Covid-19 has left millions of refugee children out of school. The world’s response, say the CEOs of Save the Children UK and the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, threatens both this generation, and those to come.

In March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. In the year since, the coronavirus has claimed more than 2.5 million lives worldwide, upended economies and livelihoods, and deepened the fault lines of inequality.

It has also exposed the frailty of the global education system. Lockdowns in response to the pandemic left more than 1.5 billion children worldwide out of school. Many may never return to the classroom, jeopardising hard-won gains in learning access. This risk is particularly high among refugees and displaced children, vulnerable groups who were already on the fringes of mainstream schooling.

In October, international NGO Save the Children, global fund Education Can’t Wait, the World Bank, and the UAE-based Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE), held a virtual roundtable with donors, private sector and aid partners. The debate hinged on how best to meet the educational needs of refugee children during the pandemic, covering topics that ranged from taking teaching from the classroom to the community, to new financing mechanisms to tackle underfunding.

Following the roundtable, Philanthropy Age spoke to Sonia Ben Jaafar (SBJ), CEO of AGFE, and Kevin Watkins (KW), CEO of Save the Children UK, to more deeply explore the challenges and opportunities Covid-19 has posed, and the repercussions for refugee youth.

Covid-19 has disrupted education across the globe. How has the pandemic affected refugees, a group that already faced multiple barriers to learning?
KW: If we go back a year and a half, the situation for refugees was bleak already. To give a sense of the numbers, if we treated all the refugees in the world as a country, about 13 per cent of school age refugees would not be attending primary school. Only a third would enter secondary school, and of that group, well over half would drop out before they graduated. Overall, about 3.4 million school-age refugees were out of school.

If you rank that on a global scale of education opportunity, then the refugee community would be at the very bottom. That gives you a snapshot of their prospects for education.

What I feel the pandemic has done is act as an X-ray machine, with magnifying effect. It has revealed the fractures in society, and magnified them. It’s shown that refugee children were already being left behind, but the rise in poverty has pushed more and more of them out of school and into the labour market, or early marriage in the case of girls. They are also often the children who have not been reached by distance-learning opportunities. Really, it’s the greatest reversal of education in many generations.

“We didn't have a cohesive plan on refugee education before. And now, when we desperately need one for recovery, it's not there.”

Kevin Watkins, CEO, Save the Children UK.


Name: Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE).
Founding philanthropist: Abdulla Al Ghurair.
Chairman: Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair.
Located: Dubai, UAE.
Established: in 2015, with funding of around $1.1bn.
Focus: unlocking the potential of underserved, high-achieving Arab youth through access to education.
Programme areas: scholarships, online learning, skills development, mentorship and career support.
Pandemic response: In April 2020, AGFE launched its Covid-19 Online Learning Emergency Fund to support 6,000 at-risk learners in Jordan and Lebanon. Grants from the fund were used to provide students with access to the internet, laptops and tablets, as well as digital content and online tutoring, delivered through local providers.

The initiative formed part of the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund, which was launched in 2018 to help refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, in addition to conflict-affected youth in the UAE, gain access to education.

AGFE funds a number of organisations that support the education of refugees. How have they – and you – responded to the frontline challenges of Covid-19?
SBJ: Our partners are the boots on the ground, and the first thing they did was a rapid needs assessment. Pre-pandemic, I think only two or three of our partners offered learning with an online component. Because if you look at the kinds of populations we work with through the Refugee Education Fund, the idea that these children would have a device each, or even internet access, is just incorrect.

They very quickly came back to us to say: "Ok, we need to find some low, or even no-broadband learning solutions. We also need to get data packs and devices out to these families, because they just don’t have them."

In some cases, there were no solutions to the problems, and that meant doing things differently and redesigning programmes. I am thinking in particular of Luminus Education in Jordan, who – in addition to transitioning their courses online – actually drove out to students in rural areas, to hand out devices and data bundles to them. That’s the kind of rapid response you can only receive from organisations on the ground.

Did you pivot your funding in response to feedback from grantees?
SBJ: Yes. As a donor, it's our job to trust our partners and to help move financing quickly and efficiently, so they can do their job. That was key.

