According to Sustainable Development Goal 4, the international community clearly prioritizes education for the most vulnerable children and youth. However, education in emergencies remains chronically underfunded.
Key Challenges of Financing Education in Emergencies
The international education aid architecture has been widely critiqued as not fit for purpose in terms of reaching those in contexts of crisis. According to the 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report, US$800 million has been spent annually on refugee education—which experts estimate represents only one-third the amount needed to achieve education for refugee students. Traditional donor financing typically requires countries to display good performance as a condition for lending, assuming a degree of stability not feasible for many countries experiencing emergencies. Much international aid to education is state-based, which presents logistical challenges when funding education for migrating populations. And aid distribution often suffers from slow, bureaucratic, and inflexible processes, which cannot adequately respond to situations of sudden emergency.
Domestic financing of education in conflict-affected countries is inadequate. Although the Education 2030 Framework for Action endorses allocations of at least 4% of GDP or 15% of public expenditure, the majority of low-income countries, including those affected by emergency, struggle to effectively mobilize this level of domestic financing.
As it stands, to fill the financing gap needed to reach the 33.8 million out-of-school children and adolescents in conflict-affected countries, a funding gap of US$39 billion USD per year must be addressed. Although governments bear primary responsibility for ensuring the right to education of their citizens, after accounting for projected domestic spending a minimum of US$38 per child and US$113 per adolescent annually is needed from non-domestic funding sources to ensure education in conflict-affected contexts.
In a historic effort, the global community came together to commit immediate funding for countries to address the COVID-19 education emergency. This included the establishment of the Global Education Coalition, which brought together 175 global education organizations to support a unified COVID-19 response. The pandemic created new and costly challenges within education sectors, particularly those already facing crises, for refugee students and their host communities.
Although education has gained greater visibility from humanitarian organizations, the education sector receives only a small share of what is requested. Despite growing needs over the past decade, including environmental catastrophes and armed conflicts resulting in mass forced displacement, the funding towards education in emergencies has not kept pace. Aid to education accounts for only 3% of global humanitarian funding, making it one of the least funded humanitarian areas.
Financing to education in emergencies requires increased cooperation and coordination between humanitarian and development aid agencies. Humanitarian aid traditionally supports short-term emergency response, often inadequate given the high number of protracted crises worldwide and the average long duration—over a decade—of refugee status. Organizations have responded to this humanitarian-development divide in education through innovative financing mechanisms, including the Education Cannot Wait Fund.
Sustainable Development Goal target 4.5 aims to “ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.” Yet education in contexts of emergency—sites of clear vulnerability—remains chronically underfunded. With close to half of all refugee children out of school, external donors ought to prioritize education when governments fail to do so. Despite the high costs of providing education in crisis contexts, the cost of inadequate funding to education in emergencies is far higher.
This collection was developed with the support of Francine Menashy, Associate Professor of OISE, University of Toronto.