Awut Deng Acuil is the first female Minister of Education for South Sudan, and only the second person to serve as Minister of Education for her country – which became independent country in 2011. Prior to this role, Minister Acuil was the first woman to serve as the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Recently, Minister Acuil made history as the first women to lead a South Sudan university when she was appointed head of council at the University of Bahr El-Ghazal.
Since 2005, Minister Acuil has served as Presidential Advisor on Gender and Human Rights, Minister of Labour, Public Service and Human Resource Development, Minister of Humanitarian and Disaster Management and Minister of Gender, Child and Social Welfare.
Her long and impressive history of public service began during a challenging time in her life. During the civil war in Sudan, she spent years as a refugee in Kenya with her children. Following the death of her husband, Minister Acuil went on to continue her education and become a fierce advocatefor peace, gender equality and human rights.
Minister Acuil became active in a number of organizations, training others in conflict resolution and advocating for peace. She is a founding member of the Sudanese Women Association of Nairobi and the Sudanese Women Voice for Peace. These experiences, coupled with her degree in political science, led to her participation in eventual peace negotiations between the North and South. She gained international recognition for these efforts to promote peace and development in her war-torn nation when she was awarded the InterAction Humanitarian Award in 2002.
Awut Deng Acuil has been Minister of Education and Instruction for South Sudan since early 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on education globally and further exacerbated existing barriers to education in her country. Not one to balk in the face of challenge, Minister Acuil continues to champion for the rights, protection and education of young and future generations of South Sudan.
As the Minister of General Education and Instruction, Awut Deng Acuil is supporting new initiatives in education, including those with ECW, that aim to open the door to learning for children throughout South Sudan who have been too-often excluded – girls and boys affected by conflict, students with disabilities, and pastoralist children who herd livestock.
ECW: South Sudan has a young population with a median age of 18 years, which results in serious pressure on the education system. Can you describe the challenges faced by South Sudanese children and youth to access inclusive, quality education – especially for girls?
Minister Awut Deng Acuil: A number of inhibiting factors affect school enrolment, retention and completion rates in South Sudan: lack of school infrastructure – including availability of WASH facilities, sex-segregated toilets, menstrual management and sanitation systems, etc. – conflict and insecurity, traditional norms and the high turnover of qualified teachers – particularly female teachers – which results in a lack of qualified teachers. These factors fall into three barrier categories: household and community level barriers; school-based barriers; and, policy/system-level barriers. They can occur simultaneously to limit children’s learning.
While access to education rates are very low for all children in South Sudan, they are even lower for certain groups of children such as girls, children with disabilities, children affected by conflict, and pastoralist children.
Nationally, there are more male students than female students in all school types.
One of the biggest gender gaps is in secondary schools where only 35% of the enrolled students are female.
Children with disabilities face even greater exclusion. 1,597 (1.4%) of children enrolled in ECW’s Multi-Year Resilience Programme (MYRP) supported primary schools are children with disabilities, while 50 (1.38%) learners enrolled in MYRP-supported secondary schools are children with disabilities.
Girls face a number of barriers to accessing education, including:
- Family and community: Among all of the out-of–school children in South Sudan, approximately two-thirds are girls and children with disabilities. Many parents prefer to prioritize boys’ education over girls’ – so, if a family cannot afford to send all of their children to school, the interests of boys‘ education are often favored. This leads to girls either being removed from school for early and forced marriage as they are seen as a source of income or expected to take care of siblings at home.
- School environment: Lack of girl-friendly infrastructure such as WASH facilities, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) issues, school-related gender based violence, gender-biased teaching, learning methods, language, etc.
- System and policy: secondary schools are not available throughout all of South Sudan. The majority are located in urban areas, leaving rural areas neglected. This leads to higher dropout rates in rural areas. Lack of infrastructure, under-qualified teachers, inconsistent teacher pay and scarcity of resources further limit the construction of, access to and continuous staffing of schools.
- Teacher performance at schools: according to Educational Management Information System (EMIS) 2018 data, only 17% of teachers currently teaching in primary schools, and 52% of teachers in secondary schools, have received recognized teacher trainings. Besides the need to train these teachers in education foundations and subject matter content, it is imperative that trainings incorporate gender-sensitive lenses in all aspects – from teaching and learning material to the language used by teachers to promote a gender-sensitive and responsive teaching and learning environment.
Existing Education Cannot Wait (ECW) programmes are addressing learning environment barriers through: the construction of girl and disability-friendly WASH facilities in schools, menstrual hygiene management (MHM), prevention of gender-based violence, etc. More still needs to be done to support the enrolment and retention of girls in school to complete their education cycle and transition to higher levels of learning.
ECW: What are the key priorities and strategies of South Sudan’s Ministry of Education to address these challenges and to fulfil the right to a quality education of every girl and boy in South Sudan?
Minister Awut Deng Acuil: There are two levels of reform that are taking place in South Sudan with respect to the education system.
On a higher, more systemic level, the Government is attempting to prioritize education by creating strategic plans and bolstering the infrastructure required for an effective education sector.
In South Sudan, where 40% of girls are married before the age of 18, the Government has demonstrated its commitment to ending child marriage by prioritizing child protection and providing for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the Constitution, Child Act (2008) and ratifying related international and regional human rights instruments. The right to education is enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan 2011, including in Article 17 on the rights of the child and Article 29 on the right to education.
The General Education Act 2012 outlines a regulatory framework and structure for education in the country, providing guidance on general education principles and goals as well as associated structures, systems, standards, financing and accountability for the sector. The General Education Strategic Plan (GESP) 2017–2022 is a national roadmap for implementation of the General Education Act and outlines strategies, monitoring and evaluation frameworks and financing of the sector. The GESP also includes education in emergencies and humanitarian activities that link to the medium-term development objectives.
The End Child Marriage in South Sudan, Strategic National Action Plan 2017-2030 and a National Gender Strategy, while not yet fully implemented, aim to address the early pregnancy and early marriage issues.
The Inclusive Education Policy in South Sudan was just launched on 27 July 2021. This national policy defines and identifies areas of need across the whole population. The comprehensive inclusive education policy framework will guide the work of all actors involved in the provision of inclusive education to ensure consistency and coordinated implementation. This policy is also important in the elimination of discrimination and enhancement of equity and equality for all learners, especially inclusion of learners with additional needs in the education system, including learners with disabilities.
On a deeper level, reforms have been made to the curriculum and teaching materials, attempting to improve the quality of education and promote peace in South Sudan.
With the help of development agencies and partners, South Sudan has developed a new national curriculum that “is designed to help young people learn about their shared national identity” and “supports key values for the country including justice, democracy, tolerance and respect”. The aims of this curriculum are aligned with the Constitution of South Sudan, the General Education Act and the South Sudan Vision 2040, which aspire “to build an educated and informed nation by 2040.”
Within the curriculum, there are seven goals for the broader education sector; one of the goals is to “promote national unity and cohesion”. While the formation of a national identity can help post-conflict countries overcome differences, nationalism can also be associated with exclusionary policies. How South Sudan moves forward in respecting its citizens’ ethnic diversity, acknowledging its history of conflict and teaching learners to actively engage and think critically will be a key feature of the education system.
ECW: In 2020, together with the Ministry of Education and other education partners, Education Cannot Wait rolled out a Multi-Year Resilience Programme (MYRP) with the particular aim of getting more South Sudanese children enrolled. While these are still early days, how relevant and impactful has the programme been so far?
Minister Awut Deng Acuil: Through the ECW Multi-Year Resilience Programme, 137,708 learners (54,408 girls and 83,300 boys) have been supported to enroll in school in ECD, primary, ALP, PEP and secondary schools across the six States and the back-to-school/learning campaigns are still ongoing to get more children back to school.
Analysis of enrollment trends indicate that many children who were formally in school before the COVID-19 pandemic have yet to return to school. The ECW MYRP has supported the safe reopening of schools and efforts to build back better through the creation of more learning spaces, improvement of WASH in schools and awareness-raising on COVID-19 preventive measures. One other key impact has been reducing the pupil-book ratio for secondary education to 1:1 in the six target States.
ECW’s MYRP is reaching over half of the country geographically, where the majority of the population of children in need are located. The Programme focuses on six States: the three States of the Greater Upper Nile (Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity States), one State in the Greater Equatoria Region (Eastern Equatoria) and two States in the Greater Bahr el Ghazal Region (Lakes and Warrap). These six States of MYRP implementation are areas affected by different types of conflict and by different trends in terms of displacement.
Progress is being made on several components, for example:
- All MYRP target schools/learning centers have received handwashing facilities. Of the 50 boreholes that we committed to drill, so far, 36 have been completed. 6 boreholes have been repaired. Some partners and contractors hired for the work have faced the issue of flooding, so we are considering moving one/two boreholes and funding to other locations that are accessible and eligible. According to the data that we received at the beginning of this initiative, there are 156 schools in need of water sources. Due to budget limitations, we targeted 50 schools. For various reasons, we cannot access some locations and, with the approval of the MYRP Steering Committee, we can begin to consider other locations. During the selection of the 50 schools to receive boreholes, we coordinated with other stakeholders – including UNICEF and DG George Mogga – and used the data generated by GESS.
- 12 million textbooks have reached all targeted counties and, in most cases, reached the schools. Different partners joined the State and County Authorities in distributing textbooks to the schools and we have continuously followed up on the use of the books. The textbooks ratio is expected to be reduced to 1:1 for secondary and primary learners in the targeted six States across South Sudan and other 2 States included in this initiative. All enrolled learners have also been provided with learning kits and adolescent girls have been provided with MHM kits.
- With the exception of children with sight and hearing impairments, all children with physical disabilities have been provided with assistive devices. There is the tendency to focus on the children with visible disabilities and this is something that we must take into greater consideration during the next quarters. We need to make sure that children with “invisible” disabilities also get the support that they need.
- All supported schools have been provided with learning kits including chalk, manila papers, markers and pens.
Additionally, one of the important features of the ECW Multi-Year Resilience Programme in South Sudan is the robust in-country governance mechanism, which is led by the Ministry of Education with active participation of donors like the UK, USAID, SIDA and Canada, United Nations agencies like UNICEF and UNESCO, and civil society actors, like the National Education Coalition. The MYRP Secretariat providing the technical support is an important added value of the programme. This mechanism enhances the Programme’s effectiveness and alignment.
ECW: To reach all the out-of-school girls and boys targeted by this multi-year programme, an additional US$189 million must be urgently mobilised. What is the government’s strategy to ensure that the programme will be fully funded? How can public and private donors help and what message do you have for them?
Minister Awut Deng Acuil: The focus on Internally Displaced People (IDPs), returnee and host community girls and boys aligns perfectly with the Ministry’s target and policy priorities. Multi-year design and catalytic seed funding are innovative approaches as lack of funding too often disrupts South Sudanese children’s continuity of learning.
The MYRP has always been seen as a government intervention, in line with the priorities and objectives identified as national priorities, and the Ministry of Education believes it must make a substantial contribution to its realization.
The Ministry of General Education and Instruction (MoGEI), together with implementing partners, stakeholders, donor groups, etc., has developed a solid fundraising strategy to bridge the significant financing gap, extend the project and include more girls and boys in the Programme.
In the context of South Sudan, the following donor groups have been targeted:
South Sudan Government (domestic resources); public donors (humanitarian and development donors); humanitarian funding envelopes (CERF funding, pooled funding, etc.); other UN pooled funding mechanisms (for example, the Peacebuilding Fund, if relevant); and, private sector donors and private foundations.
By conducting prospect research on potential new donors and existing supporters, MoGEI wants to maximize fundraising reach. And, by analysing these prospects, the Ministry hopes to discover new information that can help create better strategies for all future campaigns too.
ECW: COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on education everywhere. What are the repercussions of the pandemic in South Sudan and how has the Ministry of Education worked to ensure that children and youth are able to keep learning and developing themselves to their full potential?
Minister Awut Deng Acuil: The outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2019 led to the closure of schools in March 2020, when cases of the disease were detected in South Sudan. Numerous deaths and infections were recorded so, as part of precautionary measures, schools were closed and learning was suspended nationwide.
The closure of schools exacerbated the challenges facing education and puts in danger progress made. Data has shown an increase in pregnancies as a result of increased time out of school, which is leading girls to spend more time around men in their communities and at greater risk of sexual violence and exploitation (Save the Children et al., 2015, Children’s Ebola Recovery Assessment in Sierra Leone).
In crises, families may also resort to early marriage as a coping mechanism to either alleviate economic pressures on the household and/or to generate income through ‘bride price’.
Studies have also shown that poverty can drive parents to send their children to cattle camps when they are unable to provide them with food. Child labour in cattle camps is a basis of concern as it means that children are sent far away from home, more exposed to protection issues and inherently prevented from attending school (ILO, 2013, Child labour and Education in Pastoralist Communities in South Sudan).
To reduce negative consequences of school closures and to ensure learners are able to continue their education, MoGEI, with support from different partners, has adapted learning methods and provided alternative protection and support mechanisms. With support from UNESCO, through the Capacity Development for Education Programme, MoGEI launched ‘Education on Air’.
This programme aims to broadcast daily lessons to primary and secondary level learners, focusing on key topics such as English, science and mathematics. During these ‘on air’ lessons, teachers deliver classes and address questions from learners live. Several radio networks have provided such programmes, including City Radio FM, Eye Radio, South Sudan Radio and Miraya Radio. The Ministry of General Education and Instruction, with UNESCO, also introduced ‘Education on Line’, where learners could follow the science teachers while teaching. In October 2020, the MoGEI, with support from development partners, also opened schools for candidate classes all over the country. Necessary steps were taken to avoid putting children, teachers and their family members at risk of contracting the disease.
ECW: The situation in South Sudan has improved somewhat in recent months but the consequences of the multiple shocks and crises that the country has experienced in recent years are still felt. What can be done to further strengthen resilience, and to ensure that the education sector is better able to withstand these shocks and indeed bounce back?
Minister Awut Deng Acuil: Only by planning for unforeseen conflicts and natural disasters, and by integrating disaster risk reduction, can the South Sudanese education system remain functional in the face of shocks.
In this context, South Sudan embarked in September 2015 on its second Education Sector Analysis (ESA). Representing much more than a simple update, the 2015 ESA is the first of its kind to incorporate crisis-sensitive analyses. Multiple education sector analyses, each of which constitutes a chapter of the report (i.e. on the global context, school enrolment and internal efficiency, cost and financing, as well as management and quality), were carried out using a crisis-sensitive lens. Equity analyses were also mainstreamed with a specific focus on gender and the regional state-level, reflecting the decentralized nature of the education sector. These permit a better understanding of education sector challenges, weaknesses and strengths.
ECW: Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better on a personal level and reading is a key component of education. Could you please share with us a book that has influenced you the most personally and/or professionally, and why you’d recommend it to other people to read?
Minister Awut Deng Acuil: When I was a child, I loved Alice in Wonderland very much. Alice diverges from the gender norms by creating a completely new world that she explores while facing many hostilities with a very positive attitude. Alice is a prototype of a rebellious child who manages not only to survive this dangerous adventure but also to learn and become a woman with a new sense of her own subjectivity. A woman who refuses ideas of marriage and oppression and instead teaches us that “we can chase something interesting, barge in where we’re not invited, try new things, observe strange phenomena, ask too many questions, argue with authority figures, tell stories, and wander far from home without worrying how to get back.”
Kevin Watkins is the Chief Executive of the Save the Children UK. Kevin joined Save the Children in September 2016, after spending three years as Executive Director of the Overseas Development Institute.
Kevin Watkins is the Chief Executive of Save the Children UK. Kevin joined Save the Children in September 2016, after spending three years as Executive Director of the Overseas Development Institute.
Previously, he held a senior academic role at the Brookings Institution, and acted as an adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Education, before which he spent seven years at the United Nations, as director and lead author of UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report and UNDP’s Human Development Report.
He is a senior visiting research fellow at Oxford University’s Centre for Global Economic Governance and a Visiting Professor of International Development at the London School of Economics.
ECW: We’ve witnessed a horrifying spike in attacks on schools in recent months, undermining both the Safe Schools Declaration and breaching International Humanitarian Law. How can we keep children and youth caught in emergencies and protracted crises safe from these terrible attacks and achieve the goals outlined in the Safe Schools Declaration?
