In-Depth Interview with Yasmine Sherif, Executive Director, Education Cannot Wait: Getting to Know Her
Yasmine Sherif is the Executive Director of Education Cannot Wait (ECW). A lawyer specialized in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law (LL.M), she has over 30 years of experience with the United Nations and international NGOs.
Ms. Sherif has served in some of the most crisis-affected areas of the world, including Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Balkans, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan as well as in New York and Geneva. She has led high-level missions to numerous conflict and crisis-affected countries. Her expertise spans across the education, humanitarian, development, human rights, gender and peacekeeping spectrum.
She is the author of the book, The Case for Humanity: An Extraordinary Session, and a Champion for ‘No Lost Generation.’ In 2017, she received the annual award Sweden’s UN Friend of the Year, in 2020 she was awarded the Global Educator Award in the United States, and in 2022 she received on behalf of Education Cannot Wait, the prestigious Mother Teresa Award.
Ms. Sherif also received an award from the United Nations Association-USA Brooklyn Chapter in 2023, and was recently honored as a Listee in Marquis Who's Who for her dedication to the field of international affairs and law, and leadership of ECW.
ECW: We have just six years left to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including SDG 4. How can ECW and its strategic partners further accelerate and increase education access for children and adolescents impacted by emergencies and protracted crises?
ECW Executive Director Yasmine Sherif: There is a very clear, two-part response to this: first, conflict prevention and climate action; second, financing for the SDGs, in this case SDG4.
Just a few years ago, it was understood that there were 75 million children and adolescents impacted by armed conflicts, forced displacement and climate disasters whose education was either disrupted and/or did not yield learning outcomes. In 2021, Education Cannot Wait (ECW) conducted in-depth research endorsed by a panel of UN agency and NGO experts; the analysis concluded that the actual number was 222 million. Over the past 18 months, that number has increased, with millions more children and adolescents whose education is now disrupted in Ukraine, Gaza and Sudan, to mention just a few stark examples.
We must invest less in wars and violent means of conflict-resolution and invest more in peaceful conflict resolution and a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources between the Global North and the Global South. We cannot go on using violent means of conflict resolution that costs trillions of dollars and then try to manage the consequences with significantly less money.
According to the United Nations Spokesperson, the annual cost of the United Nations was estimated at US$3.59 billion, as approved by the UN General Assembly on 24 December 2023. This comes in addition to US$50 million for decisions taken by the UN Human Rights Council. Tragically, funding needs for all individual UN agencies seldom reach their actual needs. This can be compared to the trillions of dollars invested in and spent on war; more precisely: US$2,240,000,000,000 (US$2.2 Trillion), which “are spent on the war machines of the world,” according to the UN Spokesperson.
We must deeply reflect on why the United Nations - which represents everyone, which is the guardian of the UN Charter and multiple human rights conventions, and which is a multilateral organization that is doing so much good for humanity - receives radically less financing than the wars that cause so much inhumanity? This is the question of our time. We need to think with intellectual honesty and feel with authenticity. We need to take a hard look at these facts.
To manage the current global reality of financing priorities, Education Cannot Wait (ECW) deliberately requested a modest amount for our Strategic Plan 2023-2026: just US$1.5 billion to provide a quality education for 20 million crisis-affected children, adolescents and teachers – whose learning, teaching and lives are affected by armed conflicts, the climate crisis and forced displacement.
Over the past year, ECW’s Trust Fund has been replenished with US$900 million by our many committed and supportive strategic donors. We firmly believe that – in light of the UN Spokesperson’s statement above – the remaining financial resources needed to completely fund our collective efforts for over 226 million children’s education in crises do exist and will soon make their way to ECW, hence to all of our partners. The risk of not investing in these children’s lives, their future and that of their societies, will have irreversible, global implications. The world will not be able to withstand the shocks and disastrous consequences of this destructive approach for much longer, or as the late US President John F. Kennedy once said: “Mankind [humankind] must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind [humankind].”
In this spirit, we must all make an ethical and responsible choice. In the education sector this means to fully fund and invest in education, grounded in principles of the UN Charter and international human rights law as endorsed and ratified by UN Member states. As the great poet Robert Frost wrote, “We have promises to keep…”. Indeed, we also have legal commitments to respect and uphold.
Keeping promises and respecting international law are serious undertakings and cannot be disregarded, forgotten or postponed. If we are to establish peaceful co-existence based on the UN Charter, human rights and sustainable development towards real peace and security, rhetoric alone is insufficient. Action, through funding, shows intention. Respecting democratically adopted laws and applying those objectively and equally are the strongest indicators of civilization in the 21st century.
Secondly, we must all work together to further translate the UN Secretary-General’s Reform and Common Agenda into action. Take the concept of the ‘humanitarian-development-peace nexus.’ This is not an abstract concept. It is a very concrete approach towards lasting peace. It means ensuring that immediate humanitarian aid no longer substitutes long-term development solutions, while at the same time recognizing the importance of humanitarian responses. The nexus means that we apply both humanitarian responses and development investments in parallel in mutually reinforcing ways towards sustainable peace.
