Recognizing the importance of education to reconstruction efforts in regions torn by war and conflict, international aid agencies have in recent years increased their focus on education-related projects. Yet very little empirical data exist to help guide the design and implementation of education programs in war-torn countries.
In a two-year study in Afghanistan which began last year, Dana Burde, visiting assistant professor of international education at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, is researching the role of education in promoting child welfare in times of crisis or transition.
She and co-investigator, Leigh L. Linden, assistant professor of economics and international affairs at Columbia University, have partnered with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a US-based nongovernmental organization that is implementing approximately 100 community-based schools in Ghor and Herat provinces in Afghanistan. Community-based schools are a common international intervention in developing countries and provide a way for governments to move toward universal primary enrollment in the context of limited budgets. Burde’s work is funded by grants from the Spencer Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Weikart Family Foundation.
“Our partnership with CRS has allowed us to create a remarkable and rigorous study design, one that has not been used to study educational outcomes like this before in an emergency aid context,” said Burde.
The partnership gives Burde, Linden and their team not only access to CRS infrastructure and to experienced fieldworkers, but also the opportunity to structure the intervention in a way that will produce meaningful data. Although all of the children in the study will gain access to a CRS school, Burde and Linden established treatment and control groups by randomizing the timing of the interventions.
The study seeks to investigate whether community-based programs improve child welfare by comparing villages that receive schools to villages that have not yet received them, and by comparing educational outcomes for children across these villages.
Burde notes that community-based schools are becoming an increasingly popular option for aid agencies working in post-conflict regions such as Afghanistan. In countries whose education system has collapsed or where it was never strong to start with, community-based schools can provide education services quickly. Communities typically provide classroom space, a local teacher, and management support. NGOs consider community involvement a crucial element in strengthening a community’s commitment to education and increasing its own internal cohesion.
“NGOs promote community-based schools for the access and quality they provide, but these claims haven’t been tested using a randomized design,” said Burde.
Using 17 Afghan surveyors and monitors trained in standardized interview techniques, Burde and Linden’s team began baseline data collection last May in 37 villages in Ghor province in central Afghanistan. The data was collected prior to the opening of the community-based schools. Dari-speaking researchers interviewed 1,496 heads of households, and asked questions regarding household demographics such as family composition, socioeconomic status, and number of children and years of schooling. All children of primary school age in every household were tested for their academic achievement using Dari and math tests designed by the researchers in conjunction with their Afghan colleagues.
“We are currently completing the final round of data collection and will be analyzing it this summer,” said Burde. “We now have a view of the educational landscape that exists in remote areas of Afghanistan-girls’ and boys’ attendance patterns and educational outcomes, as well as a greater understanding of their parents’ participation in school management committees.”
The goal of the research is to identify the effects of educational programs on students’ well-being and life chances. Burde hopes her research will have significant policy implications for international aid donors, NGOs, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education.
She notes that when the team is finished with its analysis, it will make the dataset available to other researchers in the field.
“Education in emergencies’ has been remarkably underfunded and neglected by humanitarian aid organizations. That is only now starting to be rectified,” said Burde. “Parents–even those living in the midst of sporadic civil strife–are typically desperate to get their children-girls and boys-into schools. Community-based schools offer support to their efforts, but we need to understand more about how well these community-schools serve the children they target. We hope our study will help illuminate these questions.”