The Reunion: A conversation with some of INEE’s founding members (Part I)

Published by
Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE)
Written by
Peter Buckland, Eldrid Midttun, Christopher Talbot
Humanitarian Sectors - Education
Global Agendas - SDG, Education 2030, etc.
Education Sector Planning

Peter Buckland, Eldrid Midttun and Christopher Talbot joined Sabina Handschin from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation during the 20th Anniversary event to discuss the founding of INEE, and what led to INEE’s success over the following months and years. At the time of INEE’s foundation in 2000, Peter was a UNICEF Senior Education Advisor and global focal point for Education in Emergencies based in New York, Eldrid was Senior Education Advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Oslo and Chris was Senior Education Officer for UNHCR in Geneva. They were part of a group of passionate individuals whose commitment and belief in the importance of education for all, especially those affected by conflicts and disasters, resulted in INEE’s establishment. Below is a recap of their conversation, with some expansion.

In the late 1990s, why did people feel that an education in emergencies professional network was needed?

In the 1990s there was a sense of professional isolation, as the organizations concerned with education in emergencies at that time had relatively few staff members or were not duly recognized by funding agencies. Many of those responsible for education were not qualified in that field. So there was a strongly felt need for professional support, including shared guidance on technical and policy issues, as well as for mutual solidarity.

There was also a need for advocacy for EiE as most agencies did not view it as life-saving at the time. We needed to create attention and raise awareness of what societies were losing by not offering EiE.

What were the key steps leading to INEE’s foundation? 

The World Education Forum in Jomtien in 1990 had not included anything specific about EiE. Graça Machel’s 1996 report, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, highlighted the importance of child protection and education within humanitarian response and focussed the attention of governments and major agencies on the need for sound policy guidance and sound technical approaches to programming for children and youth. There were several attempts in the mid-1990s, seeking to bring EiE professionals together, but nothing got off the ground. Things began to change with the pioneering work of Margaret Sinclair and Gonzalo Retamal with the UN and NGOs, some important early analysis by Mary Pigozzi at UNICEF and important strides by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was the first donor government to make explicit commitments to supporting EiE as part of humanitarian response. The Norwegian MFA accepted that Education be regarded as “the 4th Component of Humanitarian Aid”, (next to food, shelter and medical support, thus to save the brain as well as the body), thanks in large part to the efforts of Eldrid and her colleagues. Then at the World Economic Forum in Dakar, April 2000, the Dakar Declaration included the first specific pledge by governments and agencies to meet the needs of education systems “affected by conflict, natural calamities and instability.” 

At that forum in Dakar, there was a strategy side-meeting of concerned EiE professionals, from several organizations, with Ministers of Education of conflict-affected countries (Afghanistan, Burundi and Sierra Leone) in attendance. In that meeting, those ministers called for joint action by UNESCO, UNICEF and UNHCR to convene a process of interagency collaboration on EiE. That call for action gave us a mandate to invite people to come together. A particular comment by the Minister from Sierra Leone, struck a chord, “We have miserably failed our youth – they are uneducated, unemployed and unemployable.”

The three UN agencies convened the first Inter-Agency Consultation on Education in Situations of Emergency and Crisis, in Geneva on 8-10 November 2000. There were 85 participants (from the UN, INGOs and donors mainly), who formally constituted the ‘Network for Education in Emergencies’ as a professional network for EiE practitioners and policymakers. The report of that consultation was thoroughly documented and widely circulated. An important feature of the foundational meeting was the direct involvement of INGOs and engagement with donors. Early in 2001, by mutual agreement, the constituting agencies added the adjective ‘Inter-Agency’ to the name of the network, which thus became the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies.  

What were the features of INEE’s establishment and early actions that led to its initial success?

