RPN 21 published April 1996

2. Education: the least of UNHCR's priorities? UNHCR responds

In two interviews with senior UNHCR Officers, former RSP student Ann Avery puts UNHCR's policy and practice regarding education and training under scrutiny. Margaret Sinclair outlines the educational provision for refugees and Catherine Whibley discusses staff training programmes.

Margaret Sinclair, Senior Education Officer in charge of the Education Unit at UNHCR headquarters, spent several years advising on field operations in UNHCR's vocational training and income generating activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As an educational planner and scientist, she brings an analytic and practical perspective to UNHCR's responsibility for refugee education.

  • RPN: It is often said that education and training programmes are underfunded when compared with other urgent needs of refugees. In terms of budget allocations, where does the provision of education for refugees fall within UNHCR's priorities?
  • MS: Our 1995 budget for education was about $52 million, while budgets for other key 'technical sectors' were $63 million for water and sanitation, and $97 million for health. In addition, some nonformal education is funded under projects in other sectors.

    How is the education budget distributed? Does primary education get a fair share?

    In 1995, the budget for recurrent costs of primary schooling was $20 million, while most of the education sector's budget of $11.5 million for construction activities also related to primary schooling. A major part of the $4.5 million sectoral support and management costs should also be attributed to primary education, together with inservice training costs of $0.5 million.

    UNHCR also attaches importance to secondary schooling. In most countries, however, the refugee enrolment pattern shows an education pyramid with a broad base and narrow top. This is also the situation in many of the rural areas of the countries from which refugees originated, but we should not perpetuate it. We should encourage our implementing partners to work with refugee communities to increase participation in schooling, especially of girls. We would like to see more schooling for outofschool adolescents, including school reentry programmes.

    How does UNHCR determine which organisations will be its implementing partners in education and training and which projects will be selected and funded? How does UNHCR evaluate the impact of its projects?

    UNHCR programmes are developed at local level, in discussion with refugees, NGOs and government representatives. Because refugee situations vary so widely, decisions are heavily influenced by UNHCR staff on the spot, although policy guidance may often be provided by staff in the Branch Offices and Headquarters, who will also decide on the availability of funding.

    The Revised (1995) Guidelines for Educational Assistance to Refugees should help a prospective implementing partner understand what UNHCR is looking for in education and training projects. We are also producing a sourcebook which gives guidance and examples of good practice on skills training for refugees. It explains why we prefer to support apprenticeships, mobile training, and resource centres combined with production rather than expensive training centres. Before too long we hope to have a sourcebook on distance learning in refugee situations.

    In principle, UNHCR attempts to promote refugee schooling and, where possible, also to support a balanced and appropriate programme of nonformal education and training. Decisions on implementing mechanisms and partners should maximise quality while ensuring costeffectiveness. A recent trend is to encourage the same NGO to undertake community services activities and provide support for education sector activities, which would ensure a communitybased approach to education. This is not a rule, however. UNHCR emergency teams now usually involve a community services officer, whose duties include the initial mobilisation of communities for simple recreational activities for children, followed by support for nonformal schooling.

    The choice of implementing partners for UNHCR support for more structured education programmes is made on the basis of the practicalities on the ground at this time.

    Regarding impact, education statistics are collected annually, and there are periodic monitoring visits by headquarters staff or consultants. Education features in the country reviews conducted by UNHCR's new Inspection and Evaluation Services. These reviews are internal management tools. In 1995, there were two Regional Education Workshops in Africa, at which concerned staff from UNHCR and some implementing partners shared experiences and ideas on policy guidelines for the mid1990s.

    The 1990s have been declared to be the decade of repatriation. How does refugee education policy reflect this emphasis on repatriation?

    UNHCR, jointly with UNICEF and UNESCO, now emphasises 'education for repatriation'. This is not a new idea. For example, the Afghan refugees in Pakistan followed an Afghan curriculum in their own languages, ready for return, not the curriculum of Pakistan (which uses the national language, Urdu). The Mozambican refugees in Malawi and Zimbabwe followed the Mozambican curriculum, which greatly facilitated their resumption of education on return to Mozambique. More recently, the Rwandan refugees in Tanzania, Burundi and Zaire, have been following a simplified version of the Rwandan curriculum, in Kinyarwanda language, which will facilitate their return.

