Schools and education systems are invariably debilitated by conflict. They are left weakened, damaged, and underresourced at precisely the time when communities, governments, and international agencies need them to help rebuild and transform themselves and the societies they serve. This twin mandate of reform and reconstruction offers both significant opportunities and enormous challenges to societies emerging from conflict. Research and experience demonstrates that certain approaches, such as those below, often lead to long-term success.

Post-conflict reconstruction of the education sector faces challenges that are complicated by an added sense of urgency following the debilitating aftereffects of war. Four factors are critical to the success of rebuilding the education sector in postconflict societies:

  • Sound policies and committed leadership at the country level.
  • Adequate operational capacity at all levels, including capacity of communities to participate effectively, with the right incentives.
  • Financial resources to scale up programs that work and ensure these reach the service delivery level.
  • A relentless focus on results.

All this must be achieved in a context where political authority and civil administration are often weakened, compromised, or inexperienced; where civil society is in disarray, deeply divided, and more familiar with the politics of opposition than reconstruction; and where financial resources are constrained and unpredictable.

Yet each of these constraints also contains possibilities. Most notably, new political authorities are more likely to seek education reform to distance themselves from the previous regime, particularly where international aid provides additional incentives.

Capitalizing on reform efforts

Civil society often focuses on education as a key strategy around which it can coalesce for reform, and the publicity around the end of conflict often attracts an injection of resources that can help to kickstart this reform. However, when the demands on an education system outstrip its capacity to deliver, the question of priorities looms large. In facing challenges on all fronts, where does one begin? Here are the most important starting points:

  • Focus on the basics to get the system functioning so that the return of children and youth to school can be seen as an early “peace dividend” that will help to shore up support for continued security.
  • Acknowledge the importance of symbolism in education and ensure some bold symbolic actions (such as purging textbooks). This signals that, while much about the system remains unchanged, reform has started.
  • Build recognition that reform of education is an incremental, ongoing process that takes decades and must be led from within the country as consensus develops on society’s wider development vision.
  • Focus from the beginning on building capacity for reform, which includes supporting the participation of communities, local authorities, and other stakeholders.