Harnessing the Technology & Compassion of the Private Sector for Education

Mr. Tom Fletcher, Director of Global Strategy at Global Business Coalition for Education, speaks to the fund about the role of the private sector in transforming education in emergencies. 

For many of us, when a disaster or crisis hits, we feel powerless. We watch events unfold with horror and sadness, but feel impotent to help beyond a donation to an NGO or a call for our government to help. For many of us, much of our compassion doesn’t find a practical outlet.

Some help does get through. Immediate humanitarian supplies, like food and water, may be provided. But education is often seen as too complicated, less urgent, and a luxury and is therefore rarely prioritised.

As a result, millions of children in emergencies are denied education every year.

But what if there was a different way to respond? Ingenious humans are already using technology to allow people to find a date, contact people on the other side of the world, and access content.

What if we took all that technology, and combined it with all that compassion? What if we were ready next time a crisis hits? And what if business led the way? Not with finance, but with practical help — supporting the education effort in the best ways it can.

The Global Business Coalition for Education is supporting the efforts of Education Cannot Wait by harnessing the compassion of the private sector and combining it with modern technology to transform education in emergencies.

GBC-Education’s Rapid Education Action (REACT) database creates that potential for the first time. Already, over 45 companies have pledged their time, creativity, and practical ideas to help meet practical needs on the ground.

A REACT partnership between NaTakkalam and Re:coded is using technology to generate sustainable incomes through the delivery of online skills training for the 21st century job market. NaTakkalam is pairing displaced Syrians with Arabic learners around the world over Skype. This provides Re:coded with resources to pay refugees in Iraq as they train to become world-class software developers, and links them to job opportunities.

 And REACT partners are not the only members of the private sector already active in helping provide education in emergencies. Here are some examples of how business is already helping …

  • Communication providers such as AT&T, Turkcell, and T-Mobile are providing free access to their services, making it easier for communities hit by disaster to access educational content.
  • Accenture and KPMG have schemes allowing employees paid time off to volunteer to help.
  • Companies such as BMW have funded places at European universities for displaced students and faculty to continue their education.
  • Tech companies are also engaged. HP has created digital classrooms in Lebanon for those fleeing Syria to access the best possible education. Google deployed People Finder to help families locate loved ones. Microsoft has allowed people to use Skype to make free calls. Ericcson ran a project to reconnect refugees in Europe with their families. ITWORX Education is offering significant in-kind support — providing tablets and access to digital learning platforms for those hit by crisis.  Endless has donated hundreds of computers to refugees in Jordan.
  • Other companies are providing the physical space in which to study. NRS International has pledged tents and shelter for schools. In Jordan, engineering companies are working with USAID and the Jordanian government to build new schools. Coalitions of companies, such as Techfugees, the UK/Lebanon Tech Hub, and Alt City are bringing ingenuity and time to the challenge.
  • Pupils and their families also need access to finance. Money transfer companies such as Western Union have made it easier to send financial support to those who need it to continue their education. And MasterCard has distributed prepaid debit cards to thousands of refugees.
  • Facebook is providing wifi connectivity to locations where refugees are based while Uber is providing free delivery of vital items, including books, for child refugees.

But there is so much more we can do – and REACT aims to make business engagement greater than the sum of its parts through better coordination and real-time matching of business assets with actual needs in the sector.

 To create systemic change, we need to move from one-off projects to larger-scale, systemic approaches. Our partners in the field are now sending REACT their specific requests for help. We plan to work with ECW to identify needs in initial investment countries of Yemen, Chad, Syria and Ethiopia.  We also want REACT to be involved at the onset of an emergency, ready to deliver logistics networks and other essential supports. There is also a role for the business community in developing global public goods that can enhance the overall response of the international community.

 We are now asking Education Cannot Wait, UN agencies, and others on the frontline of the education effort to tell us what help they need. This week I’ve spoken to extraordinary organisations working in Northern Kenya, Eastern Lebanon and Somalia, looking for support to deliver education to the most vulnerable children, in complex environments. Only with real requests can we find out if this new system will work effectively.

Business can now be among the first on the frontline of the crisis response. And if business can do it, maybe the next phase is to make it easier for individual citizens to do more to help. We are then on the way to a 21st century response to these challenges. And with an education, the next Gates, Einstein or Curie currently caught up in crisis can go on to achieve their potential.

That is surely worth imagining. Please get us your requests.

“Education is the single most powerful tool to protect children in crisis”

In the new Leaders Series, Education Cannot Wait introduces you to those who have been tireless advocates and champions of the fund and its work.

