Ending the war on education

Alaa Murabit

HONOLULU – My three-year-old niece believes strongly in the power of “the good guys.” Whenever I visit, she drags me to the bookshelf in her room and pulls out book after book, each with the same conclusion: in battles big or small, the good guys always win.

I don’t have the heart to tell her that, in the real world, clean fights and gratifying outcomes are the exception. Modern warfare follows no rules, and loyalties are never black and white. For me, nothing illustrates this truth more terribly than the surge in violence directed at schools and educators in conflict areas.

In May of this year, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack will publish its “Education Under Attack” report, which confirms that wars and military engagements are affecting education more severely than any time in recent memory. The numbers are truly shocking. Around the world, some 80 million children are unable to attend school because of violence. In the first half of 2017, there were more than 500 attacks on schools in 20 countries, a significant increase from previous years. According to the United Nations, in 15 of those countries, government soldiers or rebel forces seized schools for military use.

For obvious reasons, governments that support the targeting of schools and educators in any capacity must be held to account. Children forced to live in conflict zones are already suffering; when violence prevents them from learning, they suffer a double tragedy.

Consider how completely a child’s education is uprooted by war. Before the current conflict in Syria, for example, the enrollment rate for primary school was above 90%. Today, in areas most affected by the fighting, it has dropped to below 30%. In Yemen, with war and famine raging, more than two million children between the ages of six and nine are out of school. And nearly half of the 700 UN-administered schools in Syria, Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Jordan have been attacked or shut down at least once in recent years.

Humanitarian crises often produce a surge in political will; the needless suffering of others, and especially of children, pushes the international community to dedicate money and energy to ameliorating the misery. Unfortunately, that generosity rarely extends to supporting education in war-torn areas. Of the millions of children not attending school around the world, one in four lives in a crisis-affected country. Yet, education accounts for just 2% of total humanitarian aid, while only 38% of emergency aid requests for education are met.

In April 2000, when the Dakar Framework for Action was adopted, signatories identified conflict as a “major barrier” to attaining the goal of “education for all,” one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The report also expressed the consensus view that governments and civil-society groups must move swiftly to “reconstruct destroyed or damaged education systems” whenever possible. Why, then, nearly two decades after the framework was signed, is this commitment to rebuilding routinely ignored?

Education is the key to recovery for households and countries hit by conflict. Each year of additional schooling increases a learner’s earnings by 10%, on average, improving their long-term financial stability, and helping to lower the risk of a return to violence. In other words, attacks on education are quite literally attacks on our collective future.

Girls are are 2.5 times more likely than boys to be out of school in conflict-affected areas. Yet investing in girls has long-term benefits that can transform communities and eradicate poverty. Educated girls are less likely to marry at a young age, and more likely to have fewer, healthier children. Moreover, women in the workforce reinvest 90% of their incomes to their communities.

Countries enduring and emerging from violence may not have the financial capacity to rebuild schools while simultaneously funding reconstruction. That is why international support is so crucial. The global community must find the $2.3 billion needed to improve access to education in conflict zones. At the same time, donors must fund institutions that will help children traumatized by the psychological stress of war. For many children in conflict areas, psychosocial and emotional support is as important as educational opportunity.

The world of my niece’s picture books – where every struggle in summarized in 20 pages and ends with a “happily ever after” – will never be reality. But, in the absence of fairy godmothers and protective witches, the world needs workable solutions that can help the good guys (and girls) win. By educating every child, even those in harm’s way, we may succeed in making the world just a little less wicked.

Alaa Murabit, a medical doctor, is one of 17 Global Sustainable Development Goal advocates appointed by the UN Secretary-General, a UN High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment and Economic Growth, a director’s fellow at the MIT Media Lab, and a co-founder of Omnis Institute.

Copyright: Project Syndicate.



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