Is USAID's education strategy achieving real change?

U.S. Agency for International Development-backed measures have ensured girls, like the ones pictured, have a right to attend school in Yemen. The 2013 USAID Education Summit offers an opportunity to determine whether two of the agency's programs are truly creating better learning outcomes in developing countries. Photo by: Malak Shaher / USAID/YMEP / CC BY-NC

Education experts and U.S. government officials are gathering this week in Washington, D.C. to discuss the state of the field.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is halfway through its five-year Education Strategy, while the controversial USAID Forward reform agenda is nearly three-years old, and the 2013 USAID Eduction Summit offers an opportunity to determine whether both plans are actually creating better learning outcomes in developing countries.

“Everybody knows that education’s in trouble. No one will argue that we’re doing fine,” Richard Rowe, CEO of Open Learning Exchange, Inc. told Devex during the first day of the summit on Tuesday.

In addition to focusing on progress towards USAID’s strategic education goals, this year’s summit clearly bares the mark of the USAID Forward agenda, which emphasizes cost effectiveness, partnerships, country ownership, and science, technology and innovation.

Agency officials have called for more data-driven policy choices and project selection based on concrete objectives, measurable progress and better return on donor investment.

But some attendees at the summit voiced fears that policymakers — both at home and abroad — may translate the need for rapid progress and measurable results into support for “silver bullet” fixes, like mobile technology campaigns that focus less on supporting good pedagogy and student engagement and more on distributing gadgets.

“Human learning, human development is a much more complex process than simply giving them a hammer,” said Rowe.

Kenya’s recent announcement — part of an election campaign pledge — to provide laptops to 1.3 million first graders raised those very alarm bells among education policy experts, including USAID officials working with the Kenyan government to implement the distribution program.

“Whether we think it’s a good idea or not, it will happen, so how do we do it the best way we can?” asked Christine Pagen, education officer for USAID Kenya.

The 2013 USAID Education Summit three-day agenda focuses on each of the five-year strategy’s three goals to be completed by 2015:

  • Improved reading skills for 100 million children in primary grades.

  • Enhanced ability of workforce development programs.

  • Increased equitable access to education in crisis and conflict environments for 15 million learners.

Speakers include agency bureau heads, NGO representatives and leading contractors engaged in the development and distribution of education technology and materials. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah will offer the closing keynote address on Wednesday.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.