In the primary school “8 de marzo” in Layoune refugee camp, there are 1,127 pupils between the ages of 6 and 12 years. Photo by: Louiza Ammi / European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — A fledgling fund dedicated to making sure children caught up in humanitarian crises get an education is off to a strong start, having exceeded its initial fundraising targets, and is about to launch three multi-year programmes in Uganda, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, according to its director.

However, questions remain about whether funding ambitions can be met going forward and about the fund’s hosting arrangements.

In March, the Education Cannot Wait fund, first mooted during the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, celebrated its first year of operations. During that time, the fund has started work in 16 conflict-affected countries to support quality education for more than 650,000 of the world’s hardest to reach young people, according to its annual report.

“ECW was created because no one was covering the children in crisis; they fell through the cracks,” the fund’s executive director Yasmine Sherif told Devex, adding that “when I took up my position one year ago there was momentum … [now] that momentum has grown into an avalanche … it keeps multiplying.”

ECW exceeded its 2017 fundraising target by $20 million, raising a total of $173 million, and aims to raise nearly $4 billion by 2020, although this figure is currently under review and may ultimately be revised downwards.

“We’ve started well but the speed and magnitude will have to pick up,” Sherif said.

The fund is also gearing up to launch the first of its multiyear joint programs in September to help South Sudanese refugees who fled to Uganda get schooling. The program brings together a number of United Nations agencies, NGOs, and donors, and has been led by Uganda’s ministry of education, Sherif said. ECW’s joint programs aim to address the humanitarian-development nexus when it comes to education, and others are set to launch in Afghanistan and Bangladesh in the coming months, she added.

ECW was launched in response to the fact that more than 75 million school-age children living in 35 crisis-affected countries have had their education cut short or interrupted, 17 million of whom are refugee children living in camps or with host communities, according to research by the Overseas Development Institute.

Linda Jones, education in emergencies senior specialist at the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, which hosts ECW, said being in school can also help shield refugee children from “abuse, exploitation, and recruitment into armed groups,” as well as offering a range of other benefits.

“At no time is education more critical than in times of crisis, as it equips children with the knowledge and skills they need to rebuild their communities once the conflict is over, and in the short-term provides them with the stability and structure required to cope with the trauma they have experienced,” Jones said.

Despite massive need, funding for education in emergencies has historically been low, totaling just 2 percent of all humanitarian aid in 2013. ODI estimates the annual funding gap at $8.5 billion.

However, donors appear to be waking up to the need. In May, the European Union announced its intention to dedicate 10 percent of its humanitarian aid budget to education in emergencies by 2019. And in June, G-7 leaders and the World Bank announced a $2.9 billion investment in education for women and girls in crisis situations. Thanks in part to ECW, education crisis spending in 2018 has increased to approximately 4 percent of humanitarian aid flows, according to UNOCHA.

But money is not the only issue; there are also major challenges in coordinating national and international groups, governments, and humanitarian and development actors when it comes to tackling these unmet educational needs.  

In response, ECW was presented as an alternative way of raising and channeling money into education in emergencies, while raising the profile of the issue. It works to unite and strengthen humanitarian and development efforts through joint initiatives known as multiyear resilience programs.

Jones described ECW’s approach as innovative: “Sectoral plans and funding appeals are often done in a collaborative way, and Education Cannot Wait follows a similar approach but with an extra focus on bridging the humanitarian/development divide. The joint country programmes create an opportunity for partners to discuss plans together and ensure the sustainability of programmes,” she said.

ECW is also tasked with strengthening capacity to enable countries to better lead on programs to restore and improve education, which it does by channeling nearly 20 percent of its investments to local or national responders. The fund will also support work to improve the collection of quality data and analysis about education in crisis settings.

The secretariat has developed a gender strategy to make sure that girls, who are less likely than boys to be in school, are being reached. The fund also recently launched a resource mobilization challenge offering three prizes of up to $25,000 for the best business idea.

To date, most of ECW’s funding has come from the U.K. government and other European bilateral donors, notably Denmark, as well as the United States, Canada, Australia, and private funders such as Dubai Cares.

The fund is seeking a replenishment this year, and hopes to raise between $250 million and $300 million for the next 18 months of work, Sherif said. However, ECW will not be hosting a pledging conference, preferring to “exercise austerity” and focus on defining and proving its model, since “delivering on ground is [the] best way of getting resources,” the executive director explained.

However, while the U.K.'s Department for International Development is ECW’s biggest donor, and the department’s latest education strategy prioritizes education in emergencies, some have questioned whether the United Kingdom will give as much again, considering its disappointing pledge to the Global Partnership for Education earlier this year.

The fund has also been at the center of a tug of war about its hosting arrangements. Earlier this year there were discussions about moving ECW from UNICEF to the Global Partnership for Education, a multilateral funding platform itself hosted by the World Bank. In April, ECW’s steering group, of which UNICEF’s executive director is a member, opted to keep the fund at UNICEF until at least 2021. Sherif said the decision was based on a “very scientific assessment as to where ECW would be most strategically positioned in order to deliver on its core objectives.”

The fact that UNICEF both hosts ECW and is a grantee at country-level has raised concerns among some global education advocates. But UNICEF’s Jones described the agency as “an impartial host,” and said there were structures in place to ensure accountability.

“The ECW secretariat is separate to and firewalled from UNICEF’s programme division and emergency operations,” she said, explaining that the UNICEF Funds Support Office is not involved in the allocation process and only acts on instructions from the ECW secretariat. Jones also said that in cases where UNICEF is selected as an ECW grantee, a final review is done by ECW’s executive committee to check there is no conflict of interest.

With the hosting issue behind her for the time being, Sherif is working full throttle to operationalize ECW’s ambitious promise to get quality education to children in crisis settings.

“We are moving with such speed, one of the major donors said to me the other day, ‘you guys are on fire,’” Sherif said.

Update, Aug. 9: This story was updated to note that ECW’s 2020 fundraising target is currently under review

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.