In protracted crises, without exception, there are always immediate education needs. Indeed ‘education cannot wait until a crisis is over.’ The education of children and adolescents cannot be put on hold, depriving them of hope while furthering their suffering through critical learning time lost in their most formative years in life.
Most crises go on for decades, as in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Syria, just to mention some of the over 70 conflicts and crises, according to the International Crisis Group. Immediate and life-saving education solutions are crucial, including the rapid provision of non-formal learning centres that also provide several intersectoral responses, such as school feeding, mental health and psycho-social services, school supplies and teacher training.
I recall arriving in central Mali in a situation of mass forced displacement and meeting with internally displaced children and their desperate mothers who were seriously distraught and isolated in the desert. There, UNICEF and Save the Children were trying to find solutions to those immense, urgent needs but without any funding to do so. Thanks to our design, ECW was able to immediately provide a substantive First Emergency Response investment.
I’ve seen the same heroic work by UNHCR, WFP, Jesuit Refugee Service, Save the Children, Plan International, NRC and other strategic partners of ECW along the border of Chad, in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in the Central African Republic (CAR), amongst others. In such horrific, soul-shattering situations, ECW’s First Emergency Response investment window quickly provides urgently needed seed funding to our partners on the ground, who then take immediate action to serve the children, their teachers, the Ministry of Education and host-communities, providing them with life-saving education support. ECW has invoked its First Emergency Window in 44 countries and contexts affected by armed conflicts, climate induced disasters and forced displacement.
Still, this does not replace sustainable development investments in the education sector. The top priority is to accelerate progress toward SDG4 and all SDGs, while also ending conflicts and preventing new ones. With additional resources we can ensure that crisis-affected children and adolescents, as well as their teachers, can quickly transit into a functional formal education system and make sure that the conditions for peace exist to ensure sustainability.
Refugees tend to be further left out, so an emphasis on their right to be included in the formal education system is another top priority for ECW. In all crisis-affected countries, it is just as important to support inclusion in the public system, alongside reconstruction and capacity development, as a means of creating sustainable and lasting solutions, peace and security.
Education Cannot Wait’s Multi-Year Resilience Programmes (MYRP), illustrate how we translate the humanitarian-development-peace nexus into results in 26 crisis-affected countries we serve, such as Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, the DRC, Nigeria, Iraq and Ukraine, among others. In all 26 countries, humanitarian and development actors work closely together to deliver education through joint programming.
Still, while development in crises requires solid investments in capacity development and the empowerment of Ministries of Education, it also requires a whole-of-governance approach across several ministries, with the executive leadership on top – all moving with the same vision for education investments. The Ministry of Finance is a key ministry for national planning and budgeting, but so are the Ministries of Defence, Security and Interior. Unless we collectively work to end or mitigate the triggers for violent means of conflict resolution, we cannot apply this whole-of-government approach.
And we certainly cannot give justice to education as a development sector and as a sustainable basic service without adequate financial resources. The main challenges to a whole-of-government approach in advancing education in the Global South include continued wars, growing climate change and the lack of national financial resources to deliver crucial basic services, such as education.
It is important to again stress that sufficient financial resources are required to ensure continued and inclusive quality education that results in learning outcomes and endows students with the degrees needed for them to advance society. These financial resources for learning provide a clear pathway to higher education for all those children who dream of becoming teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs.
I believe it can be disingenuous to invite crisis-affected children to tell the world of their dreams – knowing very well that they need a higher education to realize such dreams – if there is no serious intent to provide financial support required for their tertiary education, let alone for their secondary education.
Education Cannot Wait was created to respond to our in-country partners and the children, adolescents and teachers they serve without delay, by mobilizing the financial resources required for an inclusive and sustainable quality education from early childhood development through secondary school. This is a foundational pathway – but let us not lose sight of tertiary education. Together with government partners, UNESCO and UNHCR play an instrumental role to this end, yet more financing is needed.
Thirdly, Education Cannot Wait was also created to end competition over resources amongst education agencies and organizations. This is the third strategic objective of Education Cannot Wait’s mandate. We all need to work together: humanitarians and development actors – civil society, UN agencies, strategic donors, communities – under the leadership of the Ministry of Education. To prevent competition, this can best be achieved with a pooled funding mechanism and joint programming. This is already happening as ECW’s joint Multi-Year Resilience Programming illustrates. ECW investments have already delivered, through our partners, inclusive, quality education to over 9 million children and adolescents. This has been achieved precisely because we work together through bigger and better-coordinated joint programming, rather than in competition or through many smaller individual projects.
Cooperation and coordination are absolute imperative to draw on the added value and comparative advantage of each civil society organization, UN agency and local community towards a holistic approach. No one can do it all alone. It is simply impossible when looking at the actual learning crises in the world. In this regard, ECW transcends the false dichotomy between humanitarian aid and development aid as two distinct, separate approaches and instead places them in the crisis context, where we all find a common denominator and value the contribution, skills and mandate, of each actor and partner.
