Leaders – Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali

Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali is the Education Manager for the Middle East and North Africa region in the World Bank based in Washington DC.  She is a leading international development expert with 20 years of experience in policy dialogue, program management, operational and strategic leadership, and research.  Ms. El-Kogali joined the World Bank in 2000 as a Young Professional and since then has occupied numerous positions including Practice Manager, Lead Specialist, Sector Leader, and Senior Economist across various departments and regions. In 2008, Ms. El-Kogali took leave of absence from the World Bank to take up the position of Regional Director for West Asia and North Africa at the Population Council based in Cairo before returning to the World Bank in 2012.

She has authored and published numerous books and studies including the recently launched World Bank flagship report Expectations and Aspirations: A New Framework for Education in the Middle East and North Africa (2018) and the book Expanding Opportunities for the Next Generation: Early Childhood Development in the Middle East and North Africa (2015) which is one of the first comprehensive regional study on Early Childhood Education in MENA.

Ms. El-Kogali is a Sudanese national and has a Master of Philosophy degree with distinction in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania, USA.

Potolicchio: What are you doing at the World Bank?

El-Kogali: I am currently the manager for education in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA).  I lead a team of talented professionals at headquarters and in field offices in designing and delivering education products and service to client countries. I am also a member of the regional and Global Practice management teams where we shape strategic directions to meet the World Bank’s twin goals of eradicating poverty and boosting shared prosperity.

Potolicchio: What is currently the biggest obstacle to achieving widespread access to quality education in MENA, and what is the World Bank doing to overcome this?

El-Kogali: MENA has been facing multiple development challenges over the past decade due to the internal conflicts and political disruptions which had a profound impact on economic growth, social development and human wellbeing. Over the past fifty years, MENA achieved impressive gains in access to schooling. Most countries reached universal primary school enrollment with almost total gender parity and significantly increased secondary and tertiary enrollment.  While access to schools has been addressed to a large extent, there are still pockets in some countries where children are not in school. Moreover, conflict in some countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen over the past several years has had a devastating impact on children, leaving millions out of school.

Despite the impressive progress in increasing access to schooling in MENA, today, there is a learning crisis in the region. MENA countries, regardless of their economy, demography, or geography have very low student learning outcomes; MENA’s performance in international student assessments such as TIMSS, PISA and PIRLS is at the bottom. Most MENA countries spend significant portions of their national incomes on education and have been undertaking a series of reforms in the education sector. However, these investments did not lead to the expected returns in terms of skills that can help young people succeed in the labor market and in life.

Part of the problem is that many of the reforms have been piecemeal, not comprehensive nor coordinated, and oftentimes not financed sufficiently or sustained. A previous World Bank report in 2008 called the Road Not Travelled argued that MENA countries mastered the “engineering” of the system in terms of building schools and recruiting teachers but did not have strong governance mechanisms to manage the performance of the sector.  In addition, our recent regional flagship report on education in MENA – Expectations and Aspirations – A New Framework for MENA – that we published a couple of months ago argues that beyond the financing and technical issues, it is the political economy that has been holding back education in MENA. This is captured in four key sets of tensions that operate broadly in society and are exercised in schools and classrooms. First, there is an overemphasis on credentials and less on the skills they should represent. The second tension is between how notions of discipline and inquiry are applied in the classroom and in schools. An overemphasis on discipline and limited opportunities for students to learn through inquiry and experimentation result in passive learners. The third tension is between control and autonomy where is there is a strong tendency for centralized control over the learning process which constricts schools and teachers in independently trying and applying different and creative approaches to teaching, learning and school management. Finally, the fourth tension is between traditional and modernity where new ideas and approaches are resisted and judged as foreign ideas that undermine longstanding traditions.  These tensions exist in varying degrees in every country in MENA.  To address them, the report calls for a new framework – a concerted push for learning (not just schooling); a stronger pull for skills (not credentials) and a new pact for education that aligns interests towards a unified vision – the three Ps to unleash the potential of education in MENA. 

Education is one of the priority areas for the World Bank with billions of dollars allocated to help countries improve their education systems. In MENA, our support to education has significantly increased, quadrupling over the past 3 years. We support countries through financing, technical assistance, and advisory services. We are also increasingly shifting from financing inputs to providing financing based on results. We have large programs that provide technical assistance in designing policies and programs and supports capacity strengthening of institutions. Our commitment is to deliver high quality services and products to our client countries towards better learning outcomes for all children.

Potolicchio: Given your career, what advice would you want to give yourself when you were in college?

El-Kogali: The advice I would have wanted to give myself as a college student is to experience as many options as possible before deciding on a major. While at the University of Khartoum, I didn’t really have the option to take different courses before deciding on a major. When I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, I had many options but but I was just focused on completing my degree ASAP to the extent I took five classes in my final semester so I can graduate a semester early! Also, I would tell myself as a college student to learn from experiences and not just the academics.  I was very focused on academics but in hindsight, it is the experiences I’ve had in my life, the places I lived in and visited, the books I read and the people I met that helped me understand myself and my life goals better.

