The International need for Educational Aid has probably never been greater. With 65 million children unable to access education and with less than 2 % of humanitarian aid currently used to support education there is just not enough Aid available to meet all the international need.
This means that it is necessary to prioritise and focus the scarce resources. Amongst the many needy countries Kurdistan stands out as a particular priority because:
The region is doubly disadvantaged: dealing with enormous influxes of refugees whilst struggling with its own financial crisis
Educational progress is at risk of stalling
The region is in the front line of the war against terror
Child migrants are putting their lives at risk crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.
1. The region is doubly disadvantaged
Since 2014 Kurdistan has taken large numbers of refugees from Syria and large numbers of IDPs (internally displaced people) from areas of Western Iraq which have been attacked and occupied by by ISIS (eg Sinjar, Ninevah and Mosul). There are more than half a million IDPs and Refugees settled in the Northern governorate of Dohuk, with more than a million having passed through the area since 2014.
Across the whole of Kurdistan there have been 2.5 million people requiring Humanitarian assistance (and 4.4m across the whole of Iraq). This means that the country has the second largest number of displaced people in the world, after Syria. Current needs are growing, rather than diminishing. During the first few months of 2017 the battle for Mosul has displaced another 300,000 people. Across Kurdistan itself almost 1 in 4 of the population is currently a refugee or IDP. The needs in the country are so severe that in 2014 the UN declared Iraq to be one of the 4 countries in the world classed as a level 3 emergency (the most severe category).
Although external aid is being provided to the region, in 2015 only 48% of what was identified as necessary for Humanitarian emergencies was actually provided, leaving significant amounts of money and resources to be found locally by the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government).
However, at the same time that the Humanitarian crisis has unfolded and brought unexpected financial demands to Kurdistan, Kurdistan’s own internal resources have collapsed and the country has gone through a very serious financial crisis. Political problems between Kurdistan and the federal government of Iraq has led to Iraq withholding elements of the 17% budget share which is supposed to fund services in Kurdistan. This, combined with the collapse in the price of oil, and the need to fund armed resistance to ISIS has had a catastrophic effect on Kurdistan’s public finances.
As a result of the financial pressures which Kurdistan is facing, spending on education has almost collapsed. Expenditure on education in the federal areas of Iraq is $1,116 per child but in Kurdistan it is just $47 per child. This devastating collapse in public expenditure has had a disastrous impact across Kurdistan. School teachers have seen their salaries stopped, or massively reduced since 2014. This has led to thousands of teachers dropping out of the profession, or fleeing the country.
As we have visited schools and communities across Kurdistan we have seen for ourselves the workforce gaps. Teachers are made available in camps for refugees and IDPs, but this is often at the cost of creating gaps elsewhere in other schools, such as one we visited which had just 1 qualified teacher for 2000 pupils.
In the immediately short term there is little prospect of things improving with either the Humanitarian crisis or the Financial crisis. And so the educational crisis is also set to continue. Unless external Educational Aid can be provided the future looks increasingly bleak for the young people of Kurdistan.
2. Educational Progress is at risk of stalling
Prior to the first gulf war in 1990 UNESCO reports that the Iraqi educational system was one of the best in the
region. Literacy levels were steadily climbing and had reached 82%, with less than 10% of school age children illiterate. There was almost 100% enrolment of children in schools, with gender equality in place and relatively small socio-economic differences.
As the country has gone through a period of wars and conflict, it has had a profoundly negative impact on education. Literacy levels are now around 70% in parts of the country, and 14% of school age children are illiteratebecause they cannot regularly attend a school.
Almost a half of IDP children struggle to access a school and considerable numbers have lost hope in getting an education at all. In some areas, 77% of Syrian refugee children no longer attend school and report that they are working to support their families instead. IDP girls are particularly underrepresented in education with a consequence that child marriage is on the rise. Due to the systematic and ongoing nature of the educational crisis in Kurdistan only around 9% of adults have completed their full school education.
Even where children do have regular access to school, they are often in classes of 40 children or more. We ourselves have counted 60 children in some classrooms of just 35 square metres. The space was so cramped that children were almost sitting in each other’s laps and there was not enough room for each child to open a book on a desk. Yet, these children are the ‘lucky’ children who are counted in statistics as having access to education.
In order to accommodate the numbers of children unable to access schools, around one third of the schools across Iraq and Kurdistan run multiple shifts, with different groups of children being educated in the morning and in the afternoon. This is helping to alleviate the worst excesses of the accessibility crisis. But UNICEF has noted that there are measurably negative educational impacts in multi-shift schools, as the afternoon shift achieve on average between a quarter and a third lower in exams than the children in the morning shift.
The physical infrastructure of education is also dilapidated because there has been such tiny amounts of money available to build schools or carry out repairs. Some schools have been destroyed due to military conflict, but other schools have been damaged because of the Humanitarian crisis. In 2014 around 750 schools were converted and used to accommodate people fleeing from Mosul. Three years later some of those schools are still awaiting repair in order to be returned to use as fully functioning schools.
One of the tragedies of Kurdistan is that thirty years education was strong and rapidly improving. Universal literacy was in sight as a real and obtainable goal. Now, the education system is a shadow of what it was. Without urgent and sustained Educational Aid, it is increasingly difficult to see how the young people of Kurdistan are ever going to reach their educational potential and have the skills necessary to contribute to building their country as the stable and prosperous economy that the region needs.
