This NORRAG Highlights, cross-posted on the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) Blog is contributed by Dr Francine Menashy, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education at Brock University (Canada) and Zeena Zakharia, Assistant Professor of International Education Policy, University of Maryland, College Park (USA). The authors question ‘how might we transform relationships in education in emergencies?’ and point to a new study on partnerships to show the way.
Despite a surge in partnerships in education and humanitarianism, limited guidance exists on how organizations working on education in emergencies (EiE) might approach partnerships so that they result in effective and ethical practices. To fill this gap, between 2018 and 2021, we conducted extensive research into EiE partnerships, drawing on the global educational response to the Syria refugee crisis in Lebanon as our study context. Together with co-investigator Maha Shuayb and colleagues at the Centre for Lebanese Studies, we examined the nature and impact of global and local partnerships that support refugee education. The project involved a vertical case study, including over 100 interviews, 250 documents, a network analysis of 440 different organizations, and over 30 site visits and observations of partnership activities. Our findings shed light on five interrelated practices that make partnerships work well, sustain their practices through multiple crises, and enable responsive educational programs that support refugee students, teachers, and their communities. We call these Guiding Principles.
Each of the five guiding principles demands a shift, which suggests the need for a more overarching transformation in traditional ways of operating in the humanitarian sector.
Guiding Principle 1: CARE
Our findings suggest that the principle of care contributes to positive, productive partnerships in EiE. By care we refer to the sometimes intangible ways in which partners interact and approach their activities while collaborating with one another as fellow humans rather than merely fellow humanitarians and/or education professionals.
More traditional or commonplace approaches to EiE often derive from a place of benevolence or charity. While these might be considered positive attitudes, they risk embodying saviorism, where partners who perceive themselves to be in a more privileged position act as though the other partner requires rescuing. Such motivations focus more on those providing aid, in a one-directional sense, rather than a focus on local partners as people, with struggles, but also agency, knowledge, ingenuity, and capabilities.
Guiding principle 2: TRUST & RESPECT
The related principles of trust and respect together contribute to partnership success in EiE. Respect includes recognition that all partners hold strengths and capacities to conduct their work, and partners must trust one another to carry out their work effectively.
Our findings suggest that partners ought to trust and respect one another’s values and goals, even in the case that they differ. When partners trust and respect one another, their partnerships can avoid an approach that emphasizes efficiency and dictates output-driven projects, via constant monitoring of data. Trust and respect are also necessary for the flexibility often required for effective programming in EiE.
Guiding principle 3: ONGOING & ORGANIC COMMUNICATION
Our research found that ongoing and organic communication led to stronger partnerships. Through genuine, oftentimes unscheduled communication through various means—be it virtual, over phone, messaging apps, email, or in-person—partners come to better know each other, understand each other’s goals and ways of working, and trust one another.
Coordination—a widely agreed-upon factor in effective EiE programming—is touted as a means to achieving efficiency in partnerships and successful outcomes. Yet a focus on coordination aligns primarily with a Northern-based discourse, and in considering how partnerships operate, ongoing and organic communication is key.
Guiding principle 4: MUTUAL LEARNING & MULTI-DIRECTIONAL KNOWLEDGE SHARING
Our study highlighted several partnership activities, at global and local levels, that demonstrated the ways in which partners effectively share knowledge and learn from one another. This sharing and learning is multi-directional—in particular, between different types of organizations which occupy different roles, and regardless of resources, size, and location.
Although the term “capacity building” has pervaded the humanitarian sector, our findings suggest that this one-directional (and paternalistic) concept does not capture how effective partnerships operate. Partnerships that embrace mutual learning occur when those from the Global North position themselves as learners, too.
Guiding principle 5: SELF-REFLECTION & INTERROGATION OF POWER DYNAMICS
Our analysis suggests that a first step towards changing power imbalances requires self-reflection; acknowledging who embodies positions of power and why; and how this power relates to wider structures. Interrogating power dynamics can be organized, through scheduled activities, but more importantly involves sometimes uncomfortable self-reflection on the part of individuals.
Our vertical analysis, at each level and through each set of data, revealed that power imbalances pervade partnerships in EiE. Power dynamics reflect structural, systemic, and direct forms of inequities, sometimes economic, often racialized, and colonial. Our study suggests that some partnerships might never achieve true equity—in particular, when resources and funding come into play, inequities might remain entrenched. But meaningful partnerships which result in positive outcomes, based on care, trust, respect, and mutual learning—can be achieved when everyone involved moves toward awareness of structural power asymmetries
Transformational Shifts in Humanitarianism
Although deep structural change must occur in order to facilitate and make permanent major shifts in humanitarianism, we propose that individuals and organizations can begin to spur such transformation through changing their own practices and beliefs.
Through applying the five partnership principles—care; trust and respect; ongoing and organic communication; mutual learning and multi-directional knowledge sharing; and self-reflection and interrogation of power dynamics—meaningful and positive partnerships can result. And in turn will better support education in emergencies.
Francine Menashy is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Brock University. Her research explores global governance of education, international education policy, and aid to education in development and humanitarian contexts.
Zeena Zakharia is Assistant Professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research examines conflict and peacebuilding in education and advances a critical approach to refugee studies in the Middle East.
Dr. Menashy and Dr. Zakharia are co-PIs on the project Promising Partnership Models for Education in Emergencies: A Global-Local Analysis. The project was supported by the E-Cubed Research Fund—an initiative of Dubai Cares in partnership with the INEE. To learn more about this research, please visit the project website.