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04 Oct 2012

Education in Conflict Emergencies in Light of the Post-2015 MDGS and EFA Agendas

By Christopher Talbot,consultant in Education in Emergencies.

In the increasingly intense international debates surrounding the post-2015 global education agenda, one vital population has been comparatively neglected until now: those affected by conflict-related emergencies. This includes refugees (people who cross an international border fleeing persecution or war), internally displaced persons (IDPs), and those harmed by conflict without being displaced. The needs for, challenges of and opportunities offered by the provision of education during conflict emergencies are intimately linked to other educational situations, such as education in conflict-affected fragile states, education in natural disasters, and post-conflict and post-disaster educational recovery and reconstruction. The focus of this NORRAG blog posting is on emergencies involving armed conflict.

Why Education in Conflict Emergencies Matters

For those working in this area, the fact that 2011’s EFA Global Monitoring Report was devoted to this issue was a welcome, if overdue, recognition of the fact that countries undergoing armed conflict are ‘among the farthest from reaching the Education for All goals, yet their educational challenges go largely unreported’ (UNESCO 2011: 2).

In conflict-affected poor countries, 28 million primary-school aged children were out of school in 2008, 42 per cent of the world’s total (UNESCO 2011: 132). Violent conflict affects educational provision and attainment profoundly. Not only are children in conflict-affected countries disproportionately unable to enrol in primary school; their completion, secondary enrolment, literacy and mortality rates are much worse than in other countries. These effects are observed with even relatively minor conflict shocks and most severely impact girls, in part because of the intensification of sexual violence that accompanies war (UNESCO 2011: 132-133). If EFA is ever to be attained, before or more likely well after 2015, the education of children suffering through the effects of armed conflict must be prioritised. This is not an easy challenge to meet, as the disruption, violence and political sensitivity of conflict emergencies does not make them ‘low-hanging fruit’ for providing access to quality education. But the difficulty of the task is no excuse for inaction or delay.

With education competing for post-MDG attention with other service sectors, and with strong competition among areas of the education sector for post-EFA priority, what is the overwhelming importance, the comparative advantage, of focussing attention on provision of education in conflict emergencies? Above all, states and agencies have a humanitarian imperative. In emergencies, education saves lives and, properly delivered, education is a major factor in the protection of children. Children and adolescents who are not in school are at greater risk of violent attack and rape, and of recruitment into fighting forces, prostitution and life-threatening, often criminal activities. During war and displacement, formal and non-formal education provides opportunities to learn life-saving information and survival skills, such as landmine awareness, protection from sexual abuse and avoidance of HIV infection.

In conflict, education not only saves lives, it also sustains life by giving children a sense of the restoration of normality, familiar routine and hope for the future, all of which are vital for mitigating the psychosocial impact of violence and displacement for individuals and whole communities. Good quality education provided during wartime can counter the underlying causes of violence, by fostering values of inclusion, tolerance, human rights and conflict resolution.

Education in emergency settings is needed to prepare societies for eventual post-conflict reconstruction and social and economic development. Balanced development with economic growth requires that young people of all social, ethnic, religious and political backgrounds are equipped with literacy, numeracy and basic information technology and vocational skills to earn a living and contribute to national economies. This must include those affected by conflicts.

In launching his Education First initiative, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has explicitly endorsed the importance of education in conflict and disaster settings.

A security-related argument may be advanced in favour of provision of quality education in emergencies. Children and young people affected by war are often members of social groups on the fault lines of their societies. Giving such children and young people a chance for an education reduces the likelihood that they will constitute a lost, disaffected and angry generation, who turn more readily to violence to satisfy their needs and sense of grievance. However, this line of argument needs careful nuancing. Only a small minority of war-affected children and youth may resort to armed violence to redress perceived wrongs.  And many terrorists emerge from educated milieu in their societies. So denying education to those suffering the consequences of war does not automatically lead to more war; and providing education is not enough to undercut recruitment into terrorism or armed groups. Nevertheless there is an undeniable connection between the loss of hope for a better future that education, well delivered, can give, and the intensification of violence in many countries.

