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Now it’s time to start monitoring how children learn: moving beyond universal access to education in Bolivia

A recently published UNESCO-led evaluation of the quality of education in Bolivia and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean revealed just how badly it is faring in providing education of sound quality. The report shows that despite near-universal access to education, primary school learners are struggling at school. Alvaro Deuer made similar observations for his Master’s thesis and here argues that to change this, Bolivia’s education system needs to be transformed through the long-term prioritisation of evidence-based research and policy informing the ongoing monitoring and improvement of education quality.

Photo taken by the author

Two years ago, while I was studying at ISS, I conducted two studies on the quality of secondary and tertiary education systems in Bolivia. While doing the literature review, I noticed that between 1994 and 2019[1], Bolivian authorities were more concerned with increasing the coverage rate of education than monitoring its standards. This is concerning given that SDG4 mentions the need for education to be universal and of sound quality (United Nations, 2021). For countries such as Bolivia where access to education is almost universal, the next step is thus ensuring that learners fare well in school and in university  (Deuer, 2019).

UNESCO recently published the findings of a curriculum study forming part of its ERCE 2019 (Fourth Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study), an evaluation of education quality across 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The study echoed my findings that the quality of education is lagging behind access to education in Bolivia. This comes despite the existence of a number of institutions that are supposed to support the monitoring of education standards in the country.

For instance, the Bolivian Constitution makes room for the evaluation of the country’s education system by an independent body (Asamblea Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2009). Accordingly, the Plurinational Observatory of Educational Quality (OPCE) was created under the Law of Education (Asamblea Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2010). The OPCE has been part of different initiatives to monitor and evaluate the quality of Education in Latin America, including the ERCE 2019. Yet monitoring does not take place frequently.

A sad state of affairs

The most recent evaluation the country’s education system has been subjected to is the ERCE 2019. This evaluation measured the learning achievements of students in primary education with the aim of informing decisions of stakeholders of participating countries. The ERCE is subject to careful planning. The entire evaluation takes around three years (Aguilar, 2016). The test evaluates learning outcomes and studies for those learners registered in the third and sixth grade at both private and public primary schools, for four areas: languages, writing, math, and science (the latter only sixth grade) (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2018).

The results of the ERCE 2019 were published at the beginning of February 2021. Its most important findings for Bolivia are (United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization, 2021):

  • Bolivian learners generally are not doing well in school.
  • Learners from indigenous groups fare comparatively worse than other, non-indigenous learners.
  • Those attending private schools fare significantly better.
  • The quality of education is higher for schools in urban (versus rural) areas.

 

It’s clear from the findings that the education sector needs to be overhauled. Yet addressing gaps in learning capacities that affect poor school performance will require more than simply increased funding. Although the addition of ‘facilitating factors’ like improved physical infrastructure, more equipment, or the employment of more teachers can create a better learning environment that helps teachers and students work and study better, they do not necessarily help learners to learn better (Deuer, 2019). What’s needed is evidence-based research on what learners really struggle with and why. I thus argue that studies such as the ERCE could be used as a baseline to evaluate the quality of primary education in general from a transformational approach.

However, Bolivia has not developed a ‘tradition’ of conducting rigorous studies aimed at measuring the ‘impact’ of the education schemes implemented in the ‘transformation’ of student learning. It is only the second time that Bolivia participates in the ERCE[2], which reveals that monitoring and evaluation are not yet adequately emphasised. Although creating a culture of evaluation takes time, once the necessary institutional capacities are developed, these can be extrapolated to other sectors (and education subsystems), which can contribute to improved transparency and qualitative indicators development that goes beyond the percentage of execution of spending. Moreover, accountability regarding expenditures in the educational sector is particularly important, considering that 5% of the country’s GDP is committed to education and that this sector employs 150,000 teachers (Contreras, 2021).

Thus, only when governance networks of the Bolivian education system commit to investing in more evidence-based research, will policy makers start to take measures to close education gaps detected by the ERCE 2019. Following the recommendations of the ERCE, tackling the inequalities of Bolivian society includes focusing on closing the gaps between public and private schools, urban and rural schools, and between learners that live in indigenous and other regions. The gendered access to education should also receive special attention.


Footnotes

[1] This was set as the time frame of the study given that the main struggles and milestones of quality assessment mechanism implementation in Bolivia occurred in this period.

