Bridging the humanitarian-development nexus can help refugee students get the education they deserve

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Students at the Second Bourj Hammoud Public School Students at the Second Bourj Hammoud Public School

Overlapping crises. This is the term of our time.  Whether it’s the pandemic, rising food prices, or the climate emergency, the consequences are almost always most devastating for the poorest. These global threats often exacerbate local crises relating to fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV). The result is an ever-increasing number of families forced to flee their home, with an inadequate global financing envelop to respond to these challenges.

The consequences of these stacked calamities also pile on: Hunger, insecurity, and gender-based violence. In countries most likely to suffer from the shock of a refugee emergency, addressing the ongoing learning crisis becomes difficult to prioritize. During the pandemic learning poverty has shot up to an estimated 70 percent worldwide. (Learning poverty is the proportion of 10-year-olds unable to read and understand a simple paragraph.) In FCV countries, it’s often less than one child out of 10 that can complete this basic task. The competing priorities in the humanitarian space result in just 2-3 percent of global humanitarian response financing going to education (about $807 million in 2021). This is a far cry from the $4.85 billion needed to provide all refugees with K-12 schooling.

Yet education is precisely the investment most likely to return these children to a path of normalcy, one that allows aspirations to rise, and provides the skills to actualize them. In the short-term, it can bring hope to displaced families, attend to the psychosocial needs and mental well-being of children. It protects children from sexual exploitation, child marriage, and child labor. In the longer-term, it allows them to chart a different, more promising course for their future.

How to respond to the education needs of refugees

The national education systems of host countries hold the key to achieving the scale of response needed. Our recent White Paper, “Safe and Learning in the Midst of Fragility, Conflict, and Violence,” emphasizes four messages to bear in mind as we seek to serve refugee children and their families:

  1. Build on-ramps from alternative/non-formal education into host public systems

The refugee emergency relates not just to the rising number of families forced from their homes, but also the increasingly protracted nature of their displacement. Facilitating the integration of forcibly displaced students into host community schools is often the only financially viable long-term solution to providing refugees the quality education that is their right. This is the main message of the Global Compact on Refugees, spearheaded by UNHCR. Inclusive curricula are essential for facilitating the integration of refugee students into host country public schools. Somalia, Jordan, and South Sudan have all introduced curricula that considers the realities of refugees in an effort to normalize their presence in the classroom and explicitly address the challenges they face.

  1. Target based on need, not status

In many instances, today’s “host populations” were often yesterday’s refugees, escaping a previous wave of a recurring conflict. Withholding support to equally needy families because they don’t fit a criterion to qualify for refugee status, despite living in the same conditions as the newly arrived, can backfire, exacerbating inter-group tensions in what is already often a volatile situation.

  1. Involve displaced teachers

Within the refugee communities are people who served as teachers or school directors in the places they had to flee. These education leaders can be the difference for a successful integration of students into host country schools.

  1. Employ a layered, multi-sectoral approach

The overlapping crises require a correspondingly cross-thematic response. The families that we wish to reach with education services are also those that require nutritional support, or cash transfers, or help finding jobs.  The impact of each of these interventions will be greater if bundled together, and the costs lower.

In sum, there’s too little global financing for refugees, especially for education. More money will help attenuate their short-term humanitarian needs. But the sustainable solution for equipping refugees with the skills, protections, and hope that they need for building a better future lies in their integration into national host country schools. This is what bridging the humanitarian-development nexus means in practice: articulating short-term policy responses that facilitate the realization of a long-term vision.


Peter Holland

Lead Education Specialist, Africa Region, World Bank

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