Opinion: Technology can help give children refugees the education they deserve

A teacher shows his pupils how a tablet works at a primary school in Dabaab, Kenya. Photo by: UNHCR / D. Mwancha

As we move into the new year, the U.N. Refugee Agency has put out a timely reminder that figures for forcibly displaced people across the world have reached a record 68.5 million, with an average of one person displaced every two seconds in 2017. For the young people among them, this typically means losing access to a quality education.

We can no longer wait patiently for technology to one day play a role in tackling this crisis. The time for technology to support educating our most vulnerable is now. Initiatives in this hitherto unexamined corner of the education space are detailed in the extensive new UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report 2019.

Of course, it would be ideal for every refugee child to be in a classroom, getting the one-to-one support and education they need from a caring teacher. That interaction, with all the empathy and ability required to see a child’s weaknesses and turn them into strengths, is always best delivered by human educators.

But we don’t have a good record on that front. According to UNESCO, 264 million children do not have access to schooling, while at least 600 million more are “in school but not learning.”

These children are not acquiring even basic skills in math and reading, which the World Bank calls a “learning crisis.” In order to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of quality education for all by 2030, we will need to recruit 69 million teachers, a target many see as simply unachievable, bearing in mind the tremendous pressures on funding being felt by various governments and economies worldwide.

Even in the United Kingdom, the world’s fifth biggest economy, the numbers of teachers are falling, leading to a sense of crisis. If the relatively prosperous U.K. is struggling in this regard, what hope for low-income countries and what hope for refugee children?

The UNESCO report also makes the stark point that teacher recruitment and management policies are reacting too slowly to this increasing need. It calculates that Germany needs an additional 42,000 teachers and educators, Turkey needs 80,000 teachers, and Uganda needs 7,000 primary teachers to teach all current refugees.

We are now at the edge of a perfect storm as according to UNHCR, barely half of refugee needs are being met, leading to worsening hardship and risks. Based on contributions to date, it expects funding for 2018 to meet just 55 percent of the $8.2 billion that are needed, compared to 56.6 percent in 2017 and 58 percent in 2016.

With donor funding falling ever further behind as the number of forcibly displaced worldwide grows, because recruiting enough teachers takes time and even more money, because technology solutions are available today, we should be rolling education technology out now.

Governments may struggle to fund this alone, but big business can play a vital role, as can civil society, NGOs, and the voluntary sector. Together, they can roll out education technology to where it can change lives.  

UNESCO is right that technology can frequently help with the education of displaced people, particularly in instances where the scale of that displacement overwhelms education systems. Its scalability, speed, and portability can help compensate for lack of standard education resources. The report acknowledges the important part teachers play in the equation and makes the valuable point that most of these tech programs, in one way or another, support teacher professional development.

The UNESCO report cites examples of where tech is already working: a UNESCO teacher education project in Nigeria in association with Nokia; UNHCR and Vodafone’s Instant Network Schools program reaching more than 40,000 students and 600 teachers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, South Sudan, and the United Republic of Tanzania; NGO Libraries Without Borders and UNHCR’s Ideas Box package, which has been shown to have a positive impact in two Burundi camps hosting Congolese refugees.

There are other success stories I could point to where technology is proving educationally transformative in the developing world, such as Tusome — “let’s read”, in Kiswahili — which is working well in Kenya thanks to being taken up by the government and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development with $74 million over five years. It is reaching 3.4 million children in 23,000 government primary schools and 1,500 private schools. The costs are low — about $4 per child per year — and reading abilities are rising as a result.

Clearly, there are many different digital tools that can be used to boost education to meet a variety of needs all over the world, and much of it is low-cost. We have a stark choice to make: Give refugee children the education they deserve now or store up problems for the future — a whole generation of frustrated, uneducated young people, unable to find work.

The holidays gave us all — from concerned citizens to global leaders — a chance to step out of the frenetic routine to reflect on those with the greatest need and consider how we can create a better world.

On the world’s list of New Year’s resolutions, there is one that will pay dividends for generations to come. We must all work together to put transformative education technology in the hands of refugee children. They deserve, for once, to be at the front of the queue.

About the author

  • Vikas%2520pota

    Vikas Pota

    Vikas Pota is the group chief executive of Tmrw Digital, which aims to help educational technology fulfill its great promise of extending quality education to every child throughout the world. By nurturing and investing in startups, curating conversations through events, and commissioning cutting-edge research, Tmrw Digital will connect the education and technology worlds by bringing together the edtech community — teachers, governments, entrepreneurs, and investors — to help them find better ways of understanding each other.