Education under fire: why urgent action is needed

The Telegraph, May 27, 2016

By Josie Gurney-Read, Online Education Editor 

In humanitarian emergencies, it is perhaps unsurprising that only two percent of global appeals are dedicated to education.

When lives are at risk, the immediate priorities of food, water and safe shelter tend to take precedence – both in terms of government allocations and in what business and the general public donate to.

Corporate giving to global health is currently 16 times what it is to global education, while funding to education by the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) stood at $6,892,958 last year, just 1.47 per cent of the total.  

Commenting on the issue this week, Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, said that “exceptional measures”  were urgently required to deal with the crisis, including a change in how funds are allocated.

She said: “To do justice to the immense needs, we should aim for 10 per cent of all humanitarian funding to be allocated to education in emergencies.”

So far, the EU has committed to an increase of 4 per cent.

Yet, as Bokova says, the need is immense. It is currently estimated that of the half a billion children living in countries affected by humanitarian crises, 37 million  are out of school.

But while the movement of people from war-torn countries will inevitably affect the immediate ability of children to continue their education, a “growing number” of attacks on schools is adding to the problem.

According to new analysis by UNICEF, an average of four schools or hospitals are attacked or occupied by armed forces every day in countries across the world.

The charity revealed that, in Syria, at least 5,000 schools can no longer be used because they have either been destroyed or damaged, or the buildings are being used to shelter families.

In North-East Nigeria and Cameroon more than 1,800 schools have been shut due to the crisis – affecting over 11 million children – and in the Central African Republic, a quarter of schools are not functioning.

Furthermore, the UN children’s agency reported in January this year that more than half of children in South Sudan are not in school, the highest proportion in any country, following two years worth of fighting.

It’s a stark reminder that, while the figures quoted are new, the picture they illustrate isn’t. And neither are the initiatives introduced to deal with the problem.

In 2013, UNICEF launched the No Lost Generation initiative in an attempt to improve the educational opportunities for the 2.1 million children in Syria who are out of school and the 1.4 million others currently living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

Then in 2015 a UN initiative was launched in an ongoing attempt to protect schoolchildren and their education.

The Safe Schools Declaration has so far been signed by 53 countries – not including the UK – and includes six guidelines, concerning both the reporting of attacks on schools and their use by military forces.

Responding to questions as to why the UK Government chose not to sign the declaration, a Foreign Office spokesman said in February: “While we support the spirit of the initiative, we have concerns that the Guidelines do not mirror the exact language and content of International Humanitarian Law and therefore the UK, along with several other countries, was not able to sign the Safe Schools Declaration in Oslo in May 2015.”

While UNICEF has urged the UK Government to sign the declaration, only time will tell if the campaigns actually make a difference.

Speaking to the Telegraph ahead of the the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul earlier this week, Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s director of emergency programmes, warned that the number of direct physical attacks against schools was increasing.

“In Afghanistan in 2014, 163 schools and 38 health facilities were attacked,” she said. “While in Syria, 60 attacks on education facilities were documented, including nine cases of military uses of schools.” 

The effects of this can be devastating and long lasting. As Khan points out, “it can take years for these schools to be rebuilt, so children lose a whole cycle of learning. If you’re in grade two, and you have three or four years out of school, the likelihood of you going back is pretty grim.”

But aside from basic education, Khan points out that school can help maintain the “normalcy” in children’s lives.

“When I went to Homs in Syria, the first thing children wanted – whether huddled at home or in bunkers – was to read a book,” she said, “and when I ask them what they missed most, they said they couldn’t wait to go back to school.”

In an attempt to raise further awareness and much needed funds, a new partnership of organisations, including UNICEF and  the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, have launched a campaign this week.

Announced at the Summit, Education Cannot Wait is aiming to raise nearly $4 billion to reach 13.6 million children within the next five years, with the UK committing £30 million to this target. 

By 2030, it is hoped that the fund will reach 75 million children.

It’s an ambitious target; one which can only be met if the money starts coming in. An initial commitment of $90m has so far been made by donors, with another $100m intended from the Global Business Coalition for Education.

But funding is just one of the aims of the campaign. Changing minds is another.

“The most important thing is that respect for protecting civilians and schools is restored,” Khan said. 

“We are working more and more with governments so they recognise that schools should be treated as safe zones. 

“If schools have been hit, we work with governments to help provide temporary learning centres, we help rebuild and refurbish destroyed schools and help train teachers, so at least children – no matter what the setting – have some form of learning still available to them.”

Whether these measures amount to “exceptional measures” remains to be seen, but keeping global education at the forefront of government humanitarian agendas will hopefully be one product. 

“I raise the point again and again,” Khan continued, “but who is going to be the next generation of leaders if we don’t have children in school?”