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UNHCR and Vodafone Foundation: Closing the Digital Divide with Instant Network Schools

24 Jan 2023Vodafone Foundation news
6 minute read

Global crises are worsening: war, violence, persecution and other human rights violations, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising living costs, climate change. The result? Today, 103 million people have been forced to flee their homes – the highest level of forced displacement in modern history.

Nearly half of those forcibly displaced are under the age of 18 – children, adolescents and youth who should be at school or college, preparing for their futures and the future of their families and communities. But for those who have fled to another country and become refugees, all too often the reality of displacement means missing out on crucial educational experiences and opportunities.

In a world that is increasingly digital and connected, there is hope. The task facing us is to use new tools and technology to ensure that young refugees can still get the best possible education.

Many refugee-hosting schools aren’t equipped to go digital

Refugee-hosting schools can face numerous challenges to providing adequate and quality education for children and young people.

In many countries, these schools are in low-resourced communities and often have very large classes. Their infrastructure can be limited, with poor connectivity and erratic electricity supply.

Teachers also often have limited training, and in many instances lack the digital skills and literacy needed to get to grips with digital resources and make meaningful use of them. We also know that many refugee learners remain out of reach. Even before COVID-19, over half of the world’s refugee children were already out of school.

As classrooms around the world shifted to digital learning during the pandemic, they were are at an even greater disadvantage.

COVID-19 has widened the digital divide

Throughout the pandemic, schools and communities in refugee-hosting countries, especially those in remote areas, could not keep pace with moves towards digitally-supported learning.

Compared to global figures, refugee households are around 50% less likely to have an internet-enabled phone. Based on UNHCR’s reporting, 78% of school-age refugee learners had limited or no access to learning opportunities during pandemic-related school closures.

In short, COVID-19 revealed a deepening digital divide that is further disadvantaging refugee children.

Digital inclusion is essential – and achievable

Around the world, we can see changes to education taking shape – as was evident in the UN Transforming Education Summit this year – and it is vital that refugee communities and refugee-hosting schools are included in this transformation. This includes the chance to benefit from inclusive and holistic technology-enabled ecosystems that help improve quality learning for everyone.

There are many practical ways to achieve this: including refugees in national digital learning programmes, improving the digital skills of teachers, students and caregivers, or investing in offline content for schools that are disconnected or under-resourced.

Ensuring refugees have the same opportunities to learn as everyone else allows for greater independence and self-reliance, one of the four objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees.

Connecting the world’s classrooms

The collaboration between Vodafone Foundation and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to create the Instant Network Schools programme is one example of what focusing on infrastructure and connectivity can achieve.

Since 2013, this partnership has worked with communities and (in most countries where it operates) education ministries to transform classrooms into multimedia learning hubs.

Complete with local networks; internet connectivity; sustainable solar power; classroom kits including tablets, laptops, projectors and speakers; localised digital content; and robust teacher-training programmes with a library of locally relevant and curriculum-aligned digital resources.

By 2025, we aim for 300 Instant Network Schools to support 500,000 refugee and host-community students and 10,000 teachers.

INS alumni are a source of countless inspiring stories. Nhial Deng is a South Sudanese refugee, writer, youth advocate, community activist and organiser. He spent 11 years in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, attended an INS-powered school and aspired to be, “a person of change in the community.”

Today Nhial studies at Huron university in Canada and sits on numerous advisory boards including the government of Canada’s Refugee Education Council. He also set up the Kakuma Book Drive to get 10,000 textbooks, laptops and funding for young people in the refugee camp where he grew up.


Tech can build new ecosystems for refugees

Many governments are leading the way by meaningfully including refugees in national education systems.

Now, thanks to commitments made at the Transforming Education Summit, there are new opportunities to include them in digital learning plans and programmes as well. For purpose-driven technology companies that are serious about connecting the world and supporting society, a unique role awaits.

As with Vodafone Foundation and Instant Network Schools, technology companies are essential: they are in a position to make in-kind hardware, software and content donations, as well as offer skill building and technical know-how, to refugee-hosting schools and communities.

Likewise, mobile network operators can scale up school and community connectivity for refugees. To help refugees establish further connections with their local communities, the private sector and tech companies can support solutions such as skills training and access to digital learning.

The Global Compact on Refugees recognises that everyone can play a role in closing the technology gap, including the private sector alongside humanitarian and development actors.

And, while the support from governments and private companies in response to the Ukraine emergency was unprecedented, it is critical that this speed and enthusiasm to take action extends to other displacement crises across the world.

Untapped economic power

The opportunities for investment in, and with, refugees are countless. They promise both financial and social returns for individuals, families and entire communities.

Analysis of 15 Western European countries found that refugees and migrants improve the strength and sustainability of a country’s economy and help to cut unemployment rates, even in low to middle-income states.

In 2017, UNHCR worked with the World Bank Group in Kenya on a study that found that the 180,000 refugees in and around the Kakuma camps and the Kalobeyei settlement (a number that has since risen to 237,000) were contributing to an economy worth US$56 million a year, sparking a programme to encourage more private-sector investment.

With the right educational support, refugee children can enrich their host communities and economies with their experience and skills, boosting productivity, innovation and growth. This also pays dividends in terms of better social cohesion and civil participation. In the current global financial climate, supporting refugee children is both an ethical and an economic imperative.

Governments are racing to transform education through technology to meet UN Sustainable Development Goal 4. But they cannot do this without the support of the private sector.

Together we can ensure that refugee children, adolescents and youth, and the communities that host them, are no longer left behind.

  • Digital skills
  • Digital skills & Education
  • Human rights
  • SDG 4
  • Vodafone Foundation
  • Instant Network Schools

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