Guest blog for RISE

This week I had a blog post published for RISE (Research on Improving Systems for Education), looking at the relationship between politics and education quality in Rwanda. Here is a link to the full post. Check it out!



Over the last two decades, the Rwandan government has received global recognition for its impressive efforts to improve children’s education through expanded access, a decentralised system, and performance-based accountability. Despite these efforts, evidence suggests that education quality remains extremely low. A recent study found that after Primary 1, 66 percent cannot read any word of the local language, Kinyarwanda; 64 percent of students who are promoted to Primary 2 still score zero percent on a literacy assessment; and for those who reach Primary 6, 85 percent have repeated at least one grade.

How might the educational successes of the sector be reconciled with the poor quality outcomes observed?

Most studies of education quality tend to focus on the technical aspects of policy implementation. At the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre at The University of Manchester, we take a different approach. We study issues like education quality through the lens of politics, adopting a research concept called “political settlements.” This strand of investigation focuses on elite commitment to inclusive development. Studying the incentives, institutions, and individuals that comprise a political settlement provides insight into how meaningful and equitable change for the poor can be brought about and sustained.

Perhaps no country better illustrates a “dominant developmental” political settlement than Rwanda. This type of political settlement implies a strong commitment to delivering development to its citizens as one of the keys to its own survival. Political power is aligned with the country’s ruling party, which governs through a high degree of top-down control. The relative stability of a dominant developmental political settlement can allow the state to engage in longer-term planning. It can also mean favouring rapid transformation over more incremental approaches to policy development.

Our study of education quality in Rwanda through this vantage point revealed some important insights.  Drawing on policy analysis and interviews, findings suggested that the continuity of power did not transfer over to a consistent or coherent agenda when it came to education quality reform in Rwanda.

Perhaps the clearest example of the relationship between the political settlement, policy incoherence, and quality is Rwanda’s language policy. Until 2008, the language of instruction was French, owing to the country’s Franco-Belgian colonial roots. However, in 2009, the language was abruptly changed to English.

There are several well-documented political and economic explanations for why the change was made. But when it comes to its effects on quality, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the language change presented a shock to the system. The policy compelled teachers to instruct their students in a language they themselves were still learning. Students needed to learn and take exams in a language that many didn’t understand. This is particularly the case in rural areas, where, about a decade later after the language change was announced, just 27 percent of Primary 6 students are functionally literate in English.

Compounding the technical challenges of implementation was the way in which the language change was introduced. The decision was explained by many we interviewed as to have emanated from the Office of the President and outside of the strategic planning architecture that usually informs the education sector’s priorities. Planning documents from around the time that the language change was announced offer no indication of the upcoming change. This was of consequence, because it limited the ability of education officials and its partners to respond with training, textbooks, and so on. “It was a matter of choice,” a senior education official in Rwanda’s education ministry said in an interview. “You go for access and you will compromise quality. When you then add English as a challenge, the problem of quality became a lot worse.”

To be sure, many education reforms have been positive, particularly around access. New classrooms and schools represent some of the most visible and popular commitments of the ruling party’s promise to deliver development for all.

But if Rwanda’s political settlement defines its successes in the education sector, it also helps in explaining some of its challenges, particularly when it comes to advancing a sustained approach to improve quality.


Tim Williams is an honorary research fellow at Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre. His paper on education policy in Rwanda was the recipient of the 2018 Joyce Cain Award from the Comparative and International Education Society of North America.

This blog draws from key findings from a chapter in the open-access volume, The Politics of Education in Developing Countries: From Schooling to Learning (2019, Oxford University Press), edited by Sam Hickey and Naomi Hossain.

Chapter in open-access book from Oxford University Press


Excited to share this open-access book on the politics of education quality, published by Oxford University Press. My chapter examines education quality and policymaking in Rwanda, focusing on the relationship between teacher training and the English language policy. It is a really great book that makes an important contribution to understanding the relationship between politics and education quality reform. The book is edited by Manchester’s Sam Hickey and Naomi Hossain, both of whom have really helped my thinking progress on how to approach the study of policy and policymaking. The volume features many scholars from the Global South as well as contributions from pioneers in the study of politics and education, including Harvard’s Lant Pritchett and Merilee Grindle.

