During my first visit to Malawi earlier this month, I saw firsthand both the challenges facing the education sector and the promise for improvement thanks to the joint efforts of the government and development partners, including a new GPE grant.
President Mutharika and I announced the US$44.9 million grant at a public event attended by the ministers of education and finance and key development partners.
The World Bank will be acting as grant agent, following the grant implementation closely on the ground, and working with Germany and Norway as outgoing and incoming chairs of the education partners.
The president said that education was one of the main pillars of his national agenda. His support, both nationally and internationally—he is a co-convener of the Education Commission— is invaluable.
Welcoming all children to school
Malawi adopted a courageous law for free universal education in 1994, well before the Millennium Development Goals called for universal access to primary school in 2000.
The influx of children in the system however meant overcrowding in schools and a lowered quality of learning due to a lack of corresponding infrastructure, textbooks and teachers.
I visited Muzu and Mpingu primary schools in Lilongwe Rural West, one of the eight districts that will be specifically supported by the new grant. The first school welcomes 3,500 students daily, and the second more than 2,000. About 60% of students in the schools are girls.
The number of classrooms is insufficient, and many classes are held outdoors “under the trees”, with routinely more than 100 students per teachers in the lower grades.
My heart went out to the teachers, who do their best in very difficult conditions, and to the children who must sit patiently on the ground for hours. I wondered: how can the last row of students see what the teacher writes on the blackboard or hear what he or she says?
High rates of repetition and drop out
Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that Malawi has high rates of repetition (20% in 2013, UIS) and dropouts (51% in 2011, UIS). These circumstances affect girls more than boys, as is often the case. Only 18 out of 100 girls complete primary school (primary finishes in 8th grade in Malawi).
Too many girls drop out, get married early and never return to school. The government is to be commended for having adopted a policy allowing young mothers to return to school to finish their studies. This is exactly the type of reforms that pave the way for improvements, not just in the education system but for the country as a whole.
Malawi has a high incidence of HIV/AIDS (10% of 15 to 49 year olds in 2014, World Bank). My hope is that by connecting with health sector partners and showing the positive consequences of educating girls and keeping them in school, we will demonstrate in a very practical way how education is key to achieving development goals in many other sectors.
Betting on education
In 2013, a fraud scandal rocked Malawi and shook the confidence of donors, who until then were supporting the country via direct budget support.
Goodall Gondwe, the minister of finance, told me that his country is putting new accountability systems in place. He understands the need to rebuild donors’ trust, not just because Malawi needs their support—40% of the country’s budget relies on external aid—but also because he doesn’t want to go back to a multiplicity of stand-alone projects that are not aligned with the country’s budget and priorities.
The GPE grant will help partners to pool funding through the establishment of a Common Financing Mechanism (CFM) to support Malawi in the implementation of its Education Sector Implementation Plan II (ESIP II).
In this regard, the GPE approach is exactly what’s needed. Our model brings all partners together around the table in support of the country’s national education plan. Our objective is to strengthen the education system as a whole to make it more efficient and sustainable in the long term.
Coordination of partners is key
As I try to do in all the countries I visit, I spoke not just with development partners and ministry officials, but also with members of civil society, teacher unions, and parliamentarians in charge of oversight of the education sector, in order to get a balanced picture of the situation.
In Malawi, the process to develop the GPE grant proposal was long and complex, and I heard several partners express some frustration about it.
But these coordination efforts, however laborious, were well worth our time, because they have resulted in a program responding directly to Malawi’s education priorities and aligning partners’ support behind it.
GPE grant targets 8 most disadvantaged districts
The GPE grant will address the lack of infrastructure by building 500 new classrooms.
It will address the need to retain girls in schools by building 300 sanitary blocks and 150 hand washing stations, and by giving 800 schools performance-based grants to incentivize retention.
It will address the quality of learning by training teachers and headmasters in classroom management, and by promoting better deployment of teachers across the country.
More importantly, it will pave the way for donor support to re-align with the ministry of education’s budget and to rebuild confidence. The 30% variable portion of the grant linked to results on learning, efficiency and inclusion will be closely monitored.
Together to face the challenge
All of this makes me hopeful that through continued collaboration, meticulous monitoring and reporting of results, and adoption of the necessary reforms, Malawi can make progress in the education sector that will positively impact the whole country.
President Mutharika said: “The GPE grant will make a great difference in the education sector in Malawi.”
I believe him.