SWETA SHAH (Plan International)

Background and Context

Central African Republic (CAR) has been embroiled in armed conflict along ethnic and religious lines since 2012. This has led to violence and massive population displacement which continues today. CAR was already one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 179th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2011.1 The situation has only worsened since the conflict began: in 2014, CAR’s HDI ranking was 187th out of 188 countries.2

The impact of the crisis on children has been severe, with children experiencing death, injury or separation from parents; being orphaned, exploited, abused, neglected or psychologically distressed; being kidnapped or recruited into armed groups; and being displaced inside and outside of CAR.3 In addition to these traumas, children have lost access to many basic services, including learning opportunities.

Approximately 30% of primary-school-aged children in CAR have never been to school.4 In 2014 UNICEF reported that almost two-thirds of the country’s schools had been closed due to fighting and instability.5 Further, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) calculated inequality in education at 34.5%, meaning a ‘loss’ in human development in this dimension by more than one-third due to inequality.6 The UNDP also ranked CAR 147th out of 155 countries on the Gender Inequality Index (GII) for 2014. The mean years of schooling (for adults aged 25 and older) were 5.7 years for men but only 2.8 years for women, and the expected years of schooling (for children) were 8.6 years for boys compared to 5.9 years for girls.

Photo: Emilia Sorrentino/Plan Ireland


The provision of early childhood development (ECD) services, especially parenting education, are in their infancy in CAR. The current gross enrolment rate for pre-school is 5.4% of the total population of children between the ages of 3 and 6 years.7 Pre-school education in CAR is optional and is generally organized into three sections by age group: 3.4 years old, 4.5 years old and 5.6 years old. The Ministries of Education and Social Affairs, along with private religious groups, all contribute to supporting ECD in CAR. Pre-school education is provided in nursery schools run by the Ministry of Education and in kindergartens under the Ministry of Social Affairs. The majority of pre-primary services are located in and around the capital, Bangui, and there are virtually no services in more rural areas of the country, creating huge inequities in access.8 There is also no agreed-upon multisectoral approach in government policy or budgets to promote ECD for children from birth to age 2. Parenting education interventions have been virtually non-existent: a UNESCO study conducted in 2006 found parenting education occurring in only 20 villages in the entire country.9 Further, the study found no evidence of collaboration between various ministries to ensure integrated ECD services.

This case study shows the importance of coordination and active engagement among government stakeholders, even in an emergency situation, in order to support equitable access to ECD services for young children and families.It further highlights how an emergency situation can be a starting point for positive changes that can have a long-lasting impact on many children.

The ECD Intervention in CAR

While UNICEF has been supporting the government of CAR with ECD services for some time, the government has not been able to reach many children due to lack of sufficient investment, political will and technical expertise. Normally in emergency situations, access to services are restricted further. However, in the case of CAR, the conflict provided the opportunity, additional funding and technical expertise to expand ECD services. As few agencies in the country had experience with ECD, Plan International and UNICEF took the lead, working as a subgroup of the Education Cluster, part of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) humanitarian response in CAR.

As a first step, Plan International and UNICEF planned interventions to support the government in expanding pre-school services in existing schools, centres and community structures. The interventions targeted all children in the most conflict-affected areas, including rural areas outside the capital. Further, special emphasis was made to increase access for the most marginalized children: girls, orphans, children of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and children who experience disability.

Plan International, with a grant from UNICEF, was the first international non-governmental organization (INGO) to start implementing ECD services after the conflict erupted in CAR and people were displaced. The organization implemented a community-based ECD model called Community-Led Action for Children (CLAC), which was first piloted by Plan International in Uganda and is now being implanted in many East African countries. Recently, Plan International has begun adapting this model to be used in emergency contexts in countries such as CAR, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Burundi. The CLAC model has four key components, which include support for: 1) parenting education, 2) early learning, 3) transition to primary school, and 4) advocacy to influence policy. The model is based on the Four Cornerstones developed by the Consultative Group on Early Childhood Care and Development,10 and is line with UNICEF’s previous work in CAR prior to the conflict.

The adaptation of the CLAC model to the cultural context of CAR and its implementation there currently includes the provision of early learning services for children ages 3 to 6 through new and existing ECD centres; classrooms connected with primary schools (which allow for a smoother transition from early learning to primary education); and Child Friendly Spaces (CFS), which are temporary spaces/tents where children can engage in ECD activities. Children participate in ECD activities for 25 hours per week. ECD teachers are usually primary-school assistants, junior social workers or community members. Most have low levels of education and may have only completed primary school. Their training and preparation generally ranges from two years of pre-service training to ten days of pre-service training followed by periodic in-service training and support.11 Along with developmentally appropriate play and early learning activities, children also receive food during the day.

Parenting education sessions (for parents of children up to 6 years old) accompany the ECD services for children, in order to build adult capabilities to support children’s well-being. Parents of children enrolled in ECD activities and members of Parent.Teacher Associations (PTAs) are currently participating in the parenting groups. Sessions cover the following topics: child development, early learning and education, child protection, nutrition, hygiene and sanitation, psychosocial support and recreational activities. Parents are invited to bring their children so they can practice and develop skills based on topics they learn about in the sessions. This also allows parents to participate in the sessions while continuing to care for their children. The approach to parenting education used in this model is based on co-creation and co-facilitation with lead parents selected by the community, so that the programme is grounded in the culture and sustainable in the long term. While the main topics are provided to guide discussion, the groups can also take discussions in other directions based on individual interests and needs. This peer-to-peer approach enables parents to feel a sense of ownership in the group and allows discussions to be relevant to their daily lives. As the groups are still fairly new, they are currently being led by PTAs, school headmasters and ECD caregivers.

