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Educate Refugees or Lose a Generation


By John Fallon

How do you educate refugee children in places with a shortage of trained teachers, a lack of resources, and where school records have been lost? In the last four years, across the Middle East and North Africa, millions of young refugees have fled from their homes. And an entire generation -- millions of children -- are at risk of growing up without an education.

The threat of an educational void is becoming abundantly clear in places like Syria. More than 2.3 million children inside the country are not in school. Of the hundreds of thousands who have fled, nearly half are not receiving any education at all. In Lebanon, there are more school-aged refugees than the entire intake of the country’s public schools, and only 1 in 5 Syrian children are enrolled in school. Sadly, it’s a similar situation in Jordan and Iraq. Aid needs to reflect the new, longer-term reality of conflicts, and should include the means for providing access to education to those who are forced to establish a new life.

Abu Mohamad, a Syrian refugee, recently told his story about small businesses in refugee camps to CNN. He started a pizza delivery service for other refugees and aid workers living in his camp. “I couldn’t sit and wait for the situation to change,” he said. “We always want more for our families.” But not everyone is an entrepreneur, particularly young children – many of whom lack access to basic education. Not everyone has the necessary tools at their disposal.

Aid through education

Last month, the U.K. pledged £100 million (~US$148 million) to help support Syrian refugees with food, medical care and relief items. The U.K. Department for International Development has committed more than US$1 billion – the U.K.’s largest response to any humanitarian crisis. And USAID, between 2012 and 2015, donated $570 million to help Syrian refugees. This is all much-needed support. Given the reality of this crisis, we need to supplement these efforts. More governments, NGOs and companies can play a significant role in improving access to education in these settings.

Much as food aid often includes basic essentials needed for survival, education assistance needs to be rapidly deployable but without compromising on quality. Refugee camps and host communities need easily accessible materials and low- or no-cost tools for education that work in challenging settings. Some organizations are already leading the way.

UNICEF helped more than 375,000 Syrian children last year access formal and informal education through school construction and rehabilitation, teacher training, and provision of school materials for teachers and students. In Jordan, staff and volunteers from Save the Children are creating specialized teacher training and support programs for those operating in conflict regions. These sessions will equip teachers with an entirely new way of approaching lesson plans, homework and grading. Save the Children has also developed a database of emergency personnel for education. These experts can be dispatched on short notice to areas affected by emergencies.

All this can be done without traditional classroom tools. Teachers work from condensed, modified curriculum, written to be delivered quickly and affordably. Mobile-delivered teaching resources can be vital when communication and normal delivery methods are limited by circumstance. And there is a need for solutions for grading tests where no national marking system exists and where students lack school records.

How can businesses make an impact?

Education is often among the first casualties of sustained conflict, and all too often, the international focus simply moves on to the next conflict, leaving a massive skills and knowledge void in its wake. Children out of school are vulnerable to the influence of extremism, a growing threat in the region, as well as criminal behavior and other forms of exploitation. Many host governments are stretched to the limits in terms of their ability to absorb the influx of refugee students into schools in already-struggling education systems.

How can we make a difference? Businesses must prioritize the social impact we stand to make as major players in the global economy, and we must do so with a view to the future.

In 2015, the United Nations is examining where focus must go following the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, and education will surely be among the priorities for the new Sustainable Development Goals. There is work to be done. I encourage all businesses to examine their core competencies — whether in logistics, product design, communications or whatever their area of expertise – that can be applied or offered to refugee communities to drive educational improvements at little or no cost.

The late professor C.K. Prahalad said: “The big challenge for humanity is to get everybody, not just the elite, to participate in globalization and avail its benefits.”

The shift in our thinking I’ve described around moving from a short to a long-term view of how we assist those in need through education, and what Prahalad envisioned, is about inclusion; it is about fairness, and it is about allowing everyone -- not just those at the top of the pyramid -- to have a chance.

John Fallon is the chief executive officer for Pearson. Click here to read about our own partnership with Save the Children, and join the conversation on Twitter at #EveryChildLearning.

3p Contributor

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