Education in emergencies

Blue banner with the words Think Education: Facing the learning crisis in eastern and Southern AfricaChildren, adolescents, and youth in emergency contexts face numerous challenges in accessing and obtaining a quality education.

In the ongoing global quest to find ‘New Ways of Working’ that bridge humanitarian action, development, peace and security, a focus on supporting learners is needed. How can learning acquired during conflict, crisis, or displacement be validated over the longer-term and across different regions?

So far, this has involved strategies to:

  • Ensure access to national education systems through flexible ID/documentation requirements for refugees, internally displaced persons and returnees
  • Facilitate access to national examinations
  • Develop regional and national policies to recognize learners’ qualifications (recognition, validation, equivalence)
  • Digitally capture and share student learning (in alignment with national systems requirements).

Teachers working in crisis and displacement contexts face numerous challenges. Refugee teachers face the reluctance of ministries of education to provide teacher education and recognize related credentials obtained prior to and during displacement. Strategies for recognizing and validating teachers’ experience include:

  • Working with national authorities to establish teachers’ professional development and certification pathways
  • Engaging in regional/cross-border discussions and agreements to recognize and validate teacher education and training
  • Influencing policies around work permits and compensation.
  • Children holding a banner and marching outdoors.
    © UNICEF/UN0230786/ElringtonChildren hold up a banner promoting a back-to-school initiative set up by UNCEF in partnership with USAID and World Relief. The school in New Fangkak was destroyed during the recent fighting and the campaign is calling for children to come back to the temporary schools. UNICEF Rapid Response Mission (RRM) to New Fangkak, Jonglei State, South Sudan

Additionally, more support to ministry officials, district officers, and teacher educators is needed. It is important to:

  • Engage education authorities (at national, district, and other levels) in strategy and policy development
  • Engage other relevant actors (Ministries of Finance, Labour, Interior) to ensure multi-Ministry understanding and participation
  • Collaborate with teacher educators, teacher training institutes and colleges to inform teacher professional development activities and vice versa.

To bridge the gap for learners, teachers and system actors, coordination within and across the humanitarian and development nexus is imperative. This continues to be challenging, but the following efforts can accelerate change:

  1. Building shared and complementary skills across humanitarian and development education specialists.
  2. Adjusting institutional ways of working: for example, harnessing local education groups to secure policy agreement
  3. Generating and sharing more coherent data and evidence-among diverse actors for both humanitarian action and development responses.

It is also vital to reflect and plan together to strengthen education. The following provides guiding questions for education specialists working in different humanitarian and development organizations to reflect on.

Learners and teachers 

  • What decisions or decision-making frameworks can be made to ensure recognition and transferability of learning and/or training attained during displacement?
  • How can humanitarian, development, and national actors proactively engage in discussions about teacher management, recruitment, and compensation that establish plans for increased and sustainable financial support for teachers?
  • When and how can national education authorities best lead or be centrally involved in these discussions?
  • What type of cross-border/regional support for teaching and learning certification can be provided? Who is best placed to oversee those linkages?
  • How can technology support recognition of learning and training across borders?
Children in the ruins of a building.
© UNICEF/UNI122455/GrarupChildren play on the ruins of a building, in Badbado, the largest camp for displaced people in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.

Education system actors

  • How can we swiftly assess capacities and the political will of education authorities and potential partners? Who can help education specialists develop relationships and move discussions forward?
  • How can we support education authorities to examine and share the challenges and the opportunities within their education system?
  • What role(s) could teacher educators working in teacher training colleges/institutes play in supporting short- and long-term education support? How could capacity building strengthen their work? What knowledge and skills can they provide to other international/national actors?

Education specialists

  • What kind of capacity building do education specialists (and other colleagues) need to work more effectively with national actors?
  • How are you/your organization engaging local individuals, organizations, or communities in education planning processes for the short- and long-term?
A girl in a school classroom.
© UNICEF/UN0306592/DenicholasYouth from Maaji II settlement undergoing an orientation on vocational school training in Uganda. The school offers them a chance to build a skill set they can use to make a living. The activity was organised by Danish Refugee Council, with support from UNICEF and funding from the David Beckham Foundation through the UK National Committee for UNICEF.


  • What internal and external barriers (structures, policies, practices need addressing to better connect education planning to humanitarian and development work? How can we advocate and/or develop action plans to make these changes?
  • What types of partnerships will facilitate collaboration and exchange of skills and expertise? How can we incentivize partners engage to build capacity and strengthen systems transparently, inclusively, and in a participatory process?
  • How can you/your institution more effectively include humanitarian-development work at cluster and/or other education working group meetings?

Data and evidence

  • How can your organization collect, manage, and share education data?

There are still many improvements to be made, but collaborative and concerted action by education specialists working across the humanitarian-development nexus, and with key partners, will go far in improving the situation and supporting learners, teachers, and education system actors in their future pursuits.

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Mary Mendenhall is an Associate Professor of Practice and the Director of the International and Comparative Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. Professor Mendenhall’s work examines refugee education and teacher management policies and practices in camp, urban, and resettlement contexts.



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