Every year for two days in Brussels, the European Development Days bring together a vast array of development practitioners, academics, researchers, funders, campaigners, local authorities and policy-makers. This year’s themes included education and gender, and among the organisations represented there for the first time were the Friends of Ibba Girls’ School and Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations.
Seasoned practitioners and no doubt others can quickly become disillusioned and cynical about development. We can get frustrated when entrenched systems of patronage or political interest hamper access to those in need or constrain steps towards equality. We can wonder how best to improve people’s access to capital so that they can have more robust coping mechanisms and be less vulnerable to slight and unpredictable changes in anything from personal health to rainfall patterns. We can question whether too much large-scale assistance ends up in the wrong hands and whether it is sufficient to support the small, specific interventions.
While the European Development Days appeared to be hosting a not insignificant number of seasoned practitioners, the vibe was as trendy as the vast refurbished warehouse housing it. The space was hung with huge posters of celebrities – including South Sudanese model Mari Malek – endorsing hashtags of change like #thinktwice, which supports the return to school of conflict-affected children. Interactive displays lured people to experience rising sea levels, explore how small-scale agriculture has improved livelihoods, or understand more visually what life is like for those who despite the optimism of the 2016 Sustainable Development Goals remain ‘left behind’. Innovative new participatory approaches were trialled, including an app through which workshop participants could choose questions to ask a panel or vote on outcomes and proposals. Workshops became labs, where ideas and approaches and assumptions and good practice could be tested and shared.
This might seem a world away from Ibba, and in many ways it is. But it was so helpful to hear first-hand from academics and practitioners who through experience and peer-reviewed research have come to the same conclusion that we have, that improvements in the quality of teaching and learning in sub-Saharan Africa will be achieved through incremental improvement and classroom-based approaches, that gender inequality remains the biggest barrier to educational access and opportunity, that education is the best way to tackle the other challenges we face in the world today. It was also a useful opportunity to meet potential donors and partners, and to set the story of one small and specific intervention – one improbable school in one improbable place – in the context of global ambition and impact.
Mark Simmons, FIGS CEO, 4th July 2019