Two students in my class last night presented a synopsis of their project on UNESCO's role in emergency education. They emphasized education for refugees, noting that there are an estimated 20 million refugees in countries other than their own, and some 30 million refugees within their own countries, and that these world estimates may be too low. My colleague, Frank Method, mentioned that a large portion of the world's children who are not able to exercise their rights to primary education are refugees. We will not achieve "Education for All" unless we educate refugees, and refugee kids have a right to education in their own languages.
There are of course other emergencies such as natural disasters which also require special handling of educational resources. But let me continue the student focus on refugee education.
There are many agencies that are involved, such as UNRWA, UNICEF, development banks, NGOs and bilateral agencies, as well as the national governments that have the central responsibilities for efforts in their own countries and for their own citizens. However, UNESCO has the lead responsibility within the United Nations system for education, communication and information and thus should play an important role in refugee education. Unfortunately, UNESCO's staff and financial resources are very limited in the face of UNESCO's huge responsibilities within the UN and international system.
The students pointed out that most of the concern for emergency education is focused on primary school, but that UNESCO correctly sees education as a lifelong process, and indeed there is a great need for providing appropriate secondary, tertiary, and informal education services for refugees. The refugees need to be prepared both to return to their homes and places of origin and deal with the problems there, and to cope with their current situation as refugess.
Frank pointed out that UNESCO's function in refugee education was not simply to teach the kids, but nation building. Refugee education should help to overcome the circumstances that caused the regugees to seek refuge in the first place. They will include building a culture of peace, supporting respect for cultural diversity, and facing the problems of rebuilding economies and promoting participatory governance.
In thinking about the breadth of this challenge, it would seem to involve all of UNESCO, and not just its educational sector. UNESCO's social and human sciences sector emphasizes the management of social transitions and migration, and would seem to have the capacity to bring social science knowledge to bear in the service of refugee education, even as refugee education could prove an important tool in the management of some social transitions and migration problems. The communication and education program would seem a natural complement to the education program in providing information to refugees and helping them to change their behavior. The culture program would seem to be critical in helping refugees to preserve their cultural heritage, while adjusting to the challenges presented by living in a different culture. (Indeed, even internal refugees often face cultural differences as they move from one region of their country to another.) The natural science programs could help educators prepare refugees to confront the environmental challenges that they often face, and indeed its new focus on innovation for economic development may prove quite valuable to refugee communities.
Thus, UNESCO might well be advised to consider a cross-sectoral program of support for the knowledge needs of refugees and victims of other national emergencies. Such an initiative should merit the support of the U.S. delegation to UNESCO, and indeed the United States might lead in helping UNESCO find resources for such an effort.