Education in times of conflict

f3, Opinion — By on October 12, 2017 3:16 pm

A global concern

According to the 2017 Global Peace Index, the world is less peaceful now than it was a decade ago.

Growing outbreaks of disease and famine, displacement from land because of climate change, increasing competition over scarce natural resources, a protracted global economic slowdown, shifting geopolitical landscapes and violent extremism have all contributed to more protracted and frequent conflicts.

In contemporary times, the greatest burden of such violence falls on civilian populations. At present, a record 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes and in 2016 alone, an estimated 265,000 civilians lost their lives due to armed conflict.

The contemporary problem: shortsighted approaches to peace and security

The evidence points to a failure of the way peacebuilding has been deployed in recent decades. The most telling sign of this is that, since 2000, 90 percent of violent conflicts are not new but rather reoccurrences or consequences of past tensions.

Internationally-led peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts in recent years have often been driven by geopolitical and economic interests of the “powerful” rather than the needs of citizens on the ground. The result is that emphasis has been given to opening markets to trade, strengthening law and order, and introducing weak forms of democratic governance. This has been to the detriment of significant investment in or attention to social services like education.

This narrow conception of peacebuilding has, in part, been driven by our desires to keep conflict at bay from our own soil rather than concerns for the sustainability of our diplomatic, defence and development efforts overseas. This myopic view is no longer tolerable or conscionable given that the New Zealand government, alongside 192 other countries, has agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals, which at their core are about ensuring just, peaceful and inclusive societies by 2030.

We can no longer neglect our moral and ethical obligation to eradicate the economic and social costs of violent conflict on society. Part of the solution relies on giving more attention to social services, such as education, at all stages of a crisis – from humanitarian relief to longer-term peacebuilding efforts.

Education’s conflicted role

Education is recognised as an important catalyst for promoting psychosocial recovery, normality, hope, and the inculcation of values and skills for building and maintaining a peaceful future. It also has an important role in reconciliation or nation-building goals through the messages and shared values it can promote, restoring social cohesion that is often eroded during conflict.

Unfortunately, in humanitarian settings, education is poorly prioritised, and often even more poorly funded. The result is that approximately 30 million children remain out of school during periods of displacement or conflict – which represents half of the global out-of-school population. Furthermore, after the cessation of hostilities, efforts are often made to restore schooling to those affected by conflict, but often with little thought to underlying structural conditions in education which may have precipitated or fuelled conflict.

Matters as simple as the distribution of textbooks or other learning materials across a country, or as complex as what language children should be taught in, are often poorly considered by policymakers and international advisers tasked with reconstruction. This fails to ensure that education is safe, inclusive, equitable and accessible for all, and has been shown to lead to significant levels of drop-out, due to the irrelevance or poor quality of the education that is provided.

This creates a vicious cycle, where education itself becomes a grievance against the state (or occupying power) for some, and a site of future conflict.

In a global economy where knowledge has become commodified and has become a key instrument for upwards social mobility, education systems which actively or passively exclude citizens from full participation are demonstrated to have a strong correlation with the renewal of violence.

A future focus

What I and a growing number of colleagues have been arguing in recent years is that during and immediately after periods of conflict, we must do two things better. One is to ensure that education and other social services are not left as an afterthought, but are considered from the outset of efforts to stabilise and transform societies affected by conflict. New global funding mechanisms such as the “Education Cannot Wait” initiative are emblematic of this, and our own government could contribute, as part of its humanitarian aid package, to this.

Importantly though, we must uncouple education aid from military interventions – a phenomena which we’ve seen too often in recent years, including from our own government’s involvement in Afghanistan – to ensure that schools, students and teachers do not become part of the ideological battleground for winning “hearts and minds”.

The other important issue is that we must demand more from education in such circumstances. It is insufficient to restore educational provision without any consideration for the cultural, political, economic and social structures it feeds into and contributes to shaping, in areas affected by conflict.

Transformative remedies through education require significant consideration of social justice concerns – of redistribution, representation and recognition within the system itself, and of the broader intersections schooling has with the political economy.

Only then is reconciliation, and the potential for achieving the global vision of a peaceful, inclusive, and just society – as articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals – fully possible.

Dr Ritesh Shah Critical Studies in Education Faculty of Education and Social Work

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