Call for action: Switzerland supports education in emergencies
Over 90 percent of schoolchildren and students have been unable to attend school due to COVID-19. This is a particular problem in developing countries and conflict regions, where schools, in addition to providing education, also offer a safe environment that fosters their physical and mental development. Switzerland is setting an example: Together with partner organizations, it is calling on the international community to strengthen education in emergencies.
For many children, school is not only about learning, but also protection. School closures can put girls in particular at risk of violence, sexual abuse and child marriage. © Education Cannot Wait
Empty classrooms, maths lessons via video chat, and children practising for music lessons next to their parents as they work from home – the COVID-19 pandemic has not only fundamentally changed the way Swiss families live together, but also the way children learn. While the right to education is a matter of course in Switzerland and digital lessons have become part of our daily lives during the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic has also highlighted the potential significance of education in emergencies. How should children learn when they cannot attend school, how can we maintain social contact remotely, and how do you coordinate busy family life in a confined space – these are questions that were rarely asked in Switzerland until very recently.
The right to education and learning must continue, even if schools are closed in the interests of public health. Switzerland has the necessary financial resources, the requisite structures and the technical capabilities to switch to a different form of collective learning. But even in countries such as Switzerland, where digital lessons have become the norm in recent weeks, experts say the disruption to the traditional school routine caused by COVID-19 is likely to have a negative impact on learning outcomes. Children from educationally disadvantaged families in particular may have missed out and are falling behind. This is a major risk to equality of opportunity and can have academic and social consequences.
School closures in over 190 countries around the world
The consequences of school closures are even more extreme in developing countries and crisis-hit regions. “Many education systems in developing countries already had numerous problems to deal with even before the COVID-19 crisis hit – children who were out of school or who were unable to finish their schooling, poor teaching quality, a lack of capacity in education authorities, and mediocre infrastructure. The closure of schools in the context of COVID-19 is an additional burden for many SDC partner countries, which will have long-term implications for the population and the economy,” explains Ambassador Thomas Gass, Head of the South Cooperation Department at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
Some 1.6 billion young people have been affected by nationwide school closures for weeks at a time in recent months. This equates to over 90 percent of schoolchildren and students worldwide. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education sector has been unprecedented and has potential long-term negative social and economic consequences. This is particularly true in developing countries, which already had scarce educational resources and weak education systems before the crisis, and which often have young populations.
Risk of poverty, malnutrition and child labour
Many of these young people live in crisis settings. For children in conflict regions, school is about more than just the opportunity to learn to read, write and count. School means protection, a safe environment and often
better health, too. “During the COVID-19 crisis we have seen the impact of a pandemic on the immediate well-being of children in crisis-hit regions. Children are among the most vulnerable in humanitarian emergencies. School closures due to COVID-19 have made them even more so: they are increasingly exposed to violence, have greater health risks, or suffer from malnutrition because hygiene measures and clean water may be harder to come by at home, or in many places the usual school canteen services have been suspended,” explains Ambassador Manuel Bessler, Head of Humanitarian Aid at the SDC. For example, 300 million children are reliant on the hot meals that they would normally get at school. The economic pressure on families continues to grow. The UN fears that child labour will increase for the first time in 20 years due to the impact of COVID-19 on the poorest families, and that the progress made in promoting access to education in recent years will be undone.
The interruption to schooling caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may result in many poorer children being permanently left behind and not obtaining any qualifications when they leave school. This has long-term negative effects on children’s development and health, on their life chances and future employment prospects, and on the social fabric and economy in fragile and conflict-hit states.
School offers education, refuge and future perspectives
The right to education is a human right that allows children to develop their potential in a safe environment and gives them prospects for the future. This right must not be abandoned in emergencies, even when things become more challenging. Because at stake is the progress made in fragile regions in recent years and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) in the area of education. This also affects the millions of children who have had to flee – over half of the approximately 26 million refugees and 50 million internally displaced people worldwide are minors. “Refugee children in particular, whether they are in camps or in urban centres, are often marginalised and have a greater risk of slipping through the net when it comes to education,” says Pietro Mona, Ambassador for development, forced displacement and migration. Returning to school, or simply being able to attend school for the first time, gives them hope and the chance of a brighter future, as well as helping them integrate in the local community. Switzerland therefore pledged to establish Geneva as a global hub for education in emergencies at the first Global Refugee Forum in December 2019 in a bid to raise awareness of the issue. This initiative is supported by various academic institutions and international organisations.
Cooperation Humanitarian Aid and Development Cooperation
Faced with the additional education challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the anticipated humanitarian, social and economic after-effects, Switzerland has joined forces with partner organisations to launch a call for action. It urges the international community to pay urgent attention to the impact of COVID-19 on children’s education in conflicts, crisis settings and displacement contexts, and to promote education in emergencies. This is one of the least funded sectors in crisis situations.
For Gass, the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic is currently impacting the education sector highlights the importance of taking collective and cross-sectoral action: “The impact of COVID-19 on education shows that close cooperation between health and education, and between humanitarian aid and development cooperation, is crucial. We need to work together to ensure that children can continue to learn during acute crises, and that education authorities in partner countries receive the necessary support to improve their education systems so they are equipped to deal with health crises, conflicts, waves of migration and refugees, and natural disasters. And to ensure they can deliver quality education to all children and young people, regardless of their social or economic background.”
Education – part of Switzerland’s international cooperation strategy
Switzerland has been advocating for the right to education for many years and has enshrined the SDGs on education in its international cooperation strategy. It works in Africa, the Middle East and Asia to protect children affected by conflict, migration and displacement and to provide them with access to quality education. Furthermore, since late 2019 it has been a member of the Executive Committee of Education Cannot Wait, the new fund for education in emergencies that champions the right to education for children affected by humanitarian crises and displacement Since 2009, it has also been a Board member of the Global Partnership for Education, which helps education ministries in developing countries make sustainable improvements to their education systems. On the occasion of the Global Refugee Forum in December 2019, Switzerland also made an appeal to promote Geneva as a "Global Hub for Education in Emergencies". The following institutions are supporting the appeal: Education Cannot Wait, Global Education Cluster, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, ICRC, Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, UNICEF and the University of Geneva. The current Call for Action Education in Emergencies has been prepared by this group, in collaboration with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNESCO and the International Organization for Migration.