Chalk and blackboards spell C-H-A-N-G-E in aid priorities

by Alex Klaushofer | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 21 November 2008 15:12 GMT

"Emergency development" may sound like an oxymoron, but there are signs the traditional distinction between development and relief work is breaking down, both in policy and practice.

Last month the Sphere Project Â? the body responsible for setting minimum standards in the humanitarian stalwarts of food aid and shelter Â? endorsed minimum education standards created by the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE).

The shift is partly due to years of campaigning by INEE, a network of humanitarians and educationalists who have been trying to get education accepted as an integral part of the humanitarian response to crises.

The campaign has been battling a deeply rooted if understandable tendency to see education as something to be provided once societies have recovered from conflict or natural disaster, a kind of development luxury more appropriate to a period of peaceful rebuilding than the post-disaster phase of meeting people's immediate physical needs.

But a few agencies have been going against the grain for some time, arguing that in the aftermath of a disaster education can provide children with safe places and a much-needed sense of normalcy, as well as developing skills and a sense of community that will contribute to reconstruction in the longer term.

In its report Delivering Education in Emergencies, Save the Children highlights the vast numbers of children who lose their education to humanitarian disasters - on average 750,000 each year.

And the United Nationals Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) doesn't pull its punches in criticising those who fail to realise that education, as a fundamental right, must be part of the humanitarian response.

"Some donors and field staff of humanitarian agencies do not recognise yet the urgency of restoring access to education to children affected by crisis," its strategy statement says.

"Children cannot be stored like tents or blankets, awaiting an end to war and conflict before beginning or resuming their education; this is the recipe for a 'lost generation', who have identified themselves with conflict and seek the earliest opportunity to take up arms against their perceived enemies."

According to the Sphere Project, bringing education into the humanitarian family is a sign of the growing recognition within the aid world of education's importance in rebuilding lives shattered by natural disaster or conflict.

"In real life, the separation between relief and development is not that straightforward," says Veronica Foubert, Sphere's senior training officer. "If you understand the humanitarian charter in a holistic way, it's difficult to separate."

While their decision has met with a lot of positive feedback, she adds, tactfully, that "there's still some work to be done" in transforming attitudes across the sector.

And the real measure of change, she goes on, will be on the ground. "It's how that policy translates into real practice," she says.

As an organisation that has been including education as part of its emergency response in its core commitments to what it will do in an emergency for a decade, UNICEF knows exactly what the benefits can be.

"If you ask children and parents where their priorities are in emergencies, they ask for education," says UNICEF's senior education adviser, Ellen Van Kalmthout. "They prioritise education. It provides stability, interaction, structure. It really stabilises the situation for children and also communities."

Nor does setting up schools in disaster areas require a lot of resources. "The important thing is not the building," she says. "It's about children being together, learning and interacting."

UNICEF's "school in a box" and "school in a rucksack" contain enough for a teacher and class to get on with a lesson anywhere, with basic supplies such as blackboard, pens and notebooks.

As a relative newcomer to the humanitarian scene, Afghan Connection is perhaps less hidebound by the sector's traditional mores. Since starting up six years ago, the charity has, with partner the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, established more than 30 schools for around 26,000 children in the conflict-ridden country.

Founder Sarah Frane is convinced that education is vital, even when continuing instability disrupts classes and the Taliban try to shut down schools in areas they dominate.

As well as providing children with much-needed survival skills and hope for their day-to-day lives, she sees education as a way of enhancing the prospects for building a peaceful country in the longer term.

"Girls go back and teach the children," she says. "A more educated population is not going to want to have fighting."

She rejects the traditional idea that education is a kind of humanitarian add-on that can take place only once a country has stabilised.

"It's got to go on all the time," she says. "We can't say 'we'll concentrate on education once we've got security'. We'll have an issue with security for years to come."

The clear-cut distinction between relief and development is also breaking down in other areas.

EMERGENCY MICROCREDIT

Recent research from the

Feinstein International Centre, a university department that provides training in humanitarian aid, argues that microcredit programmes generally seen as part of development are a legitimate way of providing humanitarian relief to medium and long term refugees.

"In protracted situations, programs that resemble those used in development settings, such as microcredit, could be more appropriate than traditional relief-based ones," argues report author Karen Jacobsen.

It's a view that has already taken concrete form in the West Bank and Gaza, where the United Nations Relief and Works Agency(UNRWA) has for decades provided education to the world's longest-standing refugees.

In recent years, aid agencies have started to offer microcredit programmes as part of the delicate network of services that help people living with conflict to keep going. And when underdevelopment turns to emergency, such projects can really come into their own.

Last year, as the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip plunged to new depths, deputy commissioner-general of UNRWA defended the use of microcredit programmes as part of the relief effort.

"By continuing to support micro-enterprises in difficult political and economic times, UNRWA is making a commitment toward survival, recovery and transition," said Filippo Grandi.

His comments signal a recognition that survival is about more than just food and shelter, and that the best humanitarian responses promote human dignity too.

But ironically, just as policy and practice on the relief/development distinction is starting to change, the realities of global politics and economics may serve to entrench traditional thinking.

According to the United NationsÂ? IRIN news service, experts fear that the greater pressure put on aid budgets by the current financial crisis, development funding will suffer with most resources going to emergency response.

But UNICEF pledges that no financial crisis will diminish its commitment to education in emergencies.

"We would always continue to include education in aid even in the current situation," says Kalmthout. "It's not something that we will give up."

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