ECW: Education Cannot Wait has, as you mentioned, already reached more than 9 million crisis-affected girls and boys with quality, holistic education. ECW’s 2023-2026 Strategic Plan seeks to mobilize US$1.5 billion to reach 20 million more girls and boys. Why should donors, the private sector, philanthropic foundations and high-net-worth individuals invest in ECW?
ECW Executive Director Yasmine Sherif: From a macro-perspective, we know that education is the best investment we can make for sustainable economic and social development in any country. Many countries in Europe, such as Sweden and Switzerland, who were once either very poor or lacked other income-generating resources, made deliberate and strategic investments in education to build their countries’ economies and accelerate national development. In the same spirit, I meet so many Ministers of Education in the Global South who share the same vision and determination, but whose ministries are thwarted by a lack of financial resources.
For instance, the Minister of Education in South Sudan is strongly committed to educating every girl and every child in South Sudan to help build that young nation which has suffered so much. And while South Sudan, a country the size of Western Europe, received ECW’s biggest seed-fund investment wherein ECW invested US$40 million, the government also contributed by investing US$10 million and GPE also invested US$10 million. While all of us are working together, we still lack just US$25 million to meet the full needs for the coming three years, also bearing in mind the refugee flow from Sudan arriving in South Sudan. This is so easy to resolve: we simply need five partners to come in with US$5 million each, or ten partners to join with US$2.5 million each, and we have a fully funded joint programme for the coming three years.
The same can be said about Ukraine, where we all work together to invest both in First Emergency Responses and joint Multi-Year Resilience Programming. The commitment of the Ministry of Education is admirable in providing access to on-line education, which has significantly helped reduce learning losses. The Global Business Coalition for Education (GBCEd) has contributed nearly US$50 million in devices to help make this possible, and yet more resources are required.
Then, look across sub-Saharan Africa – including the Sahel, to Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad – or the Middle East, with Lebanon being a case in point - such generous, refugee-hosting countries, despite their own challenges. They too, have vision and determination, yet without additional financing, we cannot fully support these governments, children and teachers in achieving their goals of quality education to rebuild their country and to care for the refugees they willingly host.
To make it worse, we now have Gaza, where more than 10,000 children have reportedly been killed as of mid-January, and the entire education system has been destroyed. Children will now face the loss of at least one school year, if not more, given the enormous need for reconstruction and a sustainable political solution. With the appointment of a Senior Humanitarian and Reconstruction Coordinator for Gaza, the whole education system will need to be rebuilt, including significant infrastructure, healing through mental health and psychosocial services, teacher training and fees, school meals, school supplies, educational equipment, and so on. The task is Herculean, the needs are massive, and the costs will be epic. Yet, coming back to the statement of the UN Spokesperson mentioned earlier, trillions of dollars do exist and must be tapped into.
With the Green Climate Fund’s (GCF) fresh and bold commitment to working in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, ECW also stands ready to work with partners and the GCF to achieve its ambition. There has been an ongoing, systematic underinvestment in education for children and adolescents not only living on the frontlines of climate crises, but enduring armed conflicts and forced displacement midst the climate crises. It is time to connect the dots between climate action and investments in education for those left furthest behind.
By investing in education, we lay the foundation for socio-economic development, to advance climate change adaptation and mitigation, to boost national GDP, and can ensure - as this year’s International Day of Education theme suggests - “Learning for Peace.” This is far more cost-effective than using our financial resources for more wars that simply create more refugees, more human suffering and more extreme poverty. The vicious cycle must be broken.
By investing in education, we provide every child and adolescent impacted by armed conflicts, climate-induced disasters and forced displacement with a chance to draw on their resilience, heal from their experiences, develop fully and to prepare their future and unleash their potential. They will enrich their communities, countries and the world. We must always remember that we are all interconnected as one humanity. “Your liberation is my liberation, and my liberation is your liberation,” as someone wisely once said. This is not a naïve, shallow statement, but a rather a deeply profound understanding of our shared humanity.
I honestly believe that every human on earth would benefit from knowing and understanding human rights. Especially those with great responsibilities for humanity. Only then can we create a world based on human rights for all: just as the founders of the United Nations worded it in the UN Charter and subsequent conventions. This is when our priority-setting will shift from investing trillions in wars towards investing trillions in education and the other SDGs, including climate action, peace and security.
As for the young generation who are currently deprived of their human rights, starting with their basic right to an inclusive and continued quality education, we can and must invest financially in those left furthest behind from the SDGs; that is the over 226 million in emergencies and protracted crises, including in climate-induced disasters. Only then can we bring those left furthest behind closer to the SDG targets, empowering them to realize their inherent human rights and contribute to, and benefit from, each of the SDGs, towards peace and security.
