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The price of hope: Uganda’s refugee crisis

Value for money is the defining international aid mantra of our age – and rightly so. These are fiscally straitened times in donor economies. We need to ensure that every last aid dollar delivers results for the world’s poorest people. But what price do you put on hope?

That’s a question I hope donors will be asking themselves this week as they gather in Kampala, Uganda for a Solidarity Summit on refugees convened by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, and the Ugandan government.

The summit provides an opportunity to tackle an education crisis starving half-a-million South Sudanese refugee children of hope. These children and their parents understand the value of learning. They see education as a passport to a better future.

Unfortunately, the humanitarian community has failed to deliver that passport. Most appear to see education as a luxury good that fails to tick the value for money box. In a report presented to the Kampala summit, Save the Children challenges this view and provides a plan of action for delivering South Sudanese refugees with the universal education that is their birthright.

Talking to Venetia*, 9, a child refugee from South Sudan, about what she wants to be when she grows up.

Refugees in Uganda

The backdrop to the summit and the education crisis is the violence sweeping South Sudan. Almost one million refugees have fled from across the border into northern Uganda, most of them in the last year. To put that figure into context, it is roughly equivalent to a population the size of Birmingham – the UK’s second largest city.

Uganda’s response has been a case study in generosity. Refugee arrivals are provided with land, seeds and tools. There are provisions for freedom of movement. They can use local services, including health and education. While much of the rich world has been turning its back on refugees and putting up fences, Uganda has acted with compassion.

But the strains are beginning to show. While Uganda has a good record on economic growth and poverty reduction, it is still one of the world’s poorest countries. Moreover, the West Nile region, where most refugees are settling, has some of the highest poverty rates and worst social indicators in the country.

Resettlement areas are under enormous pressure. Last year Bidi Bidi was a small hamlet inhabited by a few thousand farming families. Today, it is the world’s largest refugee settlement, with over a quarter of a million people living in an area designed to accommodate 100,000.

Children figure prominently in the refugee exodus from South Sudan. Based on UN data, between 1,000 and 1,500 have been arriving every single day for almost a year. Many have lost parents, brothers, sisters and other relatives. Most have witnessed unspeakable levels of violence. All of them have been uprooted and forced to flee their homes.

My recent visit

During a recent visit to Save the Children’s programmes in West Nile, I had a chance to meet some of these children.

At Bidi Bidi I met Daniel*, a quietly spoken but fiercely smart 14 year old. He had lost his father. His mother and sister had been abducted by armed militia. Daniel fled to the Ugandan border wearing just the clothes on his back and carrying his most prized possession – a science book he grabbed from his school before leaving. “Now I have lost everything I have to keep learning for my future,” he told me.

Daniel*, 14, is top of his class at the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in Uganda.

In the sprawling reception centre in Imvepi settlement, an endless stream of coaches arrive unloading refugees from the border area. There I met Rosa*, aged 16, and her younger sister Vicky*. Their parents had taken them to the road heading to Uganda and told them to walk. Apart from fear for their safety, that agonising decision was driven by a concern for the girls’ education. With local schools closed because of insecurity, the parents believed Uganda offered the best chance of continued schooling.

Almost all the refugee children and parents I met wanted to get back into school. Having lost everything, they see learning as an asset no one can take away from them. They know that literacy, numeracy and the skills they gain at school matter for their future. Their ambition, resilience, and sheer drive for education is both awe inspiring and humbling.

But these are children facing daunting barriers. Most are out of school, either because there is no school close enough to where they are living, or because their parents can’t afford to pay the fees they get charged.

Not that those in school are learning much. Primary classes are massively over-crowded. I visited schools where there were 150 children to a single teacher. To make matters worse, most refugees are being taught in English – a language most do not understand – rather than their home language.

An education emergency

At the current and projected rate of refugee arrivals, there could be as many as 1 million South Sudanese refugee children denied an education by 2020.

The state of refugee education in northern Uganda reflects a deeper malaise. As Gordon Brown, the UN’s Special Envoy for Global Education, has pointed out, education typically represents a tiny share – less than 2 per cent – of humanitarian aid, and the support that is provided comes in the form of unpredictable, short-term project grants – making effective planning impossible.

Back in Bidi Bidi, I watched Save the Children staff overseeing play groups and delivering early learning classes. One of them, Christine*, is herself a refugee. She was in her last year of teacher training in a town called Yei on the Ugandan border. Now she supervises play with an Olympic-standard energy level. You can see her in action below.

Save the Children staff, including Christine*, at the Child Friendly Space in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda.

Watching Christine doing bunny hops with a few dozen children prompted one of those value for money questions: what price do you put on the smiles of children who have suffered levels of violence and trauma most of us can only imagine?
As it happens, you can put a price on our programmes.

Save the Children runs 38 child friendly space programmes, most of which include early learning facilities. Over 45,000 children are enrolled. The per pupil cost runs at $36. To put that figure differently, you can reach some of the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and provide the security, joy, and support they deserve for $3 a month, or half the price of a morning cappuccino.

All of which prompts a bigger value for money question. What would it take to get every one of South Sudan’s refugee children into a decent learning environment?

Restoring hope and rebuilding futures

Our report provides an answer. We estimate that it would cost $132m annually over three years to deliver universal education, covering early learning, primary and secondary school. One third of this amount would be earmarked for local schools serving refugee host communities. The price tag covers the construction of over 400 semi-permanent classrooms, the employment of more than 5,000 teachers and the provision of textbooks. It would also finance the training and certification of 750 refugee teachers from South Sudan.

The plan of action we propose is well within the realms of affordability. We identify a range of financing options that could be drawn on, including $60m from the World Bank’s newly-created ‘regional sub-window for refugees’, and $20m from the Global Partnership for Education. Bilateral donors could – and should – also step up to the plate.

All of which brings us back to that value for money challenge. Save the Children’s plan won’t deliver world class education. What it will deliver is half a chance for a generation of refugee children to rebuild their lives, learn in a safe environment, and gain the skills they need to flourish. It will provide refugee parents with what every parent reading this wants for their children – the opportunities that come with education.

Above all, it will deliver hope.

And you can’t put a price on that.

Donate to our Emergency Fund today to help child refugees in Uganda and other children in emergencies around the world.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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