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The Role of Education in Enhancing Social Cohesion in Post Conflict Settings

Abstract
The Qatar Charity panel on Tuesday 27 September 2016 discussed “The Role of Education in Enhancing Social Cohesion in Post Conflict Settings.” Mr. Jasim Sady Al-Najmawi, Manager of the International Monitoring and Evaluation Department at Qatar Charity and moderator of the event, described the Qatar Charity. Speaker Mr. Mohammed bin Ali Al-Ghamdi, Executive Director of International Development at Qatar Charity, provided a general background on the event’s theme and laid the foundation for understanding social cohesion through education as an important “path through which society can overcome a plight and reach a common bright future in any conflict.” Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui of George Mason University School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution proposed a general framework for education reform that focused on the following four aims: (1) economic justice; (2) cultural recognition; (3) social political justice; and (4) reconciliation. Specific strategies for implementing these aims include removing bias from textbooks and curricula. Mr. Abdurahman Sharif, Director of the Somalia NGO Consortium, and Ms. Stefanie Licht, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) Education for Social Cohesion Programme in Sri Lanka, described specific ways in which their organizations have implemented education reform to promote social cohesion in Somalia and Sri Lanka, respectively. Several common strategies emerged,, including the need to introduce reforms that foster a national identity and promote equality. Dr. Allan Goodman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Institute of International Education, discussed the need to save teachers in conflict-affected areas, to direct attention to students whose education was interrupted during conflict, and to create the political will to prioritize education amidst the many competing agendas in post-conflict reconstruction. Closing remarks were offered by H.E. Mr. Rashid Khalikov, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Partnerships with the Middle East and Central Asia of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) who noted that “education in emergencies is a humanitarian issue,” followed by a brief Q&A.

The Role of Education in Enhancing Social Cohesion in Post Conflict Settings

On Tuesday 27 September 2016, the Qatar Charity brought together an esteemed group of panelists to discuss “The Role of Education in Enhancing Social Cohesion in Post Conflict Settings.” Moderator Mr. Jasim Sady Al-Najmawi, Manager of the International Monitoring and Evaluation Department at Qatar Charity, began the session by screening a short video that outlined Qatar Charity’s vision, international reach, and significant accomplishments. Collectively, panelists explained the state of conflict currently facing the world, argued for the need to prioritize education reform in humanitarian responses to crisis, and described promising education initiatives that have been implemented in Somalia and Sri Lanka.
Mr. Mohammed bin Ali Al-Ghamdi, Executive Director of International Development at Qatar Charity, provided a general background on the complex state of conflicts around the world. Currently, the highest number of conflicts are occurring in Africa, followed by Asia, Europe and Latin America. Higher rates of conflict are also correlated with higher rates of poverty, suggesting that people living in extreme poverty are also more likely to be exposed to conflict. While the impact of conflict is wide-ranging, historically, social cohesion is the first thing destroyed in conflicts; thus, social cohesion offers a “path through which society can overcome a plight and reach a common bright future in any conflict.” Most pertinent to the event’s theme, in the Qatar Charity 30 years of experience, education has been recognized as an important tool for promoting social cohesion. Unfortunately, however, education tends to be “overlooked in peace treaties and humanitarian responses.” This is troublesome because education, if inappropriately used, can actually “feed conflicts and sectarianism.” Al-Ghamdi concluded that educational reform must be prioritized in humanitarian responses if we are to create and sustain peaceful societies.

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui of George Mason University School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution elaborated on the importance of youth education as a peace-building tool. Specifically, over 250 million children currently live in conflict-affected areas and are at the “front line of peace-building.” Unfortunately, a growing number of children, particularly girls, do not have the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge that would allow them to contribute to peace-building efforts. For example, in the Middle East and North Africa, approximately 12.3 million children are out of school. In countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen, radical groups have used schools as both military posts and recruitment sites. Thus, inattention to education in crisis can worsen social divides. Investing resources in well-constructed education reform, however, can ultimately protect youth from possible radicalization by empowering them with the promise of a future. Echoing Al-Ghamdi’s sentiment, Cherkaoui argued that education needs to be “part of a country’s larger strategy for peace reconciliation.”
Cherkaoui then proposed a framework for education reform that focused on the following four aims: (1) economic justice; (2) cultural recognition; (3) social political justice; and (4) reconciliation. Curriculum design and textbook review are crucial to achieve these aims. Textbooks in conflict-affected areas frequently reinforce the dominant cultural view and perpetuate biases against marginalized groups, and must instead promote respect for diversity and increased cultural competency. Further, there is a need for a “balanced focus on primary, secondary, and higher education as a sustainable peace dividend.” Social cohesion must be fostered at every level of education for lasting change to occur. Finally, education must focus on transforming post-conflict cultures into “cultures of equal citizenship.” A national identity built on equality has the potential to stimulate social cohesion.

