In it for the long run: Education as an immediate emergency priority

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Children often spend years in refugee camps without access to education. [Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr]

Refugees spend an average of 20 years away from their homes, in the “limbo” of temporary shelters with only basic provisions. Education is vital to building a sense of normality and ensuring these years are not wasted, writes Nicholas Rutherford.

Nicholas Rutherford is event director for AidEx, the leading forum for the international aid and development community to discuss how to improve the efficiency of aid delivery, taking place at Brussels Expo on 16 and 17 November. EURACTIV is a Media Partner of AidEx Brussels.

When disaster strikes, the immediate needs of affected populations are fairly basic: food, shelter, and water. Longer-term priorities tend to slip off the radar, which is understandable. But if left unchecked for too long, this can have a devastating effect, and severely impede long-term development goals.

Take education for instance. Around 37 million children are currently out of school in crisis-affected countries, following the destruction or closure of schools, and the displacement of both teachers and pupils. This number increases to 75 million when you consider those who are at risk of missing out on their education. Sometimes this disruption is short-lived and the time lost can quickly be recovered. But more often, things move slowly. The average refugee will spend 20 years displaced from their home. During this interval, they remain in a kind of “limbo”, in living conditions originally designed to deal with short-term immediate needs. Educational infrastructure is rarely a priority.

Yet a recent UN report shows the impact of such short-term thinking. Overall, refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than the global average. The gap becomes wider and wider as children age, resulting in just 1% of refugees going on to third-level university education. And since we know higher education has a direct link to future economic outlook, this is incredibly worrying.

Earlier this year, the European Commission announced a €52 million humanitarian aid package aimed specifically at supporting educational projects for children in emergencies. This represents 4% of the total EU aid budget – four times as much as was pledged to such projects last year – and is part of a broader pattern of increased global commitment to education in emergencies. During May’s World Humanitarian Summit, a new fund for this purpose was launched under the fitting title Education Cannot Wait.

What this reflects is a sense of urgency which, until now, has been lacking from conversations around the topic.  Because while it’s true that learning won’t immediately help feed or house a child whose life has been rocked by disaster, it can restore a sense of normality. School is ordinary, school is safe. Returning to the classroom, focusing on reading, writing, maths or science – even if it’s in a temporary shelter or miles from home – gives students something else to focus on.

But education is more than just a distraction. Access to education means that the years spent in “limbo” are not entirely wasted. For instance, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, sadly, few Syrian refugees will be going home anytime soon. That means they must become integrated into the educational systems of their host countries – which demands additional support for these teachers and schools – or that their temporary living conditions must be designed with schooling in mind.

This spotlight on education is just one example of the narrowing gap between humanitarian aid and development efforts. What once would have been seen as a “nice-to-have” is now rightly being touted as an essential priority. I think this stems partly from an increased awareness that, with the number of humanitarian crises around the world, aid budgets just won’t stretch far enough if they continue to focus solely on intervention and relief efforts.

Global donors and international organisations often fail to factor preparedness efforts and local capacity building into their aid budgets. This is partly because, quite frankly, preparedness isn’t sexy. It’s far harder to generate goodwill and funding to prevent a hypothetical disaster from ever occurring than it is to raise money once disaster has struck.

But we need to find ways to overcome this challenge. As we’ll discuss at AidEx this week, investing in local capacity building means communities are empowered to become self-sustaining and resilient, even in the midst of an emergency. Often, this is far more effective than external intervention.

Of course, as long as there are natural and man-made crises, humanitarian assistance will remain an unfortunate necessity. Development efforts can and will be occasionally derailed by such incidents. Yet a closer understanding of the relationship between the two, where we look at some areas which have traditionally been seen as long-term development priorities through the prism of emergency aid instead, can have a far greater and more positive impact.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe