Education Sensitive to Conflict: One Reason to be Hopeful

Conflict Sensitive Education

“Oh yes! The director and the teachers know,” responded Lilia to my question about whether school authorities knew that many of the students were involved in gangs and conducted illicit activities in school premises. “I think they just turn a blind eye because they don’t know what to do about it. They don’t want to be threatened again. They basically let them [students who are involved in gangs] do whatever they want,” added Lilia’s friend Fatima.

Through our conversation, I also learned how drug gangs recruited micro-traffickers from this school—an example of how education can directly or indirectly fuel conflict, something not uncommon, unfortunately.

This is part of a conversation I had in 2011 with Lilia and Fatima, students of a middle school in one of the deadliest neighborhoods in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. I visited their school as part of an effort conducted by Juarez diaspora to promote peace through education in our hometown, the city that earned the onerous title of the “murder capital of the world.” This school, and others located throughout the city, were suddenly receiving a flood of international aid following the massacre of 16 high school students the year before.

After my visit, I often wondered what both local education actors and the international community would have to do to effectively operate in this adverse environment and whether they were prepared to make education a tool to mitigate and not exacerbate conflict.          

CSE pack coverIn May 2017, I began working with the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) to build the capacity of education actors to integrate conflict sensitive education (CSE) strategies into their work. Since then, I have thought back to my conversation with Lilia and Fatima, reflecting on how beneficial CSE strategies could be in that and many other contexts. Unfortunately, teachers, school authorities and education aid workers are often unequipped to work in conflict-affected settings.  The Overseas Development Institute (ODI), reports that “75 million children aged 3 – 18 live in countries facing war and violence and need educational support.” That is close to the number of people living in Germany or Turkey. Equipping teachers, educators and aid workers for this massive challenge requires a collective effort and effective strategies. This is precisely where CSE strategies make a difference and why INEE and donors are investing in this endeavor!

To grasp the concept of conflict sensitive education and understand its strategies, it is important to understand the meaning of “conflict sensitive approaches.” The Conflict Sensitivity Consortium defines it as follows:

“A conflict sensitive approach involves gaining a sound understanding of the two-way interaction between activities and context and acting to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive impacts of intervention on conflict, within an organization’s given priorities/objectives (mandate).” Conflict Sensitivity Consortium

These approaches are applicable to any sector and can be contextualized to any circumstance as conflict is broadly defined. Stemming from this definition, INEE has developed a training program to help education practitioners and policymakers apply a lens to their work so it becomes conflict-sensitive. A series of INEE CSE trainings were carried out in 2014 and delivered in a few locations with great success. In 2017, INEE and member organizations are rolling out further trainings to reach many more contexts. The result is an ongoing CSE capacity building initiative, which I am honored to facilitate.  

Participants in Conflict Sensitive Education Training of Trainers, Amman, July 2017. © Gustavo Payan

The initiative kicked off with a training of trainers workshop in July 2017 in Amman, Jordan. The workshop, hosted by UNRWA, convened over 40 of the most committed and passionate education practitioners I have worked with coming from very diverse backgrounds. They work for agencies at the frontlines of the education response to conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Philippines, and Ukraine.

For four days, we gathered to learn and plan how to ensure that education efforts in our contexts were conflict-sensitive. We defined our role to promote the integration and institutionalization of CSE strategies in our organizations—whether these are UN agencies, regional or international NGOs or governments. We learned how CSE approaches apply to education policies and programming. Discussing specific education interventions (e.g. teacher recruitment, language of instruction, curriculum content, or even location of assessments) and their interactions with conflict was particularly eye opening and enriching.

The ongoing CSE capacity building initiative is more than just the four-day delivery and sharing of knowledge. We created a "CSE Learning Community" (resources will be shared soon on the INEE website) to support each other, not only morally but strategically, too, as participants work to roll out CSE strategies in their local contexts. For example, agencies working on the Syria response in the various countries affected are coordinating efforts and leveraging resources to maximize benefits of the interventions as they plan to rollout CSE training. Similarly, UN agencies and NGOs in Iraq are working together with government officials toward the same effort. As a young UNHCR officer who is currently working on developing education programming for young people in Aleppo, Syria, told me at the end of the workshop:

“Being one of the few UNHCR education officers in Syria, finding this community of peers is very empowering and also very useful, as I am learning so much to help me develop my programs.”

Just like him, I am grateful for this Community. And I applaud USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) and EAA-PEIC (Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict, a program of Education Above All) for their vision to support this initiative and help create this Community. I applaud the members of the INEE Standards and Practice and Education Policy Working Groups who have volunteered their time to support the training and the CSE capacity building initiative.

As I learn the plans of the different organizations in this Community, I remember a piece of data from the World Bank which states that “each year of education, reduces the risk of conflict by about 20%”.  And this brings me hope.  Hope in the midst of an underwhelming number of positive headlines these days. I find hope in believing that Lilia and Fatima’s school can turn around its role and become an active player in reducing, not fueling, the conflict in Ciudad Juarez.  I find hope because I believe that providing quality education is one of the most powerful tools to resolve some of the most pressing conflicts affecting our world. And that’s what my colleagues in this Community are doing.



GustavoGustavo Payan is an international development specialist with experience in conflict-affected and fragile environments. An impassioned advocate for youth violence prevention and education in emergencies, he builds programs and influences policy to foster peace and security through promoting access to learning and livelihoods. He has also led and supported communities of practice and networks that seek to promote education and youth development. Gustavo recently concluded his Edward Mason Fellowship and mid-career MPA studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. He earned an MA in Sustainable International Development from Brandeis University. Gustavo is originally from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and his favorite role is being a dad.


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.