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Preventing a lost generation: Private sector partnerships to support refugee education now and beyond the coronavirus pandemic

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By Shirin Pakfar, Chief of Private Partnerships and Philanthropy, UNHCR and Karen Smith, Programme Coordinator, Connecting Business initiative - CBi (UNDP and OCHA)

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the greatest disruption of education systems in history, affecting 1.6 billion learners. Refugee children and youth were already at a grave disadvantage before the pandemic: they are twice as likely to be out of school as their non-refugee peers and their educational options dramatically reduced after primary school. The latest UNHCR Education Report warns that COVID-19 threatens to reverse hard-won gains in refugee education and destroy the ambitions of tens of thousands of refugees.

Coordinated action of all stakeholders, including the private sector, is crucial to minimize the risk of refugee children and youth being left behind. Many struggle to adapt to at-home learning as they lack appropriate hardware, proper connectivity or access to support services such as language classes. The post-lockdown forecast for girls is particularly grim: UNHCR data suggests that 50% of refugee girls in secondary education may not return when classrooms reopen. But the problem goes beyond school closures. Given the deep-hitting economic impact of the pandemic, refugee families on low incomes and in precarious livelihoods, in urban settings and in camps will struggle to afford fees, uniforms, textbooks, travel, mobile data and devices, on top of food and shelter. Bringing students back to school will require resourcefulness, innovation, generosity and collaboration – all qualities which private sector partners can bring to the table.

Many good practices exist on how the private sector has supported educational needs through collective action in emergencies, including COVID-19. While some solutions may not have been tailored for refugees or piloted during a health crisis, they could be replicated and scaled, not only to fix the damage wrought by the new coronavirus on education worldwide, but also for a lasting positive impact on the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable children and youth who have been forced to flee their homes.

The Connecting Business initiative (CBi) Member Network in Madagascar, the Private Sector Humanitarian Platform Madagascar distributed 200 solar radios and educational kits to rural areas of the country in July 2020. This has enabled children to follow courses organized by the Ministry of Education, and access audio books and other educational resources. The network has also distributed an illustrated book for children to raise awareness of the disease and its prevention measures.

Before COVID-19, another CBi Member Network, the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation provided educational support kits to elementary schools and evacuation centers for the internally displaced people in Marawi City. The kits – known as the “School-in-a-Bag” – contain a portable digital classroom that facilitates learning in remote areas with electricity shortages.

Multinational partnerships have also made significant contributions to supporting education. Since 2013, under the “Instant Network Schools” programme UNHCR and the Vodafone Foundation have equipped schools with a multimedia hub that includes tablets, laptops, solar-powered batteries, an offline suite of digital learning materials and connectivity through satellite or a mobile network. These investments, and the digital literacy that has resulted from them, have been important in allowing refugee and host-country teachers and students to continue learning during the pandemic.

Whether the solutions are hi-tech or low-tech, private sector support is needed to bring innovation, tackle new and longstanding obstacles and ensure that everyone can benefit from learning opportunities. From classroom equipment to teacher trainings, connectivity to infrastructure, online resources to internships, apprenticeships, training and job opportunities – there are many ways businesses can support refugee education. We need to keep the spirit of partnership alive, develop meaningful solutions and forge lasting alliances across sectors, while channeling the passion and determination of young refugee learners. Every action counts towards giving refugees the future they deserve.