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Ensuring education is not forgotten in emergencies

Imogen Foulkes

All too often our news bulletins are led by an unfolding humanitarian crisis: people fleeing conflict, or natural disaster. Aid agencies rush to the scene, we journalists follow. We hear about the needs; for shelter, food, water, and medicines. We hear about how many tents, food and non-food items, and litres of water have been supplied. These are the crucial things that will, in the immediate days ahead, stop people dying.

But there is something else that’s crucial in an emergency, something that the head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, Ambassador Manuel Bessler firmly believes “saves lives” not just during the immediate crisis, but for years ahead. That something is education.

In this week’s episode of the Inside Geneva podcast we take an in-depth look at education in emergencies; the challenges, the immediate priorities, and the longterm goals. And we hear about a new venture in Geneva which aims, as Yasmine Sherif of Education Cannot Wait told me, to “join the dots” of all the different aspects and agencies involved in education in emergencies.

Sherif and Bessler join me in the podcast, together with Julienne Vipond, UNICEF Education Cluster Coordinator in Sudan, who provides a detailed and thought-provoking account of her work. 


In 2021, there are an estimated 72 million children worldwide who are not in primary school education – when you add in secondary school, the figure rises to 280 million. The long-term consequences: over 700 million adults who struggle to read and write. Lack of education reduces life choices and perpetuates poverty and insecurity.

One of the United Nations’ key sustainable development goals is to ensure free quality primary and secondary education for all by 2030. Some great progress has been made, with more children accessing education, and staying in school longer. But at the same time old conflicts that continue, and new ones that erupt, are forcing children out of school.

When children have to flee their homes, they are immediately at risk; of sexual exploitation, of being forced into child labour, or recruited into armed groups. That’s why Vipond and her team in Sudan work so hard to get schools up and running as fast as possible. Education in emergencies provides not just continuation of learning, but a safe, protected space where children can enjoy at least some normality.

When refugees from Ethiopia’s Tigray region began pouring over the border into Sudan, she tells me, the Norwegian Refugee Council managed to assemble schools in just seven days – surely a world record. The shorter the interruption of schooling, the more likely children are to be able to continue their education successfully. The longer the interruption, the more likely they are never to go back to school at all. 

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When the UN put such emphasis on education in the Sustainable Development Goals, it did so in the knowledge that the chance to go to school benefits the child, that child’s community, and society in general.

“If we want gender equality, invest in education, if we want to reduce poverty, eliminate hunger, as well as for peace building initiatives, absolutely education is the key,” Vipond points out.

“Without education” says Sherif, “we are only going to make them dependent, victimized, and never draw on their resilience to become the changemakers”.

At the same time, as Bessler explains, access to education in emergencies provides children with “vital information about how to behave when you see unexploded ordnance – how you behave in times of pandemic, education has a lot to do with protection”.

Education Hub

Aid agencies have always had a focus on education in emergencies, it would be a mistake to think it always comes a poor second during a humanitarian crisis. But it does sometimes slip down the list simply because there are so many other things to do which at first sight appear so much more immediate.

To try to ensure education is always a top priority, the Swiss government, together with Education Cannot Wait, Unicef, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the UN Refugee Agency, have got together to set up a new hub for education in emergencies.

Bessler sees it as a “catalyst…to channel all the different activities and projects” around education in emergencies, providing a centre to share expertise and resources.

Interestingly, he suggests that the Covid 19 crisis will give impetus to the hub’s commitment to education for crisis affected and displaced children, because the pandemic, and the subsequent widespread school closures, gave wealthy countries an idea of what a sudden lack of schooling actually felt like.

“In Switzerland, where everything is so perfect and running according to the clock, suddenly kids cannot go to school anymore. For a lot of families this was a major shock.”

I hope you’ll take a listen; my guests on the podcast are passionate in their advocacy for the right of every child to go to school, whatever the chaos around them, and in their conviction that education is absolutely the best investment we can make not just in children’s future, but in our own, and the planet’s.

Before I go – a quick word about an upcoming podcast. As many may know we have Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin coming to Geneva on June 16th. The Inside Geneva podcast on June 15th will take a look at summits past and present, speculate about what’s on the agenda for this one, and take a sneak peek behind the scenes at what really goes on at these events. Don’t forget to join us! 

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR