We Need to Start Talking about Race, Power, and Privilege in the Education in Emergencies Sector

Jess Oddy ( she/her)
Equity-Centred Research and Action
7 min readNov 16, 2020


version française/ Espanol

‘Education in emergencies’ or EiE, is a fundamental part of any humanitarian response and aims to ensure uninterrupted quality learning opportunities for all ages in crises. For example, by April 2020, due to the pandemic, the world faced a global education emergency, with 91% of school-age children out of school due to school closures in 184 countries. The Education in Emergencies sector, to its credit, responded quickly, with tools, adapted programmes, reports, strategies, and advocacy campaigns to get children back into school (or to offer alternative modalities) as promptly as possible.

Yet, where was that energy in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, led predominantly by young people who took to the streets and social media amid a pandemic across the globe to force long overdue conversations around anti-Blackness, anti-racism, power, and privilege? In 2020, these conversations touched every industry, including the aid sector, as COVID-19 has laid bare and exacerbated inequalities, discrimination, and division. More than ever, education needs to be centred around racial equity, yet bar the INEE Statement on Anti-Racism and Racial Equity, released in October, there are few if any resources, articles, inter-agency working groups, or toolkits reflecting on how racism shows up in EiE.

Before the pandemic, those most likely to be excluded from education were disadvantaged due to language, location, gender, and ethnicity. Sriprakesh, Tikly, and Walker’s powerful article describe the silence or ‘erasure of racism’ as deeply entrenched in education and international development. While I recognise many examples where this field has broken barriers, advocated for inclusion, gender-sensitive pedagogy, multilingual classrooms, etc., EiE is complicit in this erasure. Despite most EiE interventions taking place in formerly colonised countries, along borderlands, hostile frontiers, and resettlement contexts where children become racialised or ‘othered’, rarely does the mention of racism feature in any advocacy, policy, research, or programmatic design.

Photo by Michael Simpson, BLM protest London 2020

The irony is that we are rooted in the premise of ‘education for all’, conflict sensitivity, and inclusion as a sector. Neither does this silence reflect the wider education sector, where, in recent years, the South African #Rhodesmustfall campaign has reignited conversations globally on the importance of Indigenous knowledge, culturally relevant pedagogy, the need to decolonise curriculums, and how colonial legacies, biases, racial and ethnic discrimination continue to exist and play out in classrooms, curricula, campuses, and teacher professional development.

EiE practitioners, academia, and stakeholders need to start having similar conversations because, even more so during a crisis, identity markers (such as language, socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, disability, childcare responsibilities, migration status, gender, sexuality, and age) intersect and influence access, meaningful participation, and education transition rates. This is evident from the World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE), where the data demonstrates disparities for different groups play an essential role in shaping opportunities for education and life. Whilst disaggregated data on educational experiences in humanitarian contexts is scarce, the Mastercard Secondary education for youth affected by humanitarian emergencies and protracted crisis is one of the few reports highlighting that ‘ethnic marginalisation, poverty, and level of urbanicity’ correlate with lower completion rates for conflict-affected countries.

As a researcher and practitioner, having data is vital if we want equitable education responses. Part of the issue is that we do not ask the questions. Or we mask the problem by using ambiguous language. For example, it is common to hear how refugees, asylum-seeking, and internally displaced children and families face ‘discriminatory policies and practices’ accessing education. Once in the classroom, they experience bullying by peers and teachers. Yet rarely is this named as racism. This is a critical oversight and impacts the way that we respond.

For example, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Resilience curriculums are increasingly integrated into EiE projects. Racism is a psychosocial stressor, and there is growing evidence that it impacts developmental trajectories and influences self-concept formation and well-being. Yet, often missing from SEL packages and toolkits, designed in distant HQs, are the larger socio-political contexts in which the emergency or humanitarian crises occurred. Why discuss self-and social awareness without considering power and privilege? Why teach relationship skills if the lessons do not reflect on the interpersonal conflicts that result from racism?

This must change. We have to start acknowledging contextually specific formations of racism, especially as ethnonationalism and ethnic strife underlie many of the major conflicts and disorders in the world today. We cannot underestimate that educational experiences are forming. As educator Jeff Duncan Andrade points out, failing to acknowledge, address, and respond to racial and ethnic classroom discrimination only aids and abets the social reproduction of inequality and exclusion.