[2] UNESCO conducted the ERCE four times in Latin America and the Caribbean (in 1997, 2006, 2013, and in 2019), but Bolivia has only participated in the first and last evaluations (United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization, 2021). Bolivia was not part of ERCE 2006 since, in 2007 and 2008, the Constitution Assembly rewrote the Constitution. In the framework set by the new Constitution, the current Law of Education was promulgated only by December 2010. Therefore, the timing did not coincide with ERCE 2013, given that its implementation started some years before. However, in 2017 UNESCO implemented a specific assessment in Bolivia as pilot for ERCE 2019.

On the other hand, at the begging of 2018, an evaluation was conducted in Bolivia as part of ERCE 2013. It constituted a preparatory study for ERCE 2019. According to this study, Bolivia ranked 13th out of 16 countries regarding quality education (Brújula Digital, 2021)

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Alvaro Deuer is a Bolivian development practitioner committed to bringing about evidence-based research and policy. He recently finished the Master’s degree in Development Studies at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS). Previously, he obtained Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and later in Political Science and Public Management. Deuer has 7+ years of working experience in various thematic areas such as institutional capabilities building, governance tools implementation, and indicators design.  His research interest includes good practices in the areas of education, decentralization, public finance, and national identities building. Currently, he is studying the (de) construction of the indigenous identity during the Evo Morale´s government (2006 – 2019).

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COVID-19 and Conflict | Between myth and mistrust: the role of interlocutors in managing COVID-19 in Haiti

Mistrust in state-provided information about COVID-19 has characterized citizen responses to the pandemic in Haiti, preventing the effective management of the virus. This article shows that this mistrust is rooted in a number of historical, political, and social factors, including the perceived mismanagement of past crises. In the wake of resistance to pandemic measures and failure to adhere to regulations, local organizations can play an important role in contexts with low institutional trustworthiness.

To date, Haiti has managed to register a relatively low number of COVID-19 infections and related deaths. Initial concerns regarding the potential devastation COVID-19 could cause in Haiti were related to insufficient sanitary standards and medical facilities necessary to prevent the spread of the virus and ensure the proper treatment of infected patients. However, it turned out that the misunderstanding of COVID-19-related information was another major challenge that prevented people from taking preventative measures and going to hospital when infected.

Some studies conducted during the cholera outbreak in 2010 have pointed out that extreme poverty and low levels of education can cause mistrust in information on health instructions (Cénat, 2020). Nevertheless, these narrow explanations disregard the historical and socio-political background that has nurtured the mistrust of the population in public institutions that is also visible in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Local organizations have played a central role in addressing the Haitian community’s disbeliefs around COVID-19, stepping in as interlocutors in the fight against the spread of the virus.

Over the past few years, discontent with the performance of the state has led to extensive protests. On many occasions, people have called for the resignation of the president and the dissolution of the government, denouncing its inability to manage past crises, claiming a lack of accountability, and citing worsening inequality. Furthermore, the community’s anger has been extended to international institutions, particularly the Core Group[i], the Organization of American States (OAS), and the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH). They are blamed for intervening in Haiti’s internal politics and supporting the current regime, thus keeping the president from resigning (AFP, 2019).

Such anger at, and mistrust in, people in power has been constructed historically. The importation of cholera to Haiti by a UN agent in 2010 as well as successive governments’ mismanagement of the consequent outbreak, the lack of accountability for and the dissatisfaction with the 2010 earthquake responses, the exposure of PetroCaribe fund-related corruption, and the widely reported sexual abuse scandal are just some of the cases that have led to widespread mistrust of those in power.

Damage already done?

When the first COVID-19 infection was confirmed, the government immediately declared a health emergency, imposing restrictive measures and undertaking information campaigns to raise awareness of the pandemic and the necessary sanitary measures to be taken through broadcasts on television, radio, and social media, or by means of vehicles circulating in suburbs with speakers mounted on their roofs[ii]. Despite these efforts, due to the general mistrust and lack of legitimacy of the current government, not only protests against ‘lockdown’ measures and the refusal to adhere to them, but also disbelief surrounding the disease led to the spread of rumours and misinformation (See also Dorcela and St. Jean, 2020). “People think of COVID-19 as a political matter”, said a head of a local youth group.

