Daniel* is a budding scientist and was top of his class in South Sudan.

Speech: Kevin Watkins at The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Refugee education under stress

Speech: Kevin Watkins at The Graduate Institute, Geneva, delivered on Friday 30 November 2018

Thank you for the invitation to be here with you today.

I work for a charity created 100 years ago to respond to the impact of a conflict – the First World War – on children. Our founder, Eglantyne Jebb, broke the law in the UK by raising funds and delivering aid to children living in countries deemed ‘hostile powers’. She then spent her life changing laws and helped lay the foundations for the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Her ethos was summarised in a simple, short sentence: “Humanity owes the child the best it has to give”.

Today, Save the Children is delivering education to refugees and displaced children across the world’s conflict zones. We are working with Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and refugees from South Sudan now living in northern Uganda. In 2016, we were supporting 10 million children affected by emergencies of different types in over 60 countries.

Talking with refugee children is the most chilling, the most humbling, and the most frustrating part of my job.

It’s chilling because many of these children recount experiences that no child should suffer. One 6-year-old Rohingya boy I met in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, has seen his brother shot, his sister raped, and his home burnt down. In Lebanon’s Beka Valley, I met a 12-year-old girl called Amina* from the town of Ghouta. Her school was hit by a mortar shell which killed two of her classmates – and her family fled after a gas attack.

The reason it’s humbling to talk to refugee children is because of their relentless capacity for hope and their indescribable resilience. Last year I met a South Sudanese refugee called Daniel* in northern Uganda. He was 12 years old. I first noticed him sitting in a tent serving as a classroom for 40 children, only one of whom had a book – and that was Daniel, who very proudly showed me an exercise book for science.

I asked him how he had managed to get the book. He told me how an armed militia had entered his village, killed several people, and abducted his father. The rest of his family fled into the bush. Daniel also fled, but first he ran to his school to grab the book I found him sitting with. He then walked for two days to the border with Uganda. He had no shoes and was wearing a torn t-shirt. But he arrived with that book.

“Why was it so important to you?” I asked him. He gave me a ‘what a dumb question’ look and went on to explain that he intended to become a scientist, that he loved learning, and that education would help him rebuild his life. He then asked me how a refugee like him could get into school.

And right there is the source of frustration. How is it that a child like Daniel can show such unbelievable resolve and courage, and be faced with the prospect of losing his only chance for an education?

As Eglantyne Jebb might have asked: are we giving children like Daniel the best we have to give?

Some people on this panel can answer that question with an unequivocal ‘yes’.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Commissioner Stylianides for the extraordinary job he has done in championing the cause of children losing out on education because of conflict. Under his leadership, the share of the EU’s budget directed to education in emergencies has increased from 2 per cent to 10 per cent. ECHO has emerged not just as a thought leader but as a source of funds and programmes that are transforming the lives of refugee children. Along with the Norwegian Government, it is now one of the biggest sources of finance for the Education Clusters responding to education emergencies.

More broadly, the European Union has demonstrated the power of cooperation. It is the biggest source of finance for the response to the Syrian crisis in education, and a key player in countries such as Afghanistan.

I also want to acknowledge the leadership of Filippo Grandi, Shireen Yacoub and Sikander Khan and the critical role their agencies are playing in so many countries. My colleagues in Save the Children are working closely with their teams.

But let’s be brutally honest – this is not a battle we are winning.

The numbers tell their own story. Around 8 million of the world’s refugees are school-age children – half of them are out of school. If refugee children were a country, that country would have the world’s lowest rate of school enrollment. Just one quarter of adolescent refugee children are in school. Refugee girls are particularly disadvantaged: there are just seven enrolled for every ten boys at a secondary level.

Many refugee children have fallen a long way. Take the example of Syria. Six years ago, this was a country with universal primary education and closing in on universal secondary schooling. Today, around 40 per cent of primary school age are out of school, rising to over 70 per cent at the secondary level.

This is probably the greatest education reversal in human history. In the space of a single generation, Syria’s children have transitioned from an education system on a par with Thailand to education indicators that are worse than those observed in many low-income states in sub-Saharan Africa.

Rather than recite data, let me refer you to an excellent UNHCR report Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis and (apologies here for the plug) Save the Children’s report Time to Act: providing refugee children the education they were promised, both of which document the scale of the crisis.

You hardly need those of us on this panel to tell you why resolving that crisis is a matter of great urgency.

