Abdelsalam is 12 years old. He spends his days working in a mechanic’s shop, sorting nuts and bolts. A Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, Abdelsalam has been out of school for three years and unable to restart his education in his new home. Though he continues to dream of going to school, he says he has lost all hope in the future, explaining “my dream was to become a teacher, to teach all children of Syria, but this can’t happen now.” Forced to flee the war in Syria, Abdelsalam has now abandoned all of his ambitions and resigned himself to a life of hard labor wherever he can find work.
Abdelsalam is not alone. Before the last six years of war destroyed the lives of millions, Syrian youth were among the most educated in the Middle East, with almost universal primary education enrollment and a 74 percent secondary school completion rate. In stark contrast, today 2.1 million children in Syria and another 700,000 living in neighboring countries have been forced out of school. The crisis caused by Syria is only the tip of the iceberg globally. Around the world, 80 million children and adolescents have had their education directly affected by conflict and emergencies and 37 million have been forced out of school in situations where access to an education can mean the difference between hope for the future and a life of poverty and exploitation.
Despite these numbers and the repeated warnings of the impact of under-skilled and underemployed youth around the world particularly in the Middle East, there has been a dramatic inertia around solving the challenge of generations of children and youth without options to continue their education.
UNICEF estimates the cost of the loss of human capital resulting from Syrian children missing out on education alone to be US$10.7 billion, more than 17 percent of Syria’s 2010 GDP. The cost of inaction is even higher in financial, economic, social, and moral terms than addressing the needs of these children and youth.
Nepali students eager for a day at school; photo by Claire Wilkinson/Lauren Ciell for A World at School
Despite this, when attention is paid to this issue, it is usually in the form of ominous warnings about disenfranchised youth being part of terrorist movements or politically or religiously motivated criminals. Today when we consider the instability in the Middle East we instinctively think of the terrorist threat posed by people like Abdelsalam’s near-namesake Salah Abdeslam, the recently captured Belgian national linked with the Paris terrorist attacks.
This fear-based youth and terror narrative misses the point. Children and youth without education and options are not inherently dangerous, but they are significantly more vulnerable. A child without the stability of a classroom and hope for a future is at far greater risk of social, economic, and sexual exploitation. Child labor, child and forced marriage, sexual violence and prostitution, recruitment into fighting, and exploitation by criminal groups all rise rapidly during emergencies as devastated families recalculate their options for basic survival. In Lebanon alone, 70 percent to 80 percent of out-of-school children—300,000 to 400,000 individuals—are estimated to be involved in child labor.
It’s even worse for girls. Girls are almost 2.5 times more likely to be out-of-school in conflict-affected countries and 90 percent more likely to be excluded from secondary school. Natural disasters and conflicts limit economic opportunities and weaken social institutions—greatly increasing the risk of sexual violence and exploitation of women and girls. Girls, particularly from poor families, are also at higher risk of early and forced marriage (a form of sexual slavery) due to limited, actual, or perceived alternatives to protect and provide for families. Among Syrian refugee girls living in Jordan, forced marriage has doubled, with many girls marrying men at least ten years older.
It is true that when children are vulnerable we are all more vulnerable. Society at large should be measured by how it looks after its children. Yet, despite a great deal of rhetoric on the importance of education, efforts to create safe places to play and learn for children impacted by conflict and disaster around the world received a mere 1.4 percent of all humanitarian funding in 2015.
While rich countries wring their hands over ‘the refugee problem,’ while peace talks break down, while neighboring countries struggle under the real burden of a refugee population in the millions, most world leaders continue to overlook perhaps the best proactive non-political solution for future stability in the Middle East region—a return to education for children and youth.
Education as Protection, Education for Rebuilding
Like food and shelter, education is a human right. Each successive week, month, and year of education that is lost compounds the individual, social, and economic costs exponentially—permanently leaving children, families, and communities in a desperate fight for survival.
In the very short-term, a safe place to play and learn can reduce vulnerability and be a setting to teach children life-saving survival skills and provide them with safety information about issues such as sexual assault and landmine awareness. Attending school also offers a return to routine and normalcy for children who have been traumatized. Quickly returning to days of routine and learning also helps preserve children’s academic progress and the sacrifices and investments families have already made in education.
The long-term benefits of education for all children are also significant. According to UNESCO, a child whose mother can read is 50 percent more likely to live past age five and The Lancet estimates that the global increase in girls’ education over the past 40 years has saved the lives of more than 4 million children. According to UNESCO enabling all students in low-income countries to acquire basic reading skills could lift 171 million people out of poverty, effectively reducing global poverty by 12 percent.
Beyond impacts on individual poverty, evidence from low- and middle-income countries shows that increasing secondary school enrollment rates to 10 percent above average reduces the risk of war by 3 percent. In contrast, a study of 55 countries indicated that when education inequality doubled, the probability of conflict doubled too. Evidence also shows that education plays a role in peace building by promoting values such as tolerance and conflict resolution and that those with a secondary education are three times more likely to support democracy than those with no education.
