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Four poor excuses for neglecting children’s education in crises – and what to do about it

Written by Susan Nicolai


​Nepal’s devastating earthquake in May this year destroyed or damaged 50,000 classrooms, affecting more than a million children.

Last year, Ebola wreaked havoc on already fragile school systems in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, disrupting education for 8.5 million children.

And right now, the Syrian conflict has led to 2.6 million children out of school in Syria and neighbouring countries.

Emergencies and protracted crises cause some of the most shocking violations of the right to education worldwide. Neglecting the education of these children and youth jeopardises not only their future, but also the future of their societies.

This week, the Oslo Summit on Education for Development is bringing together global figures like Ban Ki-moon and Malala Yousafzai to help reverse the negative trend in international support for education and reach the millions – including those affected by emergencies – who are still being denied their right to education.

New ODI research prepared for the summit found that a shocking 65 million children and youth worldwide are out of school or at risk of disruption in crisis countries. To reach them, there is a shortfall of $4.8 billion annually, meaning that we could begin to ensure education for a mere $74 per child.

Yet too often, education is not seen as urgent, and emergencies decimate already fragile systems with little response because funding is inadequate.

So why the neglect?  Here are a few reasons some poor excuses.

1. Governments aren’t aware of the problem

We’ve known for a decade that somewhere between a third and one half of children out of school are in conflict-affected countries, with the latest update on these figures produced by the EFA Global Monitoring Report earlier this week.

The reality is that the scale of the problem is even bigger when one looks beyond just conflict and includes those in school but at risk of disruption and dropping out. And some have it worse than others. Our estimate of 65 million affected includes 14 million displaced and refugee children. Girls, children with disabilities, and those places where education itself is under attack often suffer even more. 

Unless we do more to reach these children, the world will inevitably fail to reach any new global education targets included in the Sustainable Development Goals.  And with this data, the international community cannot pretend it doesn’t know the scale and complexity of the problem.

2. Unclear mandates and poor coordination

Those working in the aid world often talk about ‘the humanitarian-development divide’ that leaves education to fall between the cracks. For humanitarians, education isn’t lifesaving.  And for development actors, funding education in crisis contexts is too risky.

This creates problems in working together to improve capacity for response, coherence across assessment and planning, and strengthening data collection and use.

For the past 10 years, the INEE Minimum Standards have shown practitioners how it should be done.  But perhaps they haven’t reached those higher up in government and international organisations who are making decisions.

We clearly do know a lot about how to respond to education crises – but we need better international architecture to bridge the gaps and make it happen.

3. Can’t find the money

We estimate that $8 billion a year could provide educational support to the 65 million children aged 3-15 years affected by crisis. Once domestic governments’ contributions are included, there is a global finance gap of $4.8 billion a year - an average of just $74 per child. 

So where to find the money? Domestic education budgets in fragile states have been going down in recent years rather than up. Most focus has been on humanitarian aid for education, making up less than 2% of the total – or just $105 million last year. This would need to increase by 50 times to cover the gap. Humanitarian aid can bridge some of the gap, but certainly not all.

We need to rethink existing aid to education – and find additional sources.  Development aid to education was $12.6 billion in 2012, but only $1.1 billion of this went to crisis contexts. If allocations could be more flexible, this amount would only need to increase four-fold.

While the Global Partnership for Education has had pledges of $2.1bn for the coming years, the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria is at $12bn and GAVI, the vaccine alliance, has $7.5 billion. The money is out there. 

4. Low on the political agenda

Ultimately, education in crisis hasn’t been a political priority. This is starting to change, with leaders like Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, calling for a global education emergency fund.

We need world leaders and governments meeting today in Oslo to:

  • Form a high-level group of champions to further global action;

  • Establish and implement consolidated principles for education in emergencies and protracted crises;

  • Create a common platform to coordinate work by governments, NGOs and the private sector to provide education in countries hit by emergencies;

  • Address the financing gap though the creation of a dedicated fund or another agreed mechanism. 

The international community now has a chance to fill the $4.8 billion gap and create a place to put those resources, whether through a new dedicated global fund or multiple country funds. 

There should be no more excuses.  Although the cost of adequately providing education in all crises contexts is high, the cost of not doing so is far higher.