The Journey to Self-reliance in a conflict context: A nonlinear path

By Ashley Williams

April 9, 2019

Eileen St. George, Vice President of Creative’s Education Division, is no stranger to the conflict context. She’s had long-term assignments in complex environments like Afghanistan, where she’s seen firsthand that establishing sustainability and self-reliance is not a straightforward path.

St. George will draw from her three-plus decades of global education  experience for a roundtable discussion on “Pathways to self-reliance and sustainability: Reflections from USAID program implementation” at the Comparative & International Education Society conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, April 16.

The roundtable will includes top education professionals from Creative, FHI 360, RTI International, Geneva Global, Education Development Center, and World Education, Inc.

In this Q&A, St. George gets the conversation started by diving into the complexities of attaining self-reliance in a conflict-affected environment.

The theme of CIES this year is “Education for Sustainability.” How are self-reliance and sustainability similar or different?

Eileen St. George: To me, self-reliance offers a clearer vision for what is to be achieved while also setting the goal higher.  With sustainability there was always the question of what was to be sustained, and this was often perceived as the continuation of the model or set of activities that a project had set into motion. Self-reliance is a more dynamic goal, focused on capacities that enable self-sufficiency and will hopefully allow us to view progress in a less linear manner.

How does a conflict and post-conflict context impact our planning around the journey to self-reliance?

Eileen St. George: In settings that are in conflict and emerging from conflict, reliable data are non-existent, incomplete or in question as to their reliability to accurately define existing barriers, or to fully understand the political or social complexities at play or know the existing assets within communities to build upon.

The reality of conflict and post-conflict related environment is disaffected populations, fractured communities, and a panorama of structures reduced to rubble. Systems are no longer in place, policies are not upheld and demand for aid far exceeds its availability. Post-conflict expectations are heightened by hope and the promise of opportunity, but capacity and resources are constrained. The lasting effects of conflict often emerge years later and in the moment are not fully realized by the individuals and communities in those early stages of de-escalation or stabilization.

Self-reliance is predicated on establishing ownership, capacity, accountability systems and resource streams. In conflict, finding the building blocks for these is complex and can lead to further conflict. Haste can be destructive, and yet urgency is needed. Heightened attention to conflict mitigation and “do no harm” is essential.

What are some of the things that need to happen before self-reliance is possible in a conflict context?

Eileen St. George: I don’t think the path to self-reliance is linear nor that the state of self-reliance is necessarily permanent. We recognize that global conditions unite us, and our borders do not contain that which impacts us.  I think I would prefer to rephrase the question.  What contributes to creating an enabling environment to help a country in a conflict context to establish the foundation to progress toward self-reliance?

My personal and professional focus has always been education, so let me speak from that lens.  To quote from the USAID self-reliance metrics guidance, “Education enables all other aspects of self-reliance.” I wholeheartedly agree and would add, this is also why education programming should be included within emergency response packages.

A voice that acknowledges the value of education is what launches the journey. The voice can come from within a community, within local agencies or institutions, and/or within the national leadership. In the conflict environments in which we work, we know there exists the dissenting voice. I have not yet found a context we have worked in where this voice is absent. It is the process of enabling that voice, bringing about clarity of vision, planning the means – realistically phased to enact that vision while also building the capacity – systems, processes, human and other resources to create observable progress that motivates further action, commitment and evolves the vision. This is the journey toward the goal of self-reliance.

Tell us about an instance where you’ve seen self-reliance take hold in an education project in a conflict-affected area. What were some of the key factors that enabled it?

Eileen St. George: I have seen progress toward self-reliance, but I have not seen a country in which I have worked yet arrive at a state of self-reliance, and by this, I mean no longer dependent on international development assistance. However, there are key factors that we need to support through our development assistance.

  • Time to build the capacity within a national institution to implement.
  • Apply a phased approach that scaffolds the knowledge, skills and attitudes through learning, doing, assessing and reflecting to deepen what is being learned and the ability to demonstrate it through practice.
  • Support robust models for professional development and capacity building.
  • Meeting a country where they are (just as we wish to meet a student in the classroom where they are).
  • Address the realities of depth over breadth.

The elephant in the room is the ability of a nation emerging out of conflict – and even those on the stability end of the spectrum – to confirm a stable source of revenue to provide continuing financing for recurrent costs necessary for a quality education system, let alone specific programmatic costs. It is the dominant barrier to self-reliance that has no clear answer.

What we can do in the immediate term is to recognize the longer-term national education goals from the onset of engagement and commit to building skills, systems and policies around planning, budgeting, monitoring and accountability.

At some point we need to risk the injection of funds into these systems to put to practice and test the ability to execute budgets against plans and address systems and capacity gaps. While external evaluations serve a needed purpose, they do not replace the need to grow the local capacity to critically evaluate and remediate systems put in place so as the custodian they can continue to evolve them over time to meet the needs of an ever-changing local context and set of expectations and demands.

What are you hoping for people to take away from the CIES roundtable discussion on Pathways to Self-reliance and Sustainability?

Eileen St. George: I am fortunate to be part of a panel of highly-respected development professionals who represent decades worth of experience in the education development sector and I would venture to add across all continents.

The panel was John Gillies brain-child, and I am delighted to be engaged in the exchange of reflections. What I hope is that those who join us for this discussion walk away inspired to continue the discussion within the professional community to advance our collective understanding for the continuum to self-reliance, factors to be considered and the cross-sector coordination that is required.

We know the journey is not linear and the destination may change in time. The solution toward self-reliance does not rest within the borders of a country in this increasingly interdependent world. I worry that at times we may overly simplify the journey to sector specific paths and that our approaches may be narrowed by only that which we can measure.

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To visit Creative’s CIES 2019 Special Report hub, click here. For a full schedule of Creative’s CIES 2019 panels, including panelists, times and locations, click here. In addition to the panel sessions, stop by booths 16-18 to engage with education experts and learn more about Creative’s global projects. Follow us on Twitter @1977Creative for live updates.

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