We have so many inspiring Ministries of Education, communities, civil society partners and UN agencies who do the real, concrete, and truly noble work together in so many crisis-affected countries. With more funding they can accelerate access to quality education. They have the proven systems and the highly skilled teams in place and know exactly how to operate in crises. They have the partnerships and the trust with government counterparts and among communities. They even have the extraordinary skills of negotiating access to areas – and thereby, children and teachers – which are not under government control. ECW’s partners also deeply understand how to operate effectively in these contexts after decades of in-country presence and experience. All they need now is funding.
In light of this, ECW is not building its own delivery machine, and thus not competing for resources. On the contrary, we are a catalyst for our colleagues and partners. It is our job to serve them and give them the financial means to jointly deliver on ECW’s strategic objectives on coordination, cooperation, quality and accountability through a pooled funding mechanism. I believe that this approach represents a solid model of multilateralism and the UN Secretary-General’s reform as concerns delivering speedy responses, measurable results and sustainable outcomes in-country.
As a catalytic global fund in the UN multilateral system, which also extends to civil society and the private sector, ECW’s priority focus is on resource mobilization for pooled funding, global advocacy, joint programming, quality assurance and results. We want our colleagues and partners in-country to succeed together for children and adolescents.
We also have terrific partners with other global financing mechanisms, working closely with the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), the International Financing Facility for Education (IFFED), and the Education Outcome Impact Fund, among others. We have fantastic advocacy partners at the global level, such as the Global Coalition for Education (GCE) and civil society across the board, as well as Global Citizen, which has made education in emergencies and protracted crises one of its top three priorities for 2024. In this regard, I recommend reading the recently released book, ‘From Ideas to Impact’, by Michael Sheldrick, co-founder of Global Citizen, which brilliantly explains the power of partnerships and collective action.
A proven and innovative example of how the public sector and private sector can work together is that of the LEGO Foundation and the Government of Denmark, to which the Government of the United States has also contributed. Another stellar example is that of the Zurich Cantonal Bank and the Government of Switzerland. By matching funding and/or joining up in a complementary manner, substantive – and above all – sustainable and continued funding replenishes ECW’s Trust Fund.
All of us have complementary roles and mutually reinforcing approaches. We all agree that financing education is indeed both the biggest challenge and yet the greatest opportunity to address the global learning crisis and to empower those left furthest behind towards achieving the 2030 Agenda.
ECW: The UN Secretary-General has made firm commitments to reform the United Nations through the New Way of Working and Grand Bargain Agreements. How Is ECW supporting this UN reform agenda, and what can be done to scale-up ECW’s proven model?
ECW Executive Director Yasmine Sherif: At the United Nations, we are all naturally expected to implement the United Nations Secretary-General’s Reforms and system-wide policies. The reform states that we should focus on cooperation and joint programming, rather than competition over resources. This is what we should all do.
As multilateral global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises within the UN system, hosted by UNICEF, the ECW community feels a strong responsibility to ensure that we implement UN reforms and collectively keep advancing the principles and standards of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
As all UN entities, ECW is a rights-based global fund. Thus, we are obliged to speak up for children, adolescents and their teachers and to create space for their voices to be heard – as ECW’s global #AfghanGirlsVoices advocacy campaign does for Afghan girls denied their right to education, and our support to the #HearTheirVoices advocacy campaign for children in Gaza. I would like to stress that civil society, youth advocates, as well as UN agencies and communities, are very impressive global advocates for every child’s right to an inclusive quality education and safe learning.
Furthermore, in line with the UN reform, and the UN Secretary-General’s policy of joint programming, ECW is committed to the New Way of Working and translates it into action. This means ending silos and discouraging competition. Having served in several UN agencies and a few civil society organizations over the past 34 years, I am familiar with most mandates and the added value of each. I must admit that heading ECW and serving as a catalyst for their funding and joint programming is a very rewarding experience.
In ensuring coordination (and preventing competition), ECW invests in – and works through – the multilateral UN Coordination System, represented by the Humanitarian and Resident Coordinators, the Cluster System composed of the government, UN agencies and civil society, as well as government- and UNHCR-led Working Groups for refugee education. Indeed, in-country coordination mechanisms exist and it is working. However, we need to continue to empower and support them.
ECW’s rapid growth and expansion into some of the toughest places on earth is due to our early decision to reverse the trend of parallel coordination mechanisms which are not always equipped for crises or may stir competition. Thus, instead of creating parallel structures of coordination, we decided from day one to invest in UN structures that have been in place for years and which are of immediate relevance to bring both humanitarian and development actors together with the governments and communities we serve. Through the UN’s established coordination structure, we included and built bridges to other coordination structures, so that their valuable commitment and contributions are also used for the common good.
The UN Secretary-General’s tireless leadership motivates ECW to keep advancing further and faster. The Secretary-General’s Transformative Education Summit in 2022 laid the ground for ECW’s High-Level Financing Conference in Geneva in 2023, co-hosted by Switzerland and ECW. The timing enabled us to mobilize more resources for education, which in turn are now expanding the outreach of quality education in crisis-affected countries.
