Education in Emergencies: five critical points for shifting the power

An informal school for Syrian refugees in Beirut

Image Caption: An informal school for Syrian refugees in Beirut


Over the past 20 years, efforts to include education in humanitarian response, framed as Education in Emergencies (EiE), have been quite successful. However, EiE work and its conceptualisation are fraught with challenges. Arguably, there has been insufficient critique of the field. Here, we present five points of critique of education in emergency based on our research experience in Lebanon. In conclusion, we suggest ways forward to address these gaps.


Education and Humanitarianism: Conflicting Agendas 

Education is inherently a field with a long-term perspective focusing on the future. In contrast, humanitarian response primarily aims at saving lives in the immediate and short-term, with a limited view to the future. With conflicting agendas yet to be resolved, Education in Emergencies tend to become an oxymoron, particularly when its approach is adopted in long term refugee situations. The initial position of EIE in refugee crises was to teach the curriculum of the country of origin because the long-term perspective was repatriation (Sinclair 2002). However, with a growing realisation that most conflicts are protracted, there have been calls to shift towards a long-term perspective at the place of displacement, resulting in the adoption of the curriculum of the host country (UNHCR 2019). Yet, in this process, leading actors, like UN agencies, overlooked the social, political and economic sanctions applied on most refugees, such as limited access to formal employment and higher education. As a result, refugees end up suffering two layers of injustice: the first results from having to follow the curriculum of the host country which is often not in their native language, nor contextualised to be relevant to refugees’ lives, culture, history, and experiences. Secondly, they face injustice because they are being excluded from the right to participate socially, economically and politically.


Undefined Purpose

Critical reflections on the purpose of education have been largely absent in the emergency education approach (see also Dryden-Peterson 2019, Shuayb and Brun in press). Education in Emergencies often treat schooling as an unmitigated good, however, there is ample research that shows that educational attainment often fails to compensate for inherited social and political inequalities (Green et al. 2003, Shuayb and Brun, 2020). In a context where refugees are frequently denied their basic human rights, including economic, civic and social participation, there is a pressing need to discuss the objectives of education at the primary and secondary levels. In other words, there is a need to discuss which provisions can best help to tackle the injustices refugees face as a result of the legal and social constraints in host countries operating under the emergency paradigm. While the field of education research is bustling with debates on how to tackle power, curriculum, inequality and injustices, these debates have not included Education in Emergencies. Instead, we find emergency responses are more occupied with the technicalities of providing access to education, particularly schooling, rather than the long-term objectives and potential outcomes. This rather mechanical and technical approach to schooling of refugee children has been accompanied by an a-political stand on education and schooling where the focus is on access to education or in other words, a distributive understanding of equality and justice.


A reliance on a Distributive Concept of Justice

Amid this silence over the objectives of Education in Emergency and claims of neutrality, we see that the effort by UN agencies and INGOs who are active in the field have chosen to prioritise access to so-called ‘certified schooling’. The logic behind focusing on formal qualification is to create better opportunities for refugees in the host country in the context of protracted displacement. From this distributive concept of justice, emphasising access and outcomes rather than the root causes that currently causes inequality schooling, enrolment-rates are prioritised over the schooling experience and outcomes. For the sake of certification and accredited education, host country national education systems are favoured even when the research evidence shows high drop-out rates from formal education (Shuayb et al. 2014). In the case of Lebanon, this policy was used to justify segregating refugees in second shifts where they have to learn part of the Lebanese curriculum in a foreign language (Math and Sciences) which is often experienced as alienating and disempowering. To date, and after 10 years of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, such a policy has resulted in less than one percent of Syrian children making it to grade 9 in formal Lebanese public schools (PMU, 2019). Moreover, not only students are disempowered, but teachers from the refugee community are also excluded from participating in these educational provisions due to employment laws and because only national teachers are deemed to be qualified to teach the national curriculum of the host country. This contributes to the de-professionalisation and deskilling of teachers from the refugee communities.


Reproducing Unequal Power Dynamics

Knowledge production about refugees has for long been seen as a Euro-centric field that has emerged as a result of Europe’s concern about migration from its old colonies (Bhambra, 2017). In a similar vein, Education in Emergencies continues to reproduce unequal power dynamics and hegemonic relationships in both knowledge production and in education provision primarily by institutions in the global north. This is manifested in politicised relations, framed within mutual interest, between donors, UN agencies and host governments often at the expense of refugees’ interests (Shuayb, 2020).

The Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) may be taken as an example that reflects the unequal power dynamics. In close association with the humanitarian sector, the network has succeeded in advocating to include education as part of any humanitarian response and has largely informed the discourse in this field. However, analysis of the network, its research and activities shows that this close association has helped to maintain what has been called ‘western humanitarianism’ (Fiori, 2018). There is a clear north-south distinction in the network’s engagements and refugees in the global north hardly feature in the focus of the network as the prime subject is refugees in the global south. There is currently an imbalance in the power dynamics of the network manifested in its bylaws which state that in order to be a member of its steering committee, a subscription of 10,000 USD is required (INEE 2016, p.4), a fee which is potentially unaffordable by many members or organisations in the global south. Moreover, the composition of INEE staff and committee members is a representative example of the current humanitarian system: predominantly based in the global north, their subject of research and activities are situated in the global south. Finally, as a core provider of knowledge in EiE, its publication are more often than not authored by scholars with institutional affiliation in the global north and including the editorial board of the Journal of Education in Emergencies.

In its 2018-2023 strategy, INEE committed to addressing “social, inequity, power imbalance, and lack of diverse representation in our staffing…”(INEE, 2018). The present moment, with more emphasis on diversity, localisation and decolonisation, represents an opportunity to begin shifting the power. The mechanisms identified to achieve this, however, are currently focused on the locations of the events and membership without addressing the power dynamics in its board, steering committees, staffing or bylaws. With more and more voices calling for decolonisation of knowledge production and global north-south collaborations and relationships, it is critical that commitment to this agenda goes beyond tokenistic steps and address structural and unstructural systems that reproduce the same inequalities.

Overall, the successful Education in Emergency initiative, has become an integrated part of the power dynamics of western humanitarianism which is largely governed by the interests and funding from governments in the global north – themselves  hostile towards receiving refugees and keen to keep them in the global south (Shuayb, 2020). As we found in our research, these power dynamics have further weakened refugee community agency and initiatives as the majority of funding goes to governments of host countries often under the title of ‘localisation’, ‘development’ and ‘systems strengthening’.


Reification of Refugees’ Education and Knowledge Production

Research on education of refugees has largely been disconnected from the larger field of the education discipline. In the field of education, refugees are systematically treated as a unique phenomenon and as a problem to be resolved (Stein, 1981) or a special “Brand” (Al Hassan, 2016). EiE has contributed to this reification by focusing on refugees in the global south, while studies of refugee education in the global north are more concerned with integration into the general national school system. In our research, we have found that treating refugees as an exceptional category in education tends to overlook the inherited inequalities of the educational system which marginalises both refugees and other groups based on race, gender, disability and ethnicity. While a substantial body of research exists on inequality in education (Apple, 2010, Ball, 2017, Bourdieu and Passeron 1977, Giroux, 1985), the literature on EiE is disconnected from it: a review of the key policy documents published by UNHCR and INEE shows that this body of literature is largely overlooked. Drawing parallels and bridges between these two strands (education inequalities and refugee education in EIE) can provide answers to many of the challenges that face education of refugee children and other marginalised groups such as access to pre-school, language provisions, early selection and tracking, access to second chance education, curriculum, acculturation and dropout levels (Crul et al 2019a; Crul et al 2019b).


Way Forward: Shifting the Power

There are fundamental challenges facing Education in Emergencies when crises become protracted. There is no easy way out due to the political interests that often drive decisions, funding and policies for refugees. Yet, refugee groups, education scholars, and practitioners and policy makers can contribute substantially to addressing some of the critique and gaps identified here. With a new wave of discussions on localisation, decolonisation and representation, this is the time to seize the opportunity. First, by engaging critically and reflexively with the objectives and the desired outcomes of education programmes for refugees and the aspired processes and outcomes, such engagement  would help  to establish the purpose of education not only for refugees or in contexts of mass displacement, but for all marginalised communities.

Second, a different temporal logic than the humanitarian framing must be taken account of when planning education for refugees in order to challenge the current dominance of the principle of distributive justice. Moving towards a concept of justice that addresses inequalities in both refugee and host communities could pave the way for better education experiences, in schools or other teaching and learning spaces and outcomes.

Third, the nation state framework means that often the host country can put a restraint on the education provisions for refugees. While having an accredited formal education can open different future paths for refugees, the legal restraints by the nation state limit these opportunities. One way of shifting power in favour of refugee communities is by creating education provisions that transcend the nation state, for example by instituting what already exists for non-refugees such as International Baccalaureate (Shuayb and Brun in press). An international framework could secure equal access for refugees to quality and holistic education and, at the same time, enable refugees’ improved participation and influence in the provision of education. The global curriculum framework may be available for local pupils if the host country agrees to accredit it.

Our final point is that in order to shift existing power relations, more egalitarian and participatory networks are needed that can enable meeting points where refugee- and host communities, research- and practice communities in the global south and north are equally weighted. Creating platforms where stakeholders, including refugees and host communities reflect on the purpose of education, its quality, relevance, content, delivery but more importantly can advocate to change and improve current education provisions for refugees more in line with the interest of refugees rather than the international humanitarian or community and donors would be the first step towards effective participation and representation.


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