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Does emergency education save lives?

[Bangladesh] 8 October 2008. Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
Students in disaster-prone Bangladesh (file photo)
Education, a long-neglected sector in emergency response according to some aid groups, is gradually being seen as vital in crises, but donor reluctance to fund it persists partly because they do not see it as life-saving, aid experts say.

Emergencies severely curtail children's ability to access school. Over half of the children worldwide who have not completed primary school live in countries affected by armed conflict according to emergency education experts Susan Nicolai and Carl Triplehorn in an Overseas Development Institute report.

A refugee child in rural Africa has a one in 16 probability of attending secondary school, and for internally displaced children the odds are even lower according to a 2006 global survey on education in emergencies, by the Women’s Commission on Refugee Women and Children.

But when donors made decisions about which sector to fund in 2008 education came after food, health, water and sanitation, agriculture and infrastructure according to UN humanitarian funding data. Emergency education received just 3.1 percent of the global 2008 humanitarian aid budget and the United States, France, Portugal, Austria, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Japan and Switzerland each gave less than 3 percent of their total aid to basic education in 2007.

Is it life-saving?

In some cases education can directly save lives, said Deborah Haines, emergency education adviser at Save the Children, especially when it comes to preparing children to avoid crises or lessen their impact. She gave as examples teaching about landmine risks, informing children what to do in an earthquake, or teaching children in flood-prone areas how to swim.

“During a disease outbreak, such as cholera or malaria, disseminating critical health and hygiene messages or informing families to immunise children can save lives, as can giving children associated with armed forces opportunities beyond fighting,” Haines said.

Brian Casey, director of the emergency relief organisation GOAL, told IRIN from the frontlines of the cholera response in Zimbabwe: “We’re here addressing the prevention and cure of cholera. Education is a crucial element of this emergency response and cannot be ignored. There’s no point distributing goods to people if they don’t know how to use them…in fact, it might just jeopardise them further.”

And education can protect children from physical harm, exploitation, and violence, said Ellen Van Kalmthout, senior education specialist at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in New York.

A boy, 12, formerly associated with armed forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told Save the Children without education he would continue to “walk the road of death.”

But education’s life-saving properties are indirect and evident only over time. Babies born to mothers with no education for instance, are twice as likely to die as those born to mothers with three years or more of primary education, according to a 2007 Save the Children report.

An emergency education expert in Serbia told IRIN: “In some short-term responses it would be dubious to claim that education in emergencies is a life-saving provision, at least not as directly and obviously as food, shelter, protection or water and sanitation interventions.”


Humanitarian donors or aid groups do not always have the time to wait for long-term results, and usually want to fund activities with immediate, tangible impacts, Gerald Martone wrote in the International Rescue Committee’s 2007 report, Educating Children in Emergency Settings - an Unexpected Lifeline.

“The main obstacle to promoting educating in emergencies is that for some it does not fall within a narrow humanitarian mandate to save lives,” Isabelle Coombes, head of policy, strategy and finances at the European Commission’s humanitarian aid office (ECHO), told IRIN. “Taking a narrow survival view we come easily to the conclusion that education does not save lives."

A spokesperson with the UK Department for International Development spokesperson said: "Our support in humanitarian assistance is needs-based. We support the prioritisation process of emergency life-saving needs first, followed by those that reduce suffering and loss of dignity.…Assistance must focus first and foremost on saving and preserving life."

Asking the wrong question

But Save the Children’s Haines said asking if emergency education can save lives is the wrong question. “Why do we have to convince donors that it’s [education] life-saving? How useful is it to have to answer that question to warrant a response?”

"In the last few years humanitarian relief has become more sophisticated, as practitioners have become aware of the need to address the root causes of vulnerability, help people recover and rebuild their lives over the long term, and promote human dignity,” Haines said. “Education fits neatly under this new approach by supporting children’s long-term recovery, helping to protect them, and giving them dignity.”

Meanwhile some aid workers argue that in some settings interventions in sectors perceived to be life-saving may not save lives, “In many situations nothing is really ‘life-saving’. In Mozambique [following the floods] people built their own shelters, there were goats and chickens knocking around and plenty of maize to eat yet food aid and shelter were provided,” an education expert in Zimbabwe told IRIN.

Save the living not the dying

Martone pointed out in the IRC report that in most humanitarian crises people are not dying at unusually high rates. "Despite the folklore of our work, these crises are more often not life-or-death situations. Rather the predominant experience of refugees is a hopeless and purposeless existence.”

The average length of refugee displacement globally is 17 years according to Martone. “It is not uncommon to find a generation of children raised without any access to education among the world's refugee ‘warehouses’. We must shift our obsession from how people are dying to how people are living.” 

Education expert Nicolai, now deputy coordinator of the Education Cluster in Geneva, said an education response is part of promoting people’s right to a life with dignity, a principle of the Humanitarian Charter.

Emergency responses do not always reflect the needs and priorities of disaster victims, Nicolai said. “When communities are asked what they need in a crisis, invariably education appears on a shortlist of two or three priority interventions,” she said, but “sometimes there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ emergency response based on preconceptions and previous experience. This is why consulting communities is such an important part of the aid process.”

The testimony of communities can be powerful incentive for donors to give. "We thank you for helping us, giving us food, shelter, medicines,” a refugee father in Ethiopia told the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in 2004, “but the best that you have done for us was to give our children education. Food and other things we will finish, but education will always be there wherever we go."

Seeing a shift?

There is some evidence of a shift among donors. ECHO will soon include education in emergency assessments according to Coombes. ECHO said in a recent communiqué on children in emergencies: “Humanitarian aid [to education] may be the only way to ensure children can access education activities.”

Education has been included as one of the UN-led emergency response clusters, according to UNICEF’s Van Kalmthout. Aid agencies can now access the UN’s quick-funding mechanism, the Central Emergency Response Fund, for education funding.

The UN General Assembly is set to debate education in emergencies in spring 2009.

But some emergency educationalists say while funds to emergency education are on the increase, they are not doing so quickly enough and a more pervasive shift is needed.

“Education cannot necessarily always be argued to equal the provision of immediate emergency medical supplies, food and shelter but the basic needs of mankind to ‘survive’ are different to those required to ‘live’,” said Shirley Long, education specialist in Liberia.

“It is here that education comes into its own as we are hoping…not only to help people survive but to offer them an opportunity to develop knowledge and skills and become constructive members of society – in other words, to live.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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