By Joakim Reiter, Chief External and Corporate Affairs Officer, Vodafone Group and Trustee, Vodafone Foundation
The theme of this year’s UNESCO’s International Day of Education, which takes place today, is learning for lasting peace. There is no group that applies better to than the world’s refugees.
In a world that is rapidly digitising, this group is particularly marginalised, without the resources, technology and skills to thrive in digital economies. That is why Vodafone Foundation is part of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s Refugee Connected Education Challenge (RCEC). The RCEC aims to ensure universal access to high-quality connected education for refugees by 2030, paralleling nationals.
There are around 110 million refugees in the world – a number that has doubled in the last decade. Forty per cent are under the age of 18 and will spend an average of 20 years displaced from their home countries. For many refugees,their entire childhood and the years they would have spent at school will be spent in camps or host communities.
Throughout my career as a diplomat, and latterly at Vodafone, I have seen the impact of forced displacement on people and communities across Europe and Africa.
We cannot expect displaced people to one day return en masse to better lives in the places of their birth unless we equip them with the tools to become active participants in the labour markets and in broader society. Ensuring that all children have access to quality education – no matter where they live in the world – is a fundamental building block to a more productive, rewarding and peaceful future than their present.
Yet, today, over half of refugee children remain out of education, as funding for the countries hosting most of the marginalised people lags far behind the need. In 2022, UNHCR monitored the largest ever annual increase in forced displacement: a group equal to the population of the Netherlands. The signs are that this problem is only likely to get worse. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, 11 of the 27 active conflicts in the world are getting worse, while there is also degradation of some traditionally habitable environments driven by the climate crisis.
In addition to the fundamental humanity and dignity that all people should be afforded, countries are storing up trouble if tens of millions of people are not able to be educated and economically productive when they are old enough to enter the workforce.
Ten years ago, UNHCR asked Vodafone Foundation to lean into this challenge and use its technology expertise to support refugee education. We had no idea at the time that the classroom in a box we created would develop into a portfolio of 93 Instant Network Schools (INS), across six African nations.
Back in 2013, when my colleagues first visited one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Dadaab – a day’s drive from Nairobi, near Kenya’s border with Somalia – we found classrooms overcrowded with, in some cases, more than 120 students, a lack of basic resources including books, and high turnover of teachers, many of whom lacked training.
In the decade since, we have supported over a quarter-of-a-million young people and nearly 5,000 teachers to access digital education resources and to gain more confidence online.
This year we will partner to launch another 22 INS schools in Egypt and four new schools in Mozambique. The new INS facilities in Egypt and Mozambique will help an estimated 52,000 more young people a year in those countries to gain a digital education.
A detailed study will also be undertaken in 2024 to map Ethiopia’s educational needs and requirements and consider whether INS might also launch in Africa’s second most populous country. Vodafone is one of the shareholders in the Global Partnership for Ethiopia, the consortium that owns Safaricom Ethiopia. The consortium, which also includes Vodacom, Safaricom, BII, Sumitomo Corporation and the International Finance Corporation, will partner with UNHCR and the government of Ethiopia to progress school connectivity and access to quality education for all.
The past decade has not been completely without challenge, and we have learned some important lessons that underscore the urgent need to generate more investment into refugee education.
Firstly, digital should empower human interaction, rather than replacing it. Too many edtech development programmes still focus on hardware and software donations. Training teachers and students to have the confidence to use digital technology as part of a rounded curriculum has been critical to the success of INS. A 2018 impact assessment on INS found that the programme drove not just a 61% increase in digital literacy for students and 125% increase for teachers, but also improved attendance, academic performance and career aspirations. When I recently visited theEl Mostakbal school in Cairo, pupils there told me that INS made education exciting, but I was struck by how important it was for the children to still be able to physically interact and play together.
Secondly, investment in refugee education is also an investment in improving the educational infrastructure of low- and middle-income countries. As we see refugees being displaced for longer and longer periods of their lives, our focus has moved from providing resources in camps, to providing education for young people alongside children from local communities. Egypt, which has our largest deployment of INS, is a case in point. Some 46,000 children attend INS classrooms in public schools run by the Egyptian Ministry of Education.
Thirdly, education is critically underfunded in countries that are hosting refugees. 76% of all refugees are hosted in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). Only an estimated 0.5% of global education spending is in less developed nations, and World Bank research indicates that education spending in low-income and LMICs is declining, in contrast to the trend in richer nations.
There is a reason why the fourth UN Sustainable Development Goal is to provide a quality education for all by 2030. Education is a critical lever for improved life chances. But to achieve that goal, more development finance must flow to helping the world’s forcibly displaced children to fulfil their potential.
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