Hearsay varied from the government having invented the virus to receive money from international aid agencies or diverting attention from the internal political issues[iii] to the hospitals testing a new vaccine on the Haitian population. The disbeliefs were such that people ended up claiming that those showing the same symptoms of COVID-19 were not infected by the virus, but with a different disease that they called ‘Ti lafyèv’ (‘small fever’)[iv], which was assumed to be easily treatable with ‘te anmè’ (bitter tea), therefore ensuring that hospital visits (and testing) were ‘not necessary’.

Given the misinformation, on the one hand people have not taken the virus seriously and therefore failed to follow preventative measures, while on the other hand panic was created and people stigmatized, which prevented them from going to the doctor and accelerated the spread of the virus. Additionally, some acts of sabotage of medical services were reported.

Countering disbelief, panic, and stigma, some local leaders and organizations took important initiatives to disseminate correct information and to help the communities cope with the government measures. For example, Doctors Without Borders and Gheskio, a leading Haitian healthcare institution, trained volunteers as field officers to spread information about the virus by visiting people (what it is, how to protect oneself, which hospitals to go to, etc.). In this regard, Dr. Pape, a founder of Gheskio, argued that “poor people are not stupid. [They] want to make sure that what you’re telling them is real.”[v]

Other civil society organizations (CSOs) also took various initiatives to communicate with people. While some initiatives used campaign music or held quiz contests with questions about COVID-19, allowing participants to learn about the virus while having fun, others visited street vendors and residents, going door to door with information leaflets to clear up the misunderstanding, to remind people that the virus is still present, and to ask them to wear face masks and wash their hands even if others do not follow the measures. Also, the CSO Ekoloji pou Ayiti established hand-washing stations in Furcy and its members stood at the stations to explain to the users which precautions and preventative measures to take, as well as how to make homemade sanitizer.

Thus, in places where the legitimacy and credibility of the government is disputed, such as Haiti, interlocutors such as CSOs and other local organizations can significantly contribute to effective crisis management. The above examples once again highlight the vital role of local actors in articulating and ‘narrowing down’ key messages and practices among the population that are central in managing the spread and effects of the virus.


References

AFP (2019) “Haïti: l’opposition manifeste contre « l’ingérence internationale » (Haiti: the opposition manifestes against the « international interference »”. Available at: https://5minutes.rtl.lu/actu/monde/a/1413480.html (Accessed: 14 December 2020).

Cénat, J. M. (2020) “The Vulnerability of Low-and Middle-Income Countries Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Case of Haiti”, in Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease 37 (101684). Doi: 10.1016/j.tmaid.2020.101684

Dorcela, S. and St. Jean, M. (2020) “Covid-19: Haiti is Vulnerable, but the International Community Can Help”. Available at: https://www.the-hospitalist.org/hospitalist/article/224836/coronavirus-updates/covid-19-haiti-vulnerable-international-community-can (Accessed: 19 July 2020).


Footnotes

[i] Refers to a diplomatic group composed of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative, the ambassadors of Brazil, Canada, the EU, France, Germany, Spain, the US, and the OAS.

[ii] Telephonic conversation with a physician in Port-au-Prince on 4 July 2020 and with a health professional in Les Cayes on 20 July 2020.

[iii] Telephonic conversation with a physician in Port-au-Prince on 4 July 2020.

[iv] Telephonic conversation with a health professional in Les Cayes on 20 July 2020.

[v] See Feliciano, I. and Kargbo, C. (2020) “As COVID cases surge, Haiti’s Dr. Pape is on the frontline again”.

This article is an outcome of research conducted by the authors between June and August 2020 as part of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam’s ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ project. The research aimed to analyze the tensions between top-down measures implemented to face the COVID-19 emergency and the bottom-up responses and mechanisms seen among local leaders and institutions in Haiti. Methodologically, it was conducted by doing a secondary sources review and remote interviews with a number of Haitian health professionals.

About the authors:

Angela Sabogal is a sociologist who graduated from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. She is currently finishing an MA degree in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She has six years of working experience in social project management in Colombia and Haiti.

Yuki Fujita is MA degree student in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her major at the ISS is the Social Policy for Development. Before coming to the ISS, she worked in the diplomatic corps in Haiti for two years from 2017 to 2019.

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