Civil society in the Middle East stands up for education


The Middle East region, my favorite not just because I was born and raised there, but also because I have struggled and matured there, is now labeled with the most unfavorable terms.

As a Middle Eastern, it is hard to deny that actors in the region have been both protagonist and victim in protracted conflicts and crises. This has caused an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the region, creating not only famines, huge displacement, and loss of lives, but also demolishing years of infrastructure development and fledgling democratic bodies and processes.

Too many children are excluded from school

I believe education has paid the highest price in these crises. This does not mean that other sectors have not been affected, but rather that education has been overwhelmingly overlooked.

There are 56.6 million[1] people in need across the region; there is a clear risk that education may drop down the ladder in terms of aid priorities.

Violence has rendered 8,500 schools unusable – although this is believed to be an underestimation.

In many cases school buildings have been transformed into shelters for displaced persons, such as in Iraq and Yemen, or inhabited by military groups or militias, again in Yemen.

It is estimated that around 15 million children are excluded from education systems across the whole region (countries include Djibouti, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Oman, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait); 4.5 million of these children are from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. These figures are also likely underestimated, particularly as no data is available for Libya.

Poverty, conflict, gender discrimination, lack of educational quality, poor school environments (including violence in schools) and an epidemic of drop-outs have led to such great numbers of children being out of school. While the acute and protracted emergencies in Iraq, Syria (and countries hosting Syrian refugees) and Yemen are well known, ongoing conflict is rife in other countries in the region, including Libya, the State of Palestine and Sudan.

The tireless work of education coalitions

National and regional education coalitions comprised of dedicated civil society organizations work in the most challenging situations. Not only do they have to deal with dwindling education resources and collapsing education governance systems, they also struggle to sustain their voice and articulate their demands given the shrinking space for freedom, let alone civic participation.

In countries such as Yemen and Somalia, civil society organizations use their limited human and financial resources to keep the debate on education financing going.

As the scope and nature of aid change in emergency situations, coalitions must advocate against the diversion of aid from education in favor of security, and ensure other needs are fulfilled without it being at the expense of education.

Despite the high turnover of staff and the limitations of their own operational budgets, coalition members continue to be present in local education groups and education clusters. They don’t necessarily have the power to negotiate or shape humanitarian response plans, but they continue to act in resistance of the notion held by states, de-facto – and collapsing states that education is a luxury in times of emergency.

Education coalitions meet to ensure education is adequately resourced

Under the umbrella of the Global Campaign for Education, coalitions from Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Palestine came together in early 2017 to plan for a regional campaign on SDG4 accountability. In their meetings, coalitions held vigorous discussions to develop the features of the education budget replenishment campaigns that will be implemented at national level.

Planned activities include efforts to open dialogue with governments on education budgets and negotiate for higher shares to education, and increased percentages of GDP to be spent. Coalitions also agreed that collective work should be undertaken towards making education budgets more transparent, with a focus on the role of coalitions in monitoring budgets.

Global Action Week for Education advocacy efforts in Palestine
Global Action Week for Education advocacy efforts in Palestine
Photo Credit: ACEA

During this year’s GCE’s Global Action Week for Education, the replenishment advocacy campaign was launched at two major events in Amman, Jordan, and Ramallah, Palestine. The theme of both events was accountability for SDG4. The events brought all education stakeholders together to discuss how education budgets could be increased to meet the huge challenges in the region.

The events also highlighted the current opportunities for civil society to engage and influence financing decisions. For example, in Amman, representatives of the Ministry of Planning discussed the 2017 Voluntary National Review of Jordan on the SDGs and a debate was fostered on the role of civil society in monitoring government spending to achieve SDG4.

In parallel, several meetings were held with policy makers to discuss the share to education in government budgets in several countries. In Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Palestine, coalitions held direct meetings with Ministers of Education, parliamentarians, and UN officials.

Optimism despite huge challenges

Media staff were trained on SDG4 accountability and how citizen participation could be increased through the media, leading to effective public mobilization using social media. Furthermore, over 100 NGOs came together in Saida, Lebanon, at a public event to put pressure on local legislators to address education budget issues.

In Yemen, a petition signed by more than 22,000 Yemenis was delivered to the UN OCHA office. It urged international aid stakeholders to address education financing and to increase the share for education from humanitarian aid.

All the above activities are optimistic signs that, despite extremely challenging national contexts, there remains regional momentum to support the replenishment of education resources.

It also marks the early, steady steps towards a solid civil society advocacy movement for education in a region which is demanding, yet hopeful for its future generations.