Furthermore, based on the UN Secretary-General’s UN Reform and Common Agenda, ECW has made strides forward in the education sector and moved from an initial small handful of donors to now working with 25 strategic public and private sector donors in just a few years – with new donors joining every year: the latest new arrivals to the ECW Community being the Qatar Development Fund and the Government of Japan, while France dramatically increased its funding just a few months ago, following in the footsteps of Germany, the UK, the USA, Denmark, Canada, Norway, Finland, the LEGO Foundation and a number of other strategic donor partners [see donor chart in this Newsletter]. But more financing from current and potential donors is needed to meet the actual needs.
In our new Strategic Plan 2023-2026, we are calling for US$1.5 billion to reach 20 million children, adolescents and their teachers in four years through 2026. This allows everyone to be able to contribute adequate financing without overburdening anyone. This strategic approach is working; in just over a year, our strategic donors have contributed almost US$900 million to our Trust Fund for our new ECW Strategic Plan.
And, since our inception just a few years ago, ECW’s proven model has already generated more than US$1.6 billion for our Trust Fund, aligned with an additional US$3 billion in-country from other strategic donors, including governments. This illustrates ECW’s capacity to be a catalyst for coordination, resources and quality control to achieve collective learning outcomes in the education sector in crisis-affected contexts.
The ECW model ensures strong inclusion by our strategic donors and all partners so they have a voice and can participate strategically and substantively. As a result, we all operate as one collaborative team. Furthermore, we are agile and lean, with low overhead costs. This is possible because we look at host-governments, civil society, UN agencies and local communities as full members of our team. They are truly our colleagues, working on the ground and delivering tangible results. We are one ECW Community working together, visionary, courageous and relentless advocates and doers.
Our public donors are naturally keen to see results for their tax-payers money and the same applies to our private sector donors. Everyone wants to see results, and this is our shared commitment. In that sense, the ECW community has adopted an entrepreneurial spirit towards a shared cause. This entrepreneurial spirit motivates and inspires us to continually race for resources, quality and results.
We have a highly professional, deeply committed and solutions-oriented team in the ECW secretariat. Be it managing the financials to achieve top-notch audit reports, building strong partnerships with our strategic donors and bringing new ones on board, guiding the development of high-quality joint education programming and rapid responses, staying the course on accountability and safeguarding, and conducting impeccable and evidenced-based research and reporting.
We also have a very strong advocacy and communication approach, advocating globally through top-tier traditional and social media approaches which allow us to tell the world how everyone in the ECW Community is working together to achieve positive results for crisis-affected children and their teachers in the world’s most difficult contexts.
I bow to my relentlessly accountable, creative and professional team – they are all go-getters and change-makers, who have their hearts in the right place.
Yet, we all understand that we can continue to improve, to move faster and reach even more girls, boys and their teachers impacted by crises. It will take many more billions of dollars to fully rebuild the lives of over 226 million vulnerable children and adolescents who urgently need quality education. Thankfully, recalling the UN Spokesperson’s statement, we know that the financial resources exist. It is just a matter of conscientious priority setting and funding choices being made. Do we incorrectly see the glass as half-empty and thus need to cut funding for those left furthest behind – or do we more correctly see the glass as overflowing so we can invest in humanity and the right to a quality education for the young generation.
As for the Grand Bargain, ECW exceeded the 25% target a couple of years ago. As a headquarter-based global fund – with no presence in the field and fully accountable for tax-payers money – it would be irresponsible to invest in local organizations without prior due diligence and oversight. All our non-UN grantees must go through a comprehensive process of eligibility assessments to ensure accountable financial processes, delivery and codes of conduct.
Our grantees – selected in-country through the coordination system – serve as the first accountable oversight actors on the ground. At the headquarter-level, ECW investments are provided on the condition that they invest in local actors that meet or preferably exceed the Grand Bargain target of 25%. This has proven a great arrangement. Funds are going where they are meant to go, while also building local capacities in financial management, delivery and reporting, and thus local empowerment, to take charge of their communities and countries.
Based on recent, independent, and external evaluations of ECW, the ECW model is a “proven model.” It is an effective and interesting model, and, as mentioned earlier, I believe one that can be replicated across the United Nations. We move with humanitarian speed and achieve development depth by reducing bureaucracy and raising accountability, by reducing competition and strengthening cooperation. While the UN is the multilateral global institution for peace and security, based on the UN Charter, we further benefit from the fact that the UN is by default also designed to respond to conflicts and disasters.
When COVID hit, ECW was able to immediately provide responses to COVID-affected countries in crises – acting with the “urgency of now” to quote Martin Luther King Jr. – by delivering First Emergency Response education support to over 30 million children and youth. As we took this action, strategic donors joined forces and kept replenishing the financial needs. By moving with speed into the crisis, we unlocked more resources.