Some of the feedback we’ve received now, several months in, is that it made a huge difference to partners being able to come back to us and say: "We can’t deliver on that aspect of our grant, but if you can let us move and repurpose the money, we can do this instead." That approach has been incredibly important in making sure the partnership continues to work for the beneficiaries.

“As a donor, it's our job to trust our partners and to help move financing quickly and efficiently, so they can do their job.”

Sonia Ben Jaafar, CEO, AGFE.

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Lockdowns in response to Covid-19 left more than 1.5 billion children worldwide out of school. Credit: Getty Images; Panos.

How would you characterise the global response, in terms of reaching refugees with education?
KW: I would say it’s been weak to non-existent. Very few countries have developed Covid-19 action plans for education that extend to refugees. There have been some initiatives – the Global Partnership for Education has done a bit more, the World Bank has done a bit more. But no-one has stood up and provided leadership for refugees globally, to say the international community will stand behind you and get you back into learning.

We didn't have a cohesive plan on refugee education before. And now, at a time when we desperately need one for recovery, it's not there.

In the absence of a unified response, what do you see as the most pressing challenges?
KW: We don’t have a full picture in terms of data, but I think it’s safe to assume well over half of refugees are currently not in a learning environment. So one obvious challenge is that these children need to be reached – whether through distance learning, radio learning, mobile libraries, or other options.

Secondly, beyond any focus on the classroom, refugees are living the reality of deepening poverty and worsening malnutrition. Hungry children do not make for good learners, so there is a poverty crisis that needs to be addressed.

Finally, and this is a point that is much neglected, many of these children have been traumatised. This is the age of impunity, frankly, for committing crimes against children in war. We’ve seen it in Syria, we’ve seen it in South Sudan. These are children who often need trauma counselling to be able to learn.

Responding to these areas – we know it’s not necessarily rocket science. But it does need cohesive planning, financial commitment and political will. And all of these elements have been lacking, in my view.

SBJ: To look at the challenges holistically, we have 80 percent of refugees living on $3 a day in Jordan and Lebanon, according to UNHCR. There's a disproportionate effect on refugee children, particularly the most marginalised, which includes girls, working children and those with disabilities. It also highlights the cultural barriers at play. We see a higher risk of male dropouts; child marriage is rising again among girls – these are issues that are just piling on and on.

We need to think broadly. When you speak about refugees, I think it’s less than 2 per cent that go on to higher education. Of those that win the lottery and get a degree, they may not have access to employment in the places where they live. So for us, it’s not just about their getting an education – we also need to create pathways to elevated livelihoods, because that can be gamechanging for families and communities. Education is a piece of a much wider puzzle.

How do you build an end-to-end development response?
SBJ: We need cohesion between global and regional partners, and the private sector, and to bridge the gaps between education systems and labour markets. We need corporates to get on board with hiring refugees, and to acknowledge that if they are genuinely committed to achieving the SDGs [sustainable development goals], they need to act. We need everyone to have a seat at the table – governments, corporates, donors, NGOs – and to listen to the voices we are trying to serve.

We also need to see public education systems brought into the fold, because we want to see refugees included in national education systems for their own protection.   

Has the pandemic presented any opportunities when it comes to scaling access to digital learning?
KW: It’s tempting to hunt out silver linings, but I would be cautious against over-egging the value of tech solutions to the education crisis. I find I am often bombarded with what purport to be great ideas – a Silicon Valley-designed app that promises to enable every refugee to become literate, for example. But that’s just not how education works. The relationship between the teacher, school, community and child is so important, and solutions tend to work when you really engage with a community to understand what is possible, and what the needs are.

What I would say is that we, and many others, have demonstrated in a micro way what is possible. Our Tree [Transforming Refugee Education towards Excellence] programme, for example, focuses on training teachers to improve the quality of learning and learning outcomes. It has a strong multiplier effect, because a teacher might be connected to 30 or 40 children, and – with online learning and support from national authorities – it’s something you can take to scale.

SBJ: I think the pandemic has highlighted that some ideas were held back because decision-makers weren’t ready to put their money into the use of IT as a tool. Equally, it has shown that access to broadband is a regulatory issue that needs attention – IT can’t be the only solution when so many don’t have access to the digital space. But where that has been taken seriously, it has the potential to work well.