Click here to view the presentation from which this diagram was taken 

The founding agencies articulated a clear need and added value. We were insistent that INEE was to be a professional network of individual practitioners, not an institutional coordination body with decision-making or fund-allocation powers, which would have run the risk of further duplication and confusion. We made it very clear that we would not be entering into competition with the major humanitarian and development agencies. Rather, we would make possible strengthening of the quality and effectiveness of their work by supporting their staff members all over the world with information, planning and management tools, and opportunities to share their knowledge and experience. In the Global Consultation meeting, we projected diagrams that showed the potential INEE with soft, rounded, oval shapes, not hard, sharp, square, angular boxes. The following page is an extract from the Global Consultation report:

Securing buy-in from senior management of the major founding institutions was critical to ensure that INEE could get off the ground. Small seed money made possible the employment of the first INEE Coordinator, Nancy Drost, and the publication of the first INEE Good Practices Guides, drafted by Carl Triplehorn and Margaret Sinclair. 
Early on we all agreed upon a relatively broad understanding of EiE, including armed conflict, disasters and chronic instability, all levels and types of education, formal and non-formal, and spanning everything from contingency planning, early response, protracted crises, through to post-conflict and post-disaster reconstruction. This gave opportunities to a range of agencies and individuals to contribute, by sharing their experiences, education materials and planning tools.

At the beginning, a clear principal advocacy objective was identified: that the education sector would become an element of every emergency response, because education saves lives and sustains life during emergencies, as well as helping to support and rebuild communities and environments for a better future. This helped forge a shared identity through a common and quite noble struggle. There was a lot of resistance within major organisations to allowing education to be a humanitarian priority in the early years of the new millennium. The advocacy objective was formally achieved with the UN General Assembly’s resolution A/RES/64/290, ‘The right to education in emergency situations’ adopted unanimously by member states in July 2010. That global commitment was the result of a decade of tireless advocacy by INEE members and the agencies for which they worked.

What were the main reasons for INEE’s survival after the first months?

  1. We had sound founding principles, which were quickly shared in the Global Consultation report. And we followed up rapidly.
  2. INEE was not a coordination body. There was already, by the late 1990s, a plethora of coordination bodies (UNOCHA in Humanitarian Affairs, UNDG in the UN, and EFA Follow-Up in Education). A further coordination body would only have created more confusion and duplication. The gap that INEE filled was to link across these coordination mechanisms, to share and build knowledge, and above all to give a voice to the professionals on the ground so that the coordination bodies, agencies and donors could draw on shared experience, better data and authentic, grounded voices. INEE was in this sense a bottom-up response to the top-down pressures for global and local coordination.

    INEE’s early insistence on its identity as a professional network, not a coordination body, paid off in 2004, when the humanitarian cluster system emerged. INEE was able to bring its by-then considerable expertise with the Minimum Standards and its growing advocacy weight to support the efforts of many partners, notably UNICEF and Save the Children, to push for the admittedly belated creation of a Global Education Cluster in November 2005. That was a first substantial acknowledgement by the humanitarian community that education is genuinely life-saving and thus crucial to emergency response.\
  3. There were a few deeply committed individuals in key positions in UN agencies and INGOs, who were prepared to trust one another and to take risks within their own organisations. That attitude of trust rapidly expanded to embrace many agencies.
  4. Organisationally, there were several important early steps. One was the rapid establishment of a Steering Group – with the 3 UN agencies as permanent members, and NGOs taking turns. Another was the appointment of a first Secretariat staff member with secondment arrangements and one UN agency initially hosting. A third was the contribution of the first small but significant budgetary allocations from within the budgets of the main Steering Group agencies. These all took negotiation within and between the people and agencies who founded and quickly joined to strengthen the fledgling INEE.

But above all, the key to survival and success was the development from the start of what we call the ‘INEE spirit’ – a willingness to come to a shared table, take off our institutional hats and work together. That willingness was rooted in a deep and shared concern for the children, youth, teachers and communities that we served, which was greater than our concern for our own personal and organisational egos. We just did it because we cared about the kids, and their access to education.


This blog post is part I of II. Click here to read the authors’ discussion of what lies ahead for INEE and EiE. 


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