Potolicchio: What's a book you would have a young leader embarking on their career read?

El-Kogali: Three books helped me find, relate, and grow the leader in me.  We all have that leader within ourselves, but it takes something, someone, an experience, a movie, a book to make us see him/her. Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet which I read as a teenager but keep going back to is one of my all-time favorites. It taught me that one can be powerful through humility, love, work and giving. It helped me learn how to be a better person, friend, parent, colleague, and leader. 

The second book is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It taught me focus and seeing the signs in the universe and that we have our compass within us and to believe in myself. The third book is one that many in the US were introduced to early in life, but I only came across it at a book store in Nairobi years after completing college is Johnathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. It taught me that it is ok to be different and to strive for more. 

There are many great books that one can learn from. But my advice to a young leader embarking on their career is to write your own story. Be real and self-critical in a constructive kind of way; be open and learn from everything around you; be humble so you can continue to learn and to see the signposts in everything around you and how it is shaping you journey. See yourself in relation to the world around you and what will your contribution be to make it a better place. And doing so while you are enjoying it!

Potolicchio: Who do you most admire and why?

El-Kogali: I admire many people.  I admire my father who as one of 11 children, growing up in a neighborhood in the outskirts of Khartoum put himself through education under difficult conditions and reached an MBA from Wharton.  He was brave, and challenged British rule as a high school student which resulted in him being expelled. But through determination, he studied for the college entrance exam from home and succeeded. He has an incredible mind that analyzes and retains information.  In one conversation he can cite Plato, Lenin, the Quran and always manages to find the exact relevant poetry lines to top it up. Even at 90, he still recites the poems he learned in grade school, corrects TV anchors when they make a grammatical mistake in pronouncing an Arabic word wrong and can tell anyone the history of Sudan or of Islam or of democracy or communism. For someone who grew up in a closed and conservative community, I am struck by his open-mindedness and ability to engage in an open discussion on any topic, however controversial it may be. I remember in my rebellious teenage years, I would argue about all sorts of social and political issues and he would engage me in a discussion and later proudly announcing to his friends that his daughter wrote a poem to denounce the government in English!  I admire the women in my family: my late grandmother and my mother and my eldest aunt.  They taught me what feminine power is. That as a woman, I can be just as effective and successful as a man or even more. They taught me grace, commitment, and to do whatever I do as best as I can. They grounded me, and while they were very strict with rules of propriety as I was growing up (walking with chin up, sitting with back straight, speaking clearly, making oneself useful), they gave me and my siblings and cousins a lot of love and space to be happy children. They were steady, cultured, elegant, confident, and beautiful women. They have taught me these values which define the person that I am today.

Like many, I admire Nelson Mandela.  His intellect, humility, and ability to rise above the emotions that usually bind us to low levels of ourselves. He is a goal post for me in the ability to endure oppression and rise above it with forgiveness. I admire Barack Obama, also for his intellect and sense of purpose, humanity, and community. His ability to instill hope. I started my job at the Population Council at the same time he became President. I learned so much by observing and listening to him and how he responded to the many challenges. I had hoped to meet him when he was at the White House and my office was only two blocks away, but I always worried that I, who is never short of something to say, wouldn’t know what to say to him.  I hope one day, I would have the opportunity to have at least a conversation with him about how we can change the world.  I admire Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an intelligent female leader whose success in so many important positions and shattering many glass ceilings across the world has not altered her spirit of humanity, humility, and service.  She has an energy that is contagious. I look up to her as an African and a woman and strive to have that combination.

Potolicchio: Some people may view education and economics as entirely separate fields, but your career has taken place at the intersection of the two. Why is this relationship so important for development?

El-Kogali: There is plenty of evidence that shows education is at the heart of social development and economic growth.  When I shifted my focus from economics to education, it was not because one was more important than the other, but because I believed that education is the foundation for growth and development. My understanding of economics allows me to help governments understand the trade-offs in policy options, the efficiency of expenditures, and how different combinations of inputs would result in varying outputs. Education is the most critical element for human development, especially early childhood education. Not only is it the most important stage to acquire the foundations for learning and skills, it is also the stage where investments have the highest return.  Countries like the Republic of Korea demonstrated that through investments in quality education, a country can move from a developing county to one of the top economies in the world with some of the best education outcomes in just five decades.

Potolicchio: Can we apply the same strategies to promoting education in developing nations across the world or does every country need a tailored approach? Have any common themes appeared in the course of your career?

El-Kogali: No size fits all.  Context is very important.  Some approaches work in certain country settings and not in others.  However, that doesn’t mean that there are no general directions.  For example, all countries need to focus on learning, starting early by offering all children an equal opportunity for quality pre-schooling. All countries need to recruit the best teachers and school leaders and support them to develop professionally as long as they are in the profession. All countries should evaluate student learning to help the student learn better and more. All countries need curricula that promotes critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving skills. What matters is how to introduce interventions to implement these strategies given country conditions. So, the pace, sequencing, and approach to reforms should take into account a country’s context, level of development, and preparedness for change.