In an ideal world, whenever children needed help, they would get it. When girls and boys were forced from their homes or classrooms because of war, natural disaster, or other crises, the international community would, within days, formulate a plan to ensure their immediate wellbeing. And such plans would include not only life-saving interventions, but also havens of psychological support and learning that protect opportunity and hope. Such places exist. They are called schools.
Unfortunately, ours is far from an ideal world. When children need help, days turn into weeks and months. Hundreds of desperate children become thousands and eventually millions. Hope gives way to prolonged misery – not for a few months or even a year, but on average for more than a decade. They are shut out of schools, locked out of opportunity, and condemned to live in unbearable conditions – subject to child labor or forced begging, sold into marriage, trafficked, conscripted into gangs, or recruited by extremists.
What has happened in recent years in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, and Iraq – and in Jordan, and Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children are being denied the chance to return to school – makes an overwhelming case for a new humanitarian fund for education in emergencies. What has happened during the Ebola crisis in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone – where schools serving five million children remain closed or have not reopened quickly enough – makes this case, too. Yemen and Chad are likely to be next.
In all of these countries and situations, children’s future depends on whether we, the international community, act. The Millennium Development Goals commit the international community to achieve the target of universal primary education by the end of 2015. But the official out-of-school figure currently stands at 58 million. And, once out of school for a year or more, children are unlikely to return.
There is a huge gap in our array of solutions. In 2014, education received just 1 percent of humanitarian funds – leaving millions of children and young people on the streets or idle in camps. And there is no mechanism to pay for the education of refugee children or those affected by disaster.
To be sure, there are organizations – the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF, and many other groups – that, working together, perform heroically. And organizations like the Global Partnership for Education, Sheikha Mozah’s Educate a Child foundation, and the Global Business Coalition for Education also contribute in times of emergency. But that woefully small 1 percent figure means that the world simply does not have enough to ensure that more than a fraction of affected children get help.
The solution must be based on a simple humane principle: No child should be denied opportunity simply because adults are unable to work together. That means establishing an emergency education system that enables adequate funding to be released to UN agencies and operational NGOs at the onset of a crisis – not years later.
What has been happening in Lebanon over the past two years is a case in point. Today, there are 465,000 Syrian child refugees. The Lebanese government has volunteered to accept refugee children into the country’s schools by introducing a second afternoon session and enlisting teachers and school directors to take on the extra workload. Complicating the situation, officials have had to persuade a divided country, already worried about the influx of refugees (which has added 20 percent to the country’s population). But few refugee children have enrolled.
UNICEF and the UNHCR have devised a plan with the Lebanese government to implement this program, but the international community has failed to help. Only $100 million has been pledged, but $163 million is still needed. Though the Global Partnership for Education and other organizations want to do more, their mandate does not permit them to provide assistance to middle-income countries like Lebanon.
Something is very wrong with this picture. Lebanon’s government has a plan that requires no new schools or infrastructure, making it one of the most cost-effective solutions to a refugee crisis imaginable. But, still, the money is lacking.
The same thing is happening in South Sudan. And in northern Nigeria, countless attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram have underscored the need for a full safe-schools program; but the money to deliver it simply is not there. Similarly, in Pakistan, the Peshawar massacre last month has revealed how much more must be done to protect schools and children’s future.
Given such crises, the world can no longer afford to do without a humanitarian fund for education during emergencies. In April, at the World Bank’s annual meeting, I will call for action by the assembled government ministers, and I hope to announce the establishment of such a fund at the Oslo Summit on Education for Development on July 6-7.
Education, it is said, cannot wait. Passing the hat when a crisis erupts is not the solution. In 2015, we must do more.
Former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.