Of the responses that we feel could be scaled, all are programmes that have been built on the ground for the communities they serve. The copy-paste approach does not work in educational development, because the culture, access to resources and context is so different in each location.

Grassroots solutions are driven by local partners – organisations that are often overlooked by global donors. Will Covid-19 change that dynamic?
KW: I think we all remember the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, where the Grand Bargain made a commitment to put more money from donors into the hands of local responders. But donors put so many obstacles in the way of this happening. The reason so much money goes through UN agencies and international NGOs, is that donors want to transfer the risk elsewhere. As a result, the reporting requirements related to fiduciary risk are so complex, it’s impossible for local organisations to meet them. We talk about decolonising aid and decolonising development. but this is what is obstructing it.

We all have a role to play in solving this, Save the Children included. We need to do more.

“There’s still a perception that Covid-19 is a public health crisis, but it is an education crisis that is going to leave deep, scarring effects on children.”

Kevin Watkins, CEO, Save the Children UK.

What role can donors play in restructuring how funding is allocated?
SBJ: I think there are several aspects. Firstly, we can strengthen the capacity for community innovation, and galvanise support for programmes we feel are working. We can also be less bureaucratic, and work to build capacity among our grantees. Where we can help to raise reporting standards, or their approach to grant proposals, we should. We should also make decisions quickly and move money to support our partners.

Secondly, when we come to the table to talk to the World Bank, or to UNHCR, or to other donors, we can use our influence to be a voice for our partners who are on the ground. We can bring them into the fold.

Locally we’re also seeing a rise in pooled funding, and collective action. We launched the Global Muslim Philanthropy Fund with UNICEF and the Islamic Development Bank, and KS Relief has just joined us. There will be funding going to three projects, in Jordan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, so we’re hoping to see more of this kind of joint action.

KW: Some of the best philanthropy acts as the equivalent of a venture capital arm. It takes risks, it has an appetite for failure, and it is focused on high returns – albeit not profits. The best philanthropy grounds innovation in the problems expressed by the community it’s serving.

Advocacy of what works is also vital. If you think of the funding system as a series of levers and pulleys, philanthropic money itself is not a small lever, but it is also connected to much bigger pulleys. The World Bank, for example, sits upon very large amounts of funding that could be mobilised for projects that have been demonstrated to work. This combination of evidence with effective advocacy is very powerful.

How else can the educational needs of refugee youth be met?
KW: This goes back to the international response on education, which has been shambolic. There’s still a perception that Covid-19 is a public health crisis, but it is an education crisis that is going to leave deep, scarring effects on children. We know that when you leave the poorest children out of school for six months, it can result in long-term learning loss. There is no rewind button. Yet, really no new or additional money has gone into education recovery globally.

We are campaigning for major players to be doing what they should have been a year ago, as part of a global agenda for education recovery that includes refugees. That means cash transfers to reduce poverty. It means ensuring children are properly nourished. It means learning assessments and accelerated learning programmes. We believe just over $50bn in investment is needed to achieve this.

What would you like to see emerge in 2021, in response to these points?
KW: My hope is that in the course of this year, we’ll see a global education recovery plan in which refugees feature prominently. I don’t mean rhetorical statements at the G7 or the G20 – which, unless backed by financing and a coordinated effort, are hot air. Secondly, I feel we live in a world that has become increasingly hostile to refugees, and we need to acknowledge that the provision of education and other services to refugees is a global public good and responsibility. And we all have a role to play in building that ethos.

SBJ: The reality is, we have protracted refugee crises. It’s no longer an emergency response situation, but a long-term response that is needed. Unless we start to address it in that way, it will affect us all in a very negative way. I’d like to see the Middle East acknowledged as absorbing much of the detrimental and economic impact of these refugee crises, and to see the OECD countries step up.

Take Lebanon: a country with one of the highest per capita of refugees. When you’re trying to absorb them into a public education system that is already so strapped, why isn’t the international donor community helping?

I’d also like to see acknowledgment that some rights cannot be monetised. If we are saying that digital learning and spaces are the solution – and it needs to be, if we anticipate future conflicts and other disruptions – the focus must be on how we make these accessible to all. That’s how we’ll build resilient solutions. – PA