Education Cannot Wait Interviews United Nations Resident Coordinator in Colombia Mireia Villar Forner
Mireia Villar Forner is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Colombia. Ms. Villar Forner brings more than 25 years of experience, which she acquired within the United Nations and externally, to the position. At the United Nations, she most recently served as Resident Coordinator in Uruguay, where she led the work of the United Nations development system to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. She also held senior positions at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), including that of Resident Representative in Uruguay, Deputy Resident Representative in Bolivia and Deputy Resident Representative in Iraq during the country’s political transition. She also served at the UNDP Liaison Office in Brussels, where she played a key role in strengthening the partnership between the Organization and the European Union. Before that, she worked as the focal point for Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the Arab States, in UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, after an assignment as Head of the Programme Section of the Electricity Network Rehabilitation Programme in Northern Iraq. She started her career with the United Nations at UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States. Prior to joining the Organization, Ms. Villar Forner worked in the financial sector in Spain. She holds a master’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University in the USA, and a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Barcelona in Spain.
ECW: Colombia faces one of the most long-standing and complex crises in Latin America. In such a context, why is it important for aid stakeholders to support the education sector in the framework of the Government’s Total Peace agenda?
Mireia Villar Forner: There are three main reasons for aid stakeholders to support the education sector in the framework of the Government’s “Total Peace” agenda.
First, the government's vision is one where education and “Total Peace” are seen as a single and indivisible priority. Further, in line with the Multi-Year Resilience Programme concept, close coordination with government is the pathway to guarantee focus and ensure sustainability.
Second, the Colombian armed conflict is one of the most significant triggers for the education crisis that the country has experienced. Education in emergencies and its strengthening requires both responses in crisis in conflict-affected areas, while also promoting long-term peace and development actions bridging the humanitarian-peace-development nexus.
Third, the armed conflict is a reality that runs through significant portions of the country, especially affecting vulnerable populations, including Venezuelans, who end up experiencing double and triple affectation.
ECW: ECW investments support UN, civil society, and local community partners to jointly deliver holistic education programmes to girls and boys affected by the multiple crises. How do you see these funding investments supporting the government’s vision for education and inclusion?
Mireia Villar Forner: Over the past two decades, Colombian governments have been aware and explicitly addressed the need for education in emergencies as a way of spearheading inclusion in conflict-affected and excluded regions. The role of civil society and local communities in driving initiatives aligns well with government efforts to empower those most disenfranchised and develop their capacities to be part of solutions. This commitment results also in an understanding of the importance of working with ECW, from a perspective both of resources and enhancing local capacity, as well as in finding inspiration in international experiences to address the education of girls and boys in crisis situations.
Against this backdrop, the link between addressing crisis impacts and local or “territorial” development processes is paramount. Colombia’s educational system is decentralized, which implies that sub-national governments have a fundamental role in coordinating and guaranteeing education services at the local level. Developing their capacity is crucial. Since Colombia does not have a national curriculum, there are disparities regarding educational responses in crisis settings, especially on a human mobility scenario. Carrying out actions that strengthen the role of local actors as part of the ECW framework becomes an opportunity to bridge these complexities and empower local actors.
ECW: The UN system in Colombia works with the Government and partners to strengthen complementarity and coherence between emergency relief, development and peacebuilding efforts – the ‘triple-nexus.’ In the education sector, how can we best engage partners across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus and enhance coordinated actions?
Mireia Villar Forner: We feel the best way to engage partners across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus is through localization. As we engage in emergency relief, we need to plan for and transition into developing capacity of local stakeholders, ensure integrated support to the design and implementation of their education programs and ensure these are anchored in robust national policies and capacities.
Our dream is to have complementary national structural responses led by national and local governments and implemented by different NGOs, along with evidence-based strategies that address and prevent new crises and their impacts on those most vulnerable in a sustainable way.
ECW: The LEGO Foundation is ECW’s largest private sector donor, with approximately US$64 million in contributions to date. How important is private sector funding to education in crisis situations in places like Colombia and which synergies do you see between these two sectors?
Mireia Villar Forner: The resources allocated for the education sector, including early learning, are not enough when compared to the needs of the children, adolescents and their families affected by emergencies. Health, nutrition and WASH are prioritized when a crisis occurs. Education, however, often ends up being a secondary issue – missing the window to deliver a more comprehensive response to children and adolescents. Governments often recognize the importance of strengthening the education of girls and boys in crisis situations, but they do not have the resources or the capacity to deliver a high-quality response. The support of the LEGO Foundation and other private sector organizations is therefore paramount to bridge this gap.
More importantly, perhaps, than the financial support, is that the fact that private sector is increasingly involved in designing and implementing solutions to humanitarian needs and development gaps.
The LEGO Foundation is a good example of how companies are building social impacts into their business models in different ways, including advocating for relevant matters that most of the time remain unfunded, such us early childhood development, early learning through play and parenting. The LEGO Foundation has been key in enhancing political development on this during emergencies and triggering key discussions on a more long-term and developmental arena.
ECW: You are now co-chairing the Multi-Year Resilience Programme (MYRP) Steering Committee with the Ministry of Education in Colombia. Could you please share your vision and your goals for the successful delivery of quality education to crisis-affected children in Colombia through joint programming and coordination via the MYRP?
Mireia Villar Forner: The formulation of the MYRP requires consensus on what it means to deliver quality education for girls and boys affected by crisis situations, and the strategies and initiatives towards this end. The MYRP must start from the needs felt and identified from the different levels, including and most important: the communities affected by the crisis at local level. It must be a response that, in turn, considers the experience accumulated by the different actors who have worked in these contexts and the evidence-based solutions. Colombia’s new MYRP must have cost-effective strategies that have already been proven when tackling the challenges prioritized by the Government and communities. On the other hand, it needs to consider sustainability over time, installing and strengthening local and national stakeholders. Sustainability must consider that Colombia is a multi-layer emergency country, and that over time children must be attended, this consideration is imperative when analyzing the impact of this innovative and joint programming process that the MYRP represents.
To achieve sustainability, it is necessary to generate a collaborative scenario, within a dialogue and assertive listening – dynamics that should be promoted based on the guidelines given by the MYRP Steering Committee and guaranteed through follow-up. Likewise, the Committee must serve as a compass in navigating the technical aspects of the strategies and initiatives for which it is chosen, to guarantee pertinence, coherence and effectiveness.
ECW: Why is learning recovery, with a focus on foundational learning in Colombia, important for sustainable development and security across Latin America, and across the world?
Mireia Villar Forner: A recent analysis by UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank estimates that in Latin America and the Caribbean, four out of five 10-year-olds cannot read a simple text. A worrying reality that may be even more shocking for rural areas, due to traditionally wider gaps on learning outcomes of children. Thinking of generations that fail to acquire fundamental learning in the expected times is to speak of a major obstacle to continuing learning throughout their educational trajectories – affecting the rest of their lives and the definition of their future, as well as sustainable development and security of the region.
The difficulty with foundational learning was a reality in Latin America even before the pandemic and was aggravated by long school closures. We are at a point where we can act and make a difference – if policies and strategies are promoted to ensure learning recovery with a proper socio-emotional support, and guarantee that children learn to read by the age of 10, so that they can afterwards read to learn.
ECW: Our readers know that “readers are leaders” and that reading skills are key to every child's education. What are the three books that have most influenced you personally and/or professionally, and why would you recommend them to others?
Mireia Villar Forner: Some of the most formative books for me have been the ones that opened the gateway to a lifetime of reading. Momo by Michael Ende, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and all Roald Dahl’s classics were the ones that I really enjoyed as a child and brought me to others.