Oni Lusk-Stover: Senior Education Specialist at The World Bank

Monrovia Liberia July 2017.JPG

Happy Monday! This week, we spoke with Oni Lusk-Stover, who is a Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank. Currently based in Washington D.C., she focuses on policy initiatives in sub-saharan Africa to help more girls receive a quality education. In her role, she has done work in a number of different countries, but she is currently contemplating moving to Liberia for her new role facilitating education initiatives there. Read on to learn from this incredibly eloquent woman about what it’s like to work in a large institution on international projects, and get to travel the world while doing so.

It looks like you’ve spent the majority of your career at the World Bank. That’s so cool! What was your first position?
Your assumption is completely correct. I still can’t believe that the bank was my first and only job, but I think I really lucked out and it has been a great fit for a number of reasons. I came to D.C. in September of 2006, September 9th to be specific, on a one-way ticket. I had gotten a master’s in International Comparative Education at Stanford. Given my interest in the state of the world, I thought that coming to D.C. made the most sense. I came here, didn’t have a job, and then reached out to everyone and anyone who would meet with me for informational interviews, and ended up having my resume passed along to the woman who would become my boss. Her name was Ruth Kagia and she was the Director of Education here at the World Bank, and I came on board with her.

I came on as a Chief of Staff, where I was really her eyes and ears to monitor the education portfolio. So she brought me on […] also to work with her on external speeches, to travel with her when she was attending events. And that gave me a great perspective coming in to a huge organization like the World Bank.

With colleagues at work 2016.JPG

Where does your interest in education stem from?
It kind of seems like education is the family business. Both of my parents are public school teachers in California, and growing up education was very highly valued. I had the opportunity the summer between my junior and senior year to go [teach] in Uganda, and I mention that because that experience reinforced that I probably didn’t have the patience to be a classroom teacher.

I loved it and found it really fulfilling, but my mom had always said that being a teacher is like putting on a one-woman show everyday. And that works for her because she’s very extroverted and has a lot of energy, but for me, for someone that needs time to be alone and think, and just be quiet, it was a great experience, a very humbling experience, but also reinforced that if I wanted to pursue a career in education, I thought a better fit would probably be on the policy side versus being in the classroom.

So then I had an amazing group of professors that mentored me, and so I had a conversation with them about my experience over the summer and about what I was thinking for next steps after senior year. And their guidance was consistently, “It seems like you’re really passionate about education and that you also really like the international piece of education policy”, and so they advised me to pursue a master’s. I didn’t know if I wanted to go directly from four years of college to a master’s program and so their advice was, “In the fall, apply. See how you feel come the spring when you hear back” so that’s what I did.

And by the time spring came around, I realized that I really did want to continue and pursue a master’s and then continue in education. But in terms of my career path within education, it has really been following opportunities. I never thought necessarily that I would work at the World Bank, I never thought that once I was here I would necessarily work on Ethiopia or Sri Lanka, but the opportunities have come up and I’ve tried to keep an open mind and really see where the path takes me.   

Malala at the World Bank 2013.JPG

That’s beautiful! Focusing on your role specifically, as an Education Specialist at the World Bank, what are your main responsibilities?
For the past five years, I’ve been leading a research program called Engaging the Private Sector in Education. The title confuses people, but what it does is assesses policies within a given country to see how countries engage with non-state education providers, and then to give governments a set of tools to more effectively regulate non-state education providers.

So what that means is really increasing accountability and transparency within education given there’s an increasing number of non-state providers. So, by non-state, I mean everything from what we think of as elite, independent private schools to schools that are run by communities or faith based organizations, and really just making sure that governments know the type of education that is being provided. And also, we’re holding these providers accountable, because we know many providers charge exorbitant fees or that the quality of education is not actually as good as it could be.

Is there a certain way that your research differs from place to place or do you have similar projects running in different places?
For all of the work we do, we kind of have a core guiding framework and a core set of questions we ask and then we add onto depending on the country context. So for instance, work that I just wrapped up in Senegal, we did a survey of non-state providers in a specific locality, just outside of the capital, and we had a core set of about 60 questions that we wanted to ask them. And then we worked with the government to have additional questions because they had specific issues that they wanted to know about.

Ghana 2013.JPG

Is it ever tricky to be coming into these different places where you might be seen as an outsider.
It’s always unpredictable. You can think everything will run smoothly and nothing runs smoothly. Or you can think, “Oh, this is going to be very problematic” and then suddenly all the pieces fall into place. I think one of the key things is that for the research that I mentioned, we work with the country teams. And the country teams are most often based in that country and have already established relationships of trust with the Ministry and with the other education stakeholders.

