Opinion: Education as a key to solving conflicts

Education can be an effective way to prevent, address, and overcome conflict. Photo by: Chemonics

Those of us who work in peacebuilding pull out every tool in our toolbox to solve conflicts — we talk about infrastructure, jobs, agriculture, governance, and youth programs.

But youth programs tend to focus on out-of-school individuals aged 18-35 years old, not school-aged children. And rarely do people talk about supporting children — nor education — unless it is about rebuilding schools, vocational training, or jump-starting immediate education services. While broader support to the education system remains undiscussed.

This needs to change.

Too often, those of us in the conflict field do not reach out to education experts, even though there are resources and experts who work specifically on education in conflict settings, such as the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies.

Many conflict experts view education as a long-term effort, too slow to provide merit in the immediate-term, while others feel too stressed by a crisis to find the time to figure out who to turn to and what to do —  but they should. Education is a solution that peacebuilders should consider, and peacebuilders could learn a lot from educators on how to change human behavior.

Contrary to what some may think, quick education responses exist. I have seen how education can bring immediate-term benefits in conflict areas by bringing people together, helping them solve problems, and giving them a path forward.

Programs, such as the Idarah program in Syria, offer immediate access to education including remedial learning, the promotion of inclusion, and psychosocial support to address biases and trauma that fuel a conflict. We know that conflicts require long-term solutions as well, so why rule that out? Long-term reforms should still be prioritized simultaneously.

“I hope my fellow conflict practitioners hold conversations around all youth and reach out to learn from and collaborate with our education partners because in the conflict field where the answers are not always evident, we can find one clearly in education.”

— Stacia George, director of West and Central Africa and Haiti at Chemonics

Education and education experts need to be more involved in solving conflict, here’s why:

Education enables people to form their own opinions and decisions

It’s no surprise that conflict instigators are master manipulators of perceptions and facts. Quality education reduces manipulation by providing citizens with the ability to read the facts for themselves and analyze what those facts mean for them. We saw this in Iraq, where terrorist recruiters provided their own interpretation of the Quran to draw people in. Teaching people to read Arabic allowed them to read the Quran for themselves and markedly reduced the appeal of terrorist recruiters.

Education addresses unemployment and unequal opportunities

Unemployment — one of the first words used when asked why conflict has or will exist. It is also one of the easiest issues to manipulate, even more so when people have unequal access to the jobs that exist. For these reasons, among others, the United Nations Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism names education as a course of action to counter violent extremism.

Job creation requires more than a skilled workforce. While vocational training addresses this in the immediate term, we also need to focus on the traditional education systems and how the teaching of entrepreneurship can serve as a pipeline for talent.

Programming to improve education and equal access to education can also help address the issue of marginalization and potential conflicts. Not only is this the right thing to do, but violent extremists often exploit marginalization in their messaging to drive recruitment, and rates of conflict are higher in areas with unequal education.

Education makes citizens more peaceful and resilient

Children, between the ages of five to eight, begin developing their awareness of how others are different and how they feel about it. Effective early childhood education programs intervene before and during this formative period and can teach tolerance and empathy, as well as reduce fears of others who are different. These are the same skills that make individuals and societies more resilient to conflict.

At the same time, early childhood education equips students with problem-solving skills, important for jobs and cultivating resiliency. A colleague working to rehabilitate al-Qaida members described members’ only common characteristic as having a weak ability to solve personal problems.

My own experience, as well as recent research, show an inability to overcome personal setbacks — such as losing a job or family problems — as one reason people join terrorist groups. Education provides the skills as well as the social networks to help individuals feel supported in overcoming personal setbacks.

Coupling peace education with traditional education can further strengthen citizens’ conflict resilience. The World Bank and HighScope Educational Research Foundation also found that early childhood programs are some of the most cost-effective methods for preventing crime and violence, providing the skills to manage one’s behavior and emotions.

In Somalia, Mercy Corps found that coupling secondary education with civic engagement opportunities reduced participation in and support for violence by 14 and 20 percent respectively.

I saw violent former combatants transform into positive role models for peace after providing peace education in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their response as to why it worked: They didn’t know how to solve problems non-violently, nor that this was possible.

Education creates citizens who can address conflict’s complex problems

Solving conflicts requires great leaders and an educated citizenry. We see how conflicts can lead to “brain drain,” at the time when a country most needs educated leaders to jump start it. And the need for educated, skilled individuals does not disappear in the immediate years after a conflict.

A clear strategy for stimulating the education system is critical, not just for youth in their teens but also for youth at the primary level, to ensure the country has leaders and skilled workers for both the immediate term, as well as the future, to help prevent a return to conflict.

Education can help address children and youth’s current trauma and help prevent future conflicts

Pupils in conflict zones struggle with traumatic experiences, dislocated families, loss, and the associated emotions of anger and fear. Not only do the psychological and neurobiological effects of trauma make it difficult to learn, but the associated emotions — if left unchecked — could create the conditions for future conflict as students enter society as adults.

A country and its citizens need to heal to move forward. A trauma-informed and effective education system can facilitate social and emotional learning and provide the psychosocial support, social networks, and life skills to recover, so trauma’s repercussions do not bear fruit later.

“Many conflict experts view education as a long-term effort, too slow to provide merit in the immediate-term, while others feel too stressed by a crisis to find time to figure out who to turn to and what to do — but they should. Education is a solution that peacebuilders should consider, and peacebuilders could learn a lot from educators on how to change human behavior.”

Education can remove the perpetuation of false or biased perceptions

What we teach in school sets the standards for how students see the world. In some countries, history books perpetuate conflict with biased or inaccurate perspectives in support of political agendas.

Curriculum reform programs not only serve a purpose of bringing people together to discuss a conflict but can also remove the propaganda and inflammatory language that can perpetuate mobilization around certain issues and groups in a conflict. Curriculum reform was a priority when I was working on the Macedonia crisis because biases in textbooks were fueling ethnocentric tendencies in ethnic Macedonians.

What next?

We have solutions. The United States Agency for International Development and INEE’s Education in Crisis & Conflict Network are wonderful resources for those working to build peace.

I hope my fellow conflict practitioners hold conversations around all youth and reach out to collaborate with, and learn from, our education partners because in the conflict field where the answers are not always evident, we can find one clearly in education.

Devex World is on June 12, 2018, at the Mead Center for the American Theater in Washington, D.C., and Chemonics is one of the event’s changemaker partners. Find out more about the event here.

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About the author

  • George stacia headshot

    Stacia George

    Stacia George is a director in Chemonics’ West and Central Africa and Haiti Division. She previously served as the deputy director for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives and is an expert in conflict management and international development with specializations in conflict-affected environments, stabilization, democracy, and community-driven development programming. Prior to this George was a foreign policy fellow for Senator Chris Coons and also worked at Caerus Associates. She held an international affairs fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations and previously spent 11 years with USAID.