The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education

Professor Alan Smith writes in the Belfast Telegraph on ‘The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education:

When wars break out, international attention and media reporting invariably focus on the most immediate images of human suffering. Yet behind these images is a hidden crisis. Globally, 28 million children, almost half of the children out of school are in conflict affected countries. Across many of the world’s poorest countries, armed conflict is destroying not just school infrastructure, but the hopes and ambitions of generations of children.

In London and other cities across the world today UNESCO launches its 2011 Education For All Global Monitoring Report, focussing on the hidden crisis of the effects of armed conflict on education across the world.

While education systems have the potential to act as a powerful force for peace, reconciliation and conflict prevention, they also have the potential to reinforce intolerance and inequalities. Education can become highly politicised in conflict-affected countries. In addition, the lack of education and the resulting economic hopelessness felt by many young people in conflict-affected areas has also made them easy prey for recruitment by armed militias.

When armed conflict ends and governments start to reconstruct education systems, they need to assess the post conflict environment carefully. They have to consider how policy choices will be perceived in the light of long standing rivalries and partially resolved disputes between groups and regions. What people are taught, how they are taught and how education systems are organised can make societies more – or less – prone to violent conflict. That means addressing issues such as education governance, language of instruction, and teaching of subjects like religion and history.

The attitude of the international community towards humanitarian and development aid also has a political dimension with worrying knock on consequences for education. In some situations aid effectiveness has been compromised by the national security agendas of major donors.

Development assistance to conflict affected states is heavily skewed towards countries viewed as strategic priorities, notably Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. This runs the risk of education aid to these countries being perceived as more ideological rather than humanitarian or developmental.

Furthermore the use of aid to education to support counter insurgency operations may threaten the security of local communities, school children and aid workers, who remain on the front line of all of these conflicts.

The international and humanitarian aid system needs to be more proactive in addressing education needs in conflict affected countries, both by matching the aspirations of communities at a local level, and providing funding and support on a consistent and guaranteed basis to develop good education systems at a national level. For this to happen, the financial contribution of the international community to education aid and development programmes needs to be significantly increased – currently education accounts for just 2% of humanitarian aid, and children in conflict affected areas receive even less.

Today’s report dramatically highlights that if even a tiny fraction of the money spent on the military was redistributed to education, millions of children across the developing world would have a better chance in life. Not just in simple terms of education, but in terms of protection from violence, health awareness and quality of life. Education can be an extremely cost effective investment in early intervention and protection, when weighed against the high costs of dealing with the consequences of conflict.

In 2006 the UN secretary General established a new UN Peace Building Commission, with a peace building fund of $360 million. While the reform of security and justice, political and economic systems features prominently, there are lessons to be learned from contexts such as Bosnia and Northern Ireland. In both cases, even more than a decade after peace agreements, education reforms are highly politicised and contentious. This suggests that it is crucial to engage in social policy areas such as education at an early stage as part of peace building processes. There are strong recommendations in today’s report that the UN organisations with responsibilities for children and education should play a stronger role in conflict-affected countries.

What today’s report highlights is that no country can hope to establish lasting foundations for peace unless it finds ways of building mutual trust between citizens, and between citizens and government – and the place to start is in the classroom.

Professor Alan Smith is UNESCO Chair in Education, and Director of the UNESCO Centre at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. Over the past two years Professor Smith has been one of four key advisors to the Global Monitoring Report. He is one of the main speakers at today’s launch in London and will also speak at the Norwegian and German report launches later this month.  Professor Smith is currently leading an education research project on the role of education in peace building for the UNICEF evaluation office which will also be profiled at today’s launch.

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