Two weeks ago, I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the first time. It was an incredible and eye- opening experience that illuminated both the importance of the work of the Global Partnership for Education in fragile states but also the potential for the DRC.
My visit coincided with the launch of an initiative to build 900 schools in remote areas funded through a $100 million grant of the Global Partnership. Currently, there are 3.5 million children out of school in the DRC. Most are concentrated in rural provinces like Kasaï-Ouest and Equateur in the northwestern part of the country. The GPE initiative, combined with the Congolese government’s initiative to construct an additional 1,000 schools, represents one of the most ambitious efforts to expand school access in the DRC.
A remote part of the world that presents unique challenges
To understand just how remote some areas are you actually have to go there. Along with our partners from the Ministry of Education, UNICEF, World Bank USAID, UK Department for International Development and Agence Française de Développement, I boarded a UN plane for a two-hour flight to Gemena. This is a city of 150,000 people in the Equateur province, about 200 kilometers from the border with Central African Republic.
There are no roads leading from Kinshasa to Gemena. This poses unique challenges for the Ministry, particularly when it comes to delivering textbooks and other school supplies to the schools. Reaching villages outside of Gemena is even more challenging as a school visit to Kanzi, a village 15 kilometers outside of Gemena, demonstrated.
Upon arriving at Kanzi, I was overwhelmed by how many members of the community came to witness the laying of the first stone for the school. Parents, children and village elders were excited by the fact that a new school will be built in their home village. Currently, schools are shelters constructed with vegetable materials. These materials do a poor job of keeping out the rain, and force schools to cancel classes on rainy days. Since it rains a lot in Equateur province, this poses a big obstacle to learning. The new initiative would replace these shelters with permanent schools, allowing children to learn despite the weather.
Dealing with fragility in a neighboring country
Schools like the one I visited in Equateur face unique challenges. Sharing a border with the conflict-stricken Central African Republic, the province has seen an influx of refugees. One area of big concern for the Ministry of Education is how schools can welcome refugee children into schools when in many cases there aren’t enough schools for Congolese children.
This underscored for me the importance of the Global Partnership for Education, and how we can provide value-added. As we continue to evolve our role in fragile and conflict-afflicted states, we must ensure that we are able to provide flexible and accelerated funding to places like the DRC.
Right now, Equateur has increased needs, due to the conflict in the Central African Republic. The international community needs to support relatively stable countries which border conflict-affected countries to ensure that children can continue to go to school – even if they have to flee their own country. This means offering support to schools like Kanzi beyond ensuring their ability to serve the children in the local community.
This is one of the strengths of our partnership. With so many regional partners, we have a strong base to coordinate and counter the effects of instability.
Much to be hopeful for
At the end of my trip, I couldn’t help but think that there was much to be hopeful for in the DRC. The Prime Minister, Minister of Education and Minister of Finance are dedicated to education. Confirming that this is more than mere verbal commitment is the 2014 national budget of which 15.8% is dedicated to education, up from 9.2% in 2011. There is strong political commitment for this upward trend to continue. Both the Minister of Education and the Prime Minister also agreed to be champions for the GPE replenishment helping us make donors aware of the need for more education funding. But equally important for success is the commitment to and involvement of local communities in education. In the DRC, that commitment couldn’t be any stronger.