When refugees and migrants faced appalling conditions in the Moria reception centre and other reception centres on the Greek Aegean Islands and we could not use public funding for an EU Member State, we found a solution together with two private foundations and organizations. Theirworld and the Dutch Postcode Lottery specifically earmarked their funding for education to the asylum-seekers, which ECW then invested in UNHCR, UNICEF, their local civil society partners and education administration. In cooperation with UNICEF and Theirworld, EU stepped in and funded this initiative. This eventually enabled transfer to the Government of Greece taking over the responsibility - with over 30,000 children adolescents benefitting thus far.
When the Taliban took over a couple of years ago, we immediately deployed an all-women mission to meet with the de facto Ministry of Education authorities to begin the long, but not impossible, advocacy struggle to get all girls back to learning and to continue our investments in girls’ education in some areas of Afghanistan, which are ongoing today. Today, we know that not all Taliban want to exclude secondary-school girls from school. We see a small step forward, a small window of opportunity. However, it is very painful for the majority of Afghan adolescent girls who are still waiting, and we must never forget them. We cannot rest until all of them can return to secondary school, as a matter of public policy.
When Sudan imploded, we immediately coordinated with UNHCR and travelled to neighbouring refugee-receiving countries making immediate emergency education investments in support of the Regional Refugee Response Plan, calling on public and private sector to follow suit. Sudan is experiencing a horrendous internal armed conflict with grave forced displacement – both internally and across the borders with half a million refugees having fled. In Chad, I met the children and their mothers crossing the border from Darfur, their eyes hollow and their little bodies traumatized by fear. UNHCR staff were sleeping in the reception areas on the Chadian border to provide a sense of safety and protection, while also meeting their immediate needs. I was very moved by the heroic response of UNHCR, an agency I served decades ago.
When Gaza exploded in 2023, ECW was able, thanks to our Executive Committee, to deliver an initial US$10 million immediately for mental health and psychosocial services to children through a well-coordinated response between UNRWA and UNICEF. The enormous needs for mental health and psychosocial services hardly need an explanation. It is a soul-shattering reality for these children. We were able to do something, but it is far from meeting their actual needs. A drop in the ocean.
As regards the ECW proven model, a large part of this relates to our governance structure, which comprises only 40 full-time secretariat staff, our High-Level Steering Group at the Ministerial and CEO levels, and our Executive Committee at the Directors’ level. We have invested much time in communication and dialogue over the years to bridge humanitarian and development narratives and approaches, building a shared spirit of trust and a collective commitment to connecting the dots for speed, results and sustainability. It is all about people working together with the same clarity of priorities, long-term vision and positive energy. This removes redundant bureaucratic hurdles which tend to arise where there is a lack of clarity in communication and different levels of energy.
We continue to revise our Operational Manual to make sure it is fit for purpose. It makes a huge difference when we put the children, their teachers and education at the centre of our vision – letting that vision determine how we operate. With a positive energy compounded by a clear roadmap and strategy, trust and professionalism, I believe all is possible. The ECW governance structure is proof that organizations operating in complex, dynamic environments can work very well by investing in open communication, bridge-building and in adopting an entrepreneurship spirit.
Back to the question as to why the private sector and high-net-worth individuals should invest in ECW and our mission for over 226 million crisis-affected girls, boys and teachers in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Middle East, Latin America, Ukraine or refugees fleeing to Europe, let me refer to the resources that actually exist amongst the world’s billionaires. The Gates Foundation recently stated on X/Twitter that “Globally, the net worth of the world’s 2,640 billionaires is at least $12.2 trillion. If every billionaire on earth donated 0.5% of their wealth, it would unlock $61 billion dollars...”
Besides the socio-economic, peace and stability reasons already mentioned, I think it is now a choice in approach and attitude that the private sector and high-net-worth individuals can adopt; either to be part of making a real difference for over 226 million crisis-affected children and adolescents and derive a deep sense of meaning from this, or to just sit by, doing nothing. Two of my three siblings are private sector entrepreneurs, and they are no less concerned with the education for crisis-affected children and humanity at large, than I am. It is just that I dedicate more time to it, as it is my full-time profession.
We should not underestimate the good-will and the altruism of the private sector and high-net-worth individuals. It is not all about opening markets. It is also about being a concerned human being or enterprise that cares for the world, for children and for future generations – standing ready to use some financial capital and strategic knowledge to contribute to solutions. I am convinced that one can be both a profitable entrepreneur and an impactful humanist.
ECW: Education Cannot Wait became operational in 2017. In just 6 years, you have mobilized billions, changed the lives of millions, and scaled-up your operations across the globe. What is your secret to success for ECW?
ECW Executive Director Yasmine Sherif: Let me say first: It is ECW and the larger ECW Community – governments, strategic public and private sector donors, UN agencies and civil society partners, as well as local communities – who, together, have changed the lives of millions of crisis-affected children.
