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Q&A on the impact of armed conflict on education with Gary Keith Ovington, UNICEF Regional Education in Emergencies Advisor

Bangkok, 6 July 2011 - UNICEF Regional Education in Emergencies Advisor, Gary Keith Ovington, talks about armed conflict and the massive number of children out of school as a result.

UNESCO recently released the 2011 Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report, titled The Hidden Crisis: Armed conflict and education. The report highlights the devastating impact of armed conflict on education, pointing out that in conflict-affected poor countries, 28 million children of primary school age are out of school – 42 per cent of the world total. Other alarming facts include:

• Only 79% of young people are literate in conflict-affected poor countries compared with 93% in other poor countries.
• 21 developing countries are currently spending more on arms than on primary schools – and if they were to cut military spending by just 10%, they could put an additional 9.5 million children in school.
• It would take just six days of military spending by aid donor countries to close the US$16 billion EFA external financing gaps.
• Education accounts for just 2% of global humanitarian aid.

For UNICEF, the report comes as momentum in Asia is building to be more vigilant in protecting education from the impacts of armed conflict. In September 2010, Gary Keith Ovington, Regional Education in Emergencies Advisor with UNICEF’s Asia and Pacific Shared Services Centre, organized the first-ever regional discussion of the problem, bringing together UNICEF staff, NGOs and government officials from five Asian countries to talk about how education is being attacked and what is working in their countries to protect students, teachers and schools from the violence.

Here Ovington continues that discussion, using the EFA Global Monitoring Report to highlight some of his concerns.

Q: Why do you think this report was titled the hidden crisis?

A: People know there’s armed conflict. People know it has an impact on education, I don’t think people realize the impact it’s having on keeping such a large proportion of kids out of school. People think of it in lots of other terms but they don’t think of it as a major barrier to the Education for All goals.

People recognize there are conflicts here and there but it’s not in most places. And in East Asia, yes it’s not the Viet Nam war era any more but it’s not completely peaceful here. In the greater Asia region, conflict is happening in a lot of places. But because conflict diverts resources away from spending on services and because it prevents kids from going to school, it actually has enormous impact on education. A huge proportion of out-of-school kids are in conflict-affected areas. The impact on the education system is so great and is much more an issue in the long term than something as huge as, say, a tsunami. A tsunami is fixed – once it’s finished, you have a pretty good idea of the scale of the damage and you get to it and try to set things right. With conflict, it’s continually shifting, and you’re never quite certain what the scale is and whether it’s ending, how big it is – it’s shifting sands. It’s a lot tougher that way.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1461/Giacomo Pirozzi (Philippines 2006)
A child's drawing depicts a man firing a machine gun amid a barrage of mortar fire, bombs and helicopters. Abdulrahman, 9, drew the picture at a camp for people displaced by the conflict on Mindanao Island, Philippines. "I will never forget the noise of the airplanes and helicopters, the destroyed plants and animals, big and small guns, people running everywhere," he said.

Q: How many children are affected by armed conflict? 

A: For a number of years a global estimate of 40 per cent circulated – the report puts it at 42 per cent – that referred to the proportion of primary school-aged children not in school who live in armed conflict-affected countries. But some people think it could be even bigger. The impact is so immense now that if this problem isn’t tackled in a reasonable way, we can never achieve EFA. And I think that’s probably right.

When you talk about the impact globally, one of the interesting things I saw was in a slide presentation with indicators for health, education and economic growth for the 20 most bottom countries in the world. The presenter asked what these countries had in common. Most people pointed out quite rightly that they were in sub-Saharan Africa. But that wasn’t the fundamental thing that linked them – 19 of the 20 countries had endured 10 or more years of armed conflict in recent times. They were either in conflict or emerging from it.

Q: That figure on children out of school refers to children not in school because of armed conflict?

A: No. You don’t need to be in the line of fire to be affected. If there’s an armed conflict in a country, what it means is that the government is diverting resources away from its primary responsibilities – education and health and other things and putting it towards conflict spending. So even in an area that is seemingly a long way from the fighting, where you would think there would be no issue, it will be affected in terms of the government budget.

But back to that figure of 42 per cent, which the report highlights. The EFA Global Monitoring Report researchers looked at conflict-affected countries and all those other correlations. They’re comparing poor countries in conflict with poor countries not in conflict. That’s where you can start to get a sense of a correlation – yes, there’s poverty in those countries and affecting many children’s education, but there’s something else happening as well.

When you get a figure like children in conflict-affected countries are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday, as the EFA Global Monitoring Report points out, that could be directly due to the conflict or it could be indirectly due to neglect in other areas of social spending. Maybe that’s part of the ‘hidden’ too, because it’s not just the obvious things that come out of a conflict but it’s these other more indirect things that are important as well.

In the Philippines, ceasefires have been coming and going for over 20 years – the conflict has been going since the 1960s. The last truce was July 2009. And it’s that sort of ongoing long-running uncertainty that’s really debilitating because they don’t stop long to allow the really serious business of development. The government is not going to go in and do the infrastructure building it should be doing. The government doesn’t want to invest a lot of money…why would you invest in a school that will be burned down or destroyed?

Q: In South Asia we know schools, and even girls are attacked for going to school, and that in places education was fueling some of conflict rhetoric. Are there changing trends on that dimension?

