Education Cannot Wait Platform: Four ingredients for success

When I visited Lebanon in 2013, the country and humanitarian actors within it were reeling from the surge of refugees entering the country. In that year alone, the Syrian refugee population grew from 130,799 to 804,848, and by April 2014, it exceeded one million, the largest refugee population per capita in the world. Lebanon’s ministry of education was spending serious resources to absorb refugee children into a two-shift education system with Lebanese students attending in the morning and Syrian students attending in the afternoon. Because they were only reaching a few thousand of the hundreds of thousands of children in need, international NGOs, UNICEF, UNHCR and national actors were scrambling to provide additional educational opportunities for children.

We all hoped the threat of a “lost generation” would finally inspire real change in the aid community, which continued to see education as a luxury only available to children lucky enough to live in peaceful places.

Three and a half years later, the education landscape in Lebanon is noticeably different. Many more public schools have opened their doors; refugee children are allowed to register in school even if they don’t have formal documents from Syria; and recognized accelerated learning programs are in place for children who have missed years of schooling.

But other things are getting worse. Many families, for many reasons, are unable to enroll their children in public schools — because they live too far from a school and have no transportation, because they have been forced to move around Lebanon to find work and cheaper housing, or because they fear their children will be unsafe at school.

Community and private schools have cropped up to complement the formal system and reach these children, but the ministry of education and others have concerns about the quality of these approaches. Instead of putting in place standards and partnering with trusted providers, policy makers are increasing restrictions on the type of education that providers can offer outside of the formal school system. Community-based and NGO educators are being told they are not allowed to offer education outside the public system and have gone underground.

I saw the consequences when I was in Lebanon last week. There is little to no data and transparency about anything other than the number of public schools and kids enrolled in them. We know less and less about how many children are out of school, where they are located, the services available to them and whether and at what cost any of these services (including the second shift) are delivering quality, safe education.

This is why I’m ambivalent about the long awaited announcement that there will be a new “Education Cannot Wait Platform” announced next week in Istanbul. After months of research, consultation and planning, this platform has the opportunity to be a model for the wider reforms needed in the humanitarian system.

While I share the excitement that new funds will be directed to education, the leaders of the platform must change the current rhetoric from the need for more aid to the need for better aid. More specifically, they must commit to:

1. An unyielding drive and demand for specific outcomes. Today, success in education is indicated simply by the numbers of children reached, teachers trained, materials delivered. Counting children and books tells us nothing about the quality of education we are all delivering for children. The platform has the opportunity to set a new standard for what success looks like by defining realistic, short and long-term outcomes and consistent metrics and benchmarks for children’s attendance, learning and safety.

2. Resources to grow the evidence base in education. Coordinating assessments and improving data systems to demonstrate education needs are important emphases in the platform’s functions. But the platform needs to do more than this if it aspires to generate evidence that investors, governments and practitioners can use to make decisions and show the world that it has effectively improved educational outcomes for children in crisis. The platform and its funders must be explicit that they will invest only in evidence-based programs when they exist, and in generating evidence when it doesn’t exist. This means devoting platform staff and resources to developing a coherent evidence agenda for education, and committing a proportion of funds to uncover the relative effectiveness of different approaches to quality education in crisis settings.

3. “Open the books” on education spending. One of the most important and challenging problems this platform aims to solve is about scale: the sheer number of children — at least 80 million in 2015 — whose education has been interrupted by conflict and crisis is staggering. More funding is certainly needed to reach them, but equally important is demonstrating how additional funding is used and can be maximized. The platform will be in a unique position to analyze costs — both cost efficiency and cost effectiveness — as well as create a common costing methodology so costs across implementers, including governments, NGOs and the UN, can be compared. Until we begin to capture and make public the relative costs of different services and to achieve different outcomes, we won’t be able to drive down costs and reach more children.

4. Transparency about the platform’s leadership structure and governance. The Global Education Monitoring report rightly pointed out in their blog last week that even the “world’s best professionals in education in emergencies… have very little understanding of how [the platform] will work, and how they can engage with it.” The political champions and donors considering contributing funds to the platform need to establish a clear, transparent process for determining representation on the platform’s senior governing bodies. Lack of transparency at the outset will weaken the platform’s credibility and threaten its goals to secure additional funds and build bridges within a fragmented system.

Consider the education landscape in Lebanon if these four commitments were a reality. Government and non-governmental providers of education would be resourced to achieve and make public the outcomes they are achieving for children. If outcomes aren’t being achieved, this would not be hidden; instead, new approaches would be tried and tested. Investors and providers would know the costs and effectiveness of different approaches, be able to use this information to make decisions, drive down costs and reach more children. Education would be open and outcome-driven, rather than secretive and driven by formalities and box ticking. Most importantly, the system would be working to constantly improve itself and demonstrate to parents that their children are receiving a quality education.

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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