Inside the launch of the Education Cannot Wait fund for crises

Hanan, a Syrian refugee teaches other children at an informal tented settlement in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. A new fund for education in protracted crises aims to reach the 75 million school-age children now living in conflict zones and fragile states. Photo by: Lynsey Addario / UNHCR

It took bruising personalities, dogged ambition and a lucky convergence of political will. But a year after the idea was raised, U.N. special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, announced the launch of a $4 billion fund at last week’s World Humanitarian Summit. The fund aims to provide education to the 75 million children worldwide who are now living in conflict zones and fragile states.

The Education Cannot Wait fund was among the more concrete initiatives to emerge from the summit and may also prove a test case for many of the broader questions raised there. It will be one of just a few examples where there is a merging humanitarian and development priorities. The fund draws together the United Nations, national governments, international and local nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector. Its grants will be flexible and lengthy.

The goal is for the initiative to reach full funding within five years, starting with a $150 million goal in 2016, which is expected to come from a variety of sources, including private companies. So far, $90 million has been pledged for the first year.

“If you ask anyone in the U.N. system, they will say that we need to bridge the humanitarian development divide,” said Tom Fletcher, global strategy director at TheirWorld, which helped create and push for the fund. “I think the way to accelerate that is to inject fresh private sector involvement. As a sector, [humanitarian aid is] quite ripe for helpful, collaborative disruption.”

Pupils in need

Across the globe, 1 in 4 school-age children today are living in unstable situations or trapped by protracted conflict situations. And as with all refugees fleeing their homes, they may spend a decade, or longer, away. Humanitarian aid largely focuses on immediate priorities such as access to food and shelter, rather than the longer-term issue of education.

“Almost half of the world’s out of school children are in conflict-affected areas. And in those same areas, even the kids who are in school tend to not be learning,” said Teodora Berkova director social innovation at Pearson.

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As the number of globally displaced people balloons, private sector actors such as Pearson, as well as the NGO community, have started asking why technology and many of the recent advances in distance learning couldn’t be applied to such fluid situations.

Pearson and Save the Children, for example, partnered both to create education centers in Jordan, where learning could be tailored to refugees’ unique situation and explore new educational products for displaced children.

“Rather than taking something off the shelf and kind of trying to plug it in or tweak it a bit,” said Berkova, “We wanted to invest the time and resource in innovating new solutions.”

Meanwhile, the growing demand for education is creating its own buzz. Wired to smartphones and connected to a widespread diaspora, Syrian refugees in particular have begun demanding better access.

“Education is the most important need now, and when it comes to donors, it’s the most difficult place to get money.” said Zedoun Alzboubi, CEO of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations for Syria, at a WHS panel.

Getting priorities aligned

Despite the growing urgency of the problem, it took a crush of political capital to get donors on board. Leading that effort was Brown, the former British prime minister who is now U.N. special envoy for global education.

“One of the things that came together was to have big individuals like Gordon Brown behind this,” said Fletcher, a former U.K. ambassador to Lebanon. “He’s a difficult person to say ‘no’ to. He will call you in the middle of the night and say, ‘fund education,’ and again the following night and the following night until you’re funding education.”

Brown was joined in his push by other high profile figures including UNICEF chief Anthony Lake and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, as well as global heavyweights such as Qatar’s former first lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, who chairs Education Above All, and U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening, who promised investment in the fund.

Equally important was rallying the private sector. Brown’s wife, Sarah, heads the education charity TheirWorld, and helped build the Global Business Coalition for Education, a collection of private sector partners that together have already pledged to mobilize $100 million for the fund.

The coalition also hopes to do “matchmaking” between what companies have to offer and what particular countries or crisis situations need, she told a WHS panel following the fund’s launch. They want the private sector to do more than just give money or goods; they need to help solve the problem — to innovate around the challenges of education in crisis.

“Corporations are very well placed to take on some of the risks that governments and nonprofits can’t take in testing small projects and starting pilot projects,” Sarah Brown said.

Quality over quantity

The fund will now seek to channel the ambitions, agendas, and ideas of its wide variety of participants into something coherent for children. Ensuring quality and minimum standards — as well as compatibility with existing government curricula — will likely be among the biggest challenges.

The question of quality looms large, particularly with the wide variety of small-scale pilots that are likely to be tried in the coming months and years. The fund, which will be housed in UNICEF for its first year, hasn’t laid out standards yet, though some of its members are looking in that direction.

Dubai Cares, one of the fund’s partners, for example, plans to invest in evidence research along with its programming “to see what works,” CEO Tariq al-Gurg told the WHS panel. “We hope to not only provide access but also quality.”

Fletcher said even greater focus would be needed. “We’ve got to get quality in there, particularly with tech companies coming through this space. Their focus is often just reaching kids with a device and content. We don’t have a strong enough evaluation system to determine what kids are learning.”

Interoperability is also a concern: How will governments and educational institutions recognize and quantify the education a child has received in a makeshift school or online catch-up programs. Among the fund’s priorities is working with governments on their own innovative projects that could lead to official state recognition of education schemes.

Knock on effects

Fund advocates argue that, if successful, education in crisis can do more than simply bring kids up to date with their studies.

“Education should and needs to be holistic: it’s not just about teaching — it’s about psychosocial support, protection, food, and after school activities,” said Thomas Smolich, international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service at a WHS panel. “The more services we can offer, the more likely we are to have success.”

If successful, the fund could also provide an example of how to channel the ambitions of humanitarian reform into something concrete. So far, it checks all the boxes: mixed group of actors, smattering of humanitarian and development worlds, local focus, innovative projects, and flexible funding.

Yet the risk, warn some, is that the initiative becomes its own silo. “We absolutely want to make sure that refugees get access to education. We also want to make sure that those living in extreme poverty get access to education,” said Eloise Todd, global policy director at the ONE Campaign. “We don’t want the universalism lost, so you have the humanitarian world competing with the development world.”

Just as they did for the fund to launch, the stars may need to align again for success in the field. Fletcher, who pushed for refugee education during his time in Lebanon, recalls how ministerial leadership, political capital, and donor coherence were all vital to making progress.

Increasingly, all the stakeholders involved are realizing the risks of not acting now. Extremist groups in conflicts from the Middle East, to the Sahel, to Southeast Asia are increasingly willing to court children to their cause — more so if generations are given no alternative prospects.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Deloitte financially supported the reporter’s travel to Istanbul to attend the World Humanitarian Summit. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.