Education is critical for protecting children and families, keeping the peace, and rebuilding.
The Biggest Barrier: Insufficient Funding
The destruction of schools, the deaths and disappearances of teachers, the risks of airstrikes, and the targeting of children for forced recruitment for combat and sexual abuse, makes access to school within Syria tremendously dangerous. In the rest of the region there are other types of barriers including lost school records and documentation, language of instruction, differences in accreditation, employment restrictions for teachers, and difficulty in accessing information about available services and opportunities.
However, by far the biggest barrier to continued learning for the children and youth of Syria is donor funding. Neighboring countries have stepped up financially and morally in a way that is astounding. At least 25 percent of the population in Lebanon is now refugees and Lebanon was the first to pilot a double-shift system using their existing facilities so that school is open half the day for Lebanese students and half the day for refugees. At 12:30 PM as the bell sounds ending the school day for Lebanese children, Syrian children, whose school day doesn’t start until 2:00 PM, begin to press up against the gates eager for their classes to start.
In another example of the burden borne locally, President Erdoğan noted in an address that Turkey has spent ‘more than US$10 billion caring for [refugees (Turkey calls them guests)] while getting less than half a billion dollars from the international community.’
In these surrounding countries—in particular Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey—plans developed by host governments to accommodate Syrian refugee children in public schools are already in place and working, but lack full funding. Of seven Syrian humanitarian response plans between 2012 and 2015, education appeals have been funded on average 42 percent, reaching just 32 percent of those children in need of education.
Again, it is worse for girls. Fewer than 27 percent of refugee girls in the region received the critical support they needed for education, excluding more than 1.6 million girls in 2015. According to a review of humanitarian assistance to education for the Syrian emergency, at the end of 2015, there were at least US$178.3 million of unmet education funding requests. That number only reflects unmet requests for funding which, anticipating a lack of political will to fund education, are already conservative.
This persistent lack of funding for education for children and youth affected by the Syrian War reflects a chronic lack of support for education in all emergencies. In 2015, only 31 percent of education appeals were funded and education received just 1.4 percent of all humanitarian funding.
Why Are We Failing These Children and Youth?
The advent of a crisis like school closures due to Ebola in West Africa, the earthquake in Nepal, the war in Syria sees well meaning advocates, humanitarians and non-governmental organizations going out cap in hand every single time for the funds to address each humanitarian crisis. These well-meaning humanitarian appeals can bring in resources for a crisis but are extremely limited. Countries with less high-profile emergencies often have no appeal or without media attention appeals can remain completely unfunded.
A Nepalese boy walks to school past the rubble of destroyed buildings left by the 2015 earthquake; photo by Claire Wilkinson/Lauren Ciell for A World at School
There is also competition within the appeal process between sectors—with food, shelter, and essential medicines crowding out education before requests are even made. In 2015, requested funds for education within humanitarian appeals (if fully funded) would only have reached 58 percent of those in need. Ultimately, funds actually received were enough for only 12 percent of those children and youth in need globally.
These trade-offs that see education requests left completely out of appeals or requests that include far less than is actually needed is due both to the reality of a manufactured scarcity for response overall as well as false perception by many who work in emergency response and humanitarian relief that education is not a life-saving priority and is the responsibility of the longer-term development community after the emergency period. In an era of protracted crises, however, and with the average length of displacement for refugees now at 17 years, this view does not reflect the reality of what’s needed to protect children in these settings, to prevent further crisis or to rebuild.
Gaps between emergency response and longer-term development are most extreme in the education sector where funding, even in the most stable contexts, has not kept pace with health. Donor resources more broadly for education globally are erratic, uncoordinated, and declining. Aid for basic education has fallen every year since 2010 and in that same period, 13 of the poorest countries in the world have had their basic education aid cut.
The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) which prioritizes ‘the poorest, most vulnerable and those living in fragile and conflict-affected countries’ also does not currently have a mandate to work in countries like Lebanon and Syria which are not classified as amongst the poorest in the world. GPE does work tirelessly in more than 60 developing countries in its push to ensure that every child receives a quality basic education. However, GPE continues to provide financing while other sources dry up. Even though GPE is one of the most important sources for funding in these contexts, in its last replenishment donors underfunded it by more than US$1 billion.
Donors use the financial crisis to explain away reductions in aid to education and a move to shift to greater country financing, but this obscures the fact that since 2008 donor investments in health have risen 58 percent while investments in education dropped 19 percent. There are resources, they are just not being invested in education.
There is unequivocal evidence on the impact of education as well as several examples we can follow for mobilizing resources to respond to desperate and complex needs at scale—like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which has mobilized US$33 billion dollars to fight these pandemics. It seems, however, that we cannot make the mental leap between providing a bednet or a vaccine and the investments needed to support every child to realize their fundamental right to education.
Progress, And an Immediate Opportunity
To their credit, some in the international community appear be catching on to the critical need for education in general and more urgently in the most complex emergency settings.
