When issues of survival are at hand, keeping children up on their studies might appear less of a priority. But right alongside emergency shelter, nutrition, protection, and other essentials, education provides stability, hope, normalcy, and resources for the present and the future of any disaster-affected community.


When children are unable to learn and grow due to natural disasters, displacement, complex humanitarian emergencies, and other life-altering events, those communities cannot fully recover. In addition, as schools often serve as community hubs, families may miss entry points for health, nutrition, and psychosocial care without them.

Education nurtures development, encompassing growth in emotions, social skills, knowledge, and mental capacity. But post-disaster, it also serves an essential role in helping children—and their families—cope. Education was once seen as an issue to be handled in long-term recovery. But more and more, it is finding its place as a crucial part of emergency response in both life-saving and life-sustaining ways.

Across the globe, according to the most recent UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) studies, 61 million children of primary school age and 71 million adolescents of lower secondary school age are out of school. And when it comes to those displaced by conflict and complex humanitarian emergencies, estimates on how long they’ll be away from school range from six to eight years. The schooling simply can’t wait.

Key Facts

  • Overall, the number of children out of school began declining in part with the founding of the global Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). But in recent years, despite focused efforts, the numbers have stalled. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, much of that is due to trends in sub-Saharan Africa (accounting for half of all out-of-school children worldwide).     
  • Disasters hit some populations harder than others, but children and youth are typically among the most vulnerable. Natural disasters can separate families, and related trauma can heavily disrupt childhood development. When it comes to complex humanitarian emergencies, according to UNHCR,almost half of the world’s forcibly displaced people are children. While displaced, if out of school, they miss key protection from abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, and other detriments.
  • Education is essential for both genders, but efforts to reach girls are especially important.  UNESCO Institute for Statistics reports that 53 percent of the world’s out-of-school children are girls. Without schooling, girls are more likely to be illiterate and unprepared for future life challenges—including work opportunities and chances for a better existence.
  • Education is closely linked to many other components of humanitarian response, including Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH); protection; camp management; shelter; and health. It was not one of the original nine thematic clusters established by the United Nations in 2005, but was added at a later date with UNICEF and Save the Children as agency leads. For a comprehensive response, educational efforts must be included in disaster risk reduction strategies, post-disaster rapid assessments, and funding.
  • It is not enough that education is merely present for disaster-affected children. Emphasis also must be placed on the quality and relevancy of the educational offerings. These offerings can make all the difference in a community’s ability to recover today—in addition to overcome poverty, illness, inequality, and lack of participation tomorrow.

How to Help

  • Advocate for greater inclusion of education in humanitarian response, and back it up with funding. These efforts must also include education for those with disabilities and developmental disabilities.
  • Support efforts to involve children in disaster preparedness and planning. Participation in planning can give an added sense of security, comfort, and confidence if and when a disaster occurs.
  • Pre-position educational supplies in disaster-prone areas. Include, for example, textbooks, early childhood development kits, recreational activities, and school-in-a-box kits.
  • Strengthen local partnerships. Shore up the capacity of those already working in education in disaster-prone areas, as they’ll have the most accurate portrait of what’s needed should disaster strike.
  • Train educators and administrators in the assessment and management of risk factors, in addition to methods of offering psychosocial support. The school setting offers a rich opportunity for ongoing assessments.
  • Post-disaster, support the construction of temporary learning spaces. These should incorporate standards for appropriate lighting, size, etc., to disrupt the learning process as little as possible.
  • Invest in the design and building of educational structures that can better withstand the elements and provide shelter and protection in disaster-prone areas. Studies of the effects of previous disasters and implementation of best practices can help schools maintain their status as community hubs and safe places for all.
  • Teach disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies. People of all ages can lend a hand in mitigating the effects of disaster.
  • Support the development and implementation of early warning systems in disaster-prone areas. The more warning, the more time to prepare—and the better the long-term outcome.
  • Develop effective school-based response plans. Include disaster drills and safety assessments.

What Donors Are Doing

In many cases, donors still do not specifically fund education in the context of disasters. What has increased, however, is the use of schools to deliver other risk reduction initiatives. Much work is still to be done in highlight the importance of education for the world’s disaster-affected communities both today and tomorrow.

A handful of higher-profile efforts in recent years include:

  • The IKEA Foundation awarded Save the Children a $10 million grant in 2012 to fight child labor in India. It follows other successful efforts of the IKEA Foundation in the nation, where more than 65,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14 have moved out of child labor and into classrooms. One of the new projects funded by the grant will improve the quality of education available, helping ensure children will complete school. Related projects will enhance family incomes through access to government social security and rural work schemes, as well as raise awareness of children’s rights.
  • Also in 2012, Verizon Foundation offered $50,000 grants to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and Save the Children. Education is one of the foundation’s key focus areas, alongside health care and sustainability.
  • The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation awarded a $1.5 million grant to Plan International USA to improve the quality of life of children affected by HIV/AIDS in Mozambique and Kenya. The 2012 grant, which will leverage similar funding from Plan Finland and Plan Australia, aims to increase resources to address the needs of the youngest children in the affected areas, integrating early childhood care and development programming into other efforts.
  • The giving arms of numerous corporations such as the Coca-Cola Company, General Mills, Wells Fargo, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Sony USA, Walmart, 3M, Goldman Sachs, and the McGraw-Hill Companies have provided smaller grants both domestically and internationally to support teachers, offer scholarships, provide equipment and supplies, rebuild and repair damaged structures, enhance arts education, increase services for those with disabilities, discourage absenteeism and dropouts, and more.

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