    UNHCR policy is summarised in its Revised (1995) Guidelines for Educational Assistance to Refugees, which emphasises the concept of education for repatriation. Three phases have been distinguished, based on recent experience:

    In Phase 1 of a refugee emergency, refugee teachers and others should organise recreational and simple educational activities for refugee children, since these group activities, with familiar adults, will help ease the psychosocial problems of trauma and exile.

    In Phase 2 of what is hopefully a rapid educational response (now the policy of UNHCR's Executive Committee), there should be nonformal schooling by familiar refugee teachers using familiar educational materials (again helping overcome the strangeness of exile).

    In Phase 3A the reintroduction of textbooks, common timetables and examinations the curriculum should be that of the country or area of origin, or compatible with it. If, however, repatriation is likely to be long delayed, or the solution is to be one of local settlement, then (Phase 3B) elements of the host country curriculum and/or languages may be blended with elements of the curriculum of the country or area of origin, according to a formula decided through consultations among the host government, the refugee community and UNHCR.

    This policy places emphasis on the refugee child's initial right to follow a familiar curriculum taught by familiar teachers with the minimal delay. Children do not lose the study skills and curriculumspecific learning that they need for reintegration into the education system when they repatriate. When repatriating, students and teachers should be provided with documentation about their educational and teaching experience while in exile. Local school officials of the districts of return should be informed and UNHCR may if necessary intervene in the initial integration phase to ensure that adequate facilities and personnel are in place. Information and counselling on available educational programmes and employment opportunities should be provided to those whose studies were interrupted by repatriation.

    Acquiring the language of the host society is basic to the process of becoming economically and socially secure. What is your policy and practice on provision for adult language training? Could you explain why there is not more activity in this area?

    This is an important issue in some locations, and I would like to add to it the need to promote adult literacy. A lot depends on the refugee and host government's perception of the needs in a given situation. We mention in the vocational training sourcebook that learning the local language or an international language can increase the employability of refugees while in exile or after repatriation or resettlement.

    UNHCR funded language learning programmes for 3,260 refugee adults in 1993 and 2,500 in 1994. In addition, some independently organised groups or UNHCRfunded Community Services activities arrange teaching of the host country language. In principle, UNHCR is willing to assist selfhelp initiatives in this area with necessary technical support, or to assist isolated individuals as appropriate.

    What new developments in refugee education are afoot at UNHCR?

    While emphasising the concept of using the country or area of origin's curriculum as the starting point for education programmes, UNHCR also seeks to enrich the education programmes it sponsors with messages supportive of peaceful and sustainable durable solutions. A pilot project for environmental education begins in East Africa in 1996, and preliminary steps are being taken to introduce education for peace and conflict resolution and human rights.

    If readers have experience in these areas we would be grateful for their input. [Please see contact address at the end of this interview. Ed.]

    Many of our readers are both practitioners and researchers. From your perspective, what lines of research might lead to improved practice in refugee education?

    We need to develop better models of inservice teacher training in refugee camps and affected areas. We need to learn of practical approaches that have succeeded in different parts of the Third World. We need to build up educational activities for outofschool youth, including 'nonformal' primary education, drawing on recent experience in nonrefugee situations.

    In general, NGO staff implementing education programmes in refugee camps or settlements are cut off from information on exciting new NGO programmes for nationals in Bangladesh or Zimbabwe or Country X. This is a gap which could usefully be filled.

    Finally, would you like to share your personal vision of refugee education?

    It has been said that the only thing most refugees take home to their country is what they have learned. We would like them to go home with the knowledge and desire to build a peaceful, wellfunctioning society; with selfconfidence and knowledge from formal and nonformal studies; with environmental awareness and related skills; with an understanding of conflict management and how the observance of human rights at local level is made possible by responsible community action; and with practical experience of such communitybased activities, especially in caring for vulnerable members of society.

    Margaret Sinclair can be contacted at the Education Unit, UNHCR, P O Box 2500, CH1211 Geneva 2 Depot, Switzerland; Fax (4122) 739 73 71; or Email sinclair@unhcr.ch.

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    October 1996