Niger: Responding to education needs in a difficult context

In the midst of difficult conditions, the International Rescue Committee in Niger launched its education program in coordination with the Ministry of Education. Read about suggested good practices for working in similar contexts, based on the experience from this program.

February 25, 2020 by Kiruba Murugaiah , International Rescue Committee
6 minutes read
A girl at the blackboard in Niger. Credit: IRC
A school girl writes on the blackboard in Niger.

Landing in Diffa, Niger, I am again taken by the sheer and vast natural beauty of the Sahelian landscape — the redness of the earth, the sparse dotting of trees, and, there, a lone herder taking shade under a tree as his goats graze nearby.

Stepping onto the tarmac this time I’m alarmed by the sight of two large armored vehicles which were not there on my previous trips. They are a sudden and stark reminder of the rapidly increasing insecurity in the Lake Chad Basin.

Military trucks outside of the Diffa airport, Niger
Military trucks outside of the Diffa airport, Niger

Violence and natural disasters disrupt education

At least 11 terrorist groups claiming allegiance to al-Qaida, ISIS and Boko Haram operate in the vast area of Lake Chad Basin across state borders. In 2015, military actions against Boko Haram forced approximately 213,000 refugees from northeast Nigeria across the the Komadougou Yobé river to seek protection in the Diffa region.

The Komadougou Yobé river flows into Lake Chad providing water for millions, though, in October 2019 devastating floods wiped out crops and homes and completely submerged villages, further exacerbating the crisis. As of December 2019, UNHCR estimates that approximately 260,000 refugees and displaced people are in Diffa, of which 57% are children ages 4-17.

Most of the refugee and internally displaced children in Diffa are out of school. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Niger launched its education programming in the area in 2016 in alignment and coordination with the Government of Niger’s Ministry of Education and its 2014 - 2024 sector plan, which was developed through the support of GPE.

Our present work builds on successes and lessons learned since in order to create a safe and structured learning environment, to improve the foundational reading and math skills and provide opportunities for social-emotional learning (SEL).

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With renewed funding, IRC Niger now serves 30 primary schools, over 240 teachers and at least 16,000 children in Diffa.
Children in a classroom in Diffa, Niger
Children in a classroom in Diffa, Niger


This time I accompanied our donor representative on a “listening tour” in Diffa, where we sought feedback from key stakeholders — teachers, mothers, children, the Governor and Mayor of Diffa, pedagogical advisors and school inspectors.

The “listening tour” deepened my appreciation of the truly challenging but transformative work of IRC’s Niger staff. It also sharpened my sense for being more context responsive in our programming.

Supporting children after traumatic experiences

In 2016, when we began our work, we expanded IRC's Healing Classroom’s approach to embed SEL within the foundational reading and math in after-school tutoring programs.

Each instance of SEL is designed to help children experiencing trauma improve their well-being. We selected mindfulness activities as well as games to stimulate children’s thinking and social-emotional skills.

The educational activities were drawn from evidence-based tools in the West that were contextualized with a light-touch to Niger.

We also introduced a comprehensive teacher development program. Teachers participated in training, peer learning meetings and individualized mentoring. This program, though technically sound, was very challenging, as we were introducing teachers to a significant shift in their practice.

Feedback from communities sheds light on what worked and what didn’t

At the end of the first year, we held a workshop to evaluate practices based on staff and participant feedback. Teachers, caregivers and children clearly preferred the brain stimulating games instead of mindfulness activities.

Some parents felt that mindfulness activities were converting their children to Christianity while some likened it to “yoga”. There was a general mistrust of these activities and practices.

On a positive note, we learned that our extensive teacher training was highly valued. However, criticism was voiced over the additional workload and effort, the complications in logistics and high printing costs.

Now, three years later, I learn that the term “mindfulness”, which was translated into French as “L’Esprit Présent”, is also the name of an evangelical Christian radio program broadcast in Niger. No wonder that this term had raised alarms in the hearts and minds of Muslim parents in Diffa!