Kevin Watkins: I’m torn on this one because on the one hand it’s very complicated – we recently released an academic and legal report on this that ran to 148 pages because law and policy and practice around protecting children have built up over time with lots of different provisions and instruments, some of which overlap and some of which don’t and we wanted to get to the bottom of what’s really working to keep children safe. We found structural barriers to justice for children, like how attacks against them are prioritized for prosecution and how few experts there are who are qualified to investigate and document crimes against children.
On the other hand, this isn’t very complicated at all. Children being caught up in attacks on civilians is unbearable but attacking them at school or, in other words, attacking children because they are children is unspeakable. All of us at Save the Children are so glad to see increased attention across the world to stop attacks on children’s education, with 108 countries now having signed the Safe Schools Declaration. This October, the world will again meet in the 4th International conference on Safe Schools, in Nigeria and digitally, to strengthen this commitment. Our data indicates that the Declaration has led to change for children, reducing the number of attacks in some countries in conflict who have endorsed it.
In the end the thing that will keep children safe is collective revulsion about the destruction of the hopes of a generation.
ECW: Save the Children is providing children and youth caught in some of the world’s most complex crises and emergencies with the safety, hope and opportunity of an education through Education Cannot Wait-financed first emergency response and multi-year resilience programmes. You were one of the founders of Education Cannot Wait. How do you see the progress from the first ODI report in which you were involved, and where ECW is today?
Kevin Watkins: The first thing to say is congratulations to everyone at ECW for what has been achieved since your formation. It’s hard to believe, looking back, that there was a time when the world felt it was okay to leave children out of school for huge periods of time during emergencies as long as their basic needs for food, shelter and medicine were met. It was particularly infuriating for those of us who conducted research with children and families, knowing that they consistently put education top of their wish list for what they needed after being caught up in an emergency. As with so many things, we should listen to children!
So I think you should be hugely proud of what is being delivered by your partners, of the lives changed by your support and that of the donors who fund ECW. Even more than that, you’ve won the argument and won it forever – I don’t think anybody will ever again be able to say with any credibility that providing education in emergencies is either not necessary or not possible. You’ve broken open the imagination of the global system and given everyone the confidence to think they can do this – now that’s proven we can’t ever go back.
ECW: ECW’s multi-year resilience programmes are built to bridge the humanitarian-development-peace nexus. How can we ensure whole-of-child education responses meet whole-of-society challenges, provide children with the mental health and psychosocial support they need to recover from displacement and violence, and build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic?
Kevin Watkins: The whole challenge around mental health provision strikes me as similar to what we were talking about before. It’s not enough for everyone to decide it would be good to support children with mental health programmes, or to investigate it when appalling crimes have been committed, we need to have decided it far enough in advance that the qualified people are there to do the work.
At Save the Children we’ve been working in Jordan to develop something called the Child & Adolescent MHPSS Diploma to help skill up mental health professionals in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, because we know there is a pre-existing regional shortage of mental health professionals, particularly for paediatric care.
We’ve also been working with Imperial College London on a toolkit for treating blast injuries in children and one thing the lead researcher on that always says to me is ‘remember children aren’t little adults’. In other words what you need to do to treat a child’s shattered skeleton or shattered heart for that matter is different to how you’d do it for an older person, and we always need to design and invest in services and programmes that are specifically for children. I would love to see more investment in mental health and psychosocial support across the board, but I’ll always argue for it being targeted and tailored if we want it to work for a whole generation of children who in some cases have known nothing but war and exile.
ECW: ECW celebrated its 5th anniversary on 24 May 2021. We’ve reached close to 5 million children and youth left furthest behind in crisis with quality education, and an additional 10 million children and youth in response to COVID-19. Yet, much more needs to be done now. What message do you have for current and potential new public and private sector donors to ensure we leave no child behind?
Kevin Watkins: Happy birthday! What’s been achieved to date is fantastic. We’re very proud to be partnering with you and would definitely recommend ECW to others. This work is vital, urgent and we’ve got the stories and data to show that it works, so come and join us!
ECW: Climate-induced disasters are impacting the education of more children every year. This year the United Kingdom hosts both the G7 and the global climate talks (COP26). How can education in climate change-related disasters and crises contexts be leveraged more effectively to build more sustainable development pathways and support achievement of the Paris Agreement targets?
Kevin Watkins: One of the strange things that’s happening at the moment is a tendency to pitch one issue against another – so should we prioritize action on climate change or COVID-19 or education? When you put children at the center and start from their perspective, this is even stranger. All these things matter to a child, and they are heavily interlinked. By educating a child today, you are helping to set them up for a more secure future, with more chance of a decent livelihood and better health so they will be less vulnerable when crises hit in future. This is even more important for children living in areas that are already vulnerable to climate risks like floods or droughts, or children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s vital that we do more to help vulnerable communities to build their resilience and adapt to what’s to come and education is a vital part of that.
It’s also worth noting that it’s young people around the world, including school children, who are showing the most leadership right now on the climate emergency. They know their future is at stake and are rightly calling on us, as the ‘grown ups’ to get on with it.
ECW: ECW puts girls first in everything we do, and girls represent 50% of those we reach, with our affirmative action targeting 60% girls. How does Save the Children support girls’ education, and education for other vulnerable populations such as children with disabilities, and what more needs to be done?
Kevin Watkins: Save the Children is a child rights organization, founded over 100 years ago to fight for the rights of children – especially those who are being left behind because of inequality and discrimination, wherever they are in the world. This commitment applies across all our work, which is focused on three ‘breakthrough’ ambitions: that more children survive, get the chance of a quality education and are protected from violence, underpinned by action to tackle child poverty and defend child rights.
I’m proud that in 2020, across our global movement, we supported 14.7 million people through our education interventions, including many women teachers and nearly 6 million girls. We know that education is one of the best investments out there and girls’ education stands out as particularly transformative – for the girl, her family and wider community.
We’re also stepping up our focus on children with disabilities as an area that needs far more attention. We did a global survey with children and their parents on the pandemic and this brought out clearly the extra challenges faced by children with disabilities, including in education.
This work must be grounded in the local context, working with local partners and families. For example, Save the Children’s partnership with UWEZO in Rwanda works with 137 youth volunteers with disabilities in a project called ‘Mureke Dusome’. This is helping the parents of more than 2,200 children with disabilities to support their children’s reading. In Kosovo, since the Covid pandemic started, Save the Children has supported 69 families with disabilities to access the internet, including by providing 250 children with tablets and 308 children who’ve been giving education toolkits so they can keep learning even when school is not open.
ECW: We’d love to learn a bit more about you on a personal level. Could you tell us what are the three books that have influenced you the most personally and/or professionally, and why you’d recommend these books to other people?
Kevin Watkins: Last year Save the Children’s Executive Leadership Team committed to regular learning and reflection days on diversity and inclusion, so I’ve been reading up (and acting on) issues of allyship and anti-racism. I would recommend anything by Layla Saad, Reni Eddo Lodge or Ta-Nehisi Coates, who are all brilliant and insightful writers.
Melissa Fleming is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Global Communications – taking up her functions as of 1 September 2019 – and oversees operations in 60 countries and platforms that reach millions of people in multiple languages.
Melissa Fleming is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Global Communications – taking up her functions as of 1 September 2019 – and oversees operations in 60 countries and platforms that reach millions of people in multiple languages.
From 2009 until August 2019, Ms. Fleming served UNHCR as Head of Global Communications and Spokesperson for the High Commissioner. At UNHCR, she led global media outreach campaigns, social media engagement and a multimedia news service to distribute and place stories designed to generate greater empathy and stir action for refugees.
Ms. Fleming is a frequent interview guest on international media platforms and her talks are featured on TED.com. She is author of the book, A Hope More Powerful than the Sea, and host of the award-winning podcast, Awake at Night.
Ms. Fleming joined UNHCR from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), where she served for eight years as Spokesperson and Head of Media and Outreach. Prior to IAEA, she headed the Press and Public Information team at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Earlier still, she was Public Affairs Specialist at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, having started her career as a journalist. From 2016 to 2017, she also served as Senior Adviser and Spokesperson on the incoming United Nations Secretary General’s Transition Team.
