More than 1 million school-aged children in Northern Nigeria have been displaced by conflict. USAID’s Education Crisis Response program seeks to get them back into classrooms. Photo by: David Snyder / USAID Education Crisis Response

During times of conflict, the civilians affected often have to make several life-or-death decisions: where to go to find food to eat, whether to flee their homes, and where they should go if they flee. During these turbulent periods, there is often the danger that other less immediate areas of concern are neglected, one of which is education. Given the surge of refugees and internally displaced persons leaving their homes for safer locations, this is an issue that has come into particularly sharp focus.

One of the organizations working hard to address this problem is Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C.-based company founded by four women in 1977. Creative Associates delivers a range of development services in partnership with local actors, with a mission “to support people around the world to realize the positive change they seek.” Since its inception, it has executed projects in over 85 countries, and today is active in about 20. Education represents a robust pillar of its vision: Since the year 2000, it has trained nearly 390,000 new teachers, with 45 percent of those based in Africa.

A holistic approach to learning

As a result of the violent campaign waged by the terrorist group Boko Haram, Creative Associates’ work in Northern Nigeria has emerged into the spotlight. This region is in urgent need, given that more than 2 million Nigerians have been displaced by insurgents, the largest number in Africa and the third largest in the world.

Here, most recently through the Nigeria Education Crisis Response, a three-year program launched in October 2014, Creative Associates aims to provide education to displaced students ages 6 to 17 in Bauchi, Gombe and Yobe, Adamawa states. It is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The challenges presented in doing so are far from straightforward.

To put their efforts in context, only 60 percent of children in Nigeria have access to basic education, with those living in the country’s north at a pronounced disadvantage. There, in the state of Bauchi, the ratio of teacher to students is 1 to 78 — far higher than the national average of 1 to 42. Teachers also suffer from inadequate training and a lack of comprehensive infrastructure.

On top of that, many of the children have experienced trauma by conflict, and so Creative Associates takes a holistic approach to their learning, including a psychosocial element alongside basic education in reading and mathematics. In order to deliver these classes, the project has so far set up 592 nonformal learning centers and it will have set up a total of 1,088 nonformal learning centers by the life of the project, to be located (among other places) in temporary shelters, markets, churches, mosques and under the shades of trees.

Using community-based solutions

These centers, which aim to prepare students for their reintegration into formal learning environments, are supported by the NECR’s Community Coalitions. These coalitions, comprising local community groups, oversee the activities at the learning centers monitor teachers’ and learners’ attendance, and provide food and supplies from their collective resources, among other activities. In doing so, they give effect to the strong emphasis that Creative Associates places on sustainability and local ownership.

The classroom facilitators, who are all from the local communities where the children are currently residing, were identified and were appointed after close consultation with local leaders. “In the environments where we work, if you don’t find the right people — and the right people are those trusted by those communities — you cannot establish a successful program,” said Eileen St. George, Creative Associates’ director for education in conflict. “As an international organization coming in, you have to be very careful in how you go about that selection process. Local buy-in is essential.”

Education for positive social change

The facilitators — even those with teaching experience — are provided with intensive training before stepping into the classroom. The performance of facilitators at the nonformal learning centers is also monitored by state officials, the program staff and the community and if the learning facilitators are not deemed fit for the evolving demands of the role then their replacement could be swiftly recommended. A further component of sustainability, St. George said, is to build capacity through ongoing coaching and mentoring, since on-the-job learning is essential.

Education during times of conflict can also be used to galvanize societal progress. For example, Creative Associates also uses techniques to help to promote gender equality in areas of conflict. As part of the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program — a USAID project that aims to bridge the gap between supply and business demand for Afghans with midlevel technical and business management skills — 36 percent of those they have already trained are women, which currently puts them well ahead of the funder’s target of 25 percent.

Whether in Nigeria and Afghanistan, collaboration with a host of stakeholders has been crucial to Creative Associates’ success. The second-largest company owned by women to work with the U.S. government, it receives funds from USAID and engages with host governments at both the state and federal levels. In Nigeria, it is carrying out its NECR program in partnership with over 30 NGOs, and in Afghanistan it leverages the private sector. The curriculum of its Afghanistan Workplace Development Program was based entirely on the needs of local and national businesses.

Barriers to progress, hope for the future

Looking ahead, Creative Associates will continue to put resources into developing new ways to make the efforts of all stakeholders even more effective. Cris Revaz, senior education counsel at Creative Associates, sees a key area. “We need to build greater capacity for resilient education systems,” he said. “That is, systems that have really budgeted for their contingency plans for education in crisis, and can do a better job of weathering those storms when they inevitably come.”

The barriers to progress here, Revaz said, are twofold. First, there is the fact that education in conflict, as an issue area, falls between the traditional funding silos of humanitarian aid and longer-term stabilization and development. Secondly, there is the challenge of making the case that education during conflict should be a primary concern for policymakers. In the latter case, Revaz said, this may be due to the overwhelmingly complex challenges of modern conflict, which see education far down the list of priorities.

Part of the solution, he suggested, is to further emphasize the role that education plays in mitigating the worst effects of conflict, particularly when — as his colleague St. George noted — it is coupled with peace building.

There remains a significant shortfall in the funding required in this area. However, Revaz is cautiously optimistic that governments and other donors can “step up” and meet the need: that they can “channel that funding, in a way that gives us real sustainability, and accountability for impact.” Perhaps, given the refugee crisis and the roll-out of the Sustainable Development Goals, more and more funders will treat this area with the urgency that it deserves.

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About the author

  • Musa Okwonga

    Musa Okwonga is a journalist, poet, broadcaster, musician, and PR consultant currently based in Berlin, Germany. He has written for several publications, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, ESPN and The New York Times, and is the author of two books on football, the first of which, A Cultured Left Foot, was nominated for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Find out more about his work at