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09 Jun 2016

Lessons Learnt from 67 Years of UNWRA Support to the Education of Palestinian Refugees By Husein Abdul-Hamid, Joel Reyes, and Harry Patrinos

By Husein Abdul-Hamid, Joel Reyes, Harry Patrinos, World Bank.

Delivery of education services to communities in conflict-ridden states requires an adjustment in the education model to make it meaningful and relevant. This model requires an increased focus on resilience, ensuring that the relevant education stakeholders—supported by education system structures and services—get together to create an environment that provides academic and socio-emotional support to protect, ensure learning and improve the well-being of the child.

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Years of research in education have confirmed that building schools, providing teachers, and providing inputs such as textbooks are all important, but it is not enough to improve student learning. How schools and school systems use those resources matters a great deal in driving learning. This is especially so for education systems and communities facing extreme adversities, including forced displacement. In these contexts, resilient education systems also need to focus on improving the non-input factors that, together, drive learning and support recovery, functioning and positive change in the midst of adversity. Education systems must ensure that the education received is meaningful and relevant, that information flows for accountability, that incentives and financing structures help schools and education actors navigate risks, and that behaviors and systems address the causes and consequences of crises. These factors apply within and outside the formal education system, and in the public and private education sectors alike.

The UNRWA experience provides insights into systems level efforts that sustain, amidst a difficult context, quality learning opportunities for all children and youth. Palestine refugees are achieving higher-than-average learning outcomes in spite of the adverse circumstances they live under. Their education system—the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine refugees in the Near East—operates one of the largest non-governmental school systems in the Middle East. It manages nearly 700 schools, has hired 17,000 staff, educates more than 500,000 refugee students each year, and operates in five areas, including the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Syrian Arab Republic. Contrary to what might be expected from a resource-constrained administration serving refugee students who continually face a multitude of adversities, UNRWA students outperform public schools in the three regions—the West Bank and Gaza and Jordan—by a year’s worth of learning.

In the book, Learning in the Face of Adversity: The UNRWA Education Program for Palestine Refugees we sought to explain how a school system responsible for helping educate refugees is achieving relatively high results. We highlight the fact that in a context of adversity and conflict, an education system requires more than the mainstream education model. It demands also a resilience approach. From the mainstream lens, the UNRWA system exhibits the effective classroom practices of teachers, strong school leadership, assessments and shared accountability for learning, which support organizational adaptability and performance in the face of adversity. However, its resilience approach also calls for the recognition of the risks and vulnerabilities that students face. It points to foster community-based strengths and a commitment to build relevant interactions across education systems, school and communities towards the protection, wellbeing and learning of students in such challenging contexts. For UNRWA, a resilience approach does not imply that schools and communities at risk are left to fend alone, but calls for an alignment and institutionalization of relevant education services and systems to foster and support the resilience processes of which students, teachers and families avail themselves.

Any system can draw lessons from experiences in education resilience. At the policy level, education systems need to make explicit the multiple goals of education systems in contexts of adversity: access with protection, learning with wellbeing, and skills for productive lives and contributions to social issues (cohesion, peace, justice, etc.). Education programs must be relevant to address the multiple goals: curriculum with both high academic standards and social values, teachers’ pedagogical skills with recognition to provide care and socio-emotional support to students; non-violent discipline that restores positive relations, etc.  Education systems need to create a community and culture of learning that recognizes the adversity of vulnerable groups and promotes collaboration amongst the school, the teacher, the parent and the community, all focusing on student achievement, protection and well-being. This resilience-based approach gauges and promotes existing assets and opportunities to support students to manage the adversities they face, protecting them from harm, and helping them achieve their educational outcomes. UNRWA, as an experience of protracted displacement, provides some initial lessons on how to merge education humanitarian and development support in such adverse contexts:

  • Make explicit the short and longer-term goals for education actors facing adversities: protection and access, wellbeing and learning, and productive and other social transformative skills.
  • Connect schools to a wider community and culture of learning that supports the child and ensures that the education received is meaningful and relevant. Learning is supported by many actors including teachers, students, peers, family members and the community.
  • Provide teachers with explicit standards regarding what students must know and be able to do, while receiving direction and support on how to achieve these standards through innovative curricular, pedagogical, and classroom and school management approaches.
  • Encourage school staff to model a positive identity, strategies for wellbeing, and pedagogical satisfaction through their interaction with students inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers are accessible role models for their students, providing them with motivation, a sense of responsibility, and kindness and support in times of need.
  • Recognize that the sense of community appears to be strengthened by the fact that in contexts of crises, teachers can originate from the same at-risk population and share similar difficult living situations. However, teachers as well as students and families require support and cannot be left alone to fend for themselves.
  • Commit to support students’ holistic competence in the midst of adversity – through academic guidance and socioemotional support – and in the transition to longer term development.

In conclusion, this research offers a better understanding of how education systems can serve a given at-risk population, while concentrating efforts to end any structural causes of adversity.

Husein Abdul-Hamid is a Senior Education Specialist and Edstats Coordinator at the World Bank. Email:

Joel Reyes is a senior institutional development specialist at the World Bank. Email:

Harry Patrinos is a Manager at the World Bank’s education sector. Email:

This blog is based on an article that appeared in NORRAG NEWS 53.

>> View the full list of articles in NN53 on ‘Refugees, Displaced Persons and Education: New Challenges for Development and Policy’

>> View all NORRAG Blogs on refugees/migration, ODA  and Agenda 2030

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


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