Mr. Abdurahman Sharif, Director of the Somalia NGO Consortium, and Ms. Stefanie Licht, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) Education for Social Cohesion Programme in Sri Lanka, described specific ways in which their organizations have implemented education reform to promote social cohesion in Somalia and Sri Lanka, respectively.

Sharif candidly noted that Somalia is a “fragile state” and perhaps “one of the most challenging environments in the world to be a charity.” Indeed, high levels of poverty, unemployment and conflict have left Somalis “vulnerable to shocks.” As is often the case in conflict-affected regions, the majority (70%) of Somalia’s population is under age 30. However, two decades of conflict have ultimately eroded the Somali education system, and Somalia has one of the lowest rates of enrollment for primary school-aged children in the world. Together, conflict and lack of education have produced an “entire generation of Somalis knowing nothing but conflict.” Currently, approximately half of Somalia is considered in conflict.

These conflict-affected regions are largely in the south of Somalia and under control by al Shabaab. Many drivers of conflict in Somalia include a prevalent culture of violence against children and Clan identities. Given the many barriers to peace in Somalia, the Somalia NGO Consortium aimed to use education to foster key elements of social cohesion, including national identity and respect for diversity. Examples of specific strategies implemented include: removing biased curricula and teaching methods, training teachers, adopting an English as primary language program to attenuate language barriers, implementing exchange programs that encourage youth to broaden their perspectives, creating gender friendly environments, providing psychosocial support programs for vulnerable children, and utilizing sports to strengthen youth’s peace-building capacity. These different strategies share the common underlying goal of creating a shared identity and equal opportunities for youth. Sharif concluded with a clear indicator of Somalia’s shift toward social cohesion: since the first time in over 30 years, Somalia has adopted a 2017-2019 National Development Plan.

Licht discussed strategies her organization adopted in Sri Lanka to promote social cohesion through education, emphasizing that “educational inequality is seen as one of the root causes of violent ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.” Present-day educational inequality between the Sinhala and Tamil groups stems from colonial times, when the Sinhala ethnic group was favored over the Tamil group. This historical favoritism created and reinforced the social divide of youth along “linguistic, cultural and religious lines,” that has ultimately led to increased intra-ethnic cohesion and inter-ethnic conflict. The segregation of Sinhala and Tamil youth has been maintained by the education system itself, from which Tamil youth feel excluded and marginalized. Therefore, the Education for Social Cohesion Programme was designed as a multi-level approach (national, provincial, school) to education reform that would allow students to “learn better to live together peacefully in the multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society of Sri Lanka.” Like Sharif, Licht argued that an important step towards social cohesion is fostering a national identity that can replace conflict-promoting regional identities and promote equal opportunities. Some of her organization’s major achievements in Sri Lanka includes the Second National Language Education program that made English a compulsory second language in schools. As in the Somali case, this initiative aimed to remove language barriers between Sinhala and Tamil students and to foster equal opportunity. Additionally, the program has attempted to ensure the fair representation of the Tamil minority in textbooks and increase access to equal quality textbooks for all youth. Other achievements include: qualifying trainers, teachers and school principles, providing access to psychosocial care (e.g., school counselor network), and providing peace and value education through student exchange programs, theater programs, student parliaments and sports programs.

Dr. Allan Goodman, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Institute of International Education, discussed the challenges that a lack of support and resources pose for using education to promote social cohesion. Goodman highlighted the disparate funding devoted to force versus education. Specifically, the average cost per year to put a child back in school falls between $200-600USD; in stark contrast, the government spends over $1 million USD per year for each soldier sent into a conflict zone. Putting youth back in school needs to receive the same attention and resources as “injecting and protecting” soldiers. This example illustrates that we cannot expect too much of education in light of its inadequate funding, Goodman noted.

