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Hibernating the Winning Start Program

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Evidence Action has decided to wind-down and hibernate our Winning Start program. The program was designed to connect youth volunteers to primary schools, where they conducted foundational literacy and numeracy sessions using the proven Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach. Winning Start has been a part of the Evidence Action portfolio since 2014, when we partnered with the Government of Kenya to support and launch Greatness United – or G-United – a national program built on the Winning Start model. From 2014 through 2018, G-United maintained strong political and financial support from the government, and successfully deployed four cohorts of youth volunteers across Kenya.

Winning Start was a program in Evidence Action’s previous Beta incubator, which was designed to rigorously test promising interventions against the criteria of evidence, cost-effectiveness, potential for scale, and strategic fit. At Evidence Action, we know scaling programs is complex and challenging, and it was our expectation that some interventions would not meet our criteria during testing, and therefore would not be scaled.

In 2019, challenges with government resourcing resulted in both G-United and Winning Start implementation being put on an indefinite pause; given resource constraints, coupled with Evidence Action’s strategic shift toward ready-to-scale and primarily health delivery-focused interventions, we have decided to hibernate the Winning Start program for the foreseeable future.

Winning Start: A Level Learning Field for All Kids

Winning Start was rooted in the TaRL approach, which has a rigorous and extensive evidence base established in India, Ghana, and Kenya. TaRL is considered a high-impact and cost-effective education intervention in developing countries. Winning Start deployed youth volunteers to work with learners struggling in foundational literacy and numeracy skills; in low-performing primary schools across the country, volunteers delivered interactive, activity-based remedial sessions oriented to students’ individual learning level, rather than age or grade. Winning Start doubled as a youth engagement model: throughout the service period, volunteers received opportunities for structured professional development to enhance their work-readiness. From 2014-2018, Evidence Action partnered with the Government of Kenya to co-create and implement G-United, a national program built on the Winning Start model.

G-United and Winning Start: Progress to date

G-United has been an important priority for the Government of Kenya, and in particular, the Ministry of Education, since its inception. Over the last several years, Evidence Action worked with our government partners in Kenya to refine the program to effectively address several key national priorities, including improving education outcomes among primary school children, creating enriching personal and professional development opportunities for young people through community service, and deploying volunteers away from home to encourage national unity through inter-ethnic exchange between divided communities.

Together, we made considerable strides in the implementation of this program. Starting in 2014, the program successfully deployed four cohorts of talented youth volunteers across the country; across cohorts, over 2,000 volunteers directly engaged over 50,000 struggling learners in literacy, while integrating with homestays and local communities in 22 counties across Kenya. Volunteers reported that approximately 65% of learners engaged in literacy sessions progressed by at least one reading level; in both Kiswahili and English, the percentage of illiterate learners fell by over half, and the percentage of learners achieving proficiency more than doubled.

G-United has been a strong demonstration of a government-implemented, evidence-based program that Evidence Action has been proud to support. Since its launch by H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta, President of the Republic of Kenya, and Deputy President William Ruto, G-United has been institutionalized within the Government of Kenya, as evidenced by the inclusion of the program in the government’s Third Medium Term Plan (MTP III), and its Education Sector Plan, a five-year sector strategy that serves as the blueprint for priorities and investments in education across the country. The program also achieved a dedicated line item in the government’s national budget, that was maintained for four consecutive financial years. This resulted in the government funding over 75% of program costs, year on year.

Challenges and the road forward

In the financial year 2018/19, the Ministry of Education committed USD 2 million to G-United through a dedicated budget line item. Implementation activities were conducted as planned until January 2019. However, due to technical and administrative challenges in accessing the remaining budget, further implementation was delayed, resulting in an abbreviated implementation period. In financial year 2019/20, the government faced further challenges in allocating a budget for implementation. Our Winning Start team worked closely with the government over the last many months to understand this year’s challenges and work through alternative solutions. However, we have learned that the present challenges cannot be resolved – at least not in the short or medium term. Given the funding uncertainty surrounding G-United, in August 2019, the government decided to delay the program indefinitely, as it continues to seek counterpart funding.

In order to preserve our long-term engagement with the Government of Kenya and the tremendous effort committed to Winning Start, over the coming months we will codify the program in an implementation “toolkit”, a complete set of design and management tools for technical and government partners interested in operating a program like Winning Start. The toolkit will provide a blueprint to support partners in building the commitment, resources, systems, structures, partnerships, and capabilities to operate the program consistently and cost-effectively, while ensuring it is technically sound, regardless of our presence.

Subsequently, we will “hibernate” Winning Start and our engagement with G-United. As the government has committed to continuing to seek financial investment to restart G-United, Evidence Action will maintain light-touch involvement with partners in the Ministry of Education and be prepared to re-engage if and when the program is revived; however, we will not commit a dedicated team to work on the program in Kenya.

Given current constraints, and our recent strategic shift toward “ready-to-scale” and primarily health delivery-focused interventions, we have determined that a full-scale engagement on the Winning Start program does not make the best possible use of Evidence Action’s scarce resources and attention at this time; we will therefore also not maintain a dedicated team to pursue other partners and geographies for Winning Start. Going forward, we will reassess the viability of Winning Start based on government demand and resource availability, and will continue sharing lessons from our experience with this program.

As we move forward, we will continue to openly share our program selection, design, and deprioritization processes, and risks and challenges as they arise. This approach is aligned with our organizational values and ensures we are able to dedicate our resources to solutions with the highest likelihood of delivering rapid, measurable impact at scale.