I do not think it is a secret that great leadership and partnerships constitute a major part of ECW’s rapid growth. In specific, the credit goes to our UN Special Envoy for Global Education and ECW’s Chair of the High-Level Steering Group, the Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, whom I greatly respect, and to the strong and unwavering support for ECW’s mission provided by the UN Secretary-General, the UN Deputy-Secretary-General, along with all members of the High-Level Steering Group and the Chairs and members of the Executive Committee, including donors, UN agencies, civil society, UN Member States, communities, foundations and private sector.
This ongoing support, close partnerships and firm commitment have created the extraordinary space and trust required for building an innovative, results-driven global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises within the UN system. Credit should also be given to UNICEF and Executive Director Catherine Russell, for being a gracious host to ECW. ECW and our governance structure have independence in all substantive work, while being supported by UNICEF administratively at the secretariat level and often by UNICEF field offices.
The other important ‘secret’ is to assemble a highly qualified, professional, creative team within the ECW secretariat. We all agree that human resources are the most important aspect in building an effective organization. The staff you recruit, their skills and unique qualifications, as well as compatible and complementary personalities, their potential and team-spirit are crucial factors. We receive no core-funding and are exclusively working with extra-budgetary funding, so everyone feels a sense of ownership in mobilizing resources.
At ECW we encourage innovative thinking and taking initiative. This is our culture. We do not shy away from debate and discussion to find solutions together. Our staff represent the full diversity of the United Nations, and we allow everyone to be who they are so they can be their best, while also respecting each other. However, we are not seeking conformity. The great British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, wrote several insightful books on authority, organizations and power; these are great readings for any leader or manager. At the end of the day, we are all committed to reducing redundant bureaucracy and to increasing accountability to those we serve - because abnormal problems require extraordinary solutions.
ECW: Congratulations! Your book “The Case for Humanity: An Extraordinary Session” has been a perennial best seller at the UN for years. What are three books that have most influenced you personally and/or professionally, and why would you recommend them to others?
ECW Executive Director Yasmine Sherif: Thank you. Although I am the author, I still read passages from it sometimes to remind myself to steadfastly hold on to my life-long belief in one humanity and not get discouraged in a world of so much division, chaos and suffering. The Case for Humanity is a semi-fictional book drawing on the authentic words and wisdom of over one hundred of the greatest human beings across time in arts, politics, and service of humanity – with all of them assembled in the UN Security Council. As I researched and wrote the book, I saw clearly how it is true that ‘great people think alike,’ and how their thoughts, writings and actions were fully consistent with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As for books that have influenced me, the ones I am most drawn to are books written by authors whose lives were an example, and who help me understand humanity. Nothing influences or inspires me more.
One book that has profoundly influenced me is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. His entire lifework, research and manuscript were taken away from him when he was sent to Auschwitz, an experience he describes in the first part of the book. Without his manuscript and nothing else left in his life – and in spite of the unfathomable cruelty in the concentration camp – he ultimately decided to choose his response to this horrendous experience and applied his own research and theory, Logotherapy, which he describes in the second part of the book. He had an extraordinary strength to channel unspeakable suffering and pain into a whole new school of psychiatry: Logotherapy.
He also describes the day of liberation and how he treaded carefully to not step on the flowers or crops in the fields due to his deeply felt reverence for any form of life. This is very powerful reading, as are his concluding words: “So let us be alert – alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.” Understanding his response at a deeper level could resolve many of the problems in the world. His heart-wrenching testimony, his majestic prose and profound insights have had an immense impact in my own life and work.
I was so intensely moved by this book and its universality, that I gave a copy each to my daughter and son when they were teenagers. More than ten years later, they still quote Viktor Frankl when we discuss the state of the world, the human condition or when they contemplate choices in their own daily life. For this I am grateful.
“Beethoven and the Spiritual Path” by David Tame is another book that has influenced me both personally and professionally. My mother was a brilliant pianist and encouraged us from an early age to listen to and appreciate classical music. I was especially fascinated by Beethoven. I loved and still am inspired by his genius in transforming his unquenchable fire into the most magnificent symphonies or the most sublime piano concertos. Suffering from a loss in hearing since childhood and, eventually becoming completely deaf and yet delivering such beautiful music to the world: Imagine what genius, what passion, what determination! Through the book, one can also follow his own spiritual development gradually manifesting in his compositions – with Ode to Joy, from his last Symphony No. 9 – being the grand finale of his lifetime on earth. So, I picked up this book to understand him better as a human being and have read it more than once. He had a deep, grand soul which was connected to something greater than himself and that is why his music is truly immortal.
“Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela is a classic and another universal treasure, like the two books above. It is a testimony to the kind of personality the world so desperately needs right now. Mandela’s long and painstaking journey is fascinating, inspiring, liberating and serves as a shining example for us all to follow. Starting off as an adviser to the local chief in his region during the apartheid regime, his decision to study law and take an active role in the resistance to apartheid resulted in him emerging as the leader of ANC. And, after 26 years in prison, he was elected President of a free South Africa. His is an extraordinary example of the strength of the human spirit and genuine leadership.