Unusual, Often Threatening, Institutional Arrangements

Heading to school in Jabalia, northern Gaza. (Photo Eman Mohammed/©UNESCO)

Education in emergencies takes place in institutional contexts that are unlike peaceful settings. If there is forced internal displacement, the role of the national Ministry of Education (MoE) may be minimal for IDPs, who may be living in areas outside the government’s effective territorial control. UNICEF and NGOs, national and international, often play a far more active role. Under certain circumstances, the UN humanitarian system will create an Education Cluster, to coordinate UN and international NGO support to the education of IDPs. UNHCR usually coordinates the education of refugees, in support of the government of the country of asylum, again often with the technical engagement of NGOs.

During armed conflict, national resources for education may dry up or disappear. To supplement meagre government sources, funding of education in conflict emergencies typically comes from humanitarian appeals, where education is woefully under-prioritised compared to other technical and service sectors (UNESCO 2011: 172-175).

A frequent characteristic of conflict-related emergencies is the militarisation or ‘securitisation’ of responsibility for education. Often the national armed forces or a security-related ministry, such as Interior or Police, and in parts of a country the state’s armed opponents, will take direct responsibility for education, sometimes deliberately marginalizing the national MoE and UN agencies. This occurs because of the desire of the state (or its opponents) to control populations and the transmission of knowledge, ideas and values to children, as part of a wider strategy of seeking political and military dominance. The effects on the quality of education and the safety and welfare of children have been very serious in most places where this occurs.

Deliberate attacks on education, any intentional threat or use of force against students, educators, and education institutions, are widely perpetrated during wartime by state and non-state military actors alike. Some nation states and the international community are beginning to work urgently to strengthen the protection of education from armed attack. This involves enhanced prevention of attacks on education, effective response to attacks often through strengthening community resilience and capacity, better monitoring and reporting, stronger international norms and standards, and increased accountability. A Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), founded in 2010, is providing valuable research, information, advocacy and networking in this area.

Policy Dilemmas

Achievement of any future post-2015 goals set for the education and skills sectors will require much greater investment in finding solutions to crucial educational policy dilemmas that arise during conflict and forced displacement. These include teacher supply, contractual status and compensation; quality of teaching and learning and measurement of quality; support to the psychosocial needs of both learners and teachers; decisions about curriculum that respond to needs generated by war, including conflict prevention, conflict resolution, HIV and AIDS awareness and awareness-raising about landmines and unexploded ordinance; decisions about language of instruction; balancing investment in early childhood education, primary, secondary and post-secondary education; provision of skills development for youth, through TVET and informal or alternative education; catch-up programmes to make up for time lost from school; and the protection of education from armed attack. Some detail on two of these challenges follows.

Secondary Education

One of the most vexed problems in education in emergencies has been an over-emphasis on access to primary education, to the neglect of secondary schooling and of assuring quality of education. Recent research in comparatively peaceful development contexts is stressing the importance of acquisition of reading and writing skills early grades, giving pupils a greater chance of understanding their lessons and thus completing primary schooling. A similar line of reasoning applies to the relatively neglected secondary education sub-sector. Failing to fund secondary education to refugees and IDPs leads to die-back in primary enrolment and completion. Holding open the possibility of secondary schooling gives students hope and motivation to succeed in primary.

Secondary education is essential for achievement of full primary completion, as in conflict teachers must be recruited from among secondary graduates. Those affected by conflict often come from poor rural communities. Secondary education, especially for girls and young women, is vital to diminish heavy teacher turnover, which weakens quality. It is important that teachers recruited during emergencies stay with the profession and with their own communities once the conflict ends. Educating those affected by the conflict to secondary level and engaging them to teach children in their communities increases that likelihood. Similarly, secondary education of conflict-affected communities can prepare other professional groups essential to recovery and reconstruction, including nurses and technicians.

Vocational Education and Training

Thorough study of local and regional labour markets is necessary before launching vocational training programmes. Micro-level analysis and design is needed to avoid saturating labour markets with too many graduates of particular vocational programmes. In war zones and refugee and IDP settings, economies are so disrupted, dynamic and distorted that it is very difficult to plan for long-term investments in formal TVET.

