This blog was written by Kate Sykes, International Programme Manager, Link Education International; Obert Chigodora, Project Manager, Plan International; Isabel Pearson, MEL Manager, International Rescue Committee. It is based on the panel presentation made to the Comparative International Education Conference 2022 “Voices from the Front Line: How community-based structures supported inclusive education in Africa during COVID-19″.

NGOs have long understood that meaningful community engagement makes education projects more relevant, successful, and sustainable. But the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought sudden school closures and disrupted INGOs’ and national NGOs’ work, catapulted communities into leading roles. Where previously, community-based structures tended to play advisory or enabling roles in education projects, they began delivering support directly to project participants, and in doing so were able to identify needs and make adaptations which kept projects relevant during the emergency. Discussions about whether and how NGOs should localise the responsibility and power for education were suddenly much more urgent.

A Thematic Review by the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) explored how structures from within the community – or community-based structures – contributed to the successful implementation of interventions during the COVID-19 pandemic. It identified six key factors which were present in projects which successfully adapted to this new way of working.

In Zimbabwe, Plan International’s Supporting Adolescent Girls’ Education (SAGE) project built on established relationships with community-based structures and nurtured their agency. With an existing network of over 500 community volunteers, the project pivoted its learning, life skills and safeguarding activities to be delivered via phone, in small groups and at household level. Subsequently, community structures rose to the fore to distribute materials, mobilise girls to attend sessions, disseminate vital lifesaving messages, map out essential local services and strengthen safeguarding and protection referral pathways. Despite the closure of learning spaces, these community structures supported the identification and enrolment of over 3,800 new girls, participated in monitoring visits, led refresher trainings and established male engagement clubs, as well as identifying local tradespeople and donating goods to launch SAGE’s new vocational skills training component. 

Link Education International engaged in active listening with communities in Ethiopia to create an ‘ecosystem’ of support to keep in contact with girls, provide safeguarding and hygiene information, and follow up on home-based learning while schools in the Supporting the Transition of Adolescent Girls Through Enhancing Systems (STAGES) project were closed. Local government staff and Mother and Father Groups played particularly key roles in identifying needs, mapping local services, and providing support. The active listening approach was principally effective in addressing child safeguarding issues where community-led family interventions enabled 90% of girls who had been married during school closures to return to school.

Before the pandemic, Link Education’s Transformational Empowerment for Adolescent Marginalised Girls in Malawi (TEAM Girl Malawi) project worked with Learning Centre Management Committees (LCMCs) to supply learning resources, monitor Facilitators’ (who taught the learners) timekeeping, and support food distribution. In response to learning centre closures, the project capitalised on community-based structures’ delivery to achieve more. The project put in place a distance learning programme, but it was not easy to know if learning was taking place, so the LCMC was tasked to support Facilitators to monitor whether learning was happening and encourage distance/ home learning. This expanded the role of the LCMC to close the information gap and manage learning. The result was the maintenance of learning while centres were closed. 88% of girls improved their reading scores, 86% improved in maths, and 83% improved life skills despite the closure of the learning centres (from Midline Evaluation 2022).

A mother from a Mother Group in Link Education International's TEAM Girl Malawi project. The mother is in a classroom supporting the learning of students by asking them questions about content in their workbooks.

International Rescue Committee’s Every Adolescent Girl Empowered and Resilient (EAGER) project in Sierra Leone is a non-formal education project for Out of School (OOS) girls. The project partnered with non-education community-based structures through caregiver groups and Community Dialogues with key community leaders. These activities were implemented to shine a spotlight on the gender norms that create barriers for girls’ education, and put their health, safety, and wellbeing at risk. The project also worked within all levels of the system by communicating the intentions and ethos of EAGER at the Chiefdom, District, and National Level, to ensure that EAGER is recognised as a legitimate means to support education and personal development of girls that otherwise would not access schooling. This also helps to ensure that non-education community-based structures are accountable to supporting the implementation. As a result, over 80% of girls attended at least 65% of sessions over the entire time period, 96% of girls have made at least 1 new friend through the EAGER Program, and 91% of girls believe they will be able to achieve the goals they set during the project timeline after the EAGER project implementation finishes.

The six characteristics of successful utilisation of community-based structures are not unique to the COVID-19 closures and instead set the stage for powerful linkages between education projects and communities even when schools and learning spaces re-open. This creates opportunities to re-consider the role of communities and community-based structures in debates around the localisation of international development and aid.


Further information about featured projects:

Supporting Adolescent Girls’ Education (SAGE) provides an opportunity for highly marginalised adolescent girls across 88 communities in Zimbabwe to participate in community-based learning activities and Plan International’s globally renowned life-skills programme named “Champions of Change”. 

Supporting the Transition of Adolescent Girls Through Enhancing Systems (STAGES) aims to break down the barriers to education for 63,000 girls in rural Ethiopia.

Transformational Empowerment for Adolescent Marginalised Girls in Malawi (TEAM Girl Malawi) supports over 5,000 out-of-school girls in Malawi to attend community-based classes and transition into formal education, skills training, or employment.

Every Adolescent Girl Empowered and Resilient (EAGER) operates in 10 districts in Sierra Leone, working in peri-urban and rural communities to provide learning opportunities for adolescent girls ages 13-17 who missed out on formal schooling.