Ms. Fleming holds a Master of Science in Journalism from the College of Communication, Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in German Studies from Oberlin College.
In a recent interview for the Awake at Night podcast, Ms. Fleming sat down with Education Cannot Wait Director Yasmine Sherif to learn more about the mission of the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies, and ECW’s movement to reach the world’s most marginalized children and youth.
Please find below ECW’s new, compelling and inspiring interview with Melissa Fleming.
ECW: You have dedicated your life to bringing awareness to the world of those left furthest behind – refugees and other forcibly displaced populations. You have worked around the globe reporting on their challenges and the need for compassion, you created and manage an award-winning podcast “Awake at Night” to share the work of UN officials in crisis-affected countries and you are leading the United Nations public information efforts to advance multilateralism and solidarity under the UN Charter. Please tell us what inspired you and keeps inspiring you to take this path in life?
Melissa Fleming: We spend most of our waking hours working for a living. From the start of my career, it was important for me to also live for the work I am doing. The best way I could find to use my talents to contribute was to communicate – not just in facts and figures, but in stories. And not just stories of suffering and death, but of resilience and hope. There is a saying – ‘statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.’ If we are going to build bridges of compassion to people who need our help, we need to stir hearts, produce wet tears and inspire giving.
ECW: Prior to COVID-19, the estimation of children and youth with their education disrupted amounted to 75 million. As a result of COVID-19, the estimation is today 128 million. In other words, the number of children and youth deprived of a quality education in crisis is rapidly growing. Why do you consider education or SDG4 such an essential service among all SDGs to those who suffer from forced displacement, armed conflicts and climate-induced disasters?
Melissa Fleming: It is deeply traumatizing for anyone to have to flee their homes, leaving the safety of their homes, the comforts of their community and the foundations of their past for a scary unknown. But for children, also being forced to leave their schools and friends and teachers behind is a calamity. That is why emergency schooling is so critical – not just so children can continue to nurture their minds, but also to give them a place of healing and hope.
ECW: You are also a staunch supporter of the UN-hosted Fund Education Cannot Wait, which is dedicated to those left furthest behind. ECW’s investments to date have reached millions of children and youth in crisis, and the Fund has dedicated 50 per cent of its investments to those forcibly displaced from their homes and countries. Could you please elaborate on your belief and trust in the Education Cannot Wait Fund and its positive influence in serving those left furthest behind and the United Nations mission?
Melissa Fleming: I served for 10 years at UNHCR and it pained me to see that education programs for refugee and displaced children were acutely underfunded. Not funding refugee education, I felt, was not just shortsighted, it was also dumb. During my visits to refugee camps and settlements, I have always thought, ‘If they knew them, they would care and if they cared, they would increase funding.’ What if they met Hany, a Syrian refugee teen who – when given only minutes to decide what to take with him when he had to flee – chose his high school diploma? A talented young man who was on track to go to university and become an engineer, who realized that certificate held the key to his future. Who, after two years living in a shack in a muddy field in Lebanon, told me: ‘If I am not a student, I am nothing.’
The Education Cannot Wait Fund is clearly filling a critical gap, so refugee children no longer have to languish, but can return to learning and heal from their trauma at the same time. I believe such investments in refugee children are also a strategic investment in a future of peace. That Education Cannot Wait is hosted by the UN system is also an illustration of how the United Nations moves with speed, delivers quality and with real results.
ECW: The United Nations Secretary-General, António Gutteres, the United Nations Deputy-Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, as well as the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, consider education a foundational right and priority for the United Nations and work in partnership with the World Bank, the European Union and the African Union, among others, to achieve SDG4 as a means of achieving all SDGs. How can you, as the Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, help advance the United Nations ambitions and outreach among UN Member States and the private sector to achieve greater awareness and commitment to increase financial resources for education for refugees, internally displaced and other crisis-affected young people?
Melissa Fleming: Hearing about mass suffering and the millions of children out of school can generate shock and concern. But it can also cause people to shut off. When the problem seems too big to contemplate, it can make big refugee crises feel impersonal, and take away the sense that something can be done. The key to generate compassion and donations is to make this crisis relatable. What if this were your child? What does education mean to you? We universally love children and we instinctively want to protect them. What is effective for fundraising is relatable storytelling that connects to a potential donors’ own experience, with examples of the transformation that a contribution to education will bring. It is also inspiring to invite people to join an incredible coalition of Education Cannot Wait’s existing donors, advocates and partners.
But refugee crises are not just about numbers. They are about human beings.
ECW: You are the author of a very compassionate, highly successful and most relevant book in today’s world: A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival. You are a role model for all UN staff, and also an example of one of our most creative and empathetic women leaders in the UN. Please tell us a bit more about your book. What is your message and what can we all learn from it?
Melissa Fleming: I met so many remarkable refugees in my work, but there is one who, for me, is a real-life hero: Doaa Al Zamel, who survived one of the worst shipwrecks on the Mediterranean Sea. 500 of her fellow passengers, including the love of her life, her fiancé, drowned in front of her eyes. And when she was rescued, after four days and four nights on just a child’s swim ring floating in the middle of the Mediterranean, she had managed to save a little baby. I first told that story at the TED stage and then I wrote it in detail in a non-fiction account. And, my proudest moment was when I saw it first in print on a bookshelf in Barnes & Noble, at Union Square in New York City, which was the first stop of my book tour. Now it is optioned for a film, all a sign that people are hungry for individual human stories of remarkable survival, resilience and hope. There are millions of refugee stories that have these elements. They just need to be told.
ECW: Any final comments or inspirational words from you?
Melissa Fleming: I often think of this quote by Maya Angelou as an inspiration for our communications:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Nujeen Mustafa is a Syrian refugee, youth advocate and champion for children with disabilities for the UN Refugee Agency.
At just sixteen years old, Nujeen Mustafa made the 3,500-mile journey from Syria to Germany in a steel wheelchair. Nujeen was born with cerebral palsy and spent the majority of her life confined to her apartment in Aleppo, Syria, where she taught herself English watching shows on TV.
As war broke out, she and her family were forced to flee – first to her native Kobane, then to Turkey. Her family didn’t have enough money for them all to make it to safety in Germany, where her brother lived, so her parents stayed in Turkey while she set out with her sister across the Mediterranean, braving inconceivable odds for the chance to have a normal life and an education.
Nujeen’s optimism and defiance when confronting all of her challenges have propelled this young refugee from Syria into the spotlight as the human face of an increasingly dehumanized crisis. Since moving to Germany, Nujeen has continued to tell her remarkable story and to capture the hearts of all who hear her speak.
ECW: Your story of triumph over struggle has inspired people around the world. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like growing up as a girl not able to go to school in Aleppo, Syria, and how you worked to ensure you got an education?
Nujeen Mustafa: Growing up and not being able to go to school, I realized pretty early on that my life was unusual – but I kind of wanted to do the best with what I had. I mostly noticed it when the kids in the building would go and I wouldn’t, but I was surrounded by a very supportive environment that just made it so easy to live with the fact that there was something missing in the routine of my life.
When I turned about 6 or 7, my older sister taught me how to read and write in Arabic and then it was left up to me to practice. This was when I kind of used television as a way of educating myself and learning how to read and write. Then these mechanisms evolved and the things I wanted to learn also evolved, so I moved on to other things with English – a bit of general knowledge, and a bit of background in every subject and topic that I could find. Of course, my sisters also brought me the schoolbooks for each year when I was growing up. I would finish them in one day because I turned out to be such a bookworm! From then on, when I was old enough to start being self-taught, I just did it.
Of course, I still recognize it was not fair that I was not able to go to school but, as I said, I tried to do the best with what I had. I think this was my way of defying the circumstances that I was in, and it kind of gave birth to this desire to prove myself and prove that I can overcome all these obstacles, even if they are hard. To this day, I think one of my most fundamental traits is the desire to prove that I can do things and that I can accomplish a lot of things that are not expected of me.
ECW: Today, 75 million children and youth caught in emergencies and protracted crises are not able to go to school. Education Cannot Wait and its partners are working to get them back to learning. Why do you think this is so important, particularly for perhaps the most vulnerable: refugee girls with disabilities?
