Innovative education in conflict areas
Even in the world’s most war-torn countries, educational innovation is in demand. SHE Collaborates, part of the UM School for Health Professions Education, has launched several projects in Yemen and South Sudan. Because these countries have been designated Code Red by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the coaching is provided remotely. But in spite of the conflicts, the projects are running smoothly. “For the people on the ground, the collaboration is essential. We’re their lifeline”, says Geraldine Beaujean, director and project leader of SHE Collaborates.
Our conversation starts with a different afflicted area. Beaujean has just returned from a Mozambique flattened by Cyclone Idai. Leaving the destroyed city of Beira in a hurry, she had mixed feelings: Beaujean is originally trained as a doctor and her first instinct was to stay and help. But that wasn’t an option. “The risks were accumulating by the day. I didn’t want to get in the way of the emergency workers, and I was taking up food and shelter, precisely the two things that were in such short supply.”
This pragmatic attitude is a necessity for someone who manages projects in poor countries, especially those afflicted by armed conflicts. “Mozambique is of a completely different order. The destruction is unimaginable; the people have really lost everything. In Yemen and South Sudan, life goes on, more or less.” And so there is scope to consider matters such as educational improvement.
SHE Collaborates swings into action when called on for help by an institution for higher education. In Yemen this is the medical faculty of Aden University and a nursing programme in the capital Sana’a. In South Sudan the collaboration runs through Amref International University (AMIU) in Nairobi. “They can get into South Sudan, so we built a two-stage rocket: we train our partners in Kenya and they pass that knowledge on to the people in South Sudan.”
Geraldine Beaujean studied medicine at Maastricht University, which sparked her enthusiasm for Problem-Based Learning. After gaining experience in medical practice, she is now working to bridge the gap between the needs of universities in poor countries, the financial strength of international organisations and the expertise available in Dutch higher education. She has been head of SHE Collaborates since 2011.
The Yemen initiative required a different construction. SHE Collaborates has already trained a number of master’s students there and they will now, under supervision from Maastricht, transfer their didactic knowledge to a new cohort of students. The projects are funded by Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education, to the tune of €75,000 per project. Is that a lot? “My experience is that a successful project could do with around €200,000 a year”, Beaujean says.
Money, security and cultural differences
Money is one of three major difficulties in implementing projects in conflict areas (the others being security risks and cultural differences). “There’s always the risk that money will just disappear and that comes at the expense of our own budget. But also basic issues like: how do I transfer the money to a Yemeni bank? Because of the boycott, we need American permission. We can make arrangements with people in Jordan, because they can still get in and out of Yemen, but it all costs money. I’m actually hoping I can just get to Aden overland from Oman with a couple of suitcases of cash.”
Apart from the fact that it’s done in a warzone, the work itself is much like their work elsewhere, Beaujean says. It always revolves around the question: how can we make a traditional, lecture-based study programme more practical, interactive and student-centred? What makes it different is the conflict situation, the fear, the risk to personal safety. “You know that your partners on location are in danger and you can’t protect them. One of our coordinators in Yemen was threatened with an Uzi by Houthi rebels. She had to give them the bank account with our money in it. At some point she disappeared. To this day, I don’t know if she’s alive.”
SHE Collaborates now works in Yemen remotely, communicating via email and Google Hangouts. This means there is little direct supervision of the project. “The advantage is that we’re forced to let the teachers do the work themselves. They were trained by us, and at some point you have to let them go.”
Letting go: something Beaujean has also learnt to do with the often unbridgeable cultural differences. In Yemen many women wear a niqab, leaving only their eyes visible. This can cause problems in midwifery, where the contact between doctor and mother is crucial. “We can’t simply copy our Maastricht approach there. We teach them the principles of our education system, coach them, but we leave the implementation to them. Ultimately, they’re the ones who have to put it into practice. And we learn from that in turn. In the case of the niqab, you can arrange to have a female doctor/teacher present or make the situation safe in some other way.”
The transition to innovative education is not all smooth sailing. Beaujean points to a photo on her office wall: a picture of a skills lab in Yemen, where students learn to measure blood pressure and give injections. “They’d never done that before. Medical education was purely theoretical, with no practical training. As we speak, millions of doctors are being sent into hospitals with an academic education only."
The students adore practice-based and student-centred education, Beaujean says, but she regularly encounters resistance from the teachers. “They think, well, I managed to become a good doctor, why should everything suddenly have to change? Students are more up to date on developments elsewhere through the internet and social media. Eventually, their enthusiasm often spreads to the teachers; for me those are valuable moments. Many people I’ve worked with in the past are now in managerial positions: as dean, education director or civil servant at the ministry. And they come back to us asking for help in converting a whole faculty to student-centred education. Those are the best requests.”
And so innovative education spreads like wildfire. “Our team stretches into the very farthest corners of the world. Only when there is decent education can there be real change. And because it’s in the field of health, the work is doubly valuable. I never lose that passion.”