And that’s really key, because then we’re seen as a part of their team versus coming in on our own. And they will vouch for us that, “yes, they’re coming in as part of the World Bank team to do this work, as has been requested or as we’re asking for” and so that really helps with the process. You need to have a strong country team that can vouch for you […] to be able to move the work forward at a good pace. And that’s something that we definitely have in Ghana. We also have that in Nigeria, and so working in those contexts moves very quickly and smoothly and it’s really a pleasure to work with those country teams because there’s so efficient and effective.

Wow, that’s very interesting.
We’re working with people. I mean, I sit in what’s called the Human Development Vice Presidency and so everything we do depends upon human interaction. And so building those relationships is the key to everything we do because we’re not only building human connections, but all the work we do, if we do it right, will hopefully positively impact people’s lives.

Regarding your work on gender…how do you convince families to educate their daughters if they usually wouldn’t?
We work in a number of countries where, for a variety of reasons, girls are either not going to school, or families or communities have made the decision that the tradeoffs are too great to send their girls to school. And sometimes that can be because the distance to school is too far, and those families and communities worry about the safety of their children, both boys and girls, but even more so for girls. Or the fact that if you have a very large family, girls are often asked to take care of younger siblings.

So the first thing that we try to do in these contexts is to really question our own assumptions, because we could come in and say, “This is why we think girls aren’t attending school and this is why we think they should attend school” but if you take that approach, you’re not facilitating a dialogue. So what we try to do is come in and really ask, “Why do you think education is important? What do you hope to get out of an education?” And it doesn’t even have to be specific to girls but through asking questions like that, you get really good insight into families and community motivations when it comes to education. Then you can really think about what programs could work here, what interventions make sense.

Erbil Iraq 2016.JPG

Is it an intervention where you really target fathers and boys in order to change how they view women and going to school? This is a big piece of work that needs to happen because if you target girls and women alone, chances are you won’t see huge shifts in behavior. You have to target families and communities, you have to target the full reality of these girls lives, and they’re not living their lives in isolation, they’re living their lives as daughters, as sisters, and so forth.

And so you really have to spend time to understand the community and the country context and talk to either community organizations or others working in the space as well because we can’t work in isolation. The World Bank is one of many, many players and it’s not as if we’re going to suddenly shift something on our own. We’re one piece of a very large puzzle. And so, working with communities, working often in sub-Saharan Africa with the village elders or village chief really sets things in motion, but you have to build that respect and that understanding and also have a lot of humility, because you can have your experience in country X that won’t have any applicability with country Y, and you can never assume that it would until you really do your homework.

In your work, what’s been your most meaningful accomplishment so far?
For me, the greatest part of my job is being able to visit schools. And in Ethiopia in particular, there were 5 different components of the project that we were working on, and one of them was a school grant component. Which meant that grants were given directly to schools and they could decide how they wanted to use the funds – they just had to be very clear about what they were using the funds for.

To visit these schools over time and see – whether it was getting electricity or re-furbishing the classroom, or providing school meals, or setting up a school garden – you could see really meaningful and tangible change. And for me, those are the biggest pieces because sitting in D.C. feels like the population that you’re trying to support is very removed from your day-to-day interactions, or meetings, or emails you’ve sent. But once you’re in a given country and visiting schools, it really puts everything into context and reminds you why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Kenya 2015.JPG

Would you say that that removed aspect is that hardest part of your job?
I would, yeah. I would say that there’s a reason that I’m in D.C. because I haven’t been working up until this time on a specific country, and I have the privilege and opportunity to visit multiple countries. And so being based in D.C. up until this point has made a lot of sense. But as I transition to this new role, it would make sense to be based [in Liberia] so that I could both interact with the Ministry of Education on a daily basis, but also to visit schools, to visit communities, I think makes a lot of sense. You really need to be close to the work that you’re doing.

You’re obviously doing incredibly meaningful work!
Thank you, yeah I feel some days more than others. Some days I just answer a lot of emails and corporate requests but it’s all working toward the larger picture and a bigger goal.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
When I was little, I either wanted to be a pediatrician or veterinarian, and I still think about both of those things. But I also think about being a National Geographic photographer, because I think one of the pieces I’ve loved so much about this work is seeing the world. And I’ve always done photography and I love capturing…not necessarily people, because I get shy about photographing people, but just photographing places and the incredible world that we live in.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining it to your ten-year-old self.

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Thank you so much, Oni – for the insightful conversation and beautiful photos as well! And by the way, happy 11th year work anniversary! : )