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

Marco Dormino ©

Education in Emergencies

Why Education in Emergencies?

Education is critical for all children, but it is especially urgent for the tens of millions of children affected by emergencies, be they man made or natural disasters. Yet, for millions of children affected by disaster and crisis, the right to education remains an unfulfilled promise:

  • Approximately 57 million children are out of school worldwide; more than half of these children are living in conflict-affected states. 55% of the children living in conflict zones are female. Millions more are living in situations affected by natural disasters.*
  • 20 million adolescents of lower secondary school age not enrolled in schools live in conflict-affected countries. 11 million of these adolescents are female. Girls only account for 30% of refugees enrolled in secondary school.*
  • The world faces a shortfall of 3.3 million primary school teachers and 5.1 million lower secondary school teachers by 2030 and the areas most in need of education personnel are countries affected by emergencies and disasters.**

Historically, education was seen as part of longer-term development work rather than a necessary intervention in emergency response; humanitarian relief typically involved the provision of food, shelter, water and sanitation and healthcare. However, with the average conflict lasting 12 years and families remaining in refugee or internally displaced person (IDP) camps for an average of 17 years, it is clear that education cannot wait for more stable times and that the failure to prioritize education in humanitarian response renders entire generations uneducated, disadvantaged, and unprepared to contribute to their society’s recovery. A growing body of evidence on education’s life-saving and life-sustaining role has resulted in a change in beliefs, with education now being included in the planning and provision of humanitarian relief.

Education Protects

In emergency situations, quality education provides physical, psychosocial and cognitive protection, which can be both life-sustaining and life-saving. Education mitigates the psychosocial impact of conflict and disasters by giving a sense of normalcy, stability, structure and hope for the future. Quality education can save lives by providing physical protection from the dangers and exploitation of a crisis environment. When a child is in a safe learning environment, he or she is less likely to be sexually or economically exploited or exposed to other risks, such as recruitment into or joining a fighting group or organized crime. In addition, education can convey life-saving information to strengthen critical survival skills and coping mechanisms, such as how to avoid landmines, how to protect oneself against sexual abuse, how to prevent HIV/AIDS, and how to access health care and food distribution. Education in emergencies also provides cognitive protection by supporting intellectual development through the teaching of literacy, numeracy, and study skills. It can also teach peace building and conflict resolution. It can provide essential building blocks for future economic stability.

Education is an Enabling Right

All individuals have a right to education, and those affected by emergencies are no exception, even during conflict and natural disasters. Education is a right clearly articulated in numerous international treaties and declarations, such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1981). In addition, education is an enabling right: gaining and utilising the knowledge and skills that a basic education affords permit the exercise of other fundamental rights.

One Sudanese refugee in Chad, describing the vital importance of education to refugees in crisis situations, said: “In this war, our cattle have been taken by the Janjaweed and we had to flee our land. We had to leave behind all of our possessions. The only thing we could bring with us is what we have in our heads, what we have been taught – our education. Education is the only thing that cannot be taken from us and upon which we can build a better life for our children.” (Women’s Refugee Commission interview in Breijing refugee camp, eastern Chad, 2005).

Education as Opportunity to Build Back Better for a Peaceful, Prosperous Society

In emergencies, increased assistance and innovative programmes offer opportunities to build back better education systems and improve the quality of and access to education. Emergencies can provide opportunities to work with communities for social transformation by creating programs which allow previously excluded groups, like girls, women and disabled children, to access an education. Crises make it possible to teach all members of a community new skills and values, such as the importance of inclusive education and participation, as well as peace, tolerance, conflict resolution, human rights, and environmental conservation. These windows of opportunity should be used to promote more equitable educational systems, en route to more equitable societies.

What Does Education in Emergencies look like?

Education is prioritised by communities and offers a lifeline to them. Communities often start up some kind of education/school themselves during an emergency. However, maintaining this during a crisis is difficult when there is less local capacity and fewer resources.

