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When Disaster Strikes: Research Helps Local Schools Before, During, and After Economic Crises

Developing countries are especially vulnerable to economic crises. Their already fragile government structures, financial institutions, and educational systems do not stand up well to the pressures of a strained global economy.  The education sector is especially susceptible to financial catastrophe. Studies suggest that financial crises and stresses are responsible for much of the educational inequality gaps between developing and developed countries, as well as within those countries themselves.

MSE faculty member Steven Hite has done a great deal of work with UNESCO’s Division for Education Strategies & Capacity Building and is now involved in a project that focuses on assessing, understanding, and improving education conditions for poor countries in the wake of global, regional, or national financial crises. The project is an initiative of Global Pulse (GP), a United Nations group that monitors the impact of global crises on vulnerable countries and populations, and helps them prepare for and cope better with such disasters.

It takes several years on average for important country-level financial indicators to be compiled and reported. This considerable time-lag has been a recurring problem for developing countries in responding to financial distress and/or disasters. The GP team’s objective is to significantly reduce that wait by creating a quick-time data collection and processing system that can be rapidly deployed by the UN or other aid agencies.

Such a system would assess the impact of financial crises on primary schools, teachers, and families of primary-school-aged children, cutting the two-to-three year process down to months. A process like that could have an enormously positive impact on aid and reconstruction efforts in the education sector of vulnerable countries.

The short-term aim of the project is to collect enough quality data from the study to develop a greater understanding of characteristics shared by schools, teachers, and families that increase their vulnerability to disaster. Conversely, the data could also help develop a better understanding of school, teacher, and family characteristics that indicate high levels of resiliency in the face of difficult financial conditions. From that data, says Hite, “We want to find the strategies that can be used to help schools, teachers, and families avoid, cope with, adapt to, and/or recover from financial crises.”

Twelve developing countries, each of which demonstrated a severe reduction in GDP following the global economic crisis, will participate in the study. They include Armenia, Barbados, Botswana, Cambodia, Chad, Jordan, Madagascar, Mauritania, Maldives, Mexico, Paraguay, and Ukraine. The project’s success will depend heavily on each country’s local research teams that will help analyze data and localize results of the study.

This GP project is uniquely structured, Hite explains. “It has macro-level characteristics, but we are expecting to make a micro-level impact. The results of this global study will directly affect local school teachers and families. To have that effect from a global level study is quite ambitious, and perhaps unique.”

17 January 2011