Nujeen Mustafa: I found this question quite strange because it shouldn’t even be a question as to “why” we should educate our children. It just has to be a fact of life, because everyone should know “why.” Children are always emphasized as the future of their countries and communities. But when you do not invest in a portion of the population, which is the population that has a disability, this is just not right. This is a violation of your rights as a human being, your right to education. It is discriminating against you on the basis of your disability, if you don’t get an education. It’s very unfair treatment of young people – of people who should be planning and thinking out the future.
There have been a lot of pledges and resolutions about the importance of education, especially for young people and people with disabilities. To live in this kind of cognitive dissonance, where there is this acknowledgment that this is important and yet there is nothing being done to carry it out, is very concerning. We can all agree that it has very dire consequences on our society and even the living standards of any country.
Education of the public and of youth are factors in all of these things. A prosperous and educated youth means a prosperous and thriving country. There is no logical reason as to why any country would want to ignore its children, its youth, and people with disabilities. It’s really disturbing that I even have to say that. They are not a burden on anybody. They can contribute and they are this kind of untapped treasure, untapped resource, that is not being used sufficiently.
From a human rights point of view, no one has the right to discriminate against you on the basis of something that you have no control over. You don’t make a choice to be born with a disability just as you don’t make a choice to be of a certain ethnicity. So even from that point of view, there is no logical reason as to why this should be happening.
ECW: What key message(s) do you have for world leaders about the urgent, important need to address and fund education for refugees and for children with disabilities in emergency and protracted crises settings?
Nujeen Mustafa: I think the most important thing for decision makers to know is that education needs to always be a priority, even in emergency situations and crisis response. It is not enough to ensure basic living conditions for survivors of conflict or people who are now living through a pandemic. There needs to be an awareness that the future of the entire generation is on the line and their need for an education needs to be prioritized. I know that it can be overwhelming at times, but I think that education needs to be viewed and seen as something as essential and crucial to the well-being of everyone – especially people with disabilities – as providing shelter, food, or water. It needs to be prioritized in emergency situations, whatever they may be. There needs to be an acknowledgement of the vitality of education to their futures and to their lives.
Of course, the situation with COVID-19 is unprecedented in this century, but we should have been better equipped to deal with such an unexpected change in our daily routines and such disruptions in our lives. That just goes back to the point of making sure that education is accessible to all and that everyone, wherever they may be and whatever their circumstances may be, has access to it and is able to smoothly transition from one mode of education to the other. It should have been essential everywhere around the world. We see that countries with a colder climate (where some children are unable to attend school during the winter months) are much better equipped, already having this kind of digital form of attending lessons and school. So, I think that countries all around the world should strive to be on that same level, ready and prepared for any kind of unprecedented situation.
When it comes to people who have fled conflict regions, refugees, and refugees with disabilities, it is not enough to make sure that they survive, but that they live and thrive as individuals. Receiving an education is a building block of that. You can’t say that you are doing them right if you don’t provide them with access to education as soon as possible. Prioritize education as a part of the essential means of survival – prioritize it in every plan of action.
ECW: You wrote an inspiring, best-selling book about your amazing journey: Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair. Could you tell us the three books that have influenced you the most personally and/or in your current studies, and why you’d recommend them for other people to read?
Nujeen Mustafa: One of them is The Time Keeper by one of my favorite authors, Mitch Albom. It tells a story of the first person to measure time. It comments on humanity’s obsession with time, being late, and having clocks all over your environment. People have forgotten to enjoy their lives and actually live them because they’ve become obsessed with time; everyone wants to get everything on time and not be late, to the point where we have forgotten how to enjoy living in the moment. There is a quote that is very inspiring and memorable for me, which is, “when you are measuring time, you are not living it.” It’s a very inspiring and soulful book about enjoying the moment, truly experiencing it, and not being worried about whether you are late or too early. As we see in nature, only humans measure time. Nature and animals are not plagued by worries about being late to the meeting, or being too early, or what the social standard is.
The second one would have to be 1984 by George Orwell… We see it in the way that our phones watch us and how essential they have become to our lives. Even I am guilty of it. I spend my day on an iPad. But there is this voice nagging in the back of my head for my life not to turn into 1984 – using technology in that sense and giving everyone access to my thoughts. Every time we Google Search, there is some kind of record of the question that we thought about at that moment, so I think it’s very unsettling but it is necessary in this day and age.
The third one, a fairly recent read, is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. That book is just a must-read for everyone about perseverance and resilience… even in the most dire and horrifying circumstances. That you could still maintain your humanity, even in a concentration camp. It tells of a lot of horrible, horrifying things and the lengths that we humans can go to. But it was also a message of hope that we could thrive and rise above all that and become better people because of it. So, I think it appeals to me because it essentially says that we are stronger than we thought – even in the most unimaginable, horrifying, terrible circumstances, we can be better and we don’t have to succumb to the desperation and the helplessness. It also talks a good deal about grief and how you can emerge as a stronger person from it; how suffering is also a part of life and that it initiates a part of you and builds you as a person. Your response to it is so crucial. Its essential message, I think, is that there is still hope for humanity. You’re a human being, even in situations of genocide. There are still heroes out there who have lived through it and survived. Not only physically – but emotionally and morally and every other sense of the word. And I just thought that that was inspiring. I think everyone should read it because it gives a message of silver lining, of hope, and just that you can be that person that overcomes these challenges.
ECW: What were the common misconceptions about children with disabilities that you faced as you were growing up?
Nujeen Mustafa: The fifth question is just my favorite. I love to talk about this aspect of having a disability because, where I grew up, disability meant that you were expected to just live on the sidelines and not grow at all as a person – be it academically or personally. I absolutely despised meeting people for the first time because there would be a recount of how I was born and how it was discovered that I had a disability. And then I would see the looks of just people feeling sorry because they thought that I would have no future and no life. That I would just be there, not being an active member of society or contributing anything to my family or to anyone. Just be someone that wouldn’t be of use to anybody. So, I think the misconception that people may have is that we are expected to play into these expectations and act as though we were doomed – but that, of course, is not the case.
I recognize and realize that it depends on the mentality that your first caregivers and family has, and my family was absolutely adamant about me receiving and having what they had. And being as equal to them as possible. I would be hammered on to do homework and learn how to read and write and advance my education and learn English… Of course, I did it on my own, later on, in my teenage years. But there was always pressure to learn a lot about math and to enrich myself intellectually. Even if I couldn’t do it physically. Of course, many of these children didn’t have this kind of supportive and encouraging environment. How society perceived them might have damaged their sense of self and made them very insecure and have a low self-esteem. I consider myself lucky that I grew up in a family that pushed me to be better – that didn’t view me as a kind of a nuisance or as a girl who didn’t have any potential.
So, I think the biggest misconception that society has of these people is that it expects us not to have any ambitions or dreams. That the mere fact of us having a disability should eradicate any glimmer of hope inside of us that these dreams might come true. I encountered that even on my journey here. I would meet people who would be surprised that I spoke English or that I was socially active – and, you know, not at all awkward or hiding from anyone. Even when I was younger, I limited my exposure to that kind of negativity. I just surrounded myself with mostly adults and people who loved me and appreciated me for who I am. And I think that helped. I kind of eliminated any possible person that I thought, okay, this person doesn’t really like me, he is just pitying me or looking at me in a very condescending way. The secret to that was that we, as a collective family and everyone around, were able to kind of stay away from that type of negativity and that kind of mentality that “okay, this person has a disability, so he is useless—he or she is useless.”
ECW: From your own experience, what does inclusive education mean to you and what makes a school accessible for all boys and girls with disabilities?
Nujeen Mustafa: Inclusive education, for me, has a lot of meanings. I only experienced it when I arrived here in Germany and realized how smooth and easy it can be to make education inclusive. Of course, inclusive education means not just enrolling someone with a disability in a school, it’s about accommodating their needs without making them feel isolated or separated or something different than the other students who may not have a disability. It’s not just about making the restroom or making the building accessible, it’s about capacity building.
