A new consortium, led by NYU’s Lawrence Aber, aims to bring educational innovation to regions of greatest conflict around the world

A tent with the letters IRC and artwork depicting a sun, flowers, and letters and numbers

A tent school established by the International Rescue Committee to provide Syrian refugee children in Lebanon with remedial programming / Courtesy of Global TIES

Ruins remain where school buildings once stood in countries affected by war and violent extremism such as Nigeria, Sudan, and Syria. In Lebanon, an economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic led to more than a million children without access to an education.

Most recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine destroyed many schools and forced others to close, affecting approximately 350,000 Ukrainian children according to a February 2022 report by UNICEF.

With this expanding population of uneducated children, the world braces for a future generation that will likely be at increased risk for poverty, diseases, violence, and susceptibility to joining extremist movements.

To address this crisis, the International Rescue Committee (UK)—a nongovernmental organization that responds to humanitarian crises—will lead a research consortium to carry out a three-year initiative known as the Education Research in Conflict and Protracted Crisis (ERICC) program, using a £15.8 million (approximately $20.6 million) award from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Through ERICC, researchers will examine educational barriers and test innovative solutions to improve access, quality, and continuity of education in countries affected by conflict and crisis including northern Nigeria, South Sudan, Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh)/Myanmar, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. By doing so, the ERICC consortium will set a new standard for education research in the humanitarian sector, and provide in-country support to establish and expand new programs. The consortium hopes that this will yield the kind of evidence that will spark bold reform of education policies and practices for children in conflict and crisis regions.

NYU Steinhardt Professor Lawrence Aber is serving as ERICC’s Research Director. Aber is the co-director of Global TIES for Children, an international research center at NYU and one of the organizations in the consortium.

NYU News recently sat down with Aber and Ha Yeon Kim, a senior researcher for ERICC and senior research scientist at Global TIES for Children, for a conversation on mitigating the disruptions to children’s education in crisis-affected countries and possible interventions for children unable to attend school.

What is the status of education right now for children in conflict-affected countries? 

HYK: Nearly one in five children in the world have had their education upended as a result of conflict or crisis, with the number increasing as conflicts continue to emerge globally. As a result, humanitarian agencies, governments, and NGOs have been responding immediately to provide educational support to refugee and internally displaced children. These education intervention programs are primarily focused on increasing access and quality of education, as well as providing psychosocial support and safe spaces for the world’s most vulnerable children. Despite the tremendous efforts, there are still grave challenges in emergency settings, such as safety and security risks, teaching and staff shortages, lack of funding and resources, low retention rates, etc. The ERICC program is powered by the dire need to increase the evidence base for education in emergencies to improve the on-the-ground efforts. 

What aspects of education are prioritized when providing urgent support? 

HYK: Conflict and crisis not only hamper and disrupt children’s academic learning but also directly affect their physical and psychosocial wellbeing and social and emotional development. When it comes to the context of conflict and crisis, the key area to support is providing access to safe and predictable learning environments. While continued progression in academic learning is vitally important, such programs should also explicitly provide support for psychosocial wellbeing and training for developing social and emotional skills. Emerging evidence suggest that educational programs with explicit focus on social and emotional learning can improve children’s skills that can help them deal with adversities they experience. However, educational research, including those on social and emotional learning, is still emerging, and we need a lot more research – like ERICC – to know how to best support children in crisis. 

What role can research play in improving children’s education and development in these countries?

LA: There has been an increased effort and commitment from global and national stakeholders to support the most educationally disadvantaged children, but due to the lack of evidence, the work has been limited. Simply generating more evidence will not solve the issue, what is needed is a clear and coherent conceptual framework that will help translate individual studies into a body of knowledge that will drive meaningful change in children’s learning outcomes.  Such body of knowledge is critical in generating rigorous policy and operationally-relevant evidence to close critical gaps in our understanding of what works to improve education outcomes for girls and boys in regions affected by conflict and protracted crises. It can also help improve effectiveness of interventions by supporting the adaptation, piloting, strengthening, and scale-up of education programming in emergencies.

Are there early lessons from the countries Global TIES has worked with that can be applied to Ukraine?

LA: While we look in horror at how the Russian aggression is impacting Ukraine’s children and families, there are lessons to learn from the other conflicts raging in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America. First, there is a need to provide safe, secure environments where refugees and internally displaced children can live and learn. There can be little positive learning under conditions of profound fear. Second, children’s parents and teachers who play the most critical roles in children’s learning and development need support. Third, access to safe, secure environments is necessary, but not sufficient. The quality of instruction and the quality of social-emotional support are also key to children’s learning and development.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected children's education in countries where there were already barriers to education?  

HYK: There are so many ways that the COVID-19 pandemic affected the education sector. First, access to quality education became even more challenging for children living through conflict and protracted crises with school closures, limited mobility, and economic downturn related to the pandemic. Inequity of access to quality and continuity of education became even more exacerbated with school closures at a global scale, especially with the majority of refugee children living in low- and middle-income countries with limited digital infrastructure, which presented greater challenges in providing effective remote education programming and uptake. On top of an interrupted schooling experience due to conflict, displacement, and protracted crisis, now these children are coming back to the post-pandemic world with greater inequity in educational experience than ever before. Yet, they are expected to adapt, adjust, and perform in the disparate and incoherent education systems and policies struggling to meet needs of students with widely different educational experiences during the pandemic. We hope that programs like ERICC can provide vitally important and timely information to support these marginalized children in the post-pandemic world.