Exiting Armed Conflicts: Prioritising Education in Acute Crises

03 May 2021   ·   Lea Meyer

In schools, children ideally acquire the necessary skills to build their future. To stabilise societies in the long term, children’s education must continue throughout ongoing armed conflicts. Germany should thus prioritise education in its immediate crisis response, enhance inter-ministerial cooperation and allocate at least 5 percent of its humanitarian budget to education.

Imagine you are trying to build a house, but do not have any of the necessary tools to do so. Standing there empty-handed, would you even know how to start? Children in armed conflicts often find themselves in exactly the same situation: they are supposed to build their future (and the future of their country) without any access to the required instruments to move forward. What are these tools? Reading and writing. Mathematics and history. Studying Pythagoras’ theorem and ancient cultures not only upholds a sense of normalcy. It also allows children (and their families) to restore hope through access to the social ladder of education and supports healing from traumatic experiences through structured social activities in a safe space. Ultimately, acquiring these skills also contributes to re-building societies and long-term stability. Creating possibilities for the individual child also means creating possibilities for societies as a whole. Sometimes dismissed as ‘soft politics’ and a nice-to-have human rights feature, in fact, education provides a powerful key to exit armed conflicts – and cannot wait until the crisis is over.

International Actors Fail to Prioritise Education as an Immediate Crisis Response

Education is an essential right during all stages of childhood – in times of peace as well as in times of conflict. Yet, education is also a great example of the often criticised silo thinking between humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actors. While many governments share the belief that investing in education is crucial for the long-term development of a country, it is largely neglected in humanitarian responses to armed conflicts. It remains one of the most underfunded areas of humanitarian aid: only around 3 percent of humanitarian funding worldwide is allocated to education. Military actors, too, often overlook education, even though they play an important part in safeguarding education: they are key to protecting important infrastructure like school buildings in conflict settings.

COVID-19 Exacerbates the Education Crisis in Armed Conflicts

Apart from teaching, schools are places where children can feel safe and access the psycho-social support they need. Schools are sometimes the only places where children get to eat a full meal in a day. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the 426 million children living in conflict zones had no access to quality education. In 2019, around 127 million primary and secondary school-age children in crisis-affected countries were out of school.

The pandemic added yet another layer. A recent Save the Children study found that reduced access to basic services – particularly education – is one of its most concerning secondary effects. Accompanied by increasing violence and political instability, the outbreak of the pandemic exacerbated the various risks for children in conflicts. The interruption of schooling has numerous negative trickle-down effects: families are more likely to send their children off to work. Even more girls get married off at an even younger age. The recruitment of children into armed groups increases – a development that has recently been observed in Mali, Afghanistan and Colombia. For many children, the interruption of their education becomes the end of school altogether. Especially girls are at risk of never returning to school.

Germany’s Engagement in Afghanistan Neglects Children’s Immediate Education Needs

The German government is well positioned to contribute to ensuring uninterrupted access to high quality, safe and inclusive education during all phases of conflict. As the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor worldwide, Germany plays a central role in many conflict-affected countries, both as a political actor and through its financial assistance. However, the German engagement in Afghanistan serves as a prime example for a pattern of neglecting education in acute crises. The large majority of German funding to Afghanistan is allocated to stabilisation measures and development cooperation, amounting to 420 million Euro in 2020. In the last four years, humanitarian aid only accounted for 3 percent of the German funding to Afghanistan with approximately 14 million Euro per year. Investments in education within the stabilisation and development portfolios flow into long-term measures like re-building infrastructure, but do not reach all children out of school today. In 2019, already 3.7 million Afghan children had no access to education – a number that has increased by approximately 10 million due to the pandemic. To cover the rising immediate education needs of Afghanistan’s upcoming generation, a shift of priorities is needed – education must be part of humanitarian action, and funded accordingly.

Building Futures Today: Germany Should Invest In Education in Conflict Settings

With the COVID-19 pandemic further straining access to education in conflict settings, how can the German government contribute to effective change?

Above all, Germany should promote a holistic approach to education in conflict-affected countries, making it a priority throughout its response, from the onset of crises to the rebuilding of societies. To ensure unhindered access to education during all stages of armed conflicts, Germany should streamline its approach to education across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus and across its different ministries, from the German Federal Foreign Office (FFO) and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development to the Ministry of Defence. This would mean to make education a focus area in all three ministries and enhance inter-ministerial cooperation. It would also mean to earmark at least 5 percent of the humanitarian budget for education and increase funding for humanitarian aid. While the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development prioritises education in its 2030 strategy, the FFO still lags behind and must catch up: Germany should make education in acute crises a key goal of its humanitarian assistance.

Finally, the German government should take immediate measures to implement the Safe Schools Declaration, the only international agreement dedicated to the protection of education in armed conflicts. The German endorsement of the Declaration in 2018 has been an important step in the right direction. Now, a national action plan with clear accountability mechanisms that lays out concrete steps to put the Declaration into practice is needed. As one measure, the Ministry of Defence should embed the ‘Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict’ in the German Army’s Manual on International Humanitarian Law in Armed Conflict.

Let’s prioritise education in conflicts to equip children with the tools to build a future – for themselves as well for the societies they live in.

This is the fifth and final piece in a series of articles on the PeaceLab blog which give insights into the roles of children and youth in conflict and post-conflict situations around the world.

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Lea Meyer

Lea Meyer is Advocacy Manager for Humanitarian Affairs at Save the Children Germany. She focuses on the protection of children and the role of education in armed conflicts. @meye_lea