For example – I always laugh and find it very encouraging and impressive about what I experience here – there is nothing that I do, or that I go through, that people my age do differently. I’m also applying for apprenticeships, filling out applications, filling out paperwork, and working in accountancy. I study business, that’s what we do. And I don’t think that the experience of a person who doesn’t have a disability differs so much from mine. There’s no discrepancy—there’s no, “this level is for you and this level is for that person.” It’s more about accommodating your needs and making sure that you have full access to whatever you may encounter in your professional life and you are well-versed in whatever it is that you are trying to specialize in. I would say that I have the same amount of experience in business as anyone in the same grade, or level, as I am now. So, having a disability, they wouldn’t level it down for someone who is disabled. They would accommodate your needs in such a way that you get the full content and that you grasp everything that is needed of you and that you learn about.
That, for me, is what inclusiveness means. It’s about finding methods that would make your working environment better—and equal to your non-disabled peers. It’s about making sure that you receive the same kind of treatment and that you understand the same curriculum. That your needs are accommodated. For example, if somebody’s disability is in speech, there would be all kinds of assistance to him or her, using iPads or specific programs on their PCs, and it’s very encouraging because we know – I personally know – that nobody is dumbing stuff down for me to grasp and nobody’s going a level down just to teach me about it. I know that I would be as equally qualified to a co-worker that is not disabled. So, this, for me, is what inclusive education means. It’s about accommodating the needs of a person with a disability so that it’s integrated into a non-disabled structure or a curriculum that might not originally be for people with disabilities.
For me, the key point is not isolation—I don’t want to be taught separately—it’s about the merging of education, ideas, and concepts, so that everyone can benefit and absorb information equally and effectively. And that would be the main goal – the optimal option – for everyone, just to merge these ideas and methods so that every school in the world can and would receive a person with disability.
I also think that integrating people with disabilities into schools with people who have no disability is essential in changing any misconceptions that non-disabled people might have about people with disabilities. Because exposure lets you know how that person lives. You’ll know that he’s not pathetic, he doesn’t want you pity. You learn that he’s just like you—he or she is ambitious, is working on his plans, has career plans, has dreams he wants to achieve, and that he can be independent. He or she can have fun and dance and do stuff. And they will go far in life.
Please find below Education Cannot Wait’s interview with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, focused on the crucial role of education in the lives of crisis-affected children and youth.
ECW: Why is education a priority in emergencies and protracted crises?
António Guterres: The COVID-19 pandemic has upended societies and created the largest-ever disruption of education systems, affecting more than 1.5 billion students. While remote solutions were rolled out, 1 in 3 children missed out on such opportunities, exposing and exacerbating inequalities and vulnerabilities, especially for those in crisis situations. In such circumstances, education protects girls and boys from sexual violence and exploitation, trafficking, early pregnancy and child marriage, forced recruitment into armed groups and child labour. It also ensures that they continue learning, offering them hope for the future. As we enter 2021, education must be at the core of pandemic response and recovery efforts. Without resolute political commitment by global leaders, as well as additional resources for Education Cannot Wait, and its UN and civil society partners, millions of girls and boys may never return to school. Investing in the education of these vulnerable children and youth is an investment in peace, prosperity and resilience for generations to come – and a priority for the United Nations.
ECW: Why is it important to facilitate more collaboration between humanitarian and development actors in crisis contexts?
António Guterres: With the intensification of conflicts, climate change-related disasters, forced displacement reaching record levels and crises lasting longer than ever, humanitarian needs keep outpacing the response despite the generosity of aid donors. Partnerships are crucial to transform the aid system, end silos and ensure that aid is more efficient and cost-effective. Whole-of-child education programmes offer a proven pathway for stakeholders to collaborate in enabling vulnerable children and youth to access quality education in safe learning environments so they can achieve their full potential.
ECW: What message would you like to share with crisis-affected girls and boys whose right to education is not yet being realized?
António Guterres: Above all, I pay tribute to their resilience and I commit to working with governments, civil society and all partners to overcome both the pandemic and the crises that have been such profound setbacks in their lives. We must also step up our efforts to reimagine education – training teachers, bridging the digital divide and rethinking curricula to equip learners with the skills and knowledge to flourish in our rapidly changing world.
ECW: As a secondary student in Portugal, you won the ‘Prémio Nacional dos Liceus’ as the best student in the country. After completing your university studies in engineering, you started a career as a teacher. Can you tell us what education personally means to you?
António Guterres: Long before I served at the United Nations or held public office, I was a teacher. In the slums of Lisbon, I saw that education is an engine for poverty eradication and a force for peace. Today, education is at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals. We need education to reduce inequalities, achieve gender equality, protect our planet, fight hate speech and nurture global citizenship. Upholding our pledge to leave no one behind starts with education.
ECW: Following the turbulence of 2020, what is your message to the world as we enter 2021?
António Guterres: 2020 brought us tragedy and peril. 2021 must be the year to change gear and put the world on track. The pandemic has brought us to a pivotal moment. We can move from an annus horribilis to make 2021 an “annus possibilitatis” – a year of possibility and hope. We must make it happen — together.
Background on UN Secretary-General António Guterres
António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, took office on 1st January 2017.
Having witnessed the suffering of the most vulnerable people on earth, in refugee camps and in war zones, the Secretary-General is determined to make human dignity the core of his work, and to serve as a peace broker, a bridge-builder and a promoter of reform and innovation.
Prior to his appointment as Secretary-General, Mr. Guterres served as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015, heading one of the world’s foremost humanitarian organizations during some of the most serious displacement crises in decades. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the crises in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Yemen, led to a huge rise in UNHCR’s activities as the number of people displaced by conflict and persecution rose from 38 million in 2005 to over 60 million in 2015.
Before joining UNHCR, Mr. Guterres spent more than 20 years in government and public service. He served as prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002, during which time he was heavily involved in the international effort to resolve the crisis in East Timor.
As president of the European Council in early 2000, he led the adoption of the Lisbon Agenda for growth and jobs, and co-chaired the first European Union-Africa summit. He was a member of the Portuguese Council of State from 1991 to 2002. Learn more about Mr. Guterres.
ENTREVISTA DE EDUCACIÓN NO PUEDE ESPERAR CON ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, SECRETARIO GENERAL DE LAS NACIONES UNIDAS
Educación No Puede Esperar: ¿Por qué constituye la educación una prioridad en situaciones de emergencia y crisis prolongadas?
António Guterres: La pandemia de COVID-19 ha transformado por completo nuestras sociedades y causado una interrupción de los sistemas educativos sin precedentes, que ha afectado a más de 1.500 millones de estudiantes. Se han adoptado modalidades remotas, pero 1 de cada 3 niños no ha tenido acceso a estas oportunidades, lo que ha puesto de relieve y ha agravado las desigualdades y vulnerabilidades, sobre todo para las personas que se encuentran en situaciones de crisis. En estas circunstancias, la educación sirve para proteger a las niñas y los niños de la violencia y la explotación sexuales, la trata, los embarazos precoces y los matrimonios infantiles, el reclutamiento forzado por parte de grupos armados y el trabajo infantil. También contribuye a que los niños sigan aprendiendo, lo que les brinda esperanza de cara al futuro. En estos primeros compases del 2021, debemos cerciorarnos de que la educación representa un elemento central de la respuesta ante la pandemia y la recuperación posterior. Si los líderes internacionales, así como los recursos adicionales de Educación No Puede Esperar y sus asociados del sistema de las Naciones Unidas y la sociedad civil, no muestran un férreo compromiso político, es posible que millones de niñas y niños no vuelvan nunca a la escuela. Invertir en la educación de estos jóvenes y niños vulnerables nos permite contribuir a la paz, prosperidad y resiliencia de las generaciones venideras —además de constituir una de las prioridades de las Naciones Unidas—.
Educación No Puede Esperar: ¿Por qué es importante facilitar una mayor colaboración entre los agentes humanitarios y para el desarrollo en situaciones de crisis?
António Guterres: A pesar de la generosidad mostrada por los donantes de asistencia, la intensificación de los conflictos, los desastres relacionados con el cambio climático, los niveles históricos de desplazamientos forzados y la cada vez mayor duración de las crisis impiden que la respuesta adoptada pueda seguir el ritmo del aumento de las necesidades humanitarias. Las alianzas desempeñan un papel crucial a la hora de transformar el sistema de ayuda, reducir la compartimentación e incrementar la eficiencia y eficacia en función de los costos de la ayuda. Se ha demostrado que los asociados pueden colaborar mediante programas de educación infantil de carácter integral a fin de garantizar que los niños y jóvenes vulnerables tengan acceso a una educación de calidad en entornos de aprendizaje seguros, lo que les permitirá desarrollar su pleno potencial.