On February 4, 2016, the United Kingdom, Germany, Kuwait, Norway, and the United Nations co-hosted a “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference to raise funds for humanitarian needs. Former UK Prime Minister and current United Nations Special Envoy for Education Gordon Brown called for countries to make specific pledges to get at least 1 million refugee children back in school—a total estimated cost of US$1.4 billion.
Overall, the conference raised over US$11 billion in new pledges for humanitarian relief in the region—US$5.8 billion for 2016 and US$5.4 billion for the following three years. On the eve of the conference, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron doubled the UK’s commitment to 2.3 billion pounds, emphasizing the need to increase humanitarian commitment to education.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry also announced a new US$925 million US contribution to the Syrian crisis, “$290 million of which is new funding specifically to support schooling for 300,000 youth in Jordan and Lebanon.” Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Borge Brende, a well-known champion of education, pledged that as much as 15 percent of Norway’s contributions to Syria will be focused on education and challenged other donors to do the same.
Numerous other countries also emphasized the importance of education as they made new pledges to Syria and the region, though few others detailed specific contributions for education. For the first time education was front and center of the humanitarian response signaling increasing leadership built on the reality of what must be done to actually protect children and address the challenges of protracted crisis. If the pledges are delivered, it will be enough to get an additional million children in school.
Despite the recent raising of funds for the Syria response, the burden that Syria’s neighbors continue to bear has been described by World Bank President Jim Kim as ‘fundamentally unsustainable,’ signaling that the real tragedy of this war is yet to come. Millions of people without hope, without prospects, without the skills to learn and adapt in the marketplace, without means to support themselves and their families is a realpolitik problem that will not be solved by rhetoric or even by the most successful peace talks. Evidence shows clearly that peace with education inequality—peace without justice—is temporary.
The Education Cannot Wait Fund and Next Steps
The work of campaigners and key leaders in education advocacy has led to the launch of Education Cannot Wait: a fund for education in emergencies on May 23rd at the World Humanitarian Summit. The Education Cannot Wait Fund is designed to increase political commitment, attract new and greater funding, and create more innovative ways to solve the challenge of education in emergencies around the world. At the launch, donors from the UK, the US, Norway, the Netherlands, the European Union, and the private sector committed over $90 million dollars in resources for the Fund—about $60 million short of the modest year 1 goal.
Education Cannot Wait has the possibility to be a turning point for children and youth living in the most difficult contexts if it can mobilize resources at the scale of a truly global fund. Following the evidence on the impact of education on children and communities in these contexts, the Fund also has the possibility to be a milestone in human history—signaling a sea change in how we think about humanitarian response and rebuilding in the face of tragedy and violence.
Syrian refugee children getting ready for school at Istoc Primary in Bagcilar,Turkey; photo by Tyler Zang for A World at School
This will only be true if donors step up and fund Education Cannot Wait as if the stability of the Syria region, as if the futures of millions of children and families and the countries that are currently bearing this burden depend on it. That means realistically addressing the estimated US$8.5 billion gap (a conservative estimate) for education in emergencies around the world, rather than implementing paltry efforts designed to deflect political criticism. It means funding that starts a legacy of education for children who are the most at risk and vulnerable in our world.
If hindsight or the evidence of what’s possible isn’t convincing, the financial price of keeping children out of school should be. The direct costs of replacing damaged school infrastructure and training new teachers in Syria is estimated at US$3.2 billion—far less than the more than US$10 billion estimated losses of doing absolutely nothing.
If the Education Cannot Wait Fund had existed six years ago at the start of the Syrian War and if it had been funded at a level of ambition relative to the scale of the global problem, we would have been better prepared to respond to the needs of the millions of children and youth from Syria who have lost their families, witnessed terrible violence, been displaced, married off, sent off to do hard labor, trafficked, or abandoned. More importantly we would have had the opportunity to prevent some of this tragedy.
If the Education Cannot Wait Fund had existed then, we could have responded with resources that are based on the evidence about what children need and what rebuilding requires. We could have worked on a political solution while simultaneously children continued to plan their futures, where families were not forced to calculate the survival of one child over another. We could have perhaps avoided the discussions and negotiations about how many refugees richer countries can afford or are not afraid to take —discussions that shame us all.
If donors step up to fully fund Education Cannot Wait children like Abdelsalam can become teachers or engineers, dentists or shop owners. Children like Abdelsalam can rebuild Syria. Generations of children and youth rebuilding their lives and eventually their country, is the only response to this war that is actually designed to end and prevent further suffering.
The $90 million pledged at the launch was a start, but it’s nowhere near enough. For these reasons, the Refugee Summit and UN General Assembly in September 2016 is the next moment in which donors must step up to commit ambitious, multi-year funding to Education Cannot Wait. It is a moment is a moment for the kind of leadership that shifts humanity towards what we think we are most capable of and away from the fear and greed that is often the invisible hand in resource politics. All eyes will be on the leaders that attend and the decisions they make.
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