While early learning and child development are the core focus areas of the ECD work in CAR, child protection, nutrition, health and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) components are also included in parenting sessions and training for teachers. Further, implementing agencies sometimes provide food; set up latrines and water points (if unavailable) near ECD spaces; and refer children, as needed, to specialists.

ECD in Emergencies as an Entry Point for National Policy

Coordination for ECD in emergency situations was not occurring in CAR post-conflict, until Plan International and UNICEF started the ECD subgroup within the IASC Education Cluster. The influx of humanitarian aid and the initial ECD programming has provided Plan International, UNICEF and other agencies an opportunity to engage with the government of CAR . specifically with the Ministries of Education, Social Affairs and others . to think strategically about holistic, long-term support for young children and families. Plan International and UNICEF followed a number of steps (detailed below) to use ECD in emergencies as an entry point for longer-term multisectoral ECD support. The engagement process for bringing the various ministries together to focus on this issue took six months, but the process for implementing and incorporating ECD into government policy
continues today.

  • Step 1: As no mechanism existed for coordination on ECD in emergencies, Plan International and UNICEF established an ECD task force within the CAR Education Cluster.12 UNICEF was already leading the Education Cluster, which was activated by the IASC after fighting broke out in CAR.
  • Step 2: Plan International conducted and presented a needs assessment that gathered data on gaps in education and ECD. The presentation, which highlighted severe gaps in ECD, piqued the interest of UNICEF, the government and NGO stakeholders.
  • Step 3: The ECD task force, led by UNICEF and Plan International, organized two meetings per month to coordinate the development of an ECD strategy and to monitor the progress of those agencies supporting ECD. During this process, the idea of an inter-ministerial committee came about.
  • Step 4: Plan International and UNICEF engaged various ministries (e.g. Education, Social Affairs, Planning and Cooperation) on ECD through one-to-one meetings, eventually encouraging them to establish an inter-ministerial ECD committee. The ministry officials were convinced because of the very low national enrolment levels in ECD and their desire to do more for young children.
  • Step 5: The inter-ministerial committee began holding meetings on ECD and eventually signed an agreement to collaborate on multisectoral ECD support for children from birth to age 6. The inter-ministerial committee includes representatives from the following ministries: Education, Social Affairs, Justice, Water and Sanitation, and Health. The committee became an active member in the support of ECD in CAR, and the government now leads the implementation of the ECD work, with active involvement from Plan International and UNICEF.

Since the establishment of the inter-ministerial ECD committee, Plan International and UNICEF have provided the primary technical support for developing an ECD strategy that outlines each ministry’s role and includes an ECD curriculum, tools for training ECD caregivers, and a parenting manual. ECD for children ages 3 to 6 years is now a priority within the Ministry of Education’s education transition plan.13 The inter-ministerial committee has also agreed to include parenting education and support for children from birth to age 2, but the agreement was made after the education transition plan was finalized, so this is not yet in a national plan. The hope is that the next plan will include these elements.

The inter-ministerial committee, led by the government, continues to meet monthly in order to coordinate activities carried out by NGOs. The committee has further reached out to other agencies with UNICEF’s help in order to expand ECD services in CAR.

Lessons Learned

The key success factor in this process was the willingness of the Government of CAR to consider evidence-based ideas from the United Nations and INGOs . especially ideas around parenting education and support for children from birth to age 2. Since the government was struggling to provide ECD services, the support offered was appreciated, particularly because the methods used were adaptable to the cultural context of CAR. The main challenge in the process was the lack of understanding within all ministries about what ECD entails, what benefits ECD services offer, and how best to support children in a multisectoral manner.

Perhaps most significantly, the process demonstrated that humanitarian coordination mechanisms can be used to advocate for the expansion of certain services . and that an ECD task force can be established within any cluster or coordination mechanism. The experience also highlighted a number of strategies and recommendations to be followed when trying to replicate this effort in other contexts. These include:

  1. Be proactive and continue ECD advocacy during emergencies even though it can take time.
  2. Collect strong data so gaps are evident and clear. Needs assessments that highlight severe gaps and needs can be used for advocacy purposes to convince decision-makers.
  3. Show the importance and value added of ECD through quality programming on the ground.
  4. Seek out and build relationships with decision-makers in government and key UN agencies. Find ECD champions who are well-respected nationally. UNICEF’s prior engagement with the government and existing relationships helped in this situation to open doors and identify the most appropriate people quickly.
  5. Involve parents and the community in starting and running ECD services in order to promote long-term sustainability. Once parents see the impact of ECD on their children, they will want to continue services without INGO or UN support.
  1. CAR Ministry of Education, 2014.
  2. UNDP, 2015.
  3. UN, 2015.
  4. GPE, 2015.
  5. Hubbard, 2014.
  6. UNDP, 2015.
  7. GPE, 2015.
  8. CAR Ministry of Education, 2014.
  9. UNESCO-IBE, 2006.
  10. CGECCD, 2016.
  11. UNESCO-IBE, 2006.
  12. Some task force members include the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, World Vision, Cordaid and national NGOs in CAR.
  13. CAR Ministry of Education, 2014.


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