Educación No Puede Esperar: ¿Qué mensaje le gustaría transmitir a las niñas y los niños en situaciones de crisis que aún no pueden ejercer su derecho a la educación?
António Guterres: Sobre todo, me gustaría reconocer su resiliencia, además de comprometerme a cooperar con los gobiernos, la sociedad civil y todos los asociados disponibles con vistas a superar la pandemia y las crisis que han supuesto grandes reveses en sus vidas. También debemos ampliar nuestros esfuerzos dirigidos a reimaginar la educación mediante la capacitación de los docentes, la reducción de la brecha digital y la reestructuración de los planes de estudios para que los discentes dispongan de los conocimientos y aptitudes que necesitan para prosperar en un mundo en constante y rápida evolución.
Educación No Puede Esperar: Cuando cursaba la secundaria en Portugal, lo reconocieron como el mejor estudiante del país al otorgarle el “Prémio Nacional dos Liceus”. Tras estudiar ingeniería en la universidad, comenzó a ejercer de docente. ¿Podría explicarnos qué significa para usted la educación a nivel personal?
António Guterres: Mucho antes de trabajar para las Naciones Unidas o la administración pública, ejercí de docente. Observé que, en los barrios marginales de Lisboa, la educación contribuye a la erradicación de la pobreza y al fomento de la paz. En la actualidad, la educación constituye un elemento esencial de los Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible. Mediante ella, conseguiremos reducir las desigualdades, alcanzar la igualdad de género, proteger nuestro planeta, luchar contra el discurso de odio y promover la ciudadanía mundial. Para cumplir nuestro compromiso de que nadie se quede atrás, es preciso partir de la educación.
Educación No Puede Esperar: Tras la inestabilidad experimentada en 2020, ¿qué mensaje le gustaría trasmitir al mundo en estos primeros meses de 2021?
António Guterres: Después de un 2020 que nos trajo tragedias y peligros, el 2021 debe ser el año en que cambiemos de velocidad y pongamos el mundo en la senda correcta. La pandemia ha supuesto un punto de inflexión para todos. Podemos dejar atrás un annus horribilis para hacer del presente un annus possibilitatis: un año de posibilidades y esperanza. Debemos conseguirlo. Desde la unidad.
ENTRETIEN DU FONDS ÉDUCATION SANS DÉLAI AVEC ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, SECRÉTAIRE GÉNÉRAL DES NATIONS UNIES
ECW : Pourquoi l’éducation est-elle une priorité en situation d’urgence ou de crise prolongée ?
António Guterres : La pandémie de COVID-19 a bouleversé nos sociétés et provoqué la plus grande perturbation des systèmes éducatifs jamais enregistrée, avec plus de 1,5 milliard d’élèves affectés. Bien que des solutions d’éducation à distance aient été mises en place, un enfant sur trois n’a pas pu en profiter. Cette situation a mis en évidence et exacerbé les inégalités et les vulnérabilités dont ils souffrent, en particulier dans les situations de crise. Dans de tels contextes, l’éducation est un rempart contre les violences sexuelles et l’exploitation, la traite des êtres humains, les grossesses précoces et le mariage d’enfants, l’enrôlement forcé dans des groupes armés et le travail des enfants. Elle permet également aux enfants de poursuivre leur apprentissage et de croire en l’avenir. Alors que nous entamons l’année 2021, l’éducation doit être au cœur de notre riposte à la pandémie et de nos efforts de relèvement. Sans un engagement politique ferme de la part des leaders mondiaux, et sans ressources supplémentaires pour Éducation sans délai et ses partenaires des Nations Unies et de la société civile, des millions d’enfants risquent de ne jamais retourner sur les bancs de l’école. Investir dans l’éducation de ces enfants et jeunes vulnérables revient à investir dans la paix, la prospérité et la résilience pour les générations à venir. C’est une des priorités des Nations Unies.
ECW : Pourquoi est-il important de favoriser une plus grande collaboration entre les acteurs de l’humanitaire et du développement dans les contextes de crise ?
António Guterres : Du fait de l’intensification des conflits, des catastrophes liées aux changements climatiques, des déplacements forcés qui atteignent des niveaux records et des crises qui perdurent, les besoins humanitaires ne cessent de croître et de devancer les interventions visant à y remédier, et ce malgré la générosité des donateurs. Les partenariats sont essentiels pour faire évoluer le système d’aide, mettre fin aux interventions cloisonnées et garantir une action plus efficace et efficiente. Ainsi, l’intérêt des programmes éducatifs axés sur le bien-être de l’enfant n’est plus à démontrer : ils permettent aux parties prenantes de collaborer en vue d’offrir aux enfants et aux jeunes vulnérables un accès à une éducation de qualité, dans des environnements d’apprentissage sûrs, de sorte qu’ils puissent réaliser pleinement leur potentiel.
ECW : Quel message souhaitez-vous faire passer aux enfants touchés par les crises, et pour lesquels le droit à l’éducation n’est pas encore concrétisé ?
António Guterres : Je rends avant tout hommage à leur résilience, et je m’engage à collaborer avec les gouvernements, la société civile et tous les partenaires afin de surmonter la pandémie et les crises qui ont tant marqué leurs vies. Nous devons également redoubler nos efforts pour réinventer l’éducation : former les enseignants, remédier à la fracture numérique et repenser les programmes scolaires afin de fournir aux apprenants les compétences et connaissances nécessaires pour s’épanouir dans notre monde en constante mutation.
ECW : Lorsque vous étiez lycéen au Portugal, vous avez obtenu les meilleurs résultats du pays et reçu le « Prémio Nacional dos Liceus ». Après des études d’ingénieur à l’université, vous avez commencé une carrière dans l’enseignement. Pouvez-vous nous dire ce que représente l’éducation pour vous ?
António Guterres : Bien avant de servir aux Nations Unies ou d’exercer une fonction officielle, j’étais enseignant. C’est dans les quartiers pauvres de Lisbonne que j’ai constaté que l’éducation est un moteur d’éradication de la pauvreté et une force pour la paix. Aujourd’hui, l’éducation est au cœur des objectifs de développement durable. Nous avons besoin de l’éducation pour réduire les inégalités, atteindre l’égalité des genres, protéger notre planète, combattre les discours de haine et cultiver la citoyenneté mondiale. L’éducation constitue les fondations sur lesquelles doivent reposer les actions qui nous permettront de tenir notre engagement à ne laisser personne de côté.
ECW : Après les bouleversements de 2020, quel est votre message pour le monde à l’aube de l’année 2021 ?
António Guterres : 2020 ne nous a apporté que souffrance et détresse. 2021 doit être l’année du renouveau, et permettre au monde de se placer sur la bonne voie. La pandémie nous a amenés à un moment charnière. Nous pouvons passer d’une annus horribilis à une « annus possibilitatis » : 2021, l’année des possibles et de l’espoir. Nous devons y parvenir, ensemble.
n this incisive interview, the minister explores the upcoming Education Cannot Wait-financed multi-year resilience programme and the triple threat of Conflict, COVID-19, and the Climate Crisis, which have come together to displace over 1 million people in Burkina Faso. Learn more about ECW-financed programmes in the Sahel and Burkina Faso.
ENTRETIEN DU FONDS ÉDUCATION SANS DÉLAI AVEC S.E. STANISLAS OUARO, MINISTRE DE L’ÉDUCATION NATIONALE ET DE L’ALPHABÉTISATION DU BURKINA FASO
Filippo Grandi is the 11th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
He was elected by the UN General Assembly on 1 January 2016 to serve a five-year term, until 31 December 2020. Grandi has been engaged in refugee and humanitarian work for more than 30 years.
Filippo Grandi is the 11th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He was elected by the UN General Assembly on 1 January 2016 to serve a five-year term, until 31 December 2020. Grandi has been engaged in refugee and humanitarian work for more than 30 years.
