Issue 68 - Article 13

Education development in a fragile environment: lessons from Girls’ Education South Sudan

January 26, 2017
Emma van der Meulen and Akuja de Garang
Schoolgirls in Bangasi Primary School in Yambio (November 2016). This school has received annual school grants through GESS since 2014.

Girls’ Education South Sudan (GESS) was designed in 2012 during a period of great hope and optimism for newly independent South Sudan. The programme represents a significant investment (£60 million) by the UK Aid in increasing girls’ enrolment, retention and completion rates, and improving learning outcomes in primary and secondary schools nationwide. South Sudan has some of the lowest educational indicators in the world, in particular when it comes to the education of girls. At independence in 2011, an estimated 90% of women were illiterate (male illiteracy rates were estimated around 70%).

The main barriers to girls’ education are poverty, socio-cultural norms and lack of education provision. The GESS programme addresses these barriers through activities designed to increase awareness of, and support for, girls’ education; create effective partnerships between the government and local organisations around a community-based school improvement programme; and increase knowledge of what works in promoting girls’ education. Activities include local-language radio programmes and community mobilisation, school grants, cash transfers to girls, training for education managers and teachers, research studies and the establishment of the South Sudan School Attendance Monitoring System (SSSAMS). GESS is implemented by a consortium led by Mott MacDonald, and including BBC Media Action, Charlie Goldsmith Associates and Winrock International.

GESS was officially launched in April 2013. The following December, eight months after the programme began, violence erupted in the capital Juba and quickly spread to other parts of the country. The crisis posed an immediate challenge for GESS implementation. Even so, at the time of writing the programme’s management structure is still intact, and the GESS staffing base has grown from 80 to nearly 300 people, working in over 3,000 schools across South Sudan benefiting 570,000 girls and 791,000 boys with school grants, reaching over 180,000 girls with cash transfers and 2 million adults with radio programmes. By contrast, education-oriented programmes funded by USAID and the European Union (EU) have all closed down, prematurely in our view.

Management and monitoring

The GESS programme adopted a decentralised, localised management and implementation structure in recognition of the logistically and demographically diverse nature of South Sudan. The Secretariat based in Juba subcontracted one implementing partner NGO per state in 2013, called ‘State Anchors’, based on their track record in education programme management. In some cases NGOs at state level have formed consortia with other NGOs to enable coverage of all counties in a state. In this article ‘states’ refers to the (former) ten states of South Sudan. These NGOs in turn established relationships with school managers, teachers and local administrators in their counties, and at state level with ministries of education and finance. Many organisations were already members of the Education Cluster and are participating in Cluster coordination meetings at national and state level.

Data collected by State Anchor staff and education administrators is uploaded on SSSAMS, an online database that enables remote access to information on school enrolment, attendance, capitation grants and cash transfers. Community mobilisation officers and county liaison officers all received training early on in the programme, and were equipped with mobile monitoring tools. The local knowledge of State Anchor staff, coupled with innovative remote management and monitoring technology, has advanced the programme tremendously. Local knowledge and real-time data informed risk assessments and mitigation measures, and planning and implementation at all levels.

Flexible programme strategies

Flexible and adaptable programme strategies have been a core factor in GESS’ ability to continue to operate during the conflict. As a development programme, GESS was designed to support education systems and structures through a systemic, nationwide approach in partnership with the government, and capacity-building and a high degree of ownership by the government at all levels was envisioned from the start. As the conflict unfolded, it was important for the programme to remain strictly non-political. The programme management team had to manage and mitigate political risks, including the possibility that support to contested areas was opposed or blocked by the programme’s government counterparts. This was done by adopting ‘Do No Harm’ and ‘Equity’ as main operating principles.

School grants to conflict-affected areas

A critical component of GESS is managing and administering the first publicly funded primary school grants in the history of South Sudan. Engagement with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance at an early stage in the programme secured a commitment to include funding (up to £12m) for all primary school capitation grants in the government’s education budget in the financial year 2013/2014, with an agreement in principle to maintain or even increase this funding in future years. Although the outbreak of conflict has put a strain on the government’s budget, as a result of close engagement by the donor and programme team the first-ever primary school capitation grants were paid out in April 2014. Secondary schools also received their first grants, funded by UK Aid and paid by GESS directly to their school bank account.

In 2014 the conflict was concentrated in the Greater Upper Nile region. As a nationwide programme, and abiding by the Equity principle, GESS had to find ways of providing support to school communities in the region. Many communities were displaced and a number of schools had been destroyed or were occupied by armed forces. Most banks had closed, which meant that schools in the region could not access grants in the same way as schools elsewhere that had opened bank accounts as one of the criteria to qualify for the grant. The Ministry of Education publicly agreed that all children in South Sudan had an equal right to education, but did not have mechanisms in place to deliver government funds to primary schools in opposition-held areas. Although several options were considered, including in-kind support to schools and girls in areas under opposition control, a uniform approach was finally deemed most appropriate. GESS obtained approval from the Ministry of Education for the temporary funding of primary school grants in opposition areas, with DFID’s authorisation.

In Unity State, funds for primary schools in government-held areas had not reached schools due to abrupt governance changes which left a vacuum in state structures. Making payments in opposition areas, while schools in government-controlled areas were deprived of funds, could further aggravate divisions and conflict in the state. Moreover, GESS project staff could be perceived as taking sides in the conflict when delivering funds only to certain counties. GESS therefore suggested, as an exceptional case, funding 58 primary schools grants in government-controlled areas as well, with payments in both government and opposition areas made simultaneously. State Anchor staff played an effective role in the delivery of this support by adopting a conflict-neutral and conflict-sensitive approach in their relations with education officials.

