Innovative Education for Refugees

Darfurian refugees in Eastern Chad © UNHCR, Fréderic Noy, Dec.2011

The horrendous conflict in Syria, with an estimated 6.5 million displaced and 3 million refugees, has brought up the challenges of education in emergencies one more time.

Worldwide there are around 51.2 million people displaced and 16.7 million refugees, of which approximately half are under 18. As education in emergencies expert and Columbia professor Mary Mendenhall explained this month in a talk at Columbia University, the fact that 80% of these camps are hosted in developing countries is the root of many of the shortcomings refugees face.

On top of that, Professor Mendenhall emphasized the lack of funding for education in emergencies–it only accounts for 2% of the total humanitarian aid budget–and underlined that efforts in refugee education can actually help countries strengthen previously weak education systems.

Education: a human right

In emergency situations where those affected are escaping armed conflict or religious, political or racial persecution, education is sidelined.

Quality education, however, is a basic right. UNHCR claims that the strongest reasons for supporting organized activities such as education early in an emergency situation are to lessen the psychosocial impact of trauma and displacement and to protect at-risk groups. Moreover, it is the refugees with an education, above all, who provide leadership during displacement and in rebuilding communities recovering from conflict.

Challenges in quality and reach

Data from UNHCR shows that enrollment in elementary school is only 76% and 36% in secondary school globally. Girls are at a particular disadvantage; in Eastern and the Horn of Africa, only 5 girls are enrolled for every 10 boys.

Not all host countries accommodate for the education of refugee populations, and even if there is access to education, it is generally of very low quality because of poor or no teacher training and due to the very high teacher-student ratio.

Maria Ul Mulk, who worked in a project that encouraged Afghan refugees to participate in community based organizations in Pakistan, claims that limited access to reliable data is a major challenge in education with refugees. She notes that not all refugees are registered and that sometimes unregistered refugees refuse to identify as such, making it difficult to secure their membership to community based organizations and go to school.

Although many countries offer programmes for refugees, these will often not participate for fear of being sent back home. Girls face an added challenge in receiving an education during emergencies, since often times their parents don’t allow them to go to school.

Increasing social cohesion, making schools and teachers more accountable to students and parents and training teachers are pressing issues to be solved.

Arthur Murta, who taught refugees and asylum seekers Portuguese in Brazil with Caritas Brasileira and UNHCR, remembers the challenges in offering support to people coming from countries like Syria, Colombia, Congo, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, or Sudan–all in the same classroom. Issues arise when participants in programs speak such different languages and have varied literacy levels, not to mention different degrees of adaptability to a new country.

OpenIDEO’s Refugee Education Challenge

The open innovation platform OpenIDEO recently launched the Refugee Education Challenge to improve education and expand learning opportunities for refugees around the world. OpenIDEO challenges are three to five month collaborative processes modeled after IDEO’s design thinking methodology.

In the first phase, Research, anyone can share inspiring educational initiatives, tools or stories from around the world. After that, the OpenIDEO community shares ‘new, wild or existing ideas and collaboratively refines them’. The following phases will be Refinement, Feedback, picking top ideas, funding them, and finally implementing them and assessing their impact in helping refugees learn new skills and gain access to a quality education.

An app improves access to education through data collection

Kmobile Schools, developed by FHI 360 for UNHCR, is an app designed to gather information on refugees attending school in refugee camps and select urban areas.

The app sends updated information on 16 indicators to development organizations and policymakers so that they can be more effective in placing resources where they are most needed.

Indicators include information about location, teacher-student ratio and resources.

Solar energy powers ICT vocational centers

Daadab, in North-Eastern Kenya, hosts the largest refugee camp in the world with over 500,000 displaced from southern Somalia and other regions.

UNHCR and the Vodafone Foundation launched an education program last year to connect to the Internet 13 schools or vocational training centers in the camp, where around 180,000 should be going to school.

In these centers called Instant Network Schools, the Internet is provided by Vodafone’s affiliate in Kenya, Safaricom. Tablets are on Huawei’s account for several of the schools, reported UNHCR, and are used to “follow directions, pursue studies and carry out research.” Teachers are trained and use interactive whiteboards to teach.

The program allows students to use the facilities after school as well.

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