Learning from the past: Why we need to focus on education during an emergency

September 2, 2020
Written by Olivia Giovetti

Lessons from the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and Sierra Leone teach us what we need to maintain during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the years and months that led up to the 2014 West African Ebola epidemic, Sierra Leone and Liberia were both facing significant changes and challenges around poverty and development. In some ways, they were on parallel tracks. In other ways, especially during the epidemic, they were completely divergent. 

By 2014, both countries had reached a state of peace, and were recovering from years of brutal civil wars (the First Liberian Civil War took place between 1989 and 1997 and the Second Liberian Civil War from 1999 to 2003; Sierra Leone’s Civil War stretched over more than a decade, from 1991 to 2002). 

One of the key areas of growth for both countries was education. The devastating effects of war had made young people key generations in each country: approximately 41% of Sierra Leoneans and Liberians were age 14 or younger. There are many ways of looking at the data, but here’s some idea of what education looked like in each country in the beginning of 2014. 

Student practices her English

A student practices her English at SLMB Massaba Primary School, Kunike Barina Chiefdom, Sierra Leone. (Photo: Michael Duff/Concern Worldwide)

Education in Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone at the beginning of 2014, literacy rates were 47.9%, which meant for a population of roughly 7 million that approximately 3.35 million Sierra Leoneans could read and write. 

Using the Early Grade Reading Assessments (EGRA) rubric, which gives us some standardized idea of how well education programs are serving children across different countries and different ministry standards, we found that only 2% of Sierra Leone’s children met a Grade 3 reading benchmark. 43% of all Grade 3 children were unable to read a single word. 

In Sierra Leone, Concern’s education work was funded in 2014 by grants from Irish Aid and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID). 

Improving access to education in Liberia

A classroom in Liberia (Photo: Concern Worldwide)

Education in Liberia

Liberia’s literacy rate was 49.1%, which sounds slightly higher than Sierra Leone, but in 2014 Liberia’s population was roughly two-thirds that of Sierra Leone’s. That meant approximately 2.13 million Liberians could read and write. 

Liberia’s completion rate for primary school was significantly higher than that of its northwestern neighbor’s, suggesting that the country’s overall quality of education was higher. We can also see this in comparing EGRA scores: Liberia’s rate for hitting the Grade 3 reading benchmark was 9%, and just 12% of its students were unable to read a single word.  

In Liberia, Concern’s education work was funded by USAID, which was larger in size and scope than our funding in Sierra Leone. We also saw stronger engagement with the local government in this time, which benefited the country’s school-children. 

When an epidemic hits

When Ebola hit Liberia and Sierra Leone (after originating in Guinea, which shared a border with the two nations), both countries were significantly impacted, both on a national level and on a sector level in education. In an image that should be familiar on a global scale in 2020, schools were closed in both countries, removing the possibility of any classroom-based education. The closure would last nearly a year, and would also affect how Concern’s local teams could work with our partners on building new programs and coaching teachers. 

On paper, it looked as though Liberia’s education system, which was producing higher learning outcomes, had greater coordination at a government level, and where we had a larger presence, would weather the emergency better than its counterpart in Sierra Leone. In reality, by the end of the epidemic in 2016, the opposite was true. 

What happened? 

A tale of two responses

That’s where this story becomes in part an example of how foreign aid works: In Liberia, faced with the growing spread of a deadly virus, we paused our education programs. Our teachers and experts pivoted to educating their communities about Ebola detection and prevention, which in the short-term was the more pressing issue. 

As the Liberian government navigated the crisis, the strong engagement that we had with the Ministry of Education also waned, and this combined with a shift from our initial planned outcomes for our funding meant that our funder for education programming was not convinced by our shift in priorities against our planned outcomes. 

In Sierra Leone, meanwhile, the Ministry of Education focused more keenly on education during school closures, and our funders supported our shift in planned programming as we were still aiming to meet our original goals with education: improving learning outcomes. And, while our education team in Sierra Leone did expand their work to also educate communities on how to prevent the spread of Ebola, they also found ways of bringing the classroom into the homes of quarantined children. Radio education and smaller community learning groups were the prototypes of the Zoom and Skype classrooms that we are now seeing at home. 

Education by radio adopted in Sierra Leone

Hawa “Baby” Conteh, with her sons Mada Karimu (15) and Ishmel Jawera (7), at their home in Magburaka, Tonkolili district. Education by radio was been adopted in Sierra Leone following the decision to close all schools because of the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.

Reopening schools

As the Ebola crisis became less severe in Liberia and Sierra Leone, reopening schools became an important aspect of response. While in Liberia, we focused on keeping schools healthy and sanitized (a very important aspect of reopening!), our ongoing engagement with the Ministry of Education in Sierra Leone meant we were also able to look at a more holistic approach to reopening. 

We wanted to maintain prevention and control as groups of people started to come together again, but we also developed an accelerated curriculum to help children catch up on what they may have missed in the year of homeschooling and in a shorter school year. We worked in partnership with teachers to make sure they could also teach the condensed curriculum as if it was the norm versus the exception. 

The impact after the impasse

The differences in learning outcomes between Liberia and Sierra Leone following the Ebola outbreak show how important emergency response and crisis management are to the long-term success or setbacks in an education system, and why we need to keep education going even in a crisis. 

In Sierra Leone, literacy rates in 2018 grew to 62.9%. The country now invests approximately 32.5% of government funding on education. 

In Sierra Leone, literacy rates in 2018 grew to 62.9%, surpassing Liberia’s which only grew to 55.4%. Government spending on education also increased, with Sierra Leone’s spending on education: As of 2018, the country now invests approximately 32.5% of its government funding on Education, compared to Liberia’s investment of just over 8%. 

What we learned

Keeping a strong connection to, and presence in, the education sector during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone not only helped improve outcomes during and immediately following the crisis, but had a ripple effect that could mean major gains in long-term development goals. Doing the opposite has, well, the opposite effect. 

The 2014-16 Ebola epidemic was the largest of its kind in history, and one of the largest health crises on record. In those situations, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when there is so much to focus on with immediate and obvious health responses. 

But, as we’ve seen with COVID-19, no crisis exists in a vacuum. Having trust and cooperation between organizations, funders, and governments means that we can find ways of balancing both the short- and long-term challenges of an emergency. It’s this outlook that we’re now bringing to our response to the novel coronavirus in all 23 countries of operation to ensure that the hard-won gains in education — and beyond — are not lost.