Systemic change in early grade literacy: lessons from Save the Children

One area of interest for me over the last several years has been thinking about some of the broader factors that shape children’s experiences — for example, how education policy informs learning in classrooms. I’ve written about this issue in Rwanda for academic audiences. Recently, I was able to apply this perspective to some work with Save the Children in Rwanda by drafting a learning paper to reflect on their efforts to bring about systemic change in early childhood literacy through their program called Advancing the Right to Read (ARR).

ARR was a program of complementary interventions that had the overarching goal of promoting and sustaining literacy development for children ages 0 to 9 in Rwanda. Each intervention focused on a different aspect of early childhood literacy. The programs targeted different age groups, generating evidence around best practice for children thorough evaluations of those projects and using findings to advocate for change. Through this work, SC sought to build awareness and understanding, strengthen capacity, and advocate for policy consensus among government and civil society, embedding the ideas of ARR into national systems for sustainable change. The final report from this effort is located here.

Presenting research in the UK

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Today I am in Reading, England. This morning I had the opportunity to share some of my PhD findings with a group called Education Development Trust. EDT is a large research and policy focused organization focused on education and development. They supported some of my PhD fieldwork through a fieldwork grant called the Tim Morris Award, named after one of their colleagues whose life was tragically cut short. It was a neat opportunity to speak to a group with such expertise in education research and policy. From the picture it is not even clear that I am suffering from food poisoning!





A book review on education in Rwanda

I had the pleasure of writing up a short review about a new book on education in Rwanda. The review was recently published by the journal Compare.

A snippet from the review:

Primary School Leadership in Post-Conflict Rwanda: A Narrative Arc (Palgrave MacMillan 2018) adds to a burgeoning literature that has examined different aspects of basic education in Rwanda. The distinguishing feature of this book is its focus on school-level leadership. The book describes the current context facing education practitioners, offers an account of the historical context in which these policies emerged, and draws on qualitative interviews in rural and urban settings to examine the constraints facing school-level education leaders.

The book’s 242 pages are divided into seven chapters. The first three chapters offer an introduction to the book, an overview of Rwanda’s history of conflict, a synopsis of education leadership in other conflict-affected countries, and a detailed review of the literature on educational leadership. Chapter 4 describes the history of education policy in Rwanda from the colonial area up to the 1994 genocide. Chapter 5 describes the current policy context as the country emerged from conflict. Chapter 6 draws from 23 interviews with education leaders, mostly at the school level, to examine what the challenges faced and how they responded. Chapter 7 ties the book together, revisiting key themes and charting directions for further research.

Article on child protection in refugee camps published in Child Abuse & Neglect

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I am pleased to share a new paper on child protection and exploitation in refugee camps in Rwanda, published in the journal, Child Abuse & Neglect, a top-ranked journal for social work and public health practitioners and policy audiences.

The paper, titled “It isn’t that we’re prostitutes”: Child protection and sexual exploitation of adolescent girls within and beyond refugee camps in Rwanda, draws on data from a baseline study from a collaboration with Plan International in advance of a project they were developing focused on empowering female adolescents in two refugee camps in Rwanda.

Findings from this qualitative study centered upon intersectionality. Camps designed for security and containment also introduced new forms of vulnerability and threats. Economic stressors threatened the viability of families. Girls had material needs but few options to meet those needs within the camps. Their families expected them to do domestic work at home. Participants reported that the convergence of material deprivation, lack of economic opportunity, and vulnerability led to transactional sex and exploitation within and around the camps. The study concludes that vulnerabilities and threats associated with gender and generation must be examined concurrently with the conditions associated with being a refugee in a setting of protracted displacement.

This paper wouldn’t have been possible without Plan’s support, along with the contributions of the two co-authors of the study, including Vidur Chopra, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and expert in refugee education, and Sharon Chikanya, who led the coordination of the Plan International project.

This paper was a neat offshoot of the baseline study, illustrative of the way that NGOs can work with researchers to advance evidence-based programming and advocacy.

Boston College Faculty Page

I haven’t been posting on here too much recently, but I have some stuff in the works, so stay tuned! In the meantime, you can check out my faculty page at Boston College School of Social Work. I mostly teach in the summers there and also add my two cents to their global practice curriculum when helpful. I earned a graduate social work degree from Boston College back in 2006. At the time, the social work department was considered to be pretty cutting edge because it had a global focus at all. My short trip to Uganda and Rwanda in 2005 was formative for my own professional trajectory. It has been neat to contribute to BC as they continue to advance and refine their global work.






