September 2020, New York -- Education Cannot Wait (ECW) brought together an impressive, diverse line-up of world leaders, policymakers, youth, teachers, celebrities and global advocates to rally around the cause of education in emergencies and protracted crises during the 75^th^ Session of the United Nations General Assembly under the inspiring theme "The Future of Education is Here for Those Left Furthest Behind."
With over 30,000 viewers watching on Twitter livestreams and 1,085 viewers tuned in to watch the two-hour, high-level online event live on Zoom, ECW's 17 September #UNGA75 event -- moderated by Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait and co-hosted by Canada, Colombia, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America together with Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Somalia-- emphasized the importance of education in emergencies and protracted crises to a global audience.
"We are facing an economic and a health crisis which has now become an education crisis -- and the people who are the hardest hit are the 13 million refugee children, the 40 million displaced children and the 75 million children in conflict zones," said The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the ECW High Level Steering Group, during his opening remarks.
"Despite all our efforts, the situation is still getting worse and we have to do more," Brown added, calling on public and private donors to answer ECW's urgent appeal for an additional $300 million dollars to meet the immediate education needs of vulnerable girls and boys caught in armed conflicts, forced displacement, climate change-induced disasters and protracted crises -- and who are now doubly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. "Let's make sure that we can see the talent of a new generation realised and fulfilled."
Maintaining the momentum of progress to increase financing for education in emergencies and protracted crises
Expert panellists stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening hard-won development gains, including encouraging funding trends in the education in emergencies and protracted crises sector registered since ECW's inception. All agreed that despite the pressures on aid budgets, education for the most marginalised children and youth must be prioritised as their inherent human right, and to empower crisis-affected girls and boys, their families and communities to help lead recovery and post-crisis rebuilding efforts. Key strategic donors demonstrated their commitment with new additional contributions to ECW.
"Where conflict rages, access to education is not just crucial for the future of each individual child, but for re-integration, economic development and building the sustainable peace we all want to see," said Baroness Liz Sugg, Minister for Foreign and Development Affairs for the United Kingdom and Special Envoy for Girls' Education. The United Kingdom is ECW's top donor.
Dr Maria Flachsbarth, German Parliamentary State Secretary for Development, stated Germany's goal to invest 25 percent of its development aid in education and announced a new, additional €8 million (US$9.5 million) contribution to ECW. "Solidarity and cooperation are more important now than ever before if we want to ensure that we leave no one behind," she said.
"We strongly believe that education can be lifesaving and life-changing. We know that many of the gains made are at risk today. Our collective efforts now are therefore more important than ever," said Carol O'Connell, Acting Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of State, as she announced an additional $5 million contribution to ECW.
"The story about how humanity handled COVID-19 is being written now. Let it not be the story of a lost generation. Let it rather be the story of a global community that came together to ensure that the right to learning was upheld for all," said Dag Inge Ulstein, Minister for Development for Norway, as he announced an additional contribution of NOK 20 million ($2.2 million) to ECW.
Highlighting the scope of needs
Education ministers from crisis-affected countries highlighted the challenges they face in reaching vulnerable and marginalised girls and boys who are now at even greater risk of being left behind due to the pandemic, while also stressing the crucial support received from ECW and partners.
"We have the lowest enrolment rate in sub-Saharan Africa, with 68 percent of children out of school," said the Hon. Abdullahi Godah Barre, Minister of Education, Culture and Higher Education for the Federal Republic of Somalia. "We try to focus on the most vulnerable communities of our society. We have a very significant and helpful partnership around the world, including ECW which we find very instrumental in this front."
H.E. Excellency Dr. Getahun Mekuriya, Minister of Education for Ethiopia, presented the distance learning solutions deployed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis -- and the challenges faced -- in a country that hosts one of the largest refugee population in Africa and also is experiencing multiple crises. The pandemic "has widened the digital divide," he said, thanking ECW for its support and encouraging the Fund to "continue to harness the deployment of digital technologies to the less advantaged."
In Burkina Faso, "the future of an entire generation is at risk as the number of out-of-school children increases as a result of conflict, terrorist attacks and forced displacement," said H.E. Stanislas Ouaro, Minister of Education and Literacy for Burkina Faso."Education is now more than ever a powerful weapon in preventing violence, terrorism and growing insecurity," he stressed, welcoming ECW's upcoming Multi-Year Resilience investment in the region.
H.E. Maria Victoria Angulo, Minister for Education for Colombia, stated that "Colombia is facing the second largest migration flow in recent history," and that with the support of ECW, "Colombia has learned to innovate and create learning opportunities during multiple crises." She stressed her Government's focus on "access to quality education, fostering gender equality, and bringing education to rural and urban contexts."
Reimagining education in emergencies in the wake of COVID-19
Expert speakers agreed that the unprecedented education crisis triggered and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic must be seized as an opportunity to transform education systems, make them more resilient and adapt them to 21^st^ century needs and realities.
"While many children are going back to school this month, there are millions of children who do not have school to go back to," said Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. "We have to get them back to school" she said, calling for all to "reimagine education", and to "refresh our thinking about what education can be" with a focus on four areas: quality, universality, humanitarian crises settings and safety.
"Children can retain hope even in the most desperate circumstances," said Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive of Save the Children UK. "ECW is keeping hope alive for millions of children around the world. So, it is imperative that governments -- as we respond to this appalling emergency in education -- get behind ECW and get behind the children. They have the courage; we have to get behind them."
Jutta Urpilainen, EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, reaffirmed her commitment to boost the share of education in the European Union's development expenditure. "The crisis has revealed and deepened inequalities. Weaknesses of our education systems have been exposed. We have a once in a generation opportunity to reopen schools better than they were before and improve learning," she said.