An intersectional and racial equity lens needs to be applied throughout the project design cycle to mitigate this. All EiE practitioners and stakeholders need to be asking:

  • How often are local knowledge, expertise, and non-western educational theorists, pedagogies, and frameworks integrated and influential in how education services are designed, delivered, monitored, and evaluated?
  • How are political, historical, and cultural histories, biases, and positionalities reflected when designing curriculums, teacher professional development, policy, research and advocacy?
  • What does racial literacy mean in this context?
  • What is being unacknowledged and, therefore, inadequately addressed?
  • Are monitoring, evaluation, and research practices ethical, decolonial, or merely extractive?

Like the rest of the humanitarian sector, we also need a deep interrogation into our structures that produce inequalities. Hugo Slim argued earlier this year that racism is ‘ part of our reluctance to localise humanitarian action’. You only need to browse the websites of most INGOs or UN agencies working in this field, and it would be hard to find national organisations, community-led or refugee-led initiatives credited for their role in implementing education responses, despite being the most innovative EiE responders and often responsible for directly implementing the projects. As a sector, the focus on capacity building ‘their’ expertise and ‘competencies’ to manage projects that often partners have limited input into creating, without any acknowledgement that learning should be two-ways, is deeply problematic.

There have been many discussions this year about whether it is even possible to reform humanitarian aid, an industry where Structural racism- which refers to a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity is omnipresent. We aim to address “risk, vulnerability, marginalisation, and exclusion but still rely on reproducing the same destructive economic model that drives inequality, environmental destruction, and climate breakdown”.

As a Black mixed-heritage woman, this dichotomy is not lost on me. In EiE spaces, I’ve often been the ‘only one’ in the room. Living in London, one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet, I’ve felt angry and disappointed about the lack of diversity at INGO headquarters, in global inter-agency working groups, and at speaking panels at academic conferences like UKFIET and CIES. Whilst I do not feel like I have a seat at the table, I fully acknowledge that my dual heritage, being cisgender, non-disabled, with a British passport and English mother-tongue, gives me a foot in the door where quite frankly, thousands are routinely excluded- the very people whose ideas, perspectives and experiences would improve the way education is supported in some of the most complex humanitarian crises.

Our knowledge of the world we live in is situated historically and geographically; therefore, we cannot remain silent and non-reflective of our practices when issues of systemic racial and intersectional inequalities continue to be part of the societies and, therefore, the education systems where we work. This influences our partnership models, staff recruitment, retention and progression, teacher professional development, pedagogy, community engagement, and accountability mechanisms, shaping the classrooms and temporary learning spaces. For years, education has been one of the most neglected humanitarian sectors, with less than 2% of all funding going towards education in emergencies. Because there is so little investment in EiE, it is even more critical that what we do is fully accountable to affected populations. If we don’t, we perpetuate inequitable structures, institutions, and praxis, and the most marginalised people end up paying the life-long cost of education inequity.

The EiE sector has a tremendous opportunity — and a responsibility — to mobilise efforts to do the hard work of rooting out systemic racism. This will mean having some difficult conversations, reflecting, and readdressing our systems, structures, and approaches to strive for quality, inclusive truly, and protective learning environments.

If you have any thoughts, critical feedback, or interest in learning more about my research, please drop me an email at j.oddy@uel.ac.uk. Alternatively, please participate in an anonymised survey :

English: https://forms.gle/VkU9iep8sNF2qMEy9

French: https://forms.gle/Pugvadx1Ua7T7b9A7




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This is the course for you if you are looking for a new model for program design or action-orientated research to create radically inclusive, socially just projects and outcomes in service with diverse and affected communities.

Unlike conventional courses, the community-based group membership structures means that , in addition to weekly course modules, you will be provided with the theory, tools, and resources to embed socially- just, decolonial research and project design methods into your practice. You will have the opportunity to join a closed community of practice group to share resources, questions and network and access monthly guest speakers and support with your projects.

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To cite this blog:

Oddy, Jessica. “We Need to Start Talking about Race, Power, and Privilege in the Education in Emergencies Sector ”, 15th of November 2020, URL https://medium.com/@jlojlo/we-need-to-start-talking-about-race-power-and-privilege-in-the-education-in-emergencies-sector-51cf06ac202a

.Jess has spent the past decade working in the field of EiE. She is a PhD candidate at the University of East London. Her research focuses on diverse young people’s educational experiences in emergencies and whether contemporary practices of Education in Emergencies reinforce colonial legacies.



Jess Oddy ( she/her)
Equity-Centred Research and Action

Education in Emergencies Specialist. Academic Lecturer. Researcher (Critical Youth Action Research, Education, Forced Migration, and Digital storytelling).