Geographies in Depth

Why conflict and crisis could improve education in West Africa

Kieran Guilbert
Reporter, Reuters
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This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation trust.org.

The world’s worst recorded Ebola outbreak and militant violence in West Africa may have shut down schools across the region but governments should see conflict and crisis as an opportunity to reform and improve education, an expert said.

Schools should educate pupils about conflict and disasters, offer psychosocial support and provide survival skills that children can share with their communities, said Jessica Hjarrand at the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE).

“Conflict and crisis are a breaking point for educational reform – nations can build back better systems, make schools more resilient and focus on life-saving information,” she said.

Hjarrand was speaking on the sidelines of a United Nations education conference in Dakar, Senegal, which discussed the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The United Nations adopted the set of 17 objectives in September, addressing issues from poverty to climate change, including a drive for universal free education by 2030.

Some 37 million primary and young secondary age children worldwide are out of school in crisis-hit countries, a report by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute thinktank said.

In West Africa, some schools have recently reopened in Nigeria and Mali, after being closed more than 18 months ago due to attacks on pupils by Boko Haram militants and conflict between rival armed groups and Islamist militants respectively.

Classes in Ebola-hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone also resumed earlier this year after being stopped for at least six months in an effort to stem the spread of the Ebola epidemic.

PROTECTION FROM EXPLOITATION

If coordination between government ministries improved and infection prevention controls and safety measures were strengthened, schools would not necessarily have to close during future conflicts or outbreaks of Ebola, Hjarrand said.

“Staying in school offers children protection, not only from conflict itself, but also from exploitation such as trafficking and recruitment into armed groups,” said the coordinator at INEE – an educational network of 130 organisations in 170 countries.

Boko Haram violence in the Lake Chad region, combined with abject poverty, environmental degradation and few opportunities for young people could make the area “ripe for extremist groups to go in and recruit”, the United Nations warned this month.

“In the fight against extremist recruitment, whether in Britain or Lake Chad or Afghanistan, being part of something meaningful is important – with education you are connected to those around you and have a sense of community,” Hjarrand added.

A rise in the number of refugees and people uprooted by violence is the most pressing obstacle at present to providing education across West Africa, according to the education specialist.

More than 2.2 million people have been forced from their homes by fighting within Nigeria, and nine in 10 are living with host families rather than in camps, making it far more difficult to reach and provide education for the children among them, she said.

“Dignity is at the heart of providing education in times of conflict and crisis – people need to focus on their future,” Hjarrand said.

“A refugee once said to me: ‘If you don’t provide me with an education and offer me a future, why are you keeping me alive?'”

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum. 

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Author: Kieran Guilbert is the West Africa Correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Image: Girls look at a poster, distributed by UNICEF, bearing information on and illustrations of best practices that help prevent the spread of Ebola virus disease. REUTERS/Ahmed Jallanzo/UNICEF/Handout via Reuters. 

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthEconomic GrowthEducation and Skills
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