Clusters, first introduced in 2006 by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, are groups of humanitarian organisations in each of the main sectors of humanitarian action - education, health, sanitation, nutrition, and so on. The cluster approach aims to address gaps in humanitarian response, strengthen system-wide preparedness and coordinate technical capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies. The Education Cluster was established by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) in 2007 bringing together NGOs, UN agencies, academics, and other partners. In Nepal, the Cluster Approach was introduced by Nepal's IASC in 2009, formalising the cluster mechanism led by the sectoral government, co-led by the humanitarian agencies and supported by the concerned member agencies working in the area.
As COVID -19 began to spread in Nepal, the Government of Nepal enforced lockdown for four months from March 2020 as in the other parts of the world. This is when the education clusters at federal, provincial and local levels came into existence to respond to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 in the education sector. In this context, how effective was the Education Cluster to respond to the educational needs during the pandemic in Sudurpaschim Province during the first wave of COVID-19?
Positive sides Development partners and the sectoral ministry took initiatives for establishing and operationalising the education cluster in the Sudurpaschim Province during the first wave of COVID -19. Consequently, there were some positive outcomes. One of the most obvious aspects of the Education Cluster was that it turned out to be a space to share information among development partners and government authorities. As a result, development workers could easily get updates on government policies and programmes concerning COVID-19 and the education sector because they would share such resources in the group as soon as it was available. This could enable development partners to decide on what approach to take to move ahead in the context of COVID-19 as appropriate. Similarly, they would share new initiatives they have undertaken in responding to educational needs in the regular meeting, and this could be helpful for others to tailor and adapt in their contexts including government systems.
The second positive aspect of the Education Cluster is that it prepared a response plan taking account of looming crises in the sector, predicting different scenarios in which the pandemic would unfold over the next few months and the actions that could be taken in that context collectively and collaboratively to mitigate its negative effects. This was one of the important tasks accomplished during the time because it provided some options/way outs for stakeholders even if it were simple and less significant ones. In this way, it created a kind of confidence among the education stakeholders providing them a sense of what to do in what context and how. The third positive point of the Education Cluster is that it collected data relating to the education sector regularly as per the need. For example, a mapping was undertaken in relation to accessibility to internet, radio, television, etc. so that it would enable us to explore alternative ways of continuing education. Surprisingly, only seven per cent of schools had internet access, which exposes a paradox between the national level discourse of online teaching and learning and the actual context in this regard at the ground. Similarly, the data on schools used as quarantines were collected district-wise with the purpose of having plans to disinfect those schools prior to its reopening. Nonetheless, there were not many initiatives afterwards in disinfecting schools as there was much confusion about how to clean schools among the stakeholders.
The fourth positive aspect of the education cluster is that it explored gaps and prepared action plans collectively. For example, while discussing radio message broadcasts on safety measures during the pandemic, it came to the light that no one had a plan to broadcast a public service announcement in one of the districts of the province. Given this context, one of the development partners took the responsibility for that. This way, the education cluster has been vital to make such humanitarian responses more effective. There were also some collaborations to minimise cost and reach more widely in terms of radio distance education. Thus, it is a good practice of being cost effective by means of collaboration. Critical reflections To conclude, the Education Cluster undertook close collaboration to respond to the emerging issues in the education sector during the first wave of COVID-19 in the Sudurpaschim Province, making it a platform to share, learn and cooperate among government and non-government sectors. This process facilitated an ongoing educational response, making it more effective by reducing gaps and potential overlaps.
Moreover, the educational governance turned out to be more responsive because the cluster meetings took account of unfolding situations and prepared action plans to respond to them collaboratively. The regular updates also took place regarding what action plans are accomplished and what is remaining thereby making the government authorities and development partners accountable and proactive than in the usual times.
However, it could be observed that the education clusters reinforced prevalent hierarchical order even in the context of federalism – that more authorities are given to local governments in terms of school education, but existing power structures prior to federal setup were accepted and practised. For example, the provincial level sectoral ministry issued circular to Education Development and Coordination Unit (EDCU) to take lead to establish and operationalise local level education clusters, and EDCU also cited that circular as a basis to ask local governments to do so during the virtual meetings, coordinated by development partners.
(The author is member of Lifelong Learning Mandala 2020, a loose forum of professionals working in the education sector. email@example.com)