Naturally, Mandela left behind an immortal legacy that lives on today and continues to inspire billions around the world. His uncompromising commitment to justice and the sacrifices he personally made have helped us define the meaning of true leadership. Leadership is not simply a title or an appointment. It must be earned. It is earned through sacrifice, overcoming fear, and the freedom within, to stand by what is right for humanity.
As a human rights lawyer by training, I am certain that what is right for humanity is best defined in International Human Rights Law and related International Law. Still, one does not need to be a lawyer to understand this. The principle of the ‘Golden Rule’, which can be found in all major world religions would suffice: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule is also the principle underpinning International Human Rights Law and related International Law. By applying it equally and without discrimination as to race, religion, ethnic group, gender or political opinion, we can establish a world order based on the rule of law, rather than ‘the rule by force.’
Mandela’s oft-quoted words: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world,” is of course of immediate professional relevance. Another important quote by Mandela, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears,” is worth mentioning. Because we need to make choices every day to live by hope: hope for justice, hope for human rights for all and hope for humanity. It can be very unhealthy and destructive to counsel our fears. I do not think anything that Mandela wrote or said was based on fear, out of expediency, or simply to please anyone. He said what his conscience dictated, he lived by his words, and he made a genuine difference for humanity. This made him both a living legend and a universal icon whose memory we must all keep alive.
Dag Hammarskjold’s “Markings” is also one of my favourite books. It is his diary with passages largely from his time as the UN Secretary-General. He was very deep, authentic and honest with himself. He had a vision and inner conviction. What stands out is his commitment to service at all costs. A man of sacrifices, service and ‘walking ethics.’ As one of my several role models when joining the UN, I have at least three copies of “Markings” spread around at home and have probably read the book ten times. It, too, is immortal, capturing universal truths in words and spirit.
I believe that Dag Hammarskjold was able to grasp that which is universally true for us all in whatever form or shape it takes place, when stating: “Unless there is a spiritual renaissance, the world will know no peace.” His statement connects with the ancient Greek axiom: “Know Thyself,” and Mahatma Gandhi’s well-known words: “You must be the change you wish to see.”
I believe that violent means of conflict resolution, the need for control and superiority, as well as greed, ego and fear are rooted in the unconscious human mind and soul, hence manifested in destruction at smaller or larger scale – the latter causing immense human suffering around the globe. It is all connected. Hammarskjold’s call for a “spiritual renaissance,” is a call for doing the inner work, of becoming conscious, so that we are in touch with ourselves at a deeper level, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This creates a sense of reverence and gratitude; it enables us to distinguish right from wrong based on universal human rights; and, hence, muster the courage to protect and promote all of this in our daily life - irrespective of our role and function in this world and our purpose in our own lifetime.
This takes me to the final author who most influenced me. Since I love poetry and used to write more when I was younger, I continuously read passages by Rumi. Jalaluddin Rumi was an Islamic scholar, an expert in jurisprudence, a Sufi mystic, a poet and dancing dervish from Balkh Province in today’s Afghanistan; he is buried in Konya, Turkey. He is one of the most well-read poets worldwide. Rumi’s poetry and thoughts deeply touch anyone who reads, contemplates and, above all, feels his sayings and poetry.
Many of his readers will agree that he might be the most enlightened human guide for anyone interested in transforming oneself, and thereby our world. Rumi searched and found that which we are all searching – whether we are aware or not. Through his profound writings, Rumi cracks open the door and shares with us a glimpse.
ECW: A final question: why did you choose to work for international affairs at the global level and focus on human rights and now on education as a foundational human right?
ECW Executive Director Yasmine Sherif: I grew up in a multicultural home. A home of intellectual curiosity, the values of honesty and speaking truth to power, and the freedom to be emotionally authentic. I was blessed with a global worldview and made to feel like a global citizen from a very young age. My mother always told me: “Focus on service to others and all the rest will follow.” This is what inspired me to study international human rights and humanitarian law and to join the UN in my mid-20s. Working internationally for a better world is enriching at all levels and a career path that I highly recommend.
Besides all scientific literature and evidence on parenthood and early childhood education, my own personal experience also reinforces my conviction that early childhood development is the very basis for all subsequent education. It starts at home and during the early years and the formation of the brain, accompanied by well-trained teachers inspiring and nurturing learning for peace throughout adolescence. The first 18 years of life are the most formative years and are critically important for every child and adolescent on the globe. These are the years that our identity is shaped, and our core values are formed.
These are the crucial years that become the foundation in anyone’s life. Of course, it is never too late to learn, change and grow, as life is a journey of learning. However, getting the foundational education right during the first 18 years certainly helps advance and smooth that journey. This is why an inclusive and continued quality education cannot wait for any child, no matter who or where they are.