Benin’s economy relies heavily on agriculture, and one of its major crops, representing between 25% to 40% of total exports, is cotton. The country ranks as 12th cotton producer in the world, second in Africa after Mali.
In the Alibori region in the north of Benin, which we visited last December, the cotton-picking season was in full swing, and the road between Kandi and Cotonou was full of trucks packed up to twice their height in white cotton balls.
Why mention this in a blog about education?
Because, as is the case in many developing countries, families in Benin who live in areas that struggle with poverty often keep their children home to help them in the fields. Sometimes, parents bring to school a very young child (younger than preschool age) to take the place of an older brother or sister who is asked to help with watching cattle or picking cotton or other crops.
The Alibori province is one of the poorest in Benin, and thus it’s one of the priority areas where the government focused the GPE resources it received since 2008, along with 24 other deprived districts (the country has 77 districts).
Targeting support to children most in need
Improving access and retention in schools were key goals that the government of Benin included in its 2006-2015 sector strategy.
The new 2018-2030 Education Sector Plan notes that gross enrollment in primary school rose from 107% in 2011 to 116% in 2015 (the rate is higher than 100% because it includes underage and overage children), but the completion rate was only 67% in 2015. In Alibori, the primary enrollment rate was one of the lowest in the country, at 35%.
Girls also are not faring as well as boys. The enrollment rates in lower grades improved over the years, but for primary school completion, girls still lag behind boys.
To address this inequality, the latest GPE grant supported a program that distributed school kits to girls to ensure they had what they needed to attend school. The kit was made up of a tote bag, a school uniform, notebooks, pens, pencils and erasers, a ruler, chalk and a slate.
In total, more than 320,000 girls attending grades 1 and 2 in the areas targeted by the program received a similar school kit. This helps ensure that girls from the poorest families are not turned away from school for lack of supplies.
Providing a hot lunch
Another important intervention that impacts children’s attendance in school is whether they receive a free lunch.
For poor families that may have difficulty putting food on the table every day, ensuring that at least the midday meal is covered by the school makes a big difference.
During the first GPE program between 2008 and 2012, supported by a US$75.1 million grant, 501 school canteens run by community mothers ran for 2 years, benefiting more than 127,000 children. During the time of the program, enrollment rates increased, surpassing targets, in particular for girls, which helped reduce the gender gap.
During the second GPE program that ran from 2014 to 2018, financed by a US$42 million GPE grant and additional funding from France through AFD, the school feeding program reached a total of 318,000 primary students who received at least one meal per day in the deprived districts.
Adissatou Bio Idrissou, who is in charge of overseeing school feeding at the Alibori District Education Office, told us: “After the program started, we saw an increase in the number of students. When the school canteens work, we noticed that children come to school more regularly. When food isn’t provided at school, sometimes children don’t go to school as they need to help their parents at the farm.”
Better school buildings and equipment
Another intervention to improve access for Benin’s children had to do with infrastructure. Too many schools in the deprived districts were small, built with local materials that didn’t resist the elements well.
We saw a few such schools near Kandi in Alibori, where only parts of the earthen walls remained standing, the straw roof long gone. By contrast, the new schools built by the GPE-supported program are sturdy, well lighted and aerated, and have large classrooms.
On the island in the middle of the Sô river near Cotonou, we also saw classrooms and latrines built on stilts, allowing classes to continue even during the flood season between September and November each year.
Florent Kouhouenou and Pierre Houessou, parent representatives respectively for So-Ava Primary School and So-Ava Middle School, both expressed appreciation at the new classrooms that their children attended. Mr. Houessou even said that the new classrooms were a “jewel, making the community proud.”
Further efforts needed to build on past achievements
The efforts made to bring more children to school through kits, meals and better classrooms were complemented with other interventions such as teacher training (between 2008 and 2012, more than 57,000 teachers received training,a nd more than 10,600 did also during the 2014-2018 period) and distribution of teaching materials (teachers received a suitcase full of supplies for their classrooms).
GPE grants to Benin
- 2018: US$200,000 (Program development grant)
- 2016: US$428,794 (Sector plan development)
- 2014-2018: US$42.3 million (Program implementation grant)
- 2012: US$56,200 (Sector plan development)
- 2008-2012: US$75.1 million (Program implementation grant) Total: US$118.1 million
But we know that improving access isn’t sufficient, and, following the SDG 4 vision (learning for all), the government of Benin is now targeting its interventions to improve education quality.
The ministry of pre-primary and primary education has prepared a new program that will be presented for GPE funding in the next few weeks and which includes activities such as improving the curriculum, training teacher in better pedagogical practices and improving teacher colleges.
The 2018-2030 education sector plan has clearly identified quality as the priority in the coming years. GPE stands ready to continue its support, alongside other development partners, to give more and more children in Benin the chance at a good education.