Q&A: Education is 'foundation' for other aid sectors in crises

European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides (left) and Education Cannot Wait Fund Director Yasmine Sherif (right). Photo by: ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

DAKAR, Senegal — Providing quality schooling for the 75 million children worldwide impacted by conflict, natural disasters, or epidemics each year remains a challenge for the humanitarian community, with education advocates estimating that less than 4 percent of overall humanitarian aid supports the sector.

Children without schooling are more likely to be exposed to violence, child labor, child marriage, and recruitment by extremist groups, often triggered by distress and desperation.

GPE replenishment misses targets, but sees 'turning point' in education financing

The Global Partnership for Education sought education financing from donors, in addition to renewed commitments from developing countries to deliver quality education and increase access. There were mixed emotions after $2.3 billion was garnered, which fell below a target of raising $3.1 billion for the 2018-2020 financing cycle.

“Education is the foundation of all other sectors, whether we want to have peace and security; we want to address the youth; conflict prevention; even health and good governance cannot come without education,” Education Cannot Wait Director Yasmine Sherif told Devex at the Global Partnership for Education Financing conference in Dakar last month.

Education Cannot Wait was launched during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit as the first global fund focused on forging public-private partnerships that provide education for children in crisis-affected situations. Though studies show how education can help prevent crises, education in emergencies has one of the widest unmet funding gaps, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs financial tracking system.

Without focalized support to children in crisis, Sherif asserted that 40 million girls like 17-year-old Fatu Mansaray from Sierra Leone risk higher rates of child marriage, migration, and prolonged humanitarian needs if left uneducated. In Dakar at the education summit, Mansaray told Devex about several times her education was disrupted due to a civil war, an Ebola outbreak, and the mudslides of 2017. She urged her country’s minister of education to allocate a budget for an education emergency fund that intervenes during emergency situations when she spoke to him during the GPE financing conference.

“I told our government that there should be fixed budgets which should go to emergency issues because something can happen today or tomorrow; why wait until a crisis and then say you don’t have money,” Mansaray told Devex.

Though she will graduate on time next year, she is among a few to complete secondary education with their original class, as numbers have slowly dwindled over time, she explained.

To afford the right to education for the millions like Mansaray, Sherif emphasized the importance of integrating humanitarian and development efforts into a streamlined response during her chat with Devex. She also described her vision of what the education system of 2030 could look like. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Has the number of children impacted by crisis fluctuated over the past few years?

An estimated 75 million are caught up in conflict, or natural disasters or even epidemics across the world where we have very visible and intense crises. Anything from the refugees who are currently in Bangladesh to the children and youth in Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Central African Republic, Somalia, South Sudan. It cuts across the board from Asia to Africa and down to South America. This is a global problem and a global issue.

“Education is the foundation of all other sectors, whether we want to have peace and security; we want to address the youth; conflict prevention; even health and good governance cannot come without education.”

— Yasmine Sherif, director at Education Cannot Wait

This is an estimated figure, but if you think about the fact that we have new eruptions of crises, wars are not slowing down but actually increasing by the year . you can expect this number [of children] to increase. Therefore we have to act now if we’re going to meet their needs and make sure that we prevent crises in the future.

You believe in a “progressive universalism” approach to providing education for youth in conflict zones. Please explain what this means and why this concept is important when providing education in emergencies?

Progressive universalism means to reach out to the poorest of the poor. When it comes to conflict and crisis, natural disasters and epidemics, we are dealing with children and young people who are living at the edge of survival in abject poverty. That’s why the whole notion of Education Cannot Wait: We cannot wait to cater to them when the situation has stabilized and normalcy has returned. These are protracted crises that go on for generations. Addressing abject poverty means doing it now through education. Progressive universalism means to go directly to the most needy and allow them to be part of the Sustainable Development Goals — in this case development goal #4.

While this concept of “progressive universalism” addresses issues of inclusion, providing education in emergencies can be stymied by limited access to populations. Therefore, can you discuss how to overcome these challenges and best practices when seeking to provide education in emergencies?

I’m a firm believer that there are dots to be connected everywhere and that everything is holistic. In a crisis situation you can never just look at one sector and zoom in and put all your funding there. This is what has happened to most sectors, except education. Education is one of the most underfunded sectors in a crisis situation, with about 4 percent of the humanitarian response allocations of a Humanitarian Response Plan.

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That means we tend to forget education. We need to shift that around, and say we need to take a holistic approach looking across sectors at what the needs are. But in order to progress in any of the other sectors, we have to go to the heart of the matter — which is education. Education is the foundation of all other sectors, whether we want to have peace and security; we want to address the youth; conflict prevention; even health and good governance cannot come without education.

There has to be a protected learning environment, safe schools because girls and young women are particularly exposed to gender-based violence, trafficking, sexual violence. We have to ensure that the distance allows them to go to school because of social and cultural norms where families don’t want them to go too far away to access education. We have to look at water and sanitation to enable girls and young women to attend schools without major discomfort.

Look at what children need, and what does the environment need to provide to make this a safe learning environment that can continue uninterrupted throughout the entire educational cycle.

Can you discuss how to enhance the nexus of humanitarian response and development efforts to meet the needs of youth, particularly those in emergency situations?

This goes back to connecting dots and making a logical flow of things. With humanitarian and development, there’s no line between them. You cannot take one alone; they have to be one in parallel meaning there is an immediate response, but that alone is not enough.

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You have to have medium-term interventions in order to get infrastructure up and running, print school books, increase the quality of learning, making sure facilities are there, teachers are trained. Those are medium-term interventions that need to come fairly fast. Then we also have to change systems and empower host governments and ministries to work together to bring more resources from the national budget [and] bring education across the nation as part of a policy framework with an equal quality of education across the board.

Instead of saying we are going to deal with humanitarian efforts right now, then in a couple years we do medium term, and in 10 years we do development, we are saying you have to do all three in parallel so that one can be a building block for the other simultaneously. That is how you bridge the relief and development gap. To ensure that you get there, you need to bring humanitarians, development actors, and governments together around the same table at the outset of the planning and recognize the added value that each one plays. It means finding a language that everyone understands and having a commitment to work across these artificial lines.

We are discussing the needed reforms now so that we can achieve Sustainable Development Goal #4. If achieved, what does the education system of 2030 look like and how is that different from today?

If we had the financial resources and the expertise to make it happen, in 2030 every child — even the poorest of the poor and the most effected and most traumatized — will have been given the resources to heal from their trauma through education and convert that trauma into becoming productive, creative individuals who have enjoyed access to school feeding, access to the latest pedagogy, and training through educated, smart teachers.

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My dream for 2030 is that all of the benefits that you and I may have enjoyed as our right to access to education, has finally been unleashed as a right to all the 75 million children and young people today in crisis. And that this has been utilized so that they are able to rebuild their societies and ensure human rights for their populations and bring peace and stability to their country, their village, their cities, their region.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.