A key to understanding the place of vocational and skills training in emergencies is to distinguish between measures intended to create livelihoods and those intended to supplement them. The latter is a more sound approach in conflict settings for two reasons: (i) The purchasing power of poor, displaced communities can rarely sustain the graduates of large-scale TVET programmes and institutions in full-time work; and (ii) The short-term, humanitarian funding sources available during emergencies certainly cannot sustain the long-term investment needed to create and maintain such institutions. It is much more effective to acknowledge that vocational training should aim to help people supplement the incomes that they derive from other sources, whether agriculture, small marketing activities or humanitarian assistance. Supporting small-scale and inexpensive micro-apprenticeship schemes avoids the job market saturation that so often results from overly ambitious vocational education programmes.

One of the best ways to equip conflict-affected young people to increase their employability and to supplement their incomes is to ensure that they are literate in their own language and, if possible, an international language of business, such as English, French, Portuguese or Spanish, depending on their location. Add to this basic numeracy, basic IT skills, some entrepreneurship training and conflict-affected young people can have a chance to make a bit of money on the side, which lifts their quality of life and their consumption.


The past twelve years have been marked by a rapid multiplication of UN and NGO actors working in support of states to provide education in emergencies. An effective and influential professional network of emergency educators, INEE (the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies) has advocated powerfully for education to be a core element of humanitarian response in every emergency, resulting in a global commitment to that principle from the UN General Assembly in 2011. INEE member organizations collaboratively developed minimum standards and fostered inter-agency cooperation in developing and using tools for assessment, planning, implementation, information management and evaluation for the field. Other professional networks, such as the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) and the Child Protection in Crisis Network (CPC), strongly support the provision of high quality education in conflict emergencies, from a protection perspective.

The humanitarian system has responded to the need for strengthened operational coordination through the establishment of the global humanitarian Education Cluster and multiple national clusters. While funding for education in emergencies is still inadequate, it has expanded considerably in recent years.

There has been an explosion of research efforts on this subject by universities, research institutes, UN agencies and NGOs, with reasonably generous funding by donors.  Interdisciplinary research has been published on a range of themes highly relevant to effective planning and management of educational response in emergencies. Some of those themes have included work on the links between provision of education and child protection in emergencies, the protection of education from armed attack, the role of education in conflict risk reduction and disaster risk reduction, meeting psychosocial needs through education, the special educational needs of youth in conflict, the education of refugees and internally displaced persons, and links between education and state fragility. These research efforts are beginning to yield evidence to provide bases for sound policy and practice in a relatively new field of humanitarian and educational endeavour, which is indispensable for the achievement of any future comprehensive MDG or EFA goals.


UNESCO 2011. The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education (Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2011). Paris: UNESCO.

Christopher Talbot is a consultant in Education in Emergencies. He was formerly CEO of Education Above All, Doha, and led UNESCO’s efforts on education in emergencies for several years. NORRAG will publish a longer version of this blog posting on its website in October. Email:

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4 Responses


    Hi chris, your write-up is educative. What struck me on this page where the two pictures of children in a conducive learning environment and the opposite learners in a harsh and un-conducive learning environment. I was wondering whether both are IDPs.

    For us In Nigeria, a group of NGOs have commenced consultations on B2015 and we have identified IDPs as a crucial sector who need to determine the world they want in the post MDGs. We have ensured that people at the grassroots are being targeted.

    We will like to receive more information from you.

  2. Dear Mekwuye, thanks for your comments. The pictures used in this blog are from UNESCO. We dont have information on their IDP status. regards, NORRAG


    Hi chris, your write-up is educative. What struck me on this page where the two pictures of children in a conducive learning environment and the opposite learners in a harsh and un-conducive learning environment. I was wondering whether both are IDPs.

    For us In Nigeria, a group of NGOs have commenced consultations on B2015 and we have identified IDPs as a crucial sector who need to determine the world they want in the post MDGs. We have ensured that people at the grassroots are being targeted.

    We will like to receive more information from you.

  4. norrag

    Dear Mekwuye, thanks for your comments. The pictures used in this blog are from UNESCO. We dont have information on their IDP status. regards, NORRAG

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