3. The region is in the front line of the war against terror
Combatting terror is a priority for the world’s governments, a priority reiterated recently by the G7 leaders. The atrocities and crimes of ISIS in Iraq are well documented, especially the massacres and sexual enslavement of Yazidis. However, much less reported is the scale of the psychological warfare waged by ISIS on the young people in the region.
This is particularly evident with very young children such as 7 year old Yousif. Seized as a 4 year old he was separated from his family for three years and indoctrinated with ISIS slogans. Now he is unable to mix with other children and plays games beheading dolls.
Older children were turned by ISIS into child soldiers. Even those young people who repudiate all that ISIS stands for have sometimes imbued aspects of ISIS propaganda without even realising it.
Teachers in Kurdistan are well aware of the problems. They know that they need to get the children back into education quickly, so that they can give the children an education which addresses ISIS propaganda and provides a more balanced world view. However the lack of money, lack of schools and lack of teachers is making this increasingly hard to do.
In February 2017 the KRG publicly appealed to the International community for support to enable them to help children such as 7 year old Yousif. The government drew attention to the fact that there are at least 1000 such children who are ‘ticking time bombs.’ To date the Kurdish government has received the resources to help just 13 of these children.
Since 2001 it is estimated that the US alone has put some $2 trillion into fighting the war on terror. Yet when we look at countries like Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan one fact leaps out: winning battles against terrorism does not win the war against terror.
If we really want to see a difference in these conflict zones then it is not enough to fight battles and walk away. Equal attention has got to be given to building peace. And an essential part of building a sustainable peace has got to be educating young people so that warped ideologies can be countered and so that all the young people have the skills and qualifications necessary to build a peaceful and prosperous community.
Kurdistan knows what needs doing. But it lacks the resources to do it. Educational Aid, at a fraction of the cost spent fighting the war on terror, could make all the difference, and enable the building of a regional climate where sustainable peace can start to flourish.
4. Child migrants are putting their lives at risk crossing the Mediterranean to Europe
Kurdistan itself has been largely untouched by the wider violence taking place in Syria and Iraq. The relative safety of the region is precisely why there are so many refugees and IDPs taking shelter there from the conflict in surrounding states.
Yet the collapsing finances in the country mean that increasing numbers of people are losing hope and making the journey to Europe. It is difficult to get clear information about the numbers travelling to Europe each year. One report cited a figure of 40,000 but admitted that the real number could be more than double that. Whatever the actual figures, we know that all those who do make the journey to Europe must cross the Mediterranean. And crossing the Mediterranean puts their lives at risk.
In Sept 2015 the world awoke to the dangers faced by migrants crossing the Mediterranean when the tiny body of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi washed up. There was a short lived media storm, but little has changed. In the year after that incident another 569 children’s bodies were recovered from the Mediterranean.
In the first five months of 2017 the UN records that 1729 migrants have died in the Mediterranean. With 80,788 arrivals recorded during that period, this is a death rate of 1 in 46 migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean. In disaster situations we know that women and children are 14 times more likely to die than adult males. When this is factored into the statistics of sea deaths it means that for every classroom sized group of children crossing the Mediterranean, between one and two of those children are drowning.
If we are serious about trying to prevent these deaths then a plan is needed to address the reasons why people are fleeing across the Mediterranean in the first place. There are issues of war and conflict which cannot easily be addressed. But there are also relatively straight forward issues which are driving some families, like access to education.
It would be simplistic and wrong to imply that providing education will end migration, but education will certainly address some of the reasons cited by some of the migrants. We ourselves have heard families in camps in Kurdistan saying that they plan to go to Europe precisely because they cannot get an education for their children.
In the UK it has been calculated that it costs £726,000 per day to meet the needs of asylum seekers. If a fraction of that amount was put into supporting families in their original countries through measures such as Educational Aid, then it is possible that fewer families would be making the journey to Europe. And so fewer children would be dying in the Mediterranean.
Act Now: The time has come to increase educational aid to Kurdistan
As we have visited camps and schools in Kurdistan, talking to teachers and educational officials; it has become clear to us that there is enormous potential in the region. Prior to the 2014 financial crisis confidence and prosperity in the region was expanding exponentially and there is no reason to think that the region cannot once again become a powerhouse of peace and prosperity.
But at the moment the region is in acute need. Previous educational progress is at risk of stalling, as the region buckles under unprecedented humanitarian pressures, financial crises and serious educational needs.
There is a receptivity and urgency in central government which recognises the need and desirability of Educational Aid. At Edlumino Education Aid we have been very impressed by the interest and support provided by the Kurdistan Ministry of Education, helping us to navigate our way through multiple practical difficulties in the field. The government is proactive and supportive of Educational Aid, meaning that it is possible to plan and enact strategies simply without delays and wastage of resources.
One of the key aspects of Educational Aid which is desperately needed is financial support. Schools need repairing and materials need purchasing. There is very definitely an enormous need for considerable financial support and we do not envisage that we will not be turning away financial contributions in the short term.
However money alone will not address all the key issues. Money will not suddenly fill gaps in the teacher workforce, or develop immediate teacher expertise. To provide temporary emergency support in these matters we are looking to pioneer a teacher partnership programme. This involves placing small teams of International teachers to work with Kurdish teachers in areas of particular acute need, teaching children directly and working with local teachers to develop their own practice. It’s a very new and novel way of approaching Educational Aid and we are very grateful to the Ministry of Education for their vision and support in striving to develop this approach.
Ultimately the will to improve education is present and strong in Kurdistan, they just need Educational Aid to help.