In March, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides spoke to us about his determination to provide education for all crisis-affected children. 

In 2016, there was an extraordinary effort to galvanize the political will and resources needed to transform education in emergencies. How can we build on that?

Indeed, 2016 was rather extraordinary. It feels like, after speaking about education as a basic need in conflicts and disasters for so long, we are finally making headway. I saw unprecedented political will and dynamism that led for example to the launch of ‘Education Cannot Wait (ECW)’ at the World Humanitarian Summit. And 2016 was also the year the EU decided to change our traditional ‘external’ understanding of humanitarian aid and to bring forward new funding and legislation to support access to quality education to the children recently arrived as refugees and irregular migrants in Greece. Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.

But there is still so much to do. We need to mobilise more resources, widen the donor community and improve coordination and complementarity between funds. It’s time to really ensure a seamless transition from emergency response to development, and vice versa. We also need better and more efficient data and evidence, so that we are genuinely learning the lessons of the past to make sure we spend every euro wisely. The momentum is there, and we cannot sit back now.

In the context of a large number of competing priorities and a complex political environment in Europe, how have you managed to prioritize education in emergencies?

Spending more on education in emergencies in the current context of growing humanitarian needs and budgetary constraints has not been easy. Prioritisation in humanitarian aid is extremely difficult; however, we are moving towards a more holistic and integrated approach to handle the challenges. Our close partnership with Members of the European Parliament and EU Member States who share this vision was instrumental in securing a budget increase for education in emergencies last year. One of the lessons learned for me was the importance of tireless advocacy and outreach to build a gradual consensus on a new policy agenda.

Since the beginning of my mandate I have been a tireless advocate of education in emergencies and have progressively scaled up EU’s humanitarian funding, first from 1% to 4%, and now to 6% of our annual humanitarian aid budget. In fact, the EU is currently one of the world’s largest donors of humanitarian and development assistance for education.

As one of the world’s largest donors to education in emergencies, how would you make the case to other donors to follow your lead and invest?

Ensuring that the most vulnerable children – many of whom live in conflict-affected countries or have been forcibly displaced – have access to school is the key to making sure we don’t leave a lost generation behind. These children cannot wait until some long term reconstruction plan is put in place post emergency. We need to maintain the continuum of their education to build the resilience of their communities. This is what will enable and speed up the potential recovery from the trauma of the conflict or disaster they have been through.

In February 2017, leaders gathered in Oslo to pledge their support for children living in Nigeria & the Lake Chad Basin- what is the role of education in finding a lasting solution to this crisis?

The Lake Chad region is clearly an area where the international community must do much more to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Many years of neglect, marginalisation, as well as violence and insecurity have wreaked havoc and destroyed the livelihoods and lives of so many. The Oslo Conference was a more than timely recognition of this. The EU pledged to mobilise EUR 105 million for the region in 2017 to face the huge unmet needs.

Students and their teachers have endured countless attacks and interruptions in the region. Investing in education is investing in peace, in long-term societal resilience, in development and economic growth, in our future and that of coming generations.

As part of our support, we dedicated EUR 4 million already in 2015 to provide quality learning in safe and secure environments in the Lake Chad region. I am pleased to see that Chad is actually one of the countries that will benefit of the initial investments by Education Cannot Wait. I hope that our common efforts will support children and help scale up the capacities for much needed stronger education response in the region.

You’ve met with many children who are overcoming enormous obstacles to stay in school and learn in the world’s toughest environments- what have you heard from them and how have they inspired you?

Every time I travel to crisis areas and visit those suffering the consequences of conflicts or natural disasters, I make a point of meeting with children, youths, their parents and teachers. I spend time with them to hear about their lives and concerns, their hopes and dreams.

Since my earliest encounters with beneficiaries as EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, education has been a recurrent theme. I still remember the day in the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon, when I talked with a Syrian mother. She thanked me for the EU aid but was quite blunt that just any kind of aid was not enough. It had to come hand in hand with hope and prospects for her children, which only education could bring. And of course she was right.

Whenever I speak to children who have the chance to continue studying despite their circumstances, I am amazed by how resilient and positive they are. I truly believe that education is the single most powerful tool that can protect, sustain and support children, not only in the midst of a crisis but also when the situation improves.

I believe that engaging directly and listening to what they have to say is the best way to understand what they really need. During my visits, many children going through unspeakable hardship and tragedy have shared with me their aspirations. Some want to become doctors, others teachers. They want to be able to study to ensure their own futures, to help others and, in the longer term, to rebuild their countries. This is an inspiring message that we would be extremely foolish to ignore.