COVID-19 threatens to dismantle achievements: Keeping education in emergencies on the agenda

Author: Sonja Hövelmann
Date: 15. March 2021


UNICEF released a report earlier this month stating that 168 million children have missed out on a full year of classroom instruction due to pandemic-related school closures. The so-called ‘education emergency’ has not only dire impacts on many learners in crisis-affected contexts but also threatens to dismantle significant achievements concerning the provision of education as part of a humanitarian response. Sonja Hövelmann provides three suggestions to keep education on the agenda moving forward.

Four weeks ago, the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencieswas launched. This network, consisting of UN agencies, networks, donors and research institutions, is a good opportunity to bring education in emergencies back on the agenda, as the dire impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary effects become more apparent. Development reversals, especially regarding the fight against global hunger, forge a ‘back to basics’ focus of emergency relief on food, medicine, water and sanitation rather than on providing education or changing unequal gender norms. Funding crunches and financing gaps – such as the recently announced overseas aid budget cuts of 30 per cent by the UK government – will likely increase, as traditional donor states come under economic pressure due to COVID-19 assistance to businesses and public at home. Yet, closed schools and discontinued education worldwide indeed increase the need to pay attention to the future of the most vulnerable children in fragile and conflict affected contexts.

Education in emergencies (EiE) refers to quality, inclusive learning opportunities for learners of all ages in situations of crisis such as conflict or natural disasters. It includes formal and non-formal education as well a psycho-social support or social emotional learning. EiE has long been side-lined or marginalized as part of the humanitarian sector because it is often not seen as a life-saving part emergency response, despite the fact that communities and families in crises-affected contexts continuously prioritize education. However, joint advocacy as well as the increasingly protracted situations of conflict, insecurity and crises fostered rethinking and change.

EiE has received more visibility

In fact, the EiE sector can look proudly upon several successes in recent years, including the formulation of Minimum Standards for EiE as endorsed by the Sphere Handbook in 2004; the formation of an Education Cluster within the Cluster Approach in 2006; the 2010 UN Resolution on the Right to Education in Emergencies as well as the establishment of the multilateral Education Cannot Wait fund in 2016. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – within the humanitarian system known to be a conservative actor regarding the humanitarian mandate – has developed a Framework on Access to Education laying out its approach on how to enable others to ensure the provision of education in armed conflict. These achievements symbolise the growing recognition and increasing institutionalisation of education as a sector of emergency relief work.

While EiE had faced several obstacles within the humanitarian architecture before COVID-19, the need to pay attention to it is even more dire during this global health emergency. Even prior to the pandemic, 127 million children were out of school, half of them living in crisis-affected countries. In spring 2020, UNESCO calculated that globally 1.6 billion children were not in school due to full or partial school closures. As a result, an estimated two thirds of the academic school year 2020 were lost.

Snapshot March 2020 of school closures worldwide due to protective measures against the Coronavirus. Source: UNESCO.

Research from the Ebola epidemic shows that global health crises can have devasting long-term consequences for children’s wellbeing, learning and safety – especially for girls. The threat of marginalising female learners is also apparent in the context of COVID-19. Studies show that even prior to COVID-19, access to mobile internet was 26 per cent lower for girls than for boys. Likewise, digital solutions for distance learning are often not possible in conflict or crises-affected districts. In countries of Southern and Eastern Africa, less than 30 per cent of the children have internet access at home.

Save the Children assessed in a multi-country study that 37 per cent of the children reported that they had no one to help them with learning, and that 67 per cent had no contact with their teachers at all throughout the last schoolyear. Frequently meals provided as part of nutrition programmes are a reason for parents to send their children to school, as WFP statistics repeatedly show. This only adds to the protection aspect of education that humanitarian actors frequently cite as a reason for providing EiE, as receiving education reduces risks of child labour or child marriages.

While the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to dismantle significant achievements of the development and humanitarian sectors, for example, in terms of fighting hunger, I fear it will also negatively impact the support for education as part of a humanitarian response. Therefore, I offer three suggestions to keep EiE on the agenda for 2021:

Funding: Promising trends, but it is concentrated on few geographical areas and is too short-term

Despite the significant accomplishments outlined above, education continues to be chronically underfunded. In 2019, 2.6 per cent of total humanitarian funding was dedicated to education, continuously failing the 4 per cent goal set by the UN in 2012. Under EU Commissioner Stylianides, DG ECHO became a champion of EiE, by continuously increasing its budget for education from 1 per cent in 2015 to 10 per cent of its total humanitarian aid. For 2021, the European Commission targeted an amount of €146.8 million, which is approximately €13 million less than in 2020.

While education funding is slowly catching up with other sectors, the share of funding requests met is still significantly lower than, for example, the food security cluster. To mitigate the effects of what UNICEF coins an imminent “education emergency”, donors should not only follow the examples of ECHO and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to increase the funding for EiE, but also ensure a more equal distribution across crises. Education requests for the Syria regional response are much better financed than the ‘forgotten’ crises such as Cameroon and Venezuela, whose funding requirements for education were only met by approximately 15 per cent in the last year.

Similarly, a point for improvement is the length of education programmes. A recent external auditors’ report stated that the duration of EiE projects funded by ECHO were on average 10-11 months and thus insufficiently addressed the long-term educational needs in protracted crises. 

EiE actors: More data and evidence are needed

Key EiE actors, such as Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (INEE) and the Education Cannot Wait fund, have been instrumental in establishing and advocating the EiE sector, including the development of standards, tools, guidelines and, most importantly, a community of practice of researchers and practitioners. Moving forward, more research, evidence and data are necessary to ensure that global goals such as SDG 4 on quality education are met. Additionally, they are needed to ensure that non-governmental actors, when they step in to fill gaps in state-provided education, offer quality education with certificates and curricula that allow refugee and migrant learners to continue their education within a formal system. Similarly, non-governmental actors should advocate for strengthening national education systems and draw from local knowledge and expertise to ensure culturally-relevant pedagogy.

Humanitarians: Recognizing education for its full potential

Since the 2000s, the EiE sector has (over-)emphasised the life-saving and life-sustaining aspects of EiE to gain footing as a sector of humanitarian relief work. Looking ahead, it is important to view education not just in terms of ‘humanitarian’ aspects such as protection, but also to allow for quality programming across the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus that offers children and youth perspectives and professional futures. This is important since half of the global out-of-school population lives in crisis-affected contexts where national education systems are non-existent or of insufficient quality. Given the priority and importance that crisis-affected communities place on education, the humanitarian sector should live up to its promise of a ‘participation revolution’ made within the Grand Bargain and ensure that the voices and choices of children and families matter in the type of assistance they receive.

The Portuguese EU Council Presidency 2021 has made EiE a focus topic for the Working Party on Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid (COHAFA). Together with the launch of the Geneva Global Hub, these are important political initiatives to keep EiE on the agenda. This momentum is instrumental to ensure available funding and underline the importance of providing education as part of a humanitarian response in order to mitigate the indirect effects of the pandemic on children’s safety, wellbeing and development.

Sonja Hövelmann is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). She researches the Shrinking Humanitarian Space, Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus, as well as German humanitarian policy.

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