Learning lessons from wartime education projects in South Sudan

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: History


In South Sudan's civil wars since the 1960s, millions have died or suffered in internecine violence, famines, and flight. Renewed conflict since 2013, only two years after national independence, has displaced over four million people. Most people continue to struggle against mass unemployment, military recruitment, and few educational options. Today, the formal schools, buildings, and education programmes established during a short peace in 2005-2013 are again threatened or destroyed by war, economic collapse, and displacement. South Sudanese people fear the loss of another generation.
South Sudan's endemic conflicts and structural instability pose a major challenge to education policy-makers, formal sector practitioners, scholars, and national activists. The network is driven by the belief that a new approach needs to be rooted in the realities of the community's own educational work amidst chronic insecurity since the 1960s. This leads us to two key questions:
1. How have South Sudanese people pursued their own informal and self-funded educational projects over the last sixty years of civil wars?
2. How can this history of community education during war and displacement inform education delivery, curricula, and pedagogy in chronic crisis?
The network focuses a hidden resource to answer these questions. Over three generations of conflict, displacement, and collapsed formal government, South Sudanese communities have organised their own educational projects and home-made textbooks in refugee camps and rebel-held territories. These often self-taught teachers and their supporters have worked with highly traumatised, displaced communities, with combatants or ex-combatants, filling gaps in educational provision and working in remote, inaccessible, highly mobile and/or violent settings. These men and women, and their communities and personal archives, hold an unexploited wealth of knowledge about managing and promoting education and intellectual cultures in war.
The main goal of the network is to built a new academic and practitioner community centred on these local experts. The network will bring together around 30 local organisations and teachers from across South Sudan and neighbouring refugee camps in Uganda with the policy and academic community, to share knowledge and ideas as peers: the network includes the South Sudan Council of Churches, the South Sudan Women's Empowerment Network, members of major schools including Issa Girls, the British Council, and academics across South Sudan and the UK.
Through three transnational consultations across multi-ethnic, multi-lingual communities divided by conflict - contingent on risks and emergent opportunities - the network will draw out hidden community educational histories, projects, and strategies for teaching during conflict and displacement. This is the first project of its kind to bridge the divide between scholars, policymakers, and community activists in South Sudan.
The network consultations and database of partners and translated resources will provide new sources and collaborators for curriculum and education programme development; new approaches to methods of education in mobile and extreme circumstances; new ideas for innovative and community-led provisions for marginalised, disabled, combatant, and adult learners; and contextualised, locally-rooted definitions of quality and excellence.
These uncovered histories of community educational activism, and resulting possibilities for new education agendas, will be circulated through open academic, policy, and media platforms and an accessible, translated briefing to reach the widest possible audience in South Sudan and internationally. The network will address both immediate planning and reform agendas, and longer-term routes to community reconstruction and reconciliation rooted in shared community intellectual and educational histories.

Planned Impact

Current education provision models for South Sudan are ill-equipped for a displaced, traumatised, and militarised community. State-centred, nationally-standardised educational development cannot respond to this context of state collapse and community fragmentation. The network is the first to tackle alternative paths to education development during protracted war and displacement. This is a major task, bringing international authorities, South Sudan's education sector, academics, and experts on local history and society, in partnership with local activist-practitioners.
Platforms for policy and public impacts are built into the project from inception. The network workshop and publications will be disseminated via the Conflict Sensitivity Resource Facility (CSRF), a DFID-funded research hub connecting aid, donor, and research communities and the public: working via the CSRF will enable maximum cross-sectoral impact.
South Sudan's education sector, struggling with state institutional collapse and the complex educational needs of a diverse, divided and scattered population in conflict, is the primary beneficiary of this network. The network, through its translated database of community project histories, partners, curricula and writings, and through its consultations and policy-focused workshop, provides the groundwork for practical advances in curriculum reform and education provision in endemic insecurity. The workshop and policy briefing will involve and inform the South Sudan National Curriculum Committee (of which the Co-I is a member) and the Ministries of Basic and Higher Education, and will help to direct academic curriculum reform at the Catholic University of South Sudan (planning a MA programme in Education in Emergencies) and the University of Juba, currently revising its BA and MA programmes.
The second focus of the network is on the global development / humanitarian sector. Massive investments in South Sudan's formal education system (c. $2bn over 2012-2015) have been constantly disrupted by repeated conflict, displacement, and destruction of infrastructure and systems. Policymakers and development partners will be involved in local consultations, the workshop, and in policy meetings with CSRF, gaining new resources grounded in community history, experienced local partners, and alternative strategies for project delivery and teacher support, within and outside of formal educational arenas, across South Sudan and its regional refugee camps.
The third sector in South Sudan, especially civil society organisations involved in conflict resolution and peace-building work, will be connected through the network to local educational activists at the community level. The network's consultations and workshop make space for in-depth discussion, networking and reflection among South Sudanese educationalists and activists on new routes for alternative community-building, restitution, and reconstruction projects.
The network's subtitled community theatre films, policy briefing, engaging website and media outreach - via Eye Radio (Juba) and Spirit FM (Koboko, Uganda), also available online - will speak to wider global audience, challenging the common portrayal of South Sudanese communities as passive victims within endemic conflicts, and speaking to global conversations around refugee experiences and post-war reconstruction.
The Pathways to Impact strategy has been co-drafted by the investigators, who have extensive experience working with policy, NGOs, research users and the public. The PI's ESRC-funded research has shaped interventions with local justice systems and refugee communities (via the British Council) and she brings ten years' experience working in South Sudan and neighbouring refugee camps, including during the current war. The Co-PI at the University of Juba is an internationally-recognised historian in the College of Education, an UNESCO educational expert, and a national Curriculum Committee member.


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