He identified three needs that must be addressed in order to enable the use of education to foster social cohesion:

(1)  Teachers need to be protected during conflicts so that there is hope for rebuilding education systems post-conflict.  There is no hope for education reform if the majority of teachers have been decimated in the course of conflict. Following conflict, teachers need support and resources that will empower them and provide them with the capacity to reintroduce education.

(2)   Attention needs to be directed to students whose education was interrupted during conflict and dropped out, as these are the youth most susceptible to radicalization. For example, at the outset of the war in Syria, a striking 25% of young adults were enrolled in university. Resuming the education of these displaced youths is critical to preventing their recruitment into radical groups, like ISIS or al Shabaab, that offer an alternative source of identity in the face of a seemingly hopeless future.

(3)    We need to create the political will to prioritize education amidst the many competing agendas in post-conflict reconstruction, given its immediate and inter-generational consequences. In fact, it is not uncommon for refugees to say that what they want most for their children is for them to receive an education. According to Goodman, “Education is the one thing we can give people that no one can take away.” This is a critical point in the context of post-conflict areas, where youth come to know loss and instability as the norm.
In conclusion, Goodman suggested the potential of using the diaspora to inform education reform at the individual country level, as these are individuals who lived through the conflict and better understand the needs of their community.
During closing remarks, moderator al-Najmawi invited remarks from honored attendee, H.E. Mr. Rashid Khalikov, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Partnerships with the Middle East and Central Asia of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). H.E. Khalikov thanked Qatar Charity for bringing attention to the issue of education and reiterated the importance of educational reform for improving the lives of not only conflict-affected youths themselves, but also their families.

Q & A:

Question 1: Is there a general framework for addressing education in post-conflict areas?
Answer 1: Mr. Al-Ghamdi replied that there is no one solution for addressing educational reform in post-conflict areas, and instead recommended considering each country’s individualized needs when designing education initiatives. One important initiative that civil society organizations like Qatar Charity are pushing for is the use of e-learning to allow displaced children to continue their previous education without needing to relocate. At the school level, however, there are still major issues related to adopting and qualifying curricula, such as government policies that fail to account for the needs of refugees. Although the unique needs of children who have lived through conflict make efforts at student reintegration considerably more taxing, it is a necessary investment of both time and resources.

Q2: Most conflict zones are unfortunately Muslim, and religion plays a major role in the lives of Muslim people that is often lost on Westerners. Do you agree that religious leaders should therefore be a part of the process of education?
A2: Mr. Cherkaoui responded that it is indeed important to understand the socio-cultural context of the region in designing and implementing education initiatives. It is important to respect both the global, or presumed “Western expertise,” and the local experience as two valuable sources of information. Mr. Sharif acknowledged the challenge of implementing education initiatives in predominately Muslim regions where Western education is “haram,” or forbidden. For example, it is particularly difficult to introduce education in al Shabaab controlled areas of Somalia where Western education is viewed as an attempt to brainwash Somalis. While it is relatively easy to introduce health services post-conflict, introducing education becomes a political issue because it is targeted towards changing people’s minds.

Q3: What are your thoughts about the role of local initiatives in humanitarian responses?
A3: Mr. Al-Ghamdi replied that in the Arab and Muslim world, teachers have low social status and thus are seen as expendable in conflicts. For example, 70% of teachers in Rwanda were either killed or disappeared during conflict, and a similar situation is occurring in Syria. This creates a gap between education need and the number of educators locally available. Unfortunately, when this gap is allowed to widen, other groups and ideologies are positioned to fill the void. This in turn leaves students vulnerable to being indoctrinated with radical beliefs and ideologies. We therefore need to use all of the resources at our disposal (including local initiatives) to fill this gap before others do.

Q4: What does education mean for the families?
A4: Mr. Cherkaoui answered this self-posed question by stating that education is transformative for families as well as children because “even people involved in violence become human through the eyes of their kids.” Education is therefore part of the process by which all affected people can “reopen their psychological borders.”