In 2016, the worsening economic crisis required additional adaptations. In early 2016, the effective value of the budget of the Ministry of Education fell drastically as the South Sudanese Pound (SSP) depreciated. The funds for the payment of capitation grants for primary schools were therefore no longer sufficient or unavailable. GESS, with the agreement of DFID and the South Sudan government, agreed to fund grants for all approved primary schools, as well as the secondary schools that had been supported from the start of the programme. In addition, as a response to the inflation that was reducing the effective value of teachers’ salaries, schools were allowed to use a higher proportion of their capitation grant to support teacher incentives, for both volunteers and teachers on the government payroll. This has ensured that funds continue to reach schools during an extremely difficult year for South Sudan. Challenges remain: for example, as a result of inflation schools are not able to purchase everything they have budgeted for as market prices continue to rise.

Serving internally displaced people: the case of Mingkaman

Another example of how GESS adapted to deal with the humanitarian crisis is the case of Mingkaman IDP camp in (former) Lakes State. At the height of the crisis humanitarian partners provided extensive support and invested considerable funds to ensure access to basic services. The situation eventually stabilised and funding and attention were directed to areas with more acute and severe needs. This created a gap in service provision for a community likely to remain in displacement for the foreseeable future. GESS therefore worked with humanitarian partners to develop a transition plan to ensure that services transitioned smoothly from humanitarian interventions to longer-term development interventions. These interventions are also done in consultation with and consideration for the host community. These included the possibility of expediting capitation grants to schools in the area to enable them to set up permanent school structures in place of temporary learning places. In addition, existing schools are allowed to use a higher proportion of capitation grants for the construction of additional classrooms to accommodate pupils from the displaced community.

This example demonstrates how the programme worked at the intersection of humanitarian and development aid in conflict-affected areas. Finding short-term solutions to delivering support to schools necessarily required flexibility and adaptation, without compromising too much on the longer-term objectives of supporting and developing a functional education system.

Tailored approaches to behaviour change and outreach

In responding to the particular needs of communities affected by conflict, behavioural change communication activities were also adapted to suit the changed context. The radio programmes GESS produced normally focused on topics such as the role of parents in their children’s education, how to budget for education and how communities can contribute to the effective management of their children’s schools. In conflict settings, where communities are displaced and have experienced trauma, these topics were found to be too far removed from their reality and not immediately pertinent. GESS has therefore adapted programmes by including topics such as how to stay motivated to pursue education despite hardship, what parents need to consider when sending their children to school during crisis and how teachers can deal with potential tensions among pupils from different ethnic backgrounds. All programmes are produced with careful sensitivity and consideration for the context and with respect for all South Sudanese equally. Midline research in 2016 showed that the programme has an audience reach of 2m and a regular reach of 1.6m, suggesting that the programme is not only popular, but also engages listeners, who continue to tune in.

Adapting to spikes in conflict

Since late 2015 outbreaks of conflict in previously peaceful areas have become increasingly common, posing new challenges to GESS implementation. The programme has responded by relocating staff to follow displaced communities and by adjusting the timing of activities. Since December 2015, a more recent insurgency has affected nearly all rural areas of Wau County in Western Bahr el Ghazal, an area previously less affected by conflict. As a result, 31 schools formally relocated to Wau Town. GESS county-based staff in Wau Town and Wau County supported these schools in the process of formally registering with the county authorities, and the schools started operating from three ‘learning centres’. GESS staff also formally relocated to Wau municipality, where they were reassigned to support the displaced schools. The schools therefore continued to benefit from the GESS’ School Governance training programme, and support and training for Payam Education Supervisors also continued. The schools were also supported by GESS to follow up on their capitation grants and cash transfers to eligible girls, despite being displaced.

Parts of Western Equatoria were also affected by conflict in late 2015, when payment of cash transfers to girls in upper primary and secondary schools was scheduled. GESS remained in close contact with the State Anchor during this period, and extended the deadline for approval of girls for cash transfers to accommodate delays in collecting data due to the conflict. GESS agreed to payments for these girls at the start of the 2016 academic year, when access had improved. As a result of this flexibility, over 8,000 girls who may otherwise have missed out still received their cash transfer.


Education development remains fundamental to the socio-economic progress of South Sudan. This case study of GESS is an example of how to preserve long-term objectives in development programming whilst adapting to conflict realities and creating links with humanitarian partners. GESS recognises the importance of linking development and humanitarian interventions to address immediate needs on the one hand, and putting in place systems for lasting impact so that the significant investments that have been made are not lost.

The programme’s strength lies in its flexibility and localised approach. This is only becoming more pertinent as the country becomes increasingly fragile. Adapting to conflict, while maintaining an overall systemic approach based on equity, is possible in a multi-year nationwide development programme. Interventions can be scaled up and down in response to changes in the context, while the overall structure and objectives of the programme remain uncompromised. GESS has laid the foundation for a sectoral approach for service delivery in the education sector. The Ministry of Education will reap the benefits of this approach in more peaceful times.

Emma van der Meulen worked in South Sudan as GESS Deputy Team Leader from April 2014 – January 2016. She is a Social Development Consultant with Mott MacDonald. Akuja de Garang works with Mott MacDonald as GESS Team Leader.


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