A: There’s been recent debate on how much of a chicken and egg there is – whether conflict is keeping kids out of school or there could be an element that it’s actually the schooling that leads to conflict. The language used in the curriculum, the history that is taught, even the illustrations used in books have been singled out by rebel groups in Nepal in the past and in southern Thailand, where Muslim separatists resent what they say is a Buddhist cultural bias in their children’s education. Schools have been burned and more than a hundred teachers have been killed – but the conflict goes much beyond the curriculum. It’s just that schools can become symbols of the other deeper issues that are more about development and inclusion, especially in areas heavily populated by a minority group.

This leads to the other side of the coin: the use of peace education, which is mentioned in the report – it has a chapter devoted to it – but I don’t think they have significantly highlighted the proactive nature of this whole peace education debate. In the report, peace education comes across as tacked on – it’s a bit too close to the end for me. I think it should have had a more central role.

© UNICEF/THLC2008-00017/Chumsak Kanoknan (Thailand, 2008)
Children play in the rubble of a school that was destroyed by arson in Yala. Hundreds of schools in Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla have been severely damaged or destroyed due to the unrest.

Q: What is that debate? 

A: Well on one side, extreme perhaps, it is the kumbaya stuff with people singing about peace, you know, all the New Age ‘give peace a chance’ stuff. On the other extreme it’s the socio-political bent and the need to look at the historical divisions of resources and why it’s been like that, how it could be changed and what needs to happen. It’s such a complex issue and it needs more space and devoted attention.

That said, there are also things that have been done in countries like Nepal where they set up schools as zones of peace. School committees, which included parents, negotiated with rebels to not target schools or to bring the conflict near schools. And it worked – not completely but it helped protect a lot of children and keep them in school. In Nepal and in Thailand there have been courses designed to promote tolerance and respect of other cultures and to get students of different backgrounds to bridge divides that define some of the conflicts. But there is debate on the real impact of these efforts as well.

The issue for me is that there has not been any systematic approach to ensuring access to quality education in areas of armed conflict. There are fragmented initiatives but the problem is so great it will take the concerted and coordinated efforts of all major actors if we are to tackle it.

Q: You organized a regional workshop on education under attack in 2010, which followed a global event a year earlier. Why did it take so long to get a global initiative going?

A: Education in conflict areas is a really difficult, complex problem to tackle. Your gut reaction is you have a war happening, you’re not going to have school. If bullets fly, education is just something put on hold. It’s only been somewhat recently that people have been learning of the innovative ways to keep school up and running during an armed conflict emergency and how to do it. So there’s the complexity of the issue and the newness of possible responses – people have only started to gain enough experience in how to keep education running in these situations.

Education traditionally has not been perceived as a frontline response during times of crisis, whether it’s a natural disasters or armed conflict. Yes it’s important but the general perception is that you get the rice and water in, give people shelter and then you can focus on education. I think only in recent times people have realized the importance of the protective factors of education. I think this is the area that is really important – that education is designed to protect. It protects and it also normalizes and I think it’s only recently that people have ‘discovered’ those qualities. The slowness in attention is systematic of the much bigger field of education in emergencies.

UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0681/Liu Jerry (China, April 2010)
Students stand in front of a collapsed dormitory building at Yushu School for Orphans after the quake hit Yushu County, Qinghai Province, China. UNICEF responded to the crisis by supplying school tents, blankets and warm children’s clothing. UNICEF also provided children’s winter boots, student kits, ambulances, generators and medical equipment to the earthquake zone.

I had become aware of the global event happening (through UNESCO) and I thought this interesting and cutting edge and we need to look at it. I realized this is something we really need to tackle in our region – in emergencies, our region also covers Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, obvious candidates for such a complex area – but I felt it was also an issue in Southeast Asia (namely Myanmar, Philippines and Thailand). We needed that workshop to catalyse, we needed to get the thing started. We needed to get people to share experiences of what they had been doing in countries to monitor the attacks and then what they had been doing to keep school going.

Q: What are some of the tactics that have been used in this region to keep schools going?

A: In Thailand, the military stepped up its protection and offered armed escorts for teachers when going to and from school. And in some schools they provided security. But this can be controversial because it politicizes schools even more, and sets schools up for attack because of the military presence. Recently there have been piloted projects in Thailand to use the local Malay language as the language of instruction in the early years and to revise school materials and the curriculum to make it more culturally sensitive to the local context. There is Nepal’s Schools as Zones of Peace, I mentioned already. And what has been done in Afghanistan to educate girls has been amazing. Girls and teachers of girls have literally been given death threats if they go to school and a few agencies have supported the training of community-based teachers and the setting up of unidentified ‘schools’ for girls in homes. But again, these are fragmented initiatives.

©UNICEF/THLC2008-00016/Chumsak Kanoknan (Thailand 2008)
Children play in the rubble of a school that was destroyed by arson in Yala province, Thailand.  Hundreds of schools in the restive provinces in the South of Thailand were severely damaged or destroyed due to the unrest.

Q: What realistically can an organization like UNICEF do?

A: The issues are really deep and go way beyond UNICEF. The conflicts are embedded in the way a whole country is governed and the way that resources are divided, but there are still many things we can do. UNICEF can support governments in monitoring attacks on education and reporting the incidence to the now several mechanisms available to intervene to negotiate for protection or even to pursue justice. UNICEF can also help set up schools in conflict areas.   We have to learn how to make schools and everyone who works or studies in them protected zones of peace. 




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