Researching social protection in Rwanda


For most of this year I’ve been working once again as a researcher with the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) Research Centre. ESID is a DFID funded program based at the University of Manchester within the Global Development Institute (GDI), Europe’s largest global poverty and inequality institute. This is the same program I worked with in 2015 and 2016 when I led on study on the political economy of education quality in Rwanda. This time around I’m focusing on the implementation of social protection policies. Social protection can be understood as policies and programs are considered those that are designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability and improve capacity.

The study looks at factors that shape the implementation of social protection efforts at the local level. Rwanda’s approach to governance seeks to have national-level policies and priorities delivered in a fairly uniform way. But factors such as decentralization, local selection of beneficiaries, and performance contracts allow for some discretion into the ways in which policies are implemented. For this reason, we are looking at what factors may be present to explain local variation and decision-making processes.  As such, this study will seek to shed light on the following question that guides ESID’s broader work: “How do state-society relations shape the implementation of social protection and how, in turn, does implementation transform these relations?”

ESID is very pleased to partner with the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace to carry out this study. IRDP contributes to the building of sustainable peace in Rwanda through participatory action research, the promotion of a culture of debate and dialogue on issues related to peace, and by sharing experiences with other peace initiatives.

Paper receives 2018 Joyce Cain Award

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Remarks at the awards ceremony

I am thrilled to announce that my paper on education policy in Rwanda was selected as the co-recipient of the 2018 Joyce Cain Award from the Comparative and International Education Society. The award is given to recognize “an outstanding scholarly article that explores themes related to people of African descent.” Dr. Cain was a teacher, researcher, practitioner, and international scholar. She was a forerunner in conducting comparative research on minority students in the USA and Africa. I was given the award for my article, “The political economy of primary education: Lessons from Rwanda” which was published in the journal World Development. I gave a few remarks at the awards ceremony in Mexico City:

It is such an honor to be selected as a recipient of the Joyce Cain Award. I want to thank the Committee Members and to offer a few brief reflections from my paper.

The 2018 World Development Report drew attention to the global learning crisis. My paper sought to shed light on an aspect of this crisis that often hides in plain sight. That is, education policies are not always introduced with the expectation that they will improve learning.

Put simply, politics shape policy.

It is fairly easy for leaders to make the case for improving access. Building classrooms tend to be straightforward, visible, and popular. But improving education quality is more difficult than building classrooms. It is less visible and can be more expensive. It can mean fighting powerful teachers’ unions or shifting budgets away from other priorities.

Each of these things can mean losing elections. Thus, contrary to what we might expect, education policies may be not always be introduced with the expectation that learning will improve.

My paper applies this perspective to look at the politics of education quality in Rwanda. In doing so, I hope to draw attention to the importance of understanding how political factors shape policy. In absence of quality, children may find themselves in an unenviable position: included in the education system, while excluded from meaningful participation, given the poor quality of that system.

I am proud to say that I can count a couple of the Joyce Cain Award’s past recipients as among my closest academic mentors, including Theresa Betancourt and Sarah Dryden-Peterson. I would also like to extend my gratitude to those who have been supportive of this research: Sam Hickey and Naomi Hossain at the Effective States and Inclusive Development Program at University of Manchester, Valens Rutazihana for his research assistance, the interview participants in this study, and the Joyce Cain Award Committee members and fellow nominees.

Thank you.

“The Things They Learned” published in Journal of Development Studies


This is one of the most important articles from the research I’ve been doing about Rwanda’s education system since I started working on this issue nearly a decade ago. The paper is titled ‘The things they learned: aspiration, uncertainty, and schooling in Rwanda’s development state.’ It draws on the passionate voices of children and teachers to look at local experiences of education policy and to consider implications for the government’s state-building project. The bottom-up perspective in the paper serves as a complement to the top-down political economy lens focused on this same issue published in World Development last year.

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The title of the paper was inspired by Tim O’Brien’s classic book, “The Things They Carried” in which the author narrates the deeply personal experiences of soldiers through the material possessions they carried within them to war. Informed by this perspective, this paper offers an account of what children learned—i.e., how they thought about themselves and their futures—through their experience of school and in a context in which the future felt far from certain.

The Journal of Development Studies publishes about 11 percent  of the 1,100 submissions it receives each year.