Education provides refugee children with the oxygen of hope. For children who have experienced trauma, it offers a sense that life can return to normal – and a safe environment in which emotional scars can be healed. Speak to the parent of a refugee child, and they’ll tell you that education is their child’s passport out of poverty – and that learning is an asset that no one can take away. They are also likely to tell you that getting a child in school is the best way of keeping them away from militias.

For refugee girls, the alternative to education is often an early marriage induced by poverty. Walk around the streets of Amman and Beirut, or visit agricultural areas in the Beka Valley, and you’ll see children who should be sitting in a classroom learning out on the streets and in fields working.

So here is the million-dollar question that any school child might ask. How comes we as a global community are squandering the futures and eroding the potential of so many children?

The answer to that question varies from country to country. But let me give you five opening offers.

  1. First, education represents the small-change division of humanitarian aid. It accounts for just 2 per cent of total humanitarian development assistance. Unlike refugee children and their parents, it appears that aid donors still don’t get the value of education.
  2. Second, while the displacement that affects children is increasingly long-term, finance for education in emergencies is overwhelmingly short-term and unpredictable. Many of our emergency education programmes are funded through budget lines that run from 3 months to one year, and there is seldom any certainty about renewal.
  3. Third, large-scale emergencies place an enormous burden on already over-stretched education systems. The surge of South Sudanese refugees into Uganda created an additional school age population bigger than that of Geneva, the city we are meeting in. One in every two children in Lebanon’s public schools is now a Syrian refugee. Contrary to the perception created by the moral panic now playing out in Europe, most refugees are hosted in low income countries – and these countries typically lack the finance and the planning capacity to respond.
  4. Fourth, regulatory barriers can act as a complicating factor. Refugee populations often include large numbers of teachers, but host country employment rules may limit the employment of non-national teachers. Rules on the curriculum and language of instruction cab mean that refugee children end up being taught in a language they struggle to understand. Many refugee parents I’ve spoken to tell me that their children’s education has been disrupted because host country authorities require certificates they don’t have.
  5. Fifth, the donor planning landscape is highly fragmented, with dozens of aid donors and education providers running projects through governments, national and international NGOs, and other actors, often competing for the time and attention of over-stretched government officials. The deeper problem is that no one agency is charged with developing plans for getting all refugees into school. In practice many emergency education clusters are left to allocate inadequate funds on a project by project basis, with numbers reached falling far short of those in need.

Now for good news… All of this is eminently fixable.

Governments in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have done an extraordinary job in expanding refugee access to education. Countries have opened the doors of local schools, introduced double-shift systems, and invested heavily with donor support in education provision.

In Uganda, the government and aid donors have put in place a plan of action, the Education Response Plan, aimed at reaching over half-a-million refugee children – children like Daniel – each year for the next three years. The catalyst for this Education Response Programme was the Education Cannot Wait facility. Not every addition to the aid architecture has made a difference (at least in a positive direction), but ECW is an example of what can be achieved through good leadership allied to innovation and financial support.

My own view is that we need to rethink the refugee education delivery model. The starting point is one we should all be able to agree on. We need national plans of action aimed at getting every refugee child back into a learning environment. Our ambition cannot be limited by the grossly inadequate aid effort now on offer.

These national plans should encompass the full gamut of delivery. That includes the procurement of low-cost temporary learning centres, new buildings, and the design of second shift systems; teacher recruitment and training, including the reforms needed to facilitate the employment of refugee teachers; curriculum design and development; estimated financing requirements; and the design of assessments for tracking learning outcomes. This framework could be developed on a virtual basis across UN agencies, ECW and the World bank, working with host governments.

Because education does not exist in isolation, it is critical also that the plans address barriers to education rooted in the poverty of refugees or insecurity about their status.

Of course, no amount of national planning can substitute for donor support. Unfortunately, education aid is under-funded in general, and aid for education in conflict is chronically under-funded. Addressing this challenge will require sustained engagement with donors at a time when fiscal stress is already placing pressure on aid budget. That is why role of champions like Commissioner Stylianides and Filippo Grandi is so important – and it’s why we should all be supporting the efforts led by Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the UK, to put the case for education financing at the heart of the international agenda.

Of course, none of this is easy.

Then again, it’s not easy to be faced with the situation Daniel and millions of refugees are forced to respond to. Uprooted from their homes, subjected to terror, driven into poverty and forced to flee across borders, these children have suffered more than most of us can imagine – but they have not given up hope.

How we treat refugees, and how we respond to their efforts to get an education, is not just a ‘development issue’. It is a test of our humanity and morality.

That’s why all of us have to ask whether we are giving children like Daniel the best we have to give.

They deserve nothing less.

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