|Children attend an outdoor classroom in Lakes State, Southern Sudan, photographed by a Rapid Assessment of Learning Spaces team.|
The devastating tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004 swallowed up entire villages, sweeping homes and families into the ocean’s unforgiving depths. It also destroyed valuable information: records, statistics and research about communities and their citizens. Even before the tsunami hit, statistics on education in Indonesia’s Aceh province were sketchy. Once the waters receded, even those statistics were just a memory.
In order to begin recovery, and to assess the state of education in Aceh after the crisis, UNICEF partnered with Aceh’s Ministry of Education to survey the area. It visited every surviving primary school, inspected school grounds and facilities, and interviewed principals and senior teachers.
The result was the Rapid Assessment of Learning Spaces (RALS), a database of statistics on education in the area. As a result of RALS, UNICEF was able to take follow-up actions specifically tailored to the area’s educational needs, such as providing educational materials and constructing temporary classrooms and facilities. This process was subsequently repeated in all the tsunami-affected districts of Indonesia and in other countries struggling to recover from natural disasters or armed conflict, such as Afghanistan and Liberia.
In the first 48 to 72 hours following an emergency, UNICEF and its partners typically arrive on the scene to carry out a cross-sectoral assessment of needs. In the education sector, they assess the total number of children attending school, the physical state of schools and the availability of educational materials. Over the next six weeks, they carry out the RALS to determine what is required to get schools up and running, even if classes are housed in temporary facilities. The areas in greatest need are evaluated first, if they are accessible.
This assessment, usually carried out by locally hired staff, documents the number, age and gender of affected children, identifying those who may be vulnerable as a result of being displaced from their homes or separated from their parents. The location, gender and qualifications of teachers are also determined, along with the condition of existing facilities. On-site inspections assess the number and condition of classrooms; the availability of electricity, furniture, supplies and recreational equipment; the existence of water and sanitation facilities; the possible presence of landmines; and opportunities for school feeding programmes. Also evaluated are any resources that may be available in nearby communities.
If UNICEF is working in a conflict situation, it develops formal agreements with warring parties to ensure the security of its staff and the staff of partner organizations.
RALS has also been carried out in post-conflict situations. In southern Sudan, where two decades of civil war had ravaged the country, UNICEF assessed thousands of learning spaces – many of them “bush schools” consisting of little more than a few benches under a tree.
Although landmines and outbreaks of armed conflict occasionally brought the project to a complete halt, over the course of nine months teams of RALS assessors fanned out across a territory of more than 600,000 square kilometers, sometimes walking for up to three days, using bicycles to navigate areas without roads and forging across swamps and very hilly terrain to reach remote communities.
UNICEF believes that by understanding an area’s basic needs, it can better provide for that area’s citizens. Even in the worst crisis, UNICEF is committed to accounting for every child and ensuring that he or she has access to a quality education.