ASMARA, Eritrea — Due to the involvement of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), education in Eritrea is improving. The GPE’s work with Eritrea has led to marked improvement in enrollment, retention and teacher training that will continue into 2017.
Education in Eritrea has struggled in recent years. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), gross enrollment for boys and girls of primary school age in Eritrea decreased steadily between 2005 and 2013, with the most severe drop occurring between 2009 and 2010. The number of children out of school rose from 257,797 in 2006 to 405,054 in 2013. For reference, approximately 4.9 million people lived in Eritrea in 2013.
Eritrea’s contemporary education problem comes during a period of national and international conflict. Schooling is technically compulsory between ages seven and 13, but this mandate hasn’t held children in school, and recent negative trends in education align with periods of economic and political unrest.
Since Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has become notorious for its military spending. In 2006, the small nation was even ranked ninth in the world in defense spending. Mounting tensions between Eritrea and the United Nations (U.N.) and increasingly inflammatory relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia occurred prior to and during the marked decrease in primary school enrollment between 2009 and 2010. Border conflicts between Eritrea and Ethiopia ravaged both nations. In 2006, U.N. ambassadors in the region reported that the Eritrean government was fueling violence in Somalia. Three years later, Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that officials treated the country like a “giant prison.”
Conflict in Eritrea came to a head in 2010 when a WikiLeaks report revealed that the nation’s economy was spiraling out of control and that Eritreans were leaving en masse. All the while, forces were stationed along the Ethiopian border. According to Ronald McMullen, former U.S. Ambassador to Eritrea, “Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.”
This period of great unrest corresponded with the biggest hit taken by Eritrea’s economic system in the recent past. Once again, the decreasing primary school enrollment rate corresponds to the economic downturn. In a 2010 report on global banking, it was estimated that “£2.9 billion is expected to be lost to education budgets in sub-Saharan Africa because of the economic crisis.”
Eritrea’s 2013 entry into partnership with the GPE could not have come at a better time. Upon endorsement of the Education Sector Development Plan, officials tackled the problem with a three-pronged approach. First, the GPE aimed to increase access to primary, secondary and vocational schools. Second, it put plans forward to improve education quality on all levels. And third, volunteers worked to bolster the system by training teachers in the field.
A $25.3 million grant was allotted to the Enhancing Equitable Access to Quality Basic Education for Social Justice initiative, which is scheduled to run until December 2016. Since the project’s inception, the GPE has brought about positive change and made vast improvements in all three of its target areas. The organization will continue to do so through 2017.
According to a recent GPE report on education in Eritrea, 15,895 previously out-of-school children were enrolled before January of this year, 5,904 of whom were girls. Much of that enrollment increase can be attributed to the creation of 300 semi-permanent classrooms meant to serve the children of nomadic families who are often among the least likely to register. To assist these nomadic students, 278 native-language teachers were trained to lead classes in the Nara and Kunama languages. An additional 486 teachers will be fully certified before the end of 2016.
According to the same GPE report, “Anecdotal evidence suggests that lack of health services is one of the factors that leads to increased students’ absenteeism and dropouts.” For that reason, the GPE also trained 580 school health officials.
The GPE’s multifaceted approach to education reform takes into account the impact that social, political and economic turmoil can have on education in Eritrea. The organization has been able to implement change with almost immediate results that, if all goes according to plan, will have staying power in years to come.
– Madeline Distasio