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Private Sector Could Bridge Education Gap for Syrian Refugees

The private sector has the potential to help host governments and the international community fill the education gap for Syrian refugees with funding, innovation and expertise, writes researcher Lorraine Charles.

Written by Lorraine Charles Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Refugee children in class at Ceylanpinar Telhamud refugee camp in Sanliurfa, Turkey.Ensar Ozdemir / Anadolu Agency

With displaced Syrian children and young people being denied access to education, the need for a long-term strategy to address the educational needs of the growing number of refugee children has become urgent.

U.N. bodies, NGOs and international nongovernmental organization (INGOs) have had limited success at finding solutions for access to education, and are struggling to address the increasing need.

The private sector has significant potential to fill this void in support of host governments and the international community, not only as a potential source of the much-needed financing, but also through its core assets, expertise, innovation and leadership.

The private sector’s concern with education is multifaceted. Apart from acting because it is the “right thing to do,” there is a business case for investment in education. The growth of the private sector is closely linked to economic growth, and this is influenced by the education level of the population. Providing more education, knowledge and skills to individuals will increase individual productivity and employability, which in turn increases the overall income and growth of the economy.

Research has also shown that education is a driver of economic growth. For each additional year of education, there is an increase of between 13 percent and 35 percent GDP per capita and every $1 spent on education yields $10 to $15 in economic growth over a person’s lifetime in the form of higher earnings and wages. This means increased profits for the private sector through greater productivity and skills of potential employees, as well as increased sales revenues with stronger markets. Education is also linked to increases in individual wages, and this translates to societies with more disposable income for goods and services, and hence private sector growth. Therefore, private sector investment in education can contribute to the development of skilled workforces and guarantee future markets based on perceived future business needs.

The private sector can be a dynamic player where traditional actors have struggled to meet the educational needs of displaced children and youth. It is able to respond quickly, and can mobilize significant resources quicker than governments and the U.N. agencies, both of which have been repeatedly criticized for having complicated, lengthy and cumbersome procedures. Businesses can also use their technical expertise, technological solutions, employee networks and political influence.

Because of the private sector’s market-driven approach, innovation, creativity and ingenuity, it can address humanitarian issues from an alternative perspective, utilizing business models to achieve more impactful results.

The private sector has stepped up to the challenge of addressing the educational needs of Syrian children and youth. It has provided much-needed funding for education programs. Pearson Education has partnered with Save the Children to invest over £1.5 million ($1.83 million) for the education of Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanian students. Telenor ASA, the Norwegian telecommunications company, has donated £80,000 ($97,700) to UNICEF for education in Jordan. Visa Europe has donated £1 million ($1.2 million) to Save the Children for their work with refugees, while Visa Poland donated over £75,000 ($91,670) for refugee children in Turkey. Johnson & Johnson has committed £1.4 million ($1.7 million) for refugees in Turkey and Egypt. Google and Western Union financing have also committed toward the education effort for refugees.

Apart from the provision of funds, the private sector has utilized its core assets to provide solutions to address challenges faced by education systems. The number of Syrians entering the education system has placed a strain on infrastructure. Not only are there insufficient schools to host the number of refugees, but also existing school buildings are inadequate to cope with increased demand. Multinational construction company Arup has pledged to advise the Lebanese Minister of Education about school infrastructure, providing advice about the construction of new schools, as well as maintenance and expansion of existing school buildings.

Increasing human capacity is one of the main issues faced by education systems in host countries. Teachers are not prepared for the increase in numbers of students or special needs that are encountered in the classroom. Informal education centers often lack teachers with the necessary qualifications and skills to address the needs of students. To contribute to addressing this need, Laureate International Universities has partnered with a Lebanese NGO to run a training program for Syrian teachers. Teachers receive English language skills training, as well as pedagogical training to teach English, with the potential for formal accreditation.

There is no doubt that private sector partnerships with NGOs working on the ground provide a good model for sustainable and impactful solutions. An example of this type of partnership is Kiron, the German social enterprise, which provides free university education to refugees regardless of their legal status or financial situation. Its partnership with Deutsche Bank and Ernst and Young for technical expertise, and BMW, Google, ThyssenKrupp and Bertelsmann for financing has created a model that is not only meaningful, but also scalable and sustainable.

