Monday, June 16, 2014

Girls’ Education: We Know What Works, But What Works Sustainably At Scale?

Post by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO

I was privileged to have been invited a few weeks back to a meeting assembled by First Lady Michelle Obama’s staff to discuss the challenges facing adolescent girls’ education.  Representatives and experts from a broad range of research, advocacy, and service delivery organizations, both public and private, that focus on the issue of girls’ education convened for a lively discussion. What was for me the most interesting part was hearing the remarkable consensus that exists on both the nature of the challenges and the solutions.

Many of the themes that were brought up were echoed a decade ago by Barbara Herz and Gene Sperling in their seminal What Works in Girls’ Education. Specifically, there was no disagreement about the facts that:
  • Improving access and completion rates for girls attending school is a multi-sector issue. Getting girls to attend and stay in school requires that we address not just poverty (income/school fees), but access to water and sanitation, protection, cultural norms, etc. We increasingly understand how these various initiatives should be brought together at the community level.
  • Tackling obstacles that girls face requires action at multiple levels. With regard to making sure girls are able to attend and successfully complete their schooling, simply dealing with national policy or modernizing systems at the Ministry of Education is not enough. Community-led programs lead to the best results.
  • Programs that tackle obstacles facing adolescent girls must give them a meaningful voice. Programs are more successful when they include youth in every phase of program design – from problem identification, to design, to development, to delivery and evaluation. Plan International and other organizations are developing effective tools to support meaningful engagement of youth at every level.
  • Effective and sustainable solutions must include boys and men in a transformative way to overcome gender biases and social norms that critically impact boys and men. The prevalence of violence against women globally is a direct implication of the socialization of men and boys, and failing to address this component is a critical gap to ending violence and to having more sustainable societies for men, women, boys, and girls to thrive.
While it is inspiring to see so much agreement on the state of girls’ education, we still haven’t converged around what works sustainably and at scale. It is here that more research and experimentation is needed. More work is required to better understand how various tools, approaches, and financing structures can be scaled and supported long-term.

Invest in Research and Development

To be clear: there has been a significant amount of research on the topic of girls’ education. But it is not enough. The bulk of the funding and focus goes into helping those who are in need now. Think of how much Silicon Valley invests in R&D so we can get a faster processor chip or a brighter computer image. Now consider how much our sector invests in R&D. Comparably, our numbers are at best mediocre.

Coordinate Research Findings

Research findings as they exist are fragmented. There are no clearinghouses (with powerful search engines) for the work. The Herz and Sperling report was useful because it sought to consolidate much of the research and findings in one place. My own organization, Plan International, publishes an annual State of the World's Girls report that compiles primary and secondary research on adolescent girls’ issues. But these are disparate and not closely coordinated efforts. How should the international development community coalesce around this need? What is the role of multilateral organizations like the World Bank in supporting or providing the platform for such basic information sharing?

Build More Flexible Projects

It would also be useful to encourage more meta-analyses to sum up what is known and give practitioners and policymakers guidance in design and implementation.  Project designs need to be more flexible, allowing for learning and adaptation throughout a project's life. Flexibility and adaptability may at times clash with the desire for accountability for results. But, these tradeoffs need to be confronted and managed, rather than ignored. 

Change Financing Structures

Finally, financing structures also need to change. Part of our challenge in designing and developing programs is that, though the problem requires a multi-sector approach, donor funding tends to be granted in silo, making real integrated design and delivery difficult at times.

While it is exciting to see how much interest there is now in the topic of adolescent girls and education, the alarm that Herz and Sperling sounded a decade ago remains today: Overcoming the obstacles keeping girls from getting an education is urgent. Until we dismantle barriers that keep girls out of school, we will never achieve any of the key development milestones that are embodied in the MDGs, never mind the post-2015 MDG agenda.  

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