Education in the global south

A Second Chance for Out-of-School Children

School closures, unequal access to digital tools, and subpar education systems – in the past two years the global education crisis became more evident than ever before. Here, education experts Caitlin Baron and Erin Ganju explain why there is still cause for hope and what Europe can learn from school projects in the Global South.

Anna Rinderspacher
Luminos Fund/Anita Back
July 15, 2022

During the pandemic, schools across the globe were closed for months at a time. How has this impacted the education sector globally?

Caitlin Baron: In Africa and Southeast Asia, where Erin and I mostly work, school closures literally put a stop to all forms of education. We know that one in three children received no form of education during the pandemic – no books, no worksheets, no WhatsApp groups, no radio programs, nothing!

Erin Ganju: Nor is the crisis over. Even by early summer 2022, at least 350 million children who attended classes five days a week before the COVID-19 pandemic still go to school only part time. Add to this what we call the ‘crisis within the crisis’, namely that the quality of education was seriously lacking even before the pandemic. Worldwide, 40 percent of children who regularly attend school cannot read, write, or do math by age 10.


Caitlin Baron

Caitlin Baron is the founder and CEO of the Luminos Fund, an education NGO dedicated to giving the world’s most vulnerable, out-of-school children a second chance to learn.

Which weak points in education did the pandemic bring to light?

Ganju: School closures have prompted an increase in the number of children affected by depression, gender-based violence, child marriage, and teen pregnancy. Schools are so much more than just places for children to learn – they offer at least one meal a day and a place to connect with others in the community outside of home. There are people who can help. Going to school is like a protective bubble in children’s lives. So, this isn’t just about ensuring children’s academic progress, but also about their well-being in general. We know from a World Bank report that the learning loss suffered during the pandemic may have a long-term impact on the economic opportunities these children will have later in life.

The Luminos Fund specializes in helping students in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East catch up on their studies. Is an approach like this now more important than ever?

Baron: The Luminos Fund supports families with what we call ‘first-generation readers’: children from families where nobody can read or write. When schools close, such children get absolutely no help in learning to read, and yet reading is the educational key to unlock any form of subsequent learning.

Ganju: Absolutely. This ‘crisis within the crisis’ hits those children who already have a lot of catching up to do especially hard. This is where the Luminos accelerated educational model comes in. This program offers classes for students to catch up on two to three years of school in intensive, child-centered lessons and to prepare for their ongoing schooling and education in regular schools. 

Erin Ganju

Erin Ganju is Managing Director at Echidna Giving, one of the largest private funders in girls’ education in lower-income countries and Fellow of  the  Robert Bosch Academy.

The Robert Bosch Stiftung invited you to meet with experts from foundations, aid organizations, and governments in Berlin to discuss the global education crisis. How do these different stakeholders work together?

Baron: It’s incredibly exciting to see what happens when you bring two groups together that each play such a central role in international education: foundations and bilateral aid organizations. Huge sums of money flow into a country through government aid agencies, while a range of small, innovative foundation-led projects run in parallel. All too often, there is not enough coordination and collaboration between these groups.

Ganju: I think foundations and bilateral aid organizations complement one another. We are all part of the same ecosystem. The more we rally together behind shared goals, the better.

Baron: Foundations can drive fantastic, innovative ideas and really shake up education, but they are still dwarfed by the comparative amounts governments in Africa or Southeast Asia can invest in their own countries. The symposium in Berlin highlighted that there is a great deal of mutual interest between foundations on the one hand and bilateral donors on the other.

Caitlin Baron (l.) and Erin Ganju in conversation at the Berlin Global Education Funders Forum on May 11, 2022.

Caitlin Baron (l.) and Erin Ganju in conversation at the Berlin Global Education Funders Forum on May 10, 2022.

What can we in Europe learn from the work of the Luminos Fund?

Baron: Our approach centers around learning teams, something I think is useful anywhere, as teachers can’t do the job alone. Luminos works with parents and community members. While this might look a bit different in Ethiopia than it would in Germany, we are all about having everyone pitching in. Another thing I learned was that, while it is possible to catch up, stress has no role to play in getting there. In our experience, children can catch up on three years of school in a single year if they can do so in a joyful learning environment full of love and care.  

Ganju: It’s vital to focus on school staff training and development, as well as capacity building. Some teachers haven’t had any professional training in twenty years, and yet we are constantly unlocking new information about learning. We also need to track the children’s learning progress on an ongoing basis. That’s the only way to know if what we’re doing actually works.

Just how important is digitalization in education?

Baron: The teachers and their relationship with students is at the heart of any child’s learning journey. Digital learning can certainly enrich this process, but it can never replace that.

Ganju: The pandemic has proved that access to technology is a fiercely competitive resource for many children living in lower-income countries. In India, girls draw the short straw, with boys generally taking precedence. As such, digital learning can never be a substitute in the fight for equal access to education for all children.

Facts and Figures

  • According to the Worldbank, 70 percent of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries are unable to understand simple written texts. 
  • 59 million primary-school-aged children were out of school even before the pandemic, including one in five children in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Literacy is a gendered issue. The key factor in determining whether a child grows up able to read and write is whether or not their mother is literate.
  • More than 1 billion children were affected by school closures during the pandemic.
  • 1 in 3 children received no form of education whatsoever during the pandemic: no books, no worksheets, no WhatsApp groups, no radio programs.
  • In the wake of the pandemic, more than 350 million children who attended school five days a week before the pandemic still now only attend school part time.

Education plays a key role in the Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. In terms of international education, what can we achieve in the remaining eight years of the Decade to Act?

Ganju: Promoting education is the best way we can ensure people develop relevant solutions that meet the needs in their local communities. That’s why education is such a pressing global issue, not least in the fight against climate change and inequality.

Baron: This wouldn’t be the first time we have achieved great things in the space of a decade: One of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals for 2015 was to ensure primary education for every child on the planet. As part of this goal, we managed to reduce the number of children without a primary education by 40 percent in ten years.

Ganju: Now, our goal is for all children to receive a high-quality education – from first to twelfth grade. While this might be an ambitious goal, the good news is that we don’t have to invent anything new – no new vaccinations or anything like that. On the contrary, we already know exactly how children learn best. What’s missing is the political will to tackle the issue. We need more focus, more attention, and more resources for education. Because we know from experience that it can be done. We just have to want it!

About the Project

The Luminos Fund

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The Luminos Fund enables out-of-school children in Africa and the Middle East to start school and learn successfully. The organiszation supports governments and authorities in establishing accelerated learning classes for out-of-school children to reach the most marginalized populations. With its intensive, child-centered pedagogy, the "Second-Chance” program helps students to catch up on the curriculum of two to three years and prepare for their further education and training in governmental schools. The Luminos Fund ist supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.


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