Education can’t wait till the war is over

By Pauline Rose, senior policy analyst, Education for All Global Monitoring Report team

Recently I visited the huge refugee camps around Dadaab, Kenya, where more than 250,000 Somalis shelter from the war ravaging their country. In one camp, schoolboys said some of their peers, unable to continue to secondary school or get a job, had returned to Somalia to join the militant Islamic group, Al-Shabaab.

You would be hard pressed to find more telling evidence of the fact that education is an urgent need for those affected by fighting – not only to give them and their home countries a chance of a better future, but also to break the cycle that fuels conflict.

Many people tend to think of refugees’ immediate needs in terms of food, shelter, water, sanitation, healthcare and protection. But education is just as vital – and without it, as the Dadaab boys’ testimony shows, the war just goes on.

Kenya has about 360,000 registered refugees in the camps established almost 20 years ago at Dadaab in the northeast and at Kakuma in the northwest. In addition, tens of thousands of refugees are living in informal urban settlements in Nairobi.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, recognizes the importance of giving refugees opportunities for education – which in most cases is the only thing that they will take away from their stay in a camp – and plays a key role in supporting the NGOs that are doing an outstanding job in keeping schools going, building on refugee children’s strong desire to learn.  But on my recent visit to Dadaab, Kakuma and Nairobi I learned of the many obstacles they face.

We will look at these questions in depth in the 2011 Global Monitoring Report, which will explore the links between education and violent conflict. But let me just lay out here some of the challenges involved in bringing education to refugees:

Overcrowding: In Dadaab, enrolment in schools has not kept pace with the growing school-aged population. At the same time, the large numbers continuing to enter camps means that schools are severely overcrowded – with over 3,000 students in some primary schools intended for fewer than a third of that number.

Short-term planning: It’s hard for NGOs to plan ahead when the funding cycle is just one year. Given that UNHCR is unable to fulfil the entire funding requirements, NGOs have to spend a large chunk of their time writing funding proposals for other agencies, instead of getting on with the job of providing education.

A lack of employment opportunities: In Kenya, refugees are effectively denied the right to work. As the Dadaab boys’ testimony shows, this leads to a situation that is bad not only for refugees’ well-being but also for cross-border security.

A lack of coordination between UN agencies: UNHCR looks after refugees, UNICEF looks after children and UNESCO has expertise in education, but all too often UN agencies fail to work together sufficiently, leading to Byzantine questions such as one I heard in Dadaab: ‘Are they refugees or are they children?’

Urban refugees: It is estimated that 6,000 refugees a month are moving to urban areas in Kenya, where children often face hostility from local populations and even from local teachers.

Other problems include over-age enrolment, which contributes to poor discipline in some classes; high levels of dropout, particularly among girls obliged to marry early; a lack of training for teachers, many of whom are refugees themselves; and extremely few opportunities for secondary schooling – as the Dadaab boys ruefully pointed out.


Despite these circumstances, however, many schools in refugee camps are managing to do an amazing job, delivering education that in some cases is better than refugees would have had back home – and developing ways to help people recover from their experiences of conflict and gain confidence for the future.

In Dadaab, a Peace Education programme has helped thousands of children learn to live together with diversity, rather than seeing violent conflict as a solution to addressing difference. The programme has been so successful that Kenya’s government has built on its experience to create a national peace education programme in response to the ethnic violence that erupted after the 2007 elections.



  1. The need is staggering and the logistics mind boggling. My kudos to those who are making education happen while war rages. Certainly there are more agencies that can help.

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