Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Looking back, moving forward: the importance of history for our work today

15 November 2017

by Jo Kelcey, PhD candidate in International Education at New York University

A peculiar discord exists in the field of Education in Emergencies (EiE). We recognize the importance of history—we reference historical events in our needs assessments and strategies, and substantial attention has been paid to the importance of teaching and learning history—yet we tend to know little about the history of the EiE sector itself. How did we get to where we are, where do our policies and practices come from and how have they evolved (or not) over time?

The dominant historical narrative is that EiE began in 2000 when leading educationalists met in Dakar and committed to a Global Consultation on Education in Emergencies. The result was the creation of INEE and the emergence of EiE as a distinct field of policy and practice. All of this is true, but like so much in the past there’s no singular history of EiE. Rather education in emergencies (although not always referred to as such) pre-dates the global norms and institutional frameworks that are now associated with it.

And, since many of the policies and practices that we assume to be new, are in fact not, these other histories offer valuable lessons. 

Take the case of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Established as a temporary organization back in 1950, UNRWA now provides education to over half a million Palestine refugees. It does so across five areas of operation (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza). Yet UNRWA’s rich history is often obscured by its parallel development to UNHCR and its seemingly anomalous status as a direct service provider to a specific population. This is unfortunate. UNRWA’s history, while revealing of its particularities, also has much to tell us about the ways in which education in emergencies, and education for refugees, actually works. In particular, its history sheds light on the ways in which education outcomes for refugees are influenced by the often competing and vagarious interests and demands of donors, refugees and host states.

SW-Jalazone-1(A), The first school in Jalazone camp, West Bank. 1950 © UNRWA

In the early 1950s, for example, UNRWA made the decision to align its educational program to the different systems of host countries. By 1952 it had secured the use of host state curricula in its schools, negotiated for refugees to sit host-state examinations (and receive accreditation), accepted non-refugee children in its schools and subsidized host governments so that thousands of refugee children could also attend public schools. Many of these policies have recently been adopted by UNHCR as good practice for refugee education.

Thus, understanding why UNRWA pursued these approaches, and how they actually played out, is of immense value.  

Especially relevant today, are the implementation challenges that UNRWA faced. Stakeholders reacted to UNRWA’s alignment policies in different and often opposed ways. Western donors who funded UNRWA were initially supportive of alignment since they felt it would facilitate the absorption of refugees into host states thereby dissipating the refugee “problem”. Differently, several host states saw alignment as a way to securitize the refugees, without the need to treat them on a par with citizens. Finally, the refugees themselves were reluctant to see a separate and nationally oriented education system in exile since they steadfastly held onto their right of return. By the mid-1970s however, as the refugees’ situation grew increasingly protracted, these perspectives had changed. Under financial pressure, UNRWA was forced to end its subsidies to host states, a change that provoked considerable protest and further segregated the refugees within host state societies. Then, following Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, UNRWA was caught between Israeli demands to censor host state curricula in its schools, the affront of the host states who interpreted changes to their curricula as a violation of their sovereignty, and the demands of the refugees to learn about their national culture and heritage. So began an irresolvable quagmire about what the refugee students should learn. It is an issue that continues to haunt the Agency today, not least as these different actors and differing perspectives can influence the continuity and effectiveness of the education system.

Similarly, UNRWA’s checkered experiences with double shifting (a practice also used in Britain during the Second World War), as well as its pioneering use of distance and virtual learning during the remarkably difficult conditions of the first intifada (1987 – 1993), offer valuable lessons and insights for EiE efforts today. Nor is UNRWA the only agency whose history has the potential to enrich and improve contemporary practice. The education histories of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration which provided relief activities in the aftermath of the Second World War (1943-46), the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency (1950-1958), and many other UN Agencies and NGOs have been little explored.

Researchers, practitioners and policy makers should heed the lessons of these histories.

Indeed, in the drive for evidenced based policies and policy relevant research on the provision of education in emergencies, recognizing the ways in which the present can repeat the successes and failures of the past is crucial. It would be amiss to forget, and not debate, our history as a sector, and the lessons it holds for our work today. 


Visit the EiE Timeline - - to learn more about the history of the "education in emergencies" sector, including many of the crises, interventions, conventions, actors, events, and publications that have shaped the EiE field of work.



Jo Kelcey is a PhD candidate in International Education at New York University. Her research examines the history of the UNRWA Education Programme and considers the lessons it poses for refugee education efforts today. She has worked in the field of EiE since 2004.