By Yasmine Sherif, Director, Education Cannot Wait, and Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, Director, International Parliamentary Network for Education
COVID-19 has upended our world, threatening our health, destroying economies and livelihoods, and deepening poverty and inequalities. It also created the single largest disruption to education systems that the world has ever seen.
Schools also play a critical role in ensuring the delivery of essential health services and nutritious meals, protection, and psycho-social support, which means that their closure has imperiled children’s overall wellbeing and development, not just their learning. At the same time, conflicts continue to rage and the disastrous effects of a changing climate threaten our very existence and are driving record levels of displacement.
Crisis upon crisis
128 million children and youth people whose education was already disrupted by conflict and crises have been doubly hit by COVID-19, with the pandemic creating a ‘crisis upon a crisis’. The length and extent of disruption to education systems around the world due to the pandemic has tested the very concept of education in the context of humanitarian crises.
What does it mean to be dedicated to ‘education in emergencies’ in a world in which 90% of schools were shut due to a global pandemic?
How do we support children get an education in countries affected by conflict and fragility when in peaceful and stable countries millions of children are at risk of never returning to school?
Will the push to deliver remedial education for the millions of children who have lost learning over the last two years stretch to helping the three million refugee children who were out of school before the pandemic?
Breakthrough or breakdown?
These questions underscore a stark and urgent choice. Do we push for an ambitious and inclusive breakthrough or accept that the pandemic has led to an irreversible breakdown in educational progress and will permanently deny millions of children the opportunity to go to school?
From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe conflicts, forced displacement, famines, and climate-change-induced floods, fires, and extreme heat, together with COVID-19 have combined to form a fatal cocktail that is robbing children of their education.
Last week on a visit to Cameroon, Education Cannot Wait met some of the 700,000 children there who are impacted by school closures due to violence. If this alone were not bad enough, just a few days before the visit, four students and a teacher were killed in a targeted attack, and, in a separate heinous incident, a young girl had her fingers viciously chopped off just for trying to go to school.
Education is a priority for communities caught up in crises
The bravery and determination of the children of Cameroon is a testament to the priority that crisis-affected communities all across the world place on education. They know that education transforms lives, paving the way to better work, health, and livelihoods. They know that continuing education in a safe place provides a sense of normality, safety, and routine for children and young people whilst building the foundations for peace, recovery, and long-term development among future generations.
They tell us their education cannot wait. But delivering that quality education to these children remains a persistent challenge.
Collaborating to grow political leadership
At the heart of that challenge is a lack of sustained political commitment to education in general and to education in humanitarian contexts in particular. By way of example, eight years after the UN Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative suggested that education should receive at least 4% of short-term humanitarian funding, UNOCHA’s FTS data suggests that less than 3% of the total reported humanitarian funding (including funding flows from government donors, international organizations, NGOs, and other humanitarian actors) was allocated to education.
At the same time, we know that political leadership can make a difference, as evidenced by the EU’s commitment in 2019 to increase aid for education to 10% of its total humanitarian aid. Determinedly led by Christos Stylianides, the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management at the time, the initiative was backed by the European Parliament.
A shared commitment
Education Cannot Wait (ECW), established at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 and the International Parliamentary Network for Education (IPNEd), which launched during the UN General Assembly in 2020 share a commitment to turning around decades of neglect and growing the political commitment to education in humanitarian crises. At the RewirEd Summit in Dubai, we met and agreed to work together to inspire political understanding and commitment so that education is viewed by both governments and funders as a top priority during crises.
Parliamentarians in their roles as representatives, advocates, legislators, budget shapers, and as providers of scrutiny have a vital and largely underutilized role to play in accelerating the delivery of properly funded, high-quality, and inclusive education systems in emergencies and protracted crises.
Focus on financing
A central focus of our work will be increasing the volume, predictability, and effectiveness of international aid to education in emergencies. Acknowledging the specific role that ECW has in increasing and improving the quality of financial support for education in emergencies we will mobilize political support for ECW-facilitated Multi-Year Resilience Programmes and First Emergency-Responses, and work to ensure that Education Cannot Wait mobilizes at least an additional US$1 billion for its next operating period.
Our commitment was underpinned by an affirmation of the promise to ‘leave no one behind’, to support parliamentarians to understand and address the causes of conflict, crisis, and climate change, and to increase the access of those affected by humanitarian crises to political leaders.
More than anything else the pandemic has revealed our shared vulnerability and interconnectedness. It has demonstrated that in the face of a shared threat, cooperation and solidarity are the only solutions, within societies and between nations. We must re-embrace global solidarity and find new ways to work together for the common good in general and to accelerate educational progress in particular. ECW and IPNEd are two new ways of doing this.
ECW exemplifies the potential of collective action on the global stage. Since its inception, ECW has supported access to quality education for 4.6 million children in over 30 crisis-affected countries. Furthermore, 29.2 million children and adolescents (51% girls), have been reached with ECW COVID-19 emergency education interventions. But it undoubtedly needs more and better support to build on these achievements and deliver on its purpose to transform the lives of millions more girls and boys caught in the most challenging circumstances.
IPNEd, on the other hand, demonstrates the appetite from political leaders to be supported in their work to accelerate educational progress and to work together internationally in doing so.
By working together, we can achieve an ambitious and inclusive educational breakthrough in response to the multiple crises the world is facing. There is no time to lose. The future of an entire generation is hanging in the balance.
* Feature image credit: IOM /Allan Motus