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Treating education as a life saver in emergencies

“I’d like to be a teacher… But I’d have to finish school first before I could be a teacher… it’s not enough to say I’d like to be a teacher—I have to finish school first. If I can go to school, then I can become a teacher. If I can’t go to school, I’ll be stuck here, having to ask for food before I can eat. That’s why I want to go back to school.”

This quote is from Sarah, from Ivory Coast, who is currently displaced. I think she sums up very well what we’ve been saying for a long time:

1. That besides wanting and needing education, children have the right to education, no matter what’s happening around them.

2. That children, their parents and communities always identify education as a priority.

3. That education must be provided if we are to give children a sense of normality, and enable them to continue their education, despite the emergency situation.


On Tuesday, we co-hosted an event at the UN in Geneva with UNICEF and the Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (INEE) called ‘Protecting Education in Emergencies’.

The event was key in acknowledging the rightful place of education in emergency situations, for example through the presence of the Education Cluster (which we co-lead with UNICEF).

It was also encouraging to hear that everyone acknowledges that education is a right that must be protected and upheld in any circumstance.

While governments bear the onus of this obligation, it is shared among all those who are operating in a humanitarian situation.


But we all agreed that we do have one big obstacle. And it’s big because it’s about mindsets and perceptions. And it often boils down to an objection that education does not fit ‘life-saving’ criteria.

This objection affects education interventions at all levels, but particularly in humanitarian decisions on what should or should not be included in humanitarian appeals and humanitarian action plans.

Ultimately, what seems like a strategic decision to address short-term needs, actually has a huge long-term impact on children’s lives.

Saving lives?

There may be different interpretations of what ‘life-saving’ covers, but I use Sarah’s quote above to justify that we have to be thinking about what will save children’s lives in the longer term, after an emergency is over.

It is in the best interests of a child to ensure she or he is healthy, well-fed, protected and in school. Is the humanitarian community adequately reflecting this?

Additionally, there are opportunities to look at education as a key platform. Learning facilities, whether in the form of temporary learning spaces or in schools, must be seen as a central point for many interventions.


They can be used as central locations to protect children from risks and harmful activities; they provide access to children and communities in order to provide basic services, run medical checks, distribute essential goods and school-feeding programmes, deliver vital life-saving hygiene, safety and preparedness messages, etc.

We’re in the midst of a huge emergency —one that has reached an enormous scale that is affecting millions of children, their parents and communities.

Let us look at how education can complement the many health and food interventions that are being delivered across East Africa.


Many children were in school; they have become displaced due to the droughts, and many children are also escaping conflict and hunger in Somalia.

Their schools have come under attack, their teachers have likely escaped the violence. These children have a right to a better life, let’s try to support the delivery of education to all of them so that they are ready to go back to school when the term begins.

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