Adapting to Safety and Security Challenges
Lessons Learned During a RERA in South Sudan
Even before South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, significant gains were made in education. However, the return to war in December 2013 has eroded many of the improvements in access to and quality of education. In South Sudan, 2 million school-age children, or 72 percent, are out of school; this is the highest proportion in the world, according to UNICEF. Since the war began, the government and opposition forces have recruited more than 19,000 children to fight or for sexual purposes or to serve as cooks, porters, messengers, spies, and other forced roles. A joint education needs assessment conducted by the Education Cluster in 2016 and 2017 showed one in every three schools were attacked. Military and displaced populations continue to occupy some school buildings.
USAID programming in South Sudan, since 2014, has addressed these critical issues by increasing access to education for the most conflict-affected learners who contribute to the growing population of out-of-school children and youth. To ensure USAID programming remains relevant, effective, risk-informed, and conflict-sensitive, USAID commissioned MSI to conduct a Rapid Education and Risk Analysis (RERA). The analysis engaged a total of ten multilingual, gender-balanced, enumerators who undertook a ten-day, MSI-led training on data collection, bias, ethics of research, etc. and actively tailored and adapted tools to the local context at hand with input from a broad range of stakeholders, including Education Ministry staff. In June 2017, one of the teams was traveling up-country and three South Sudanese data collectors from MSI arrived in Bor. They were there to collect data from schools and communities in and around the city. Overall, the RERA in South Sudan gathered information to:
- Gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between the conflict and the educational system in South Sudan through consultation with multiple stakeholders;
- Identify the risks associated with access to education by studying its link with other sectors and help inform risk mitigation strategies; and
- Consult with a wide range of national and community-level actors to better understand their perception of how education mitigates the effects of conflict.
In Bor, the MSI-led national team consisted of two men and one woman, with two individuals originally from the Equatoria region. Shortly after, the Bor Community Youth Association sent a letter to the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, threatening Equatorians living in the town of Bor and working with international NGOs, UN agencies, and community-based organizations (CBOs). The association claimed that international organizations were unfairly favoring Equatorians in their hiring practices. The letter included an ultimatum, demanding that Equatorians evacuate Bor within 72 hours. As such, the team sheltered in place and slowed down its activities.
Five days later, the association sent another letter that threatened imminent danger for Equatorians. “[W]e will sit back and allow youth to do their work but don’t blame us later for any repercussion,” the letter said.
The MSI team members in Bor refrained from site visits and remained in their hotel as state authorities in collaboration with the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) stepped in to resolve this issue. After negotiations, the team was able to continue with data collection activities on July 5, after it was determined in consultation with local authorities and MSI’s safety and risk management advisor that the association posed no additional threat.
Operating in such an insecure environment required extra attention to the safety and security of the data collection team, including the MSI-led national team who traveled to Bor and survey respondents. Built into the data collection process was time, each day in the morning and evening, to check in to debrief on the night before and day ahead, and all teams kept strictly to this requirement to continuously assess their own risk during the activity.
This incident underscores the security challenges that development organizations face every day in delivering education in South Sudan, and the risks their staff faces. Targeted and rigorous training on conflict sensitivity, safety, and security measures, such as a phone tree and daily check-ins, provided the data collection teams with guidance on how to best respond to unexpected or potentially dangerous situations. The teams were provided satellite phones and were in regular contact with the security and risk management advisor, as well as UN agencies, camp administrators, and other sources in and around the data collection sites that provided up-to-date information about security issues in the areas visited.
Upon arrival at the sites, the teams worked with camp leadership, UNICEF, and local government officials and provided letters of approval from the National Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of General Education and Instruction to receive proper introductions and gain access to schools. Gaining the support of these stakeholders was critical for a smooth implementation—ensuring the safe passage to school sites and mobilizing community members and school personnel to participate in the study activities.
Despite the security concerns that arose during data collection, MSI’s team of ten data collectors was able to navigate through logistical difficulties, a rapidly changing environment, and potential threats to physical security to visit 27 sites over the course of four weeks. The sites ranged from PoC learning sites run by volunteer teachers with support from NGOs, accelerated learning programs serving students ages 12 and older who have missed some or all of their formal primary education, and primary schools in surrounding communities accommodating an influx of internally displaced students.
The team conducted 78 focus group discussions with students and teachers and 210 interviews with close to 1,000 community- and national-level informants. The data collected through this exercise provided rich information on the risks in the local context through the voices and experiences of those affected by crisis and conflict in South Sudan. This valuable data will allow USAID/South Sudan to develop context-specific and risk-informed programming to better address the critical issue of out-of-school children and youth when it is most needed.
We also want to acknowledge Jennifer Shin (Technical Manager – MSI, Education Practice Area) and her substantial contributions to this blog post.
- Learn more about the RERA and download the RERA Toolkit.
- Read the blog post: How One NGO Is Adapting the RERA as a Rolling Exercise.