Prof Alan Smith is UNESCO Chair in Education at the University of Ulster Northern Ireland. He was an advisor to the 2011 GMR on Education and Armed Conflict and is currently working with UNICEF on a new global initiative on education and peacebuilding.

Conflicts are one of the biggest barriers to Education for All

The devastating effect conflicts have on education was the focus of the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report. As part of our 10th anniversary countdown to the launch of the 2012 report on October 16, we asked Prof. Alan Smith from our 2011 Advisory Board to look back at last year’s report.

The 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report reported that 28 million children are out of school in conflict-affected countries, 42% of the world total. Children in conflict affected countries are twice as likely as children in other low income countries to die before their fifth birthday. Refugees and internally displaced people face major barriers to education, and conflict-affected countries have some of the largest gender inequalities and lowest literacy levels in the world.

Prof Alan Smith is UNESCO Chair in Education at the University of Ulster Northern Ireland. He was an advisor to the 2011 GMR on Education and Armed Conflict and is currently working with UNICEF on a new global initiative on education and peacebuilding.

Yet education remains a low priority in situations of conflict – it accounts for just 2% of humanitarian aid and only 38% of emergency aid requests for education are met. Whilst development assistance to basic education has doubled since 2002 to US$4.7 billion, current aid levels fall far short of the US$16 billion required annually to close the external financing gap in low-income countries. So we need to ask why 21 of the world’s poorest developing countries continue to spend more on military budgets than primary education – redirecting just 10% into education could put almost 10 million additional children into school. We also need to question the priorities of donor governments whose military spending is US$1029 billion per year – yet 6 days of this would meet the funding gap required to achieve EFA.

Conflict presents huge challenges for education provision, but there have been some encouraging developments in the short time since the GMR report was published. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has launched an initiative and secured $1.5 billion to put Education First supported by an impressive array of high profile advocates, including Special Envoy and former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. The initiative places a particular emphasis on securing the right to education for children in conflict-affected countries, and argues that education should get at least 4% (up from 2%) of humanitarian aid budgets. Progress in such environments requires careful analysis of the drivers of conflict and the development of education responses that progressively address challenges on three broad fronts:

  • Education as a humanitarian response. The challenges include the need to protect children during violent conflict and ensure their right to education. Initiatives such as the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack have emerged. By maintaining a commitment to education during conflict we can not only protect from physical, social and psychosocial damage, but also provide the means by which societies can recover. Agencies such as UNHCR Education Strategy have included an explicit commitment to use conflict analysis as part of its response to displacement situations and working with communities recovering from conflict.
  • Conflict sensitive education. The past decade has seen growing awareness of the ways in which education may be used and abused to exacerbate conflict. Unequal access to education is often one of the most powerful ways in which dominant groups maintain unequal access to power and wealth between groups within conflict-affected societies – often reproduced from one generation to the next. Tensions can be further exacerbated by exclusionary practices or policies related to language of instruction and identity issues – many of these are structural features that could be addressed as part of education reform processes.  Since the GMR an increasing number of agencies have made an explicit commitment to conflict-sensitive education, for example, one of the three goals of the new USAID Education Strategy will bring considerable resources to bear on ‘increased equitable access to education in crisis and conflict environments for 15 million learners by 2015’.
  • Education for peacebuilding. In conflict-affected societies people want to see an end to violence that also brings benefits (so called ‘peace dividends’), partly in terms of access to quality education provision, but also in terms of greater safety and security, involvement in political processes that work for the public good, an economic future that provides sustainable livelihoods and cooperative relations between diverse groups within society. This is a transformative agenda, yet in many countries education systems are geared to reproduce, rather than transform the conditions that generate conflict. One new development is a UNICEF Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy Programme that has received significant funding from the Netherlands to work on these challenges in more than ten conflict-affected countries over the next four years.

On all of these fronts education can play a constructive role – whether it be by providing protection in response to crisis and conflict, tackling inequalities in access or bias in education provision, or by contributing to transformation and change as part of peacebuilding processes. However, it is clear that these challenges will not be addressed successfully if we limit our efforts to solely to basic education. The GMR highlighted research evidence that suggests a link between the risk of conflict and a high youth population, especially unemployed youth with few years of secondary education. The Global Partnership for Education (formerly the EFA Fast Track Initiative) has a particular role here since it is the only multilateral mechanism focused on funding education from early primary through secondary and this will become increasingly important post the current MDGs. However, the research tends to emphasise youth as a ‘risk to conflict’, rather than a ‘resource for peacebuilding’, which is why the UNESCO IIEP Youth Policy Forum, Plan With Youth will explore how to engage constructively with youth in conflict-affected countries. The event coincides with the launch of the 2012 GMR and will examine the role of youth in peacebuilding, civic engagement and the development of skills for employment and sustainable livelihoods.



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