This raises the need for more conscientious attention to socio-cultural nuances when implementing SEL programs even when we are aiming for rapid deployment of a program.

As the for teachers, the gaps and challenges with the foundational knowledge was apparent. For example, they still struggle with correctly pronouncing letter names and letter sounds in French and with teaching more complex math concepts.

These challenges have simple, low-cost, rapid solutions. We now provide tablets that have teaching and learning materials, including curated videos from YouTube that develop teachers’ content knowledge.

Additionally, a WhatsApp group of teachers, their coaches and IRC staff was set up to facilitate discussions and share materials and video content directly and quickly. This has increased open communication and reduced the barriers between those we serve and staff.

5 takeaways from my experiences in Diffa

My experience has led to two grounding principles for context-appropriate program development — Listen more and simplify.

I share here practices that I apply and seek to improve and hope these are useful to others:

  1. Foster relationships based on trust and candor between members of the team from community mobilizers, officers, managers, coordinators to the technical advisors and other HQ technical support staff. Relationship building can be done by using various communication channels — face to face chats, huddles, Teams groups, WhatsApp groups.
  2. Establish a routine for listening opportunities that are as frequent as weekly or bi-weekly. Again, this can use WhatsApp or Teams groups. In Diffa, I observed an in-person practice of standing in a circle and sharing, led by the field coordinator, which I found to be very effective. For a program team, a similar practice to gather reflections, complaints and requests from beneficiaries is simple yet key to create a sense of community.
  3. Shift the monitoring approach, which at present are often observation-based with close-ended questions. Instead, open up the approach to include feedback mechanisms that encourage our beneficiaries to voice their ideas and experience with our programs.
  4. Design context appropriate education programs that value, respect and build on the socio-cultural values of our program participants. We can do this by ensuring that design and content development are done in country and seek out expertise of field staff and country-based experts. For packaged interventions that have been successful in other contexts, ensure a longer prototyping and piloting phase before full roll out.
  5. Invest more time and resources in identifying key informants, partner organizations, research partners, experts and consultants who are from the region or country and have the socio-cultural knowledge to shape the program design based on local context. This helps avoid contextualization and translation oversights that may undermine the program objectives.

Listening to respond more effectively to crises

These are some of the key takeaways from my latest visit. IRC’s work in Niger is incredibly complex and therefore challenging.

In contexts like these, our efforts are all the more crucial. We have so much more to learn about being context-responsive in our programming.

Vital to our work is listening with a keen ear and understanding how the drivers of a crisis — Islamist terrorism, climate change, poverty, socio-cultural practices — shape our work.

As I walk past the lineup of UN and NGO vehicles, the barbed wire and guarded outposts toward Diffa airport, I have a more precise understanding of how to act according to the needs in our pursuit of technical excellence.

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Sub-Saharan Africa: Niger

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Such challenging and valuable work. The lessons learned apply almost everywhere I would think. I’m curious about your ability to capture data in a structured way (quantitative and qualitative). Would be interested in connecting to explore this further.

In reply to by Ken McBean

Hi Ken,
Happy to connect offline. Yes we did/do have a structured systematic way of capturing both types of data though there are numerous challenges with that as well. One example is an excess of data of analyse and present in an actionable way fast enough in order for it useful. Nonetheless, it is done systematically and improving it is a key priority for the IRC.

Reading through this initiative about the education program in Niger and looking at the photo of the military trucks really makes me shudder. According to the numbers, 260,000 refugees and displaced people are in Diffa and most of them are children aged 4-17. This program advocates for education to be prioritized and provides a lifelong learning experience not only for children but also for teachers and parents as well. Education in difficult contexts, when the main enemies are terrorists and poverty, needs to have a different aspect. Emphasis is given on the psychological support as well as children's thinking and social-emotional skills through mindfulness activities. Feedback from the most important stakeholders is also highly prioritized. But the most significant thing is "listening", "listening is the key to respond more effectively to crises". And it actually applies to several topics and fields. This article gave me plenty of food for thought and triggered my curiosity to learn more about education in emergency situations.

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