Education Cannot Wait: As the UN agency mandated by the UN General Assembly to provide international protection and seek solutions for refugees, could you please elaborate on the overall importance of education for refugee children as a component of protection and solutions?
Filippo Grandi: School is often one of the very first things that refugee families ask about after being displaced. Keen to recover a sense of normalcy and dignity after the trauma of being uprooted, they are also heavily invested in their children’s futures. Many children and young people are displaced several times before crossing a border and becoming a refugee. For these children school is the first place they start to regain a sense of routine, safety, friendship and even peace. Education plays a key role, both in ensuring the protection of children and young people and helps families and children focus on rebuilding their lives and returning to many of the activities that they would normally have engaged in prior to displacement.
As UNHCR’s recent Education Report 2020 has shown, whilst there have been some successes in access to primary education, these have slowed down. Gross Enrollment Ratios show that 77 per cent of refugee children are enrolled in primary education, but this drops dramatically to 31 per cent at the secondary level. Girls are disproportionately impacted. Since global evidence shows the significant protective nature of secondary education for girls, this is a key aspect of work for UNHCR and partners like Education Cannot Wait.
Together, we are petitioning for refugee enrollment in education at all levels to be brought up to global levels to enable the millions of children and young people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes to build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities. Allowed to learn, develop and thrive, children will grow up to contribute to the societies that host them but also to their homelands when peace allows for their return. Education is one of the most important ways to solve the world’s crises.
Education Cannot Wait: You are a long-standing member of Education Cannot Wait’s High-Level Steering Group. As you know, Education Cannot Wait is designed to ensure that children can continue their education in times of emergencies and protracted crises. Please elaborate on the special needs of refugee children during emergencies and protracted crises, and how do you see Education Cannot Wait contributing to meeting those rights and needs?
Filippo Grandi: The Global Compact for Refugees calls for measures to enable children and youth return to learning within three months of displacement. This goal highlights the important role that education – both formal and non-formal – plays in supporting children to resume normal activities. Children can feel a sense of belonging with their peers in classrooms, have the opportunity to play and engage in recreational activities, and receive potentially lifesaving information on issues related to health, hygiene and safety. Schools also provide access to support services, such as counselling and school-feeding programmes.
Preparing refugee children to enter into the national education systems of host communities is critical and requires working closely with Ministries of Education to remove administrative and policy barriers to school enrollment. It also entails ensuring children have the skills and abilities needed in order to thrive once they are enrolled in schools. Language learning classes – especially where the language of instruction is different – catch up programmes, and accelerated education all support children’s enrollment into school and ability to learn effectively. It is also important to provide information and material assistance to assist families overcome some of the practical barriers to school enrollment. Psycho-social support is also instrumental for children who have undergone the trauma of displacement and need help in adapting to new situations and environments.
The support provided by Education Cannot Wait enables agencies and organizations to ensure that services are provided after the onset of an emergency to address the immediate needs that have been highlighted above, focusing both on protection and education needs and working to ensure that children are prepared for inclusion in formal education programmes. Education Cannot Wait has also played a pivotal role in calling for donors to invest in education during and after emergencies to ensure children’s educational needs can be met during humanitarian crises, as evidenced by the increase in investment in education in emergencies over the last four years.
Education Cannot Wait: A significant number of pledges made by countries and other stakeholders at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum centered around education, including individual and joint pledges made by Education Cannot Wait highlighting multi-year investments to increase opportunities in secondary education for refugee children, and in working with other global funds to support quality education for refugees. What gaps in funding are there for refugee education globally and where best can donors help, including countries, civil society and private enterprises?
Filippo Grandi: While funding to education in emergencies grew five-fold between 2015 and 2019, education usually only receives between 2 and 5 percent of the total budget of humanitarian appeals. As we move from emergency situations to protracted crises, there is a risk that education spending is further deprioritized, making it harder to support host governments to continue the delivery of education services over a sustained period.
Funding gaps in education mean that it is often difficult to ensure that children and youth complete a full cycle of education, moving from primary, through secondary and to tertiary education. Global figures show that there is a dramatic drop in enrollment between primary and secondary education and that only 3 percent of refugee youth are enrolled in tertiary education programmes.
Funding gaps also mean that those who are most in need, including children in women- or child-headed households and those with disabilities do not receive the specialized support that is required in order to fully enjoy their right to education. The joint pledge at the Global Refugee Forum by Education Cannot Wait, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education has the potential to be a game changer in terms of ensuring that systems are strengthened and supported so that refugees and other vulnerable populations enjoy continued access to education.
Education Cannot Wait: Education Cannot Wait has dedicated its second round of COVID-19 First Emergency Response investments for refugee situations throughout the world. Could you please elaborate on some of the key emergencies in terms of refugee education for UNHCR and the difference that Education Cannot Wait’s emergency response for COVID-19 will make?
Filippo Grandi: The closure of schools around the world effectively meant that 90 percent of refugee children who were enrolled in schools and education programmes were unable to continue receiving an education.
As they are located in some of the most remote areas in countries or have limited resources at home, they were unable to benefit fully from distance and home-based learning programmes and are at serious risk of falling further behind academically. This risk is even more serious for adolescent girls where an estimated 50 percent of girls who were in school are at risk of not returning once classes resume. The closure of schools also means that many of the wrap-around support services mentioned earlier (food distribution, psycho-social support and recreational activities and learning support programmes) were disrupted.
Families who have lost their livelihoods as a result of the pandemic experience greater economic pressure and may deprioritize spending what little resources they have on schooling in order to ensure that their most basic needs are met. All these factors contribute to heighten protection risks during periods of school closure, leaving the educational futures of many refugee children hanging in the balance.
Keeping education going during a pandemic requires resourcefulness, innovation, invention and collaboration. Education Cannot Wait’s funding for the COVID-19 response will play a key role in mitigating these risks, by finding ways of ensuring that students are able to continue learning during school closures, disseminating information to refugee families about re-opening procedures and the safety protocols that will be put in place, training teachers on adjusting to the pandemic, providing additional materials to students, implementing back to school campaigns and making much-needed improvements to water and sanitation facilities in schools. Many of these activities have already been initiated with the generous support of Education Cannot Wait.
Education Cannot Wait: UNHCR and ECW have also jointly coordinated closely with host-governments, humanitarian and development actors in developing multi-year resilience investments, such as the Education Response Plan for Refugees and Host Communities in Uganda. How do you see this strengthening education for refugees and host-communities in the humanitarian-development nexus?
Filippo Grandi: The theme of UNHCR’s 2020 report is ‘Coming Together for Refugee Education’. This focus really echoes the Global Compact on Refugees which advocates for a “whole of society” approach to ensuring that the needs of refugees and hosting communities are addressed. This means that a range of stakeholders have a role to play in realizing the goals of the Compact. The presence of a clear plan and set of objectives for supporting access to education helps define roles and areas of contribution for a broad range of stakeholders. It is crucial that there are linkages between refugee and humanitarian response plans, multi-year resilience plans and longer-term sector development plans.
Education Cannot Wait’s support for education programming immediately after the onset of an emergency and the longer-term assistance provided through Multi-Year Resilience Programmes plays a crucial role in bridging the gap between humanitarian and development financing. The inclusion of refugees in host-country education systems means that donors and other actors need to work closely with governments to increase the capacity of these systems to accommodate additional students, develop teachers’ abilities to respond to students’ needs and to ensure that children can progress through different educational levels.
Education Cannot Wait: Would there be any final comments you would wish to make to ECW’s audience globally regarding the importance of refugee children’s education in emergencies?
Filippo Grandi: Investment in education for refugees is essential to ensure that creativity and potential of young people in conflict and crisis-affected regions is not lost. During the COVID-19 pandemic refugee students have played pivotal roles in their communities working on the frontlines as healthcare workers, making masks and soap to be distributed to those who need it, offering advice and disseminating health and hygiene information and establishing programmes for tutoring younger students. Their drive, initiative and passion would have been lost without early investment in their education.
Education for refugees is an investment that pays off for the whole community – and the world. It is also a fundamental right for all children that is affirmed in the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This right must also be upheld in emergencies where we call on global actors to focus not only on access but on the quality of education and children’s ability to learn, leading them to a brighter and more dignified future.