Many children fleeing the conflict in Syria have missed months or even years of schooling. Language barriers, present in Lebanon and Turkey, and differences in curricula place an additional burden. To address this need and to complement the Accelerated Learning Programs instituted by host country governments, the Speed School Fund, created by Legatum Limited, has committed to establish an accelerated learning program to enable children displaced by the crisis in Syria to get children back into school in age-appropriate grades.

These private sector initiatives discussed above are by no means exhaustive, but provide an example of how businesses have engaged in education initiatives, and should provide a model to urge and inspire others to act before it is too late. Commitment by companies also sends a message to donor governments that they must do more to provide for the needs of ever-increasing refugee populations, including access to education.

Yet despite the great potential and the significant contributions that have been made, private sector engagement involving education in emergencies is relatively recent and comparatively limited. The call to action by the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, hosted by then-President Barack Obama, and organizations such as the Global Business Coalition for Education have brought attention to the need for an increasingly multifaceted response to education in emergencies and commitment by the private sector to step forward. Since the start of the Syrian crisis, businesses have been engaged in providing their core assets in addition to traditional funding to support Syrian refugee children and youth, as well as the most vulnerable members of host communities.

The international community has begun to realize the necessity of the inclusion of other actors in the education in emergencies space. An encouraging sign of a shifting response is Education Cannot Wait: A Fund for Education in Emergencies, launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016. The new fund seeks to better coordinate responses to provide education to children and adolescents trapped in emergencies and protracted crises, and to mobilize new and additional funds by engaging non-traditional donors – including the private sector.

New Research Voices, a digital community for researches, spoke with Charles about the future of private sector education initiatives for Syrians and their relationships with non-profit groups working toward the same goal.

New Research Voices: In your view, is the private sector pulling its weight when it comes to providing education solutions for the Syrian crisis? Should it be doing more than it is? Why should private business be concerned with it?

Lorraine Charles: The private sector has stepped up to the challenge. But it’s not just the high profile commitments that make an impact; many other organisations are also making significant contributions. A look at the list of organizations who have signed to assist refugees at Obama’s conference and through announcements made by GBC-Education show the willingness of the private sector.

Of course more can be done. The extent of the crisis is huge, and the need is great. While many companies in the Middle East are making significant contributions, I think greater engagement by businesses in the region is needed. More importantly, a coordinated effort between U.N. agencies, INGOs, NGOs, the private sector and governments is required to address the crisis.

NRV: Do you think the NGO sector would embrace more involvement from the private sector in regards to education provision for Syrian refugees, or would it see it as a threat?

Charles: I think the NGO sector has seen the value of the private sector in regards to education provision. Not only have they provided a great deal of financing to NGOs, but their core assets have complemented the work that NGOs do. As well as the example I gave in my article of Laureate Universities, other examples of cooperation between the two are evident. Pearson’s partnership with Save the Children, RELX Group with International Rescue Committee and IKEA Foundation with War Child are examples of the private sector working with NGOs. The need for the provision of education for Syrian refugees is great; all stakeholders realise that only through sustained partnerships and cooperation can the challenge be adequately addressed.

NRV: Despite the obvious benefits in terms of financing education provision, private sector involvement in the education sector is frequently criticised. What do you say to those detractors who contend that education is a public good and should not be subject to commodification by the private sector?

Charles: There are many models of private sector engagement in education and education in emergencies. While I agree that education is a public good and should not be monetized, and high-quality public education should be available to all, the reality is that government investment in many countries is inadequate. Many education systems do not provide students with skills that are required for employment today or the future. The privatization of education has evolved as one solution to address this challenge. The fact remains that the private sector is the largest market for school-leavers, and their insight into the necessary skills should be the driving force of education systems globally. However, the nature of private sector engagement in education in this context (the Syrian crisis) involves cooperation between this sector and governments (as well as other actors). In this case, as well as for future emergencies, the private sector can be an important ally.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This article was originally published by New Research Voices and is reprinted here with permission.

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