Jake Lyell.

In terms of programming, disaster risk reduction is our priority. At a lower level, we have cash transfer programs to help families make use of their resources in the face of crises like the recent pandemic. We give them the freedom to use their resources how they want in order to build resilience. Another issue is that markets are broken down, and sometimes we assist by providing food, shelter and other essentials. An incident along the border of Senegal and Gambia caused a lot of displacement into Gambia due to conflict in Senegal, leading us to provide tents, blankets and food for displaced persons to ensure their survival.

We work with our partners and government to build capacities of frontline staff to understand and mitigate the effects of climate change. We are focusing on climate-smart agriculture, which improves food production and livestock through advancements in farming methods and irrigation techniques. We also focus on the diversification of livelihoods and the adoption of renewable energy through solar panels in farms.

Looking at what’s happening in Africa, we need to see more voices speaking about it. For example, in the case of Kenya, the government declared famine as a national disaster – but we’ve seen very little response from the international community. Another issue we see is the conflict in northern Ethiopia; people do not talk about it. What should be a priority is the aftermath of these crises, and the resources needed to help the people affected by it. We need to see more actors coming forward and assisting countries in meeting their humanitarian needs.