Countries which have been through deep trauma and crisis caused by violence and war need to prioritise conflict-sensitive approaches to education, an international meeting heard earlier this month.
The High-Level Symposium on Conflict-Sensitive Education took place at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and ended with a joint declaration emphasising the importance of such approaches for countries’ long term recovery from conflict. I attended as part of my own research work on the role of education in promoting reconciliation following violent inter-group conflict.
Speakers talked about how education, although central to countries’ development, receives much less funding and attention than health which has more immediate results. The event also served to launch a new set of tools to help educators working in conflict-riven societies and to share good practice on integrating conflict-sensitivity in education systems.
Co-organised by UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) and the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE), the event attracted 250 international participants, including over 100 delegates representing national Ministries of Education, UN agencies, national and international research institutions, funding agencies and NGOs active in the field of education in conflict-affected and fragile contexts.
Quality, safe education
Opening statements by INEE members underscored the need of children and young people for quality, equitable, relevant and safe education and emphasised that conflict-sensitive approaches to education contributes to peace-building in important ways: “frustrated youth” can be constructively engaged; resilience can be built in states, economies and communities; and conflict and fragility can be mitigated. Panel discussions centred on “Building peaceful societies in a post-2015 world” and “National initiatives and plans to develop conflict-sensitive education policies and programmes”.
In the first panel, Qian Tang, Assistant Director General of Education at UNESCO, emphasised that education is a pillar for all development goals. He drew attention, however, to two oversights in international development cooperation concerning the immediate and longer-term importance of education. First, educational responses in post-disaster and post-conflict situations should be immediate, but humanitarian budgets allocate very little towards education. Mr Tang observed that the international community still does not recognise how important education is to post-crisis recovery.
Second, the value of education is not merely technical but civic. The ultimate objective of education is not to read and write in Mr. Tang’s words, but to raise responsible citizens who respect human rights and can live peacefully with other cultures. The second panellist, Carol Bellamy, former Executive Director of UNICEF and current Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Partnership for Education, underscored the importance of pursuing post-2015 education goals in an integrative manner. She pointed to the tendency among the international community to “pick low-hanging fruit”, meaning getting children into schools without looking at the broader and deeper needs in the education sector. She claimed that a mood of “complacency” has overtaken the international community with regards to education, as evidenced by the levelling off of financial investment. Unlike public health interventions, such as immunisation programmes whose value-for-dollar is easy to prove, educational investment is a longer-term process and is harder to assess. She called upon humanitarian and development sectors to collaborate more deliberately for the sake of increasing the quality of educational investment in post-crisis settings.
Between panels, Maria Lucia Uribe, Coordinator of the INEE Working Group on Education and Fragility, launched the INEE Conflict-Sensitive Educational toolkit, explaining its structure, contents and purposes. It includes a Guidance Note which introduces key concepts related to conflict-sensitive education; offers strategies for implementing programmes and policies in a conflict-sensitive manner; features conflict analysis activities and tools; and offers case studies on the application of conflict-sensitivity in education from Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Colombia. A Reflection Tool provides a comprehensive framework of questions for reflection on the interaction between conflict and educational policies and programmes, and opportunities for conflict-sensitivity and peace-building in intervention planning. It is designed to aid the integration of conflict sensitivity at all stages of the educational project cycle: assessment, design, implementation/management, monitoring and evaluation.
Martha Hewison from Save the Children UK then shared her organisation’s experience piloting the tools for conflict-sensitive education in several countries, including Somalia, Mali and South Sudan. Lessons learned from field-testing were used by the Working Group to refine the tools.
In the second panel, case studies on the provision of conflict-sensitive education in conflict-affected and fragile contexts were offered by the Minister of Education of Palestine Lamis Alami, the Minister of Education of Liberia Etmonia Tarpeh, and the Minister of Education of Mali Bocar Moussa Diarra. In Liberia, for example, the Minister explained that due to the country’s long history of armed violence, there is widespread trauma among teachers and students. In her words, children are exposed to violence, “antisocial activity” and “negative values” from an early age, resulting in them “involuntarily” and prematurely becoming adults. In such a context, she said, the challenge before the education sector is “huge”. She said the need for peace-building and state-building in Liberia was paramount. In this context, the involvement of UNESCO in the training of 1,300 teachers and the delivery of a values-based education curriculum sponsored by the government of Japan has been a welcome step forward. The Minister concluded her remarks by stating Liberia’s need to “restore dignity and sanity to the education sector for the benefit of the next generation”.
Challenges raised by delegates included the need for greater attention to the longer-term psychosocial impacts of mass violence on communities and the need for more attention to the substance of education in post-conflict and fragile societies. The representative of the permanent mission of Algeria to UNESCO, Professor Noureddine Toualbi-Thaalibi, cited the largely unaddressed psychosocial damage resulting from Algeria’s history of violent conflict. As in other violence-affected countries, he explained that the symptoms of the destructiveness of violence are not fully evident in the immediate post-crisis phase; rather, they emerge over time. He argued that without systematic attention by the international community to the psychological reconstruction of children, youth and teachers, the achievement of other educational objectives in violence-affected societies will remain elusive. In response, panellist Carole Bellamy offered that “psychosocial issues are real” and that the traumatic impacts of violence “need to be kept in mind”.
The tools produced by the INEE on Conflict-Sensitive Education do indeed point to the importance of violence-prevention and psychosocial wellbeing of children, but at this stage make little reference to the importance of violence-recovery. Another important issue, raised by the Ambassador of Norway to UNESCO Tore Erikson, concerned the content of education. He acknowledged that while getting children to school in fragile contexts is a very challenging task, even more important is the substance of the education they receive once there. He asked what the implications of conflict-sensitive approaches to education are for such topics as the teaching of conflict histories, the design of language policies in divided societies, the uprooting of ideologies and the cultivation of tolerance.
The main programme was followed by a narrative concert by Peter Yarrow, former member of the American folk music group Peter, Paul and Mary which was actively involved in the American Civil Rights and Peace movements. Since 2000, Peter has dedicated much of his time to the organisation Operation Respect that offers programmes on bullying and violence prevention. Through the use of creative pedagogies, Operation Respect’s “Don’t Laugh At Me” programme cultivates empathy and solidarity among young people. Sharing songs and anecdotes from the programme’s experiences in Israel, Palestine and the United States, Peter drew attention to the critical importance of social and emotional learning as a key to community resilience and peace-building. In his words, educators should “nurture the hearts of children in non-political ways”.
Peter underlined that how students are taught is as important, if not more important, than what they are taught. The academic growth of children is impossible, he argued, if their fundamental social and emotional needs are neglected. It was an important reflection on which to end the event.
*Sara Habibi  is doing a PhD in Post-Conflict Reconciliation. Photo credit: Ambro and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.