"The pandemic forces us to re-imagine all aspects of education, from policy to practice. This means directly empowering the voices of local communities, of refugees, of internally displaced persons in every aspect of our work," said The Hon. Karina Gould, Minister of International Development for Canada. She highlighted Canada's specific focus on the urgent education needs of adolescent girls and forcibly displaced children.
"We are all worried that a victim of this pandemic -- of the largest education crisis of the last 100 years -- is equality of opportunities. This is a moment to make education more equitable, more efficient, and more resilient," said Jaime Saavedra, Global Education Director for the World Bank.
Voices from the field
Teachers and youth recounted how the pandemic and the ensuing school closures are affecting students and their communities in countries already experiencing conflict and crises, while also highlighting the challenges and successes in adapting to distance learning solutions.
"School was giving them hope and helping them transit from the trauma they came with, so now they are getting a little demoralised because they are not at school," said Amyera Irene who teaches refugee children in Uganda. "Staying at home every day is very hard, they have parents engaging them in agricultural activities. They say reading is becoming a little difficult and that some words have disappeared from their minds," added her colleague, Okema Geofry.
"My academic practices have been totally rethought. Initially only three students had internet at home and I had to communicate with the others though phone calls and WhatsApp messages," said Yaqueline Hernandez, a teacher in Colombia.
"We tried to prepare the lessons in an interesting and enjoyable manner and transmit these through social media to reach a maximum number of students," said Mona Ibrahi, a teacher in Lebanon. "Our success is due to the role the parents played serving as a link between the teacher and the student," underscored Nada Fakherelddine, another teacher in Lebanon.
"The opportunity to engage in digital learning makes me feel excited about the future. If students can learn digitally, they can connect to all the resources and opportunities that exist. Then, we move from surviving to thriving," said Miranda Ndolo, a youth advocate from Cameroon who has herself gone through the hardship of forcible displacement.
"Something that we have learned from COVID-19 is that education can be reached with just one click. Technology has provided us with a huge opportunity to take education to the shorelines of Greece and to refugees around the world. Every refugee deserves the right to study. Every human deserves an education," said Sarah Mardini, a refugee youth advocate from Syria.
Supporting "whole-of-child" responses
Panellists agreed that to achieve education outcomes for children and youth caught in conflict and crises, it is essential to provide holistic, 'whole-or-child' education responses that cover a broad range of needs, addressing the full dimension of a child's well-being.
"ECW makes a difference because they know and respond to the complex needs of every child. They don't just repair buildings and build schools. They support the nutrition, mental health, protection, and gender programmes that run within them. They equip, train, and support teachers, who work in these difficult settings, to relate to these students -- I have seen it first-hand," said Emmy Award winning actress and education champion, Rachel Brosnahan.
"For many vulnerable children, school meals are often the only food they get in a day. Getting these children back into school "is essential if we are to avoid a hunger pandemic triggered by the COVID-19 crisis," said David Beasley, World Food Programme Executive Director, who stressed WFP's partnership with ECW and UNICEF and their joint ongoing work to support governments in reopening schools safely.
Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, underscored the importance of ensuring a transition "between immediate urgency assistance and support for education systems step-by-step over time" to build back resilience. "It's about having value for learners," she said, highlighting the need for a stronger focus on inclusion and data.
"In conflict and crises contexts, girls are often the hardest hit when schools are closing, and this is what we are seeing with the COVID-19 crisis," said Delphine O, Secretary General of the Generation Equality Forum, calling all stakeholders to work to remove the specific barriers to girls' education.
Creative partnerships: the key to unlocking big changes
Speakers emphasized that partnerships are essential to successfully unlock the necessary changes to meet the full scope of needs in education in emergencies and protracted crises, building on their experiences and concrete examples.
"The important role of government and their duty is to deliver, and sometimes to get that big machinery moving, we need quite unlikely partners to come together," said Sarah Brown, Chair, Their World and Executive Chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education. "Creative partnership is more than business," she said, recounting how Theirworld developed an innovative partnership with the Dutch Postcode Lottery, Education Cannot Wait, UNHCR and UNICEF to support education for refugee children on the Greek islands.
"We are committed to supporting all children, including the youngest and most vulnerable who are affected by conflicts and crises. We are partnering to deliver programmes on the ground and, importantly, are committed to extracting learnings from those programs that can be shared across the whole of the ECW community. Then, we can reapply those insights into new, emerging crises," said John Goodwin, Chief Executive Officer of the LEGO Foundation.
H.E. DR. Tariq Al Gurg, Chief Executive Officer of Dubai Cares appealed to existing and new partners to join and redouble collaborative efforts. "What we bring together as ECW is coordination on the ground," he said. He also pointed out that partnership is more crucial than ever at this historic moment. After years of trying to deploy the potential of EdTech, "the whole world switched to remote learning overnight", because of the coronavirus pandemic. "Let's see how we can reshape education together."
"Education, as we have known it, will be forever changed. That presents opportunities and challenges and responsibilities to the children of today and the leaders of tomorrow, to envision and contribute to a world where school doesn't have to be disrupted by future shocks. Together, today, we must use this opportunity to create a brighter future," said Julie Cram, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator.
The future of education, here and now
"When it comes to education for children who are suffering and left furthest behind, patience is anything but a virtue. We have to move with speed," said Yasmine Sherif, Director of Education Cannot Wait. "We all agree that investing in education is investing in humanity, to unleash the potential of humankind," she stressed during her concluding remarks. "Crises always lead to opportunities. We determine how to respond to crises. We can decide to do nothing. We can decide to do something. We can also decide to give it our all, and that is what we do across the Education Cannot Wait community. We can -- and we will -- turn the future of education into the present here and now, for those furthest behind."