World Humanitarian Day -- Education Cannot Wait for Better Times

School should be where children can feel secure and experience something approaching normal life, even as turbulence churns outside. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is where they can imagine and prepare for a future beyond their current situations.
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We must keep children in school, especially during crisis and conflict

Whenever I read stories and see graphic images illustrating the heartbreaking human tragedy that results from violent civil and cross-border conflict, collapsing governments and political instability, my first thoughts invariably go to the innocent children caught up in the midst of it all.

How, I wonder, do the children cope with the chaos during a conflict, the ever-present dangers and deprivation and the loss of their loved ones and homes? How do they stay safe from the staggering threats to their physical and emotion well-being? How do they find the hope that, in spite of it all, they will survive and someday live the healthy and prosperous lives we all deserve?

And what can we, the citizens of the world, do to keep them safe, alleviate their pain and help them get past the trauma?

Education is a critical element of a humanitarian response

World Humanitarian Day, which we observe today, prompts us to ask these questions and keep them in our minds year round.

One of the first priorities of any humanitarian response in fragile and conflict-affected countries should be to ensure that children stay in school and learn.

School should be where children can feel secure and experience something approaching normal life, even as turbulence churns outside. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is where they can imagine and prepare for a future beyond their current situations.

And if there isn't education...

Without schooling -- particularly over extended periods of time -- children risk losing out on valuable learning time, exams, progress and the opportunity to tap their full potential. Without education, individuals are more likely to face a lifetime of poverty and higher health risks. Without educated citizens who will provide critical brainpower and leadership, battered societies struggle to progress economically, socially and politically -- often for decades to come. Without education there is more risk of continuing violence.

When crisis erupts, emergency measures are important to ensure that schooling continues and children can learn in a safe learning environment. This means integrating education at the outset of any humanitarian response, increasing the levels of predictable humanitarian funding to education commensurate with the scale of needs, empowering civil society institutions to keep schools open, ensuring a strong supply of qualified teachers, and allowing children safe access to learning environments.

Our aim must be, no matter how difficult the circumstances, a quality education for every child. It's also essential that humanitarian responses in conflict areas protect children, teachers and their schools from violent attacks by armed groups or from political exploitation. Such attacks are gross violations of human rights and international law -- war crimes.

It's a tall order. Consider that about half of the approximately 58 million children currently not getting a primary education live in fragile and conflict-affected countries. But it's a need we must not neglect.

The Global Partnership for Education, whose board I chair, plays a leading role in many such fragile countries. Currently, 28 out of its 59 developing country partners are considered fragile or conflict-affected. The Global Partnership helps accelerate assistance in emergency situations, and serves as a bridge among humanitarian and development groups that are responding to the crisis.

Also read the Call to Action: Education Cannot Wait, signed by numerous GPE partner organizations during the recent GPE Replenishment Conference.

Flexibility is the key

In such situations, flexibility is the key. Standard operational approaches that might work in more stable environments might not be possible in countries where there is insufficient government capacity to plan and deliver educational services.

It also calls for pooling financing resources quickly to ensure education needs are adequately financed and can keep up with fast-moving conditions on the ground.

Earlier this year, the Global Partnership provided $3.7 million in accelerated emergency funding to the Central African Republic where a civil conflict rages. The funding helped to rehabilitate schools, get new furniture and books, and support community teachers.

In Somalia, more than 75 percent of public schools had been destroyed during the civil war. Interventions in the education sector were difficult and limited and, as a result, two generations of children have largely grown up without access to basic education. With the help of the Global Partnership for Education, the country has now shifted away from fragmented, emergency activities toward better education planning and received funding to bridge the gap between emergency aid and medium-term development.

So much more to be done

Much of this work in fragile or conflict-affected countries can only be done thanks to the extraordinary and often dangerous efforts of local and international humanitarian aid workers who are committed to ensuring that children's basic needs are met during an emergency and that they get the schooling they need.

Unfortunately, the demand for these interventions continues as new conflicts and crises break out across the globe. As they do, we are all challenged, especially on World Humanitarian Day, to think not only of the children who are caught in the tumult, but, perhaps more importantly, of what we and the entire world are willing and able to do to help them.

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