Paying dividends: why we need to invest in education

As humanitarian crises morph into developmental dilemmas, Sonia Ben Jaafar says we need to think longer term and more holistically about how we respond.

The humanitarian sector is stretched to the limit. The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes has recently passed 100 million due to a toxic mix of conflict, natural disasters, economic instability, and hunger.

As governments and aid organisations scramble to help those in need year after year, it is time to ask: when do we stop addressing the haemorrhaging from a contextualised time-bound emergency and recognise that we are facing a developmental crisis? And how can we act differently to reboot our creaking system?

Covid-19, climate change, and now a war in Europe. The world is at a crossroads and how we act in the next 20 years will determine the shape of humanity to come.

The scale of the crises we are experiencing is so great that wealthy countries can no longer look the other way and ignore the suffering. Moreover, the supply shocks and weather events of the last two years have only intensified our awareness of how interconnected we are, exposing the dangers of unhealthy economies, and the vulnerability of supposedly healthy ones.

These complex problems need joined up solutions and at the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, one of the UAE’s leading philanthropic entities, we believe in just that.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) map out  pathways for how we can create a better future. At the Foundation we are prioritising: SDG4 (Quality Education), SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), and SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals).

Through the prism of these four SDGs, we have instigated programmes and partnerships focussing on young people in the Arab region, because investing now in the next generation will pay economic and social dividends for years to come.

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Being a refugee shouldn't shut young people off from education opportunities. Photo: James de Vile/Touchline.


The Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund, administered by AGFE, is closely focussed on Lebanon and Jordan. Both middle-income countries, they host the most refugees globally on a per capital basis, something that is putting enormous strain on their infrastructure, resources, and economies.

Our programmes cannot solve Jordan and Lebanon’s structural issues, but we can help the young people living there, especially those on the margins, such as refugees, by giving them access to education so that they can build their own futures.

One of the Foundation’s flagship projects is the Abdulla Al Ghurair Hub for Digital Teaching and Learning. Hosted within the American University of Beirut (AUB), the project is using technology to make university-level education possible for more than 1,000 students who would not otherwise be able to afford to attend in-person on campus and opening up new networks afforded by such a prestigious academic institution.

Another example of our future-focussed work is our partnership is with Unite Lebanon Youth Project (ULYP), a Lebanon-based non-profit. We are funding more than 300 young refugees to do courses that are designed specifically to equip learners with skills and qualifications required in the workplace.

This investment is already starting to pay off. ULYP, in partnership with Talent Beyond Boundaries, a US-based non-profit promoting labour mobility for refugees, has recently helped 27 young refugee graduates secure work as nurses in the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.

The Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund is also supporting the Software Engineering Factory (SEF), Lebanon’s leading tech training and job recruitment programme, to deliver intensive software programming bootcamps and then connect students to the labour market.

One recent SEF graduate is Ahmad, a Palestinian refugee, who has secured a job with France’s Daher Technologies. Now earning six times the average salary in Lebanon, Ahmad can start to think about building an independent future and hopes to support his family members with their education.

"The world is at a crossroads and how we act in the next 20 years will determine the shape of humanity to come."

These are just some examples of how AGFE is investing sustainably in the future of Arab youth, rather than just responding to the region’s immediate humanitarian crises.

As a community, we need to take human and social capital as seriously as we take capital investment and infrastructure. What good are shiny university buildings if there are no qualified teachers or students able to afford the fees to attend? And what good are graduates if their skills do not match what is required in the workplace?

Philanthropy has the power to work collaboratively with private organisations, academic institutions, government, and NGOs to explore innovative models that, if successful, can be taken to scale to create systems-wide change.

We need to stop disenfranchising individuals because they are refugees or on a low-income but rather look holistically at where the needs are. We must invest now - or pay the price for our neglect in the future. - PA