Education cannot wait

Armed conflict, climate-induced disaster, and forced displacement have disrupted the education of 222 million children globally. Yasmine Sherif outlines how philanthropy and partnerships can help.

With conflicts in the Middle East, Europe and Asia, massive displacement in South America, the spectre of famine in parts of Africa, and the truly horrifying impacts of the climate crisis, we are witnessing an unprecedented global education crisis.

This is threatening to unravel decades of social and economic gains, leave generations of resilient and smart young people behind, and create new pockets of political and social instability.

There are currently 222 million crisis-impacted children in need of education support. Of these, 78 million are out of school entirely and, worldwide, nearly two thirds of 10-year-olds are unable to read a simple text.

Failing to educate children perpetuates inter-generational cycles of poverty, hunger, displacement and violence. It derails our efforts to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and prevents us from building a more prosperous and peaceful world. In short, it fails us all. And yet, despite the stark level of needs, education in emergencies and protracted crises accounts for just 2% to 4% of overall global humanitarian funding.

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This school in the Ukrainian region of Donetsk was shelled and destroyed by Russian forces in July 2022. Photo: Iva Zimova/Panos Pictures.

Education Cannot Wait (ECW) is the United Nations’ global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises. We work through the multilateral system to increase the speed of responses in crises by connecting immediate relief and longer-term interventions through multi-year programming.

We prioritise partnerships to ensure there are quality education outcomes for refugees, internally displaced and other crisis-affected girls and boys, to ensure no one is left behind. We want to increase efficiency and end siloed responses.

Since its inception in 2016, ECW and its strategic partners – governments, donors, the private sector, philanthropic foundations, UN agencies, civil society organisations and other key partners – have mobilised more than $1.1bn.

This has directly supported nearly seven million children and adolescents, and an additional 31.2 million have been reached through the Fund’s Covid-19 response.

Across the globe, ECW’s innovative investments are providing a broad range of services for vulnerable refugee and displaced children in countries such as Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria, and South Sudan.

In the Middle East, meanwhile, holistic education supports are teaching girls and boys to read and write and providing safe learning spaces for children in protracted crises such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.

From early-childhood education to make-up classes for children that have missed out on years of schooling, these interventions comprise a broad range of supports. These include: protection and psychosocial services; teacher training; school feeding; improved learning outcomes; gender equality; disaster risk management; school administrative support; inclusion of refugees in national education systems; resource mobilisation; and systems strengthening.

“Private sector leaders have a chance to future-proof investments for decades to come, while also creating a legacy of great humanity.”

Rafat's story

A decade of conflict in Syria has devastated the country’s education system. According to the latest numbers from UNICEF, there are 2.4 million out-of-school children inside Syria, where one in three schools in the country can no longer be used because they have been either destroyed or damaged, or have been taken over for military purposes.

Among those affected is nine-year-old Rafat. Born into Syria’s war, he and his family have been shuttled from one displacement centre to another and, for several years, Rafat missed out on the protection, hope and opportunity of an education, and received little support for his visual impairment. Rafat is now back in a classroom thanks to an ECW-funded multi-year resilience program delivered in partnership with UNICEF.

To date, more than 290,000 children in Syria have benefitted from $48.5m from ECW for its Multi-Year Resilience Programme, First Emergency Response and Initial Investment responses. This money has trained some 6,000 teachers and administrators and paid for 1,900 classrooms to be built or rehabilitated.


ECW’s fundraising target to be able to reach 20 million children over the next four years.

At the 2022 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and Transforming Education Summit, ECW launched its Case for Investment and its 2023-2026 Strategic Plan. Through the #222MillionDreams campaign, we are seeking $1.5bn to directly reach 20 million children over the next four years.

ECW will also launch a first-of-its-kind Financing Observatory to track global financing flows to education in emergencies and protracted crises. The idea is to give governments and civil society access to transparent and high-quality data to help better inform how to fund and support the world’s most vulnerable children.

In February 2023, ECW and Switzerland will co-host the Education Cannot Wait High-Level Financing Conference. This will be co-convened with Germany, Niger, Norway, and South Sudan and take place in Geneva. You are all invited to support our #222MillionDreams campaign.

We hope this moment will provide world leaders in governments and private sector with the chance to follow the example of The LEGO Foundation, Germany, United KingdomUnited States and others in ensuring real results of which we can be proud and see massive return for every dollar we invest.

We look to every large company and every billionaire in the world to join us in ensuring every girl and boy on the planet can go to school and reach their full potential. This is good for business, good for the economy and good for all of humanity.

Private sector partners and philanthropic foundations such as The LEGO Foundation, Dubai Cares, Porticus, and Verizon are already stepping up. By joining them and investing in the education of the world’s most vulnerable children, private sector leaders have a chance to future-proof investments for decades to come, while also creating a legacy of great humanity.