Although no two responses are likely to be the same, there are some components of an education response that are commonly seen in emergencies. Recreation is often valued by children during and after an emergency situation and hence provision of culturally relevant supplies and play and recreation activities are key. Establishing the space for education to take place is also crucial – this may be in the form of a temporary shelter made from local materials, a tent or other form of shelter. Individuals are needed to teach, care and supervise children – they may need rapid teaching training and support and supervision themselves. Often, key teaching and learning supplies are needed in order to get classes up and running, children purposefully engaged in their learning and teachers teaching with minimum stress. Children and teachers must have access to adequate water and sanitation facilities, and these should be segregated for teacher and students and boys and girls.

Schools can act as an entry point for providing other basic services such as protection, nutrition and health. This calls for close coordination between education and other humanitarian specialists to establish child friendly, safe spaces in an emergency where children learn, play, regain a sense of normalcy and can access or are referred to vital services.

The INEE website includes many photographic images of education in emergencies in its variety of forms and contexts donated by INEE members. We encourage you to look around the website to get a visual understanding of some of the work being undertaken by members of the network. Please feel free to submit any images you would like to share online to:

Challenges and Strategic Opportunities

In 2007 INEE undertook a strategic planning process to identify the key challenges and opportunities in the field of education in emergencies, and determine core activities to be undertaken by the network. To read the full INEE Strategic Plan 2008 -2010, please click here. The following Challenges and Strategic Opportunities have more recently been identified as part of a UN Background Document prepared for the planned General Debate on Education in Emergencies, and give a useful overview of some of the key issues currently facing the field.

The Need for a Safe and Protective Educational Environment

Indiscriminate or direct attacks on school facilities, children and teachers attending school are common around the world despite the fact that schools are protected under a range of international conventions and International Humanitarian Law. Students, teachers and administrative staff are targeted for intimidation, recruitment and indoctrination, and school premises are often damaged, destroyed or occupied – by fighting forces in conflict contexts, by hazards and/or used as shelters in situations of displacement. In order for students and teachers to access education in emergencies, schools – and the routes to and from them – must be free from attack, including forced recruitment, kidnapping, and sexual violence. More actions must be taken to reduce the incidence of education-related attacks and to end impunity for persons and armed groups and forced that attack schools, students, teachers and humanitarian aid workers. In addition, school structures must be built to be safe and secure and able to protect the physical well-being of learners.

Inclusive and Relevant Education in Emergencies

Crises offer an opportunity to build back better and work with governments and communities for social transformation by creating more equitable educational systems and structures, which allow often excluded groups, like young children, girls, adolescents, disabled children, refugees and internally displaced people, to attend school, thus improving access to education for all.

Education in Emergencies must also provide young people with vocational skills and job training programs that are market-driven and lead to sustainable employment opportunities. Life skills education is essential, such as training in communication skills, financial literacy, HIV/AIDS awareness, leadership development and conflict mediation.

Prevention, Preparedness, Response

In emergency settings, a lack of coordination between the government, communities and a myriad of non-governmental actors often obstructs access to and the continuation of quality education along the relief to development continuum. The inclusion of education within the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s (IASC) cluster initiative is a significant achievement as it indicates recognition by the international community of the critical role that education plays in humanitarian response. Co-led by UNICEF and the Save the Children Alliance, the cluster represents a ground-breaking commitment to response predictability, preparedness, policy and coordination within the field of education in emergencies. The work of the IASC Education Cluster serves to strengthen capacity and preparedness of humanitarian personnel and government authorities to plan, coordinate and manage quality educational programmes in emergencies. The IASC Education Cluster is a key mechanism for supporting states in determining educational needs in emergency situations and responding to them jointly in a coordinated manner.


Education in conflict-affected and fragile states is grossly underfunded: these countries receive nearly 4 times less basic education aid per out-of-school primary age child than other lower-income countries. Education receives only 1.4 % humanitarian aid which fails to cover 3 quarters of the amount needed for EiE needs. This is the largest funding gap registered for any sector. Moreover, effective links between humanitarian and development policy and financing is challenging for donors. As a result, education in emergencies and early reconstruction often falls through the cracks. The creation of an IASC Education Cluster as a means to enhance predictability, quality, partnership and coordination must be matched by the provision of resources necessary to address the huge challenges faced by those working to provide education in times of crisis.


* Global Monitoring Report Policy Paper 2013 

** Global Monitoring Report 2013/4 - Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all