Geneva conference seeks urgent funds for millions of children out of school

Education Cannot Wait executive director, Yasmine Sherif, is welcomed by students and teachers at a girls’ primary school in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2021. (UNICEF/Omid Fazel)

With more than 200 million children missing out on their education due to conflict, climate change and other crises, more funding is urgently needed to help get them back in school, according to the UN.

Around the world, 222 million children are having their education disrupted by war, disaster, political unrest and displacement. This number has more than tripled since 2016, driven by escalating conflict, protracted crises, the impacts of climate change and Covid-19.

Roughly 78 million of those children are out of school altogether, according to Education Cannot Wait, the United Nations’ global fund for education in emergencies. Not only does this derail their development and limit their prospects, but it also places them at greater risk of violence, poverty, forced labour and child marriage.

“We are leaving behind a generation of children who will be unprepared for life,” said Yasmine Sherif, executive director of Education Cannot Wait, speaking to Geneva Solutions. “They are unprepared for their own livelihood, they can’t contribute to peacebuilding and recovery in their countries and aren’t empowered to reach their potential and rebuild their societies. They will live forever in extreme poverty.”

Education Cannot Wait (ECW) will convene government officials and international organisations in Geneva on 16 and 17 February to raise money to support children’s education during emergencies and protracted crises. Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis alongside other high-level government officials from countries including Germany, Colombia, Niger, Norway and South Sudan are expected to attend.

The organisation, which combines government, humanitarian and development funds to address educational needs, said it needs at least $1.5 billion for the next four years. This will allow ECW to reach 20 million children across the world, which is the “bare minimum” of the numbers the organisation wants to help, said Sherif.

She said the organisation hopes the conference will serve as an “eye opener” to the drastic situation facing millions of children. “Funding gaps are not being closed at the same pace as the number of children whose education is being disrupted,” she said.

Geneva Solutions sat down with Sherif to hear why so many children are missing out on their education around the world, and why donors need to step up to help provide them with a brighter future.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Geneva Solutions: The number of crisis-impacted children in urgent need of educational support worldwide has tripled from 75 million in 2016 to 222 million today. What are the key factors driving this?

Yasmine Sherif: Firstly, not only are conflicts more protracted, but there are also new conflicts escalating, from sub-Saharan Africa to Ukraine, causing more forced displacement and pushing more children out of school. Over 100 million people are forcibly displaced today, which is bigger than any time since the Second World War.

Then you have climate-induced disasters, which are becoming more frequent by the week, and that again causes displacement, destruction to infrastructure and a disruption of education. In Pakistan, for example, 23,000 schools were destroyed in the recent floods.  Then there is the Covid-19 pandemic, which significantly increased the number of children out of school, and situations such as the change of power in Afghanistan, which has barred girls from secondary school. So there are a number of factors at play.

Not only are these problems escalating, but the funding is not keeping up. The funding gap is growing as the number of children are growing, so we’re seeing more and more children falling behind.

What are some of the overlooked consequences of children being out of school, particularly in crisis-affected areas?

A school is a very protective environment, so there are many threats that children are exposed to when they’re not there, especially girls. They are at greater risk of domestic and sexual gender-based violence, unwanted pregnancies and early child marriages. A girl who is not educated is often married away at an early age against her will and then becomes pregnant, and then it’s so much more difficult to empower her to take control of her own life. In conflict settings, girls are also more at risk of trafficking. The consequences are severe on the individual child, but also on that community, society and country as a whole. For boys, being in school keeps them away from being forced into joining armed groups and keeps them learning.

We are nonetheless seeing a rollback in girls’ right to education in countries like Afghanistan. Why is it so important to keep girls in school, particularly during crises?

When you want to rebuild a country after a crisis, you need the entire population to take part. When you see what's happening in Afghanistan, it's impossible to even visualise how you can rebuild the country with 50 percent of the population not partaking. It’s not going to happen.

But girls are always those left behind. When families have to make a decision on who will stay at home and who will work, it’s always the boys who are prioritised for education and the girls that pay the price. So we have to take affirmative action to show that girls have an equal right to education as boys and are just as needed in society.

Covid-19 had a devastating impact on children’s education across the globe, but particularly in poorer regions and crisis-hit countries. What toll has the pandemic taken on education?

We are seeing an extreme socioeconomic divide that shouldn't have been there from the beginning but that was only exacerbated by Covid-19. It made it very clear to us the enormous differences between those who have and those who do not.

In Ukraine for instance, where there has been conflict but also Covid, you have the infrastructure and technology to support remote learning. By contrast, in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan where you don’t even have a radio, during the pandemic teachers had to walk from door to door to leave homework then come and pick it up a week later. In Lebanon, where you find the largest refugee population in the world, you might have a family of six Syrian refugees who only have one smartphone which each child has to use to do their homework and communicate with the teacher. If we had more financing invested and better infrastructure across sub-Saharan Africa or Lebanon or Afghanistan, we could use similar digital solutions to those being used in Ukraine.

Why is education not higher up the international humanitarian agenda?

When Education Cannot Wait was created in 2016, the financing towards education in humanitarian responses was around 2.4 percent. That means that the other 97 percent went to the very quick, emergency responses covering basic essentials such as water, food, blankets and tents. I have seen and worked in many conflicts and crises and I know those things are of course extremely important, but you also need to offer something that gives hope to human beings, that empowers them and is truly an investment in local empowerment. And that is education.

You cannot say that education can wait until the crisis is over, because most conflicts now last for decades. The average refugee is a refugee for 17 years. So education needs to come in immediately.

Do you expect donors to meet your funding goals at the conference?

An abundance of resources exists, it’s just that we are not using them in the most humane and responsible way. There's enough for all of us. So our job is to try to unlock those resources and inspire a change in attitude. To see the changes you can make for young people suffering, who can then rise out of that and conquer their own greatness through a good education – what a powerful legacy that is for anyone who has the financial resources to make that happen.

And it can happen – we've seen it happen. We’ve seen child soldiers rising out of that and becoming the staunchest advocates for making the world a better and fairer place. We have seen girls who have gone through all sorts of traumas and abuse become strong, powerful women leaders. All of them have one thing in common: an incredible sense of humanity and empathy, and the world needs more of that.