The Opportunity to Thrive: Girls' Education in Humanitarian Crises

Thursday, June 21, 2018
Syrian refugee girls gesture as they sit inside a classroom at a school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
Matthew Reynolds

Regional Representative for the United States and the Caribbean, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Yasmine Sherif

Director, Education Cannot Wait


Senior Fellow, Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations

In the shadow of this year’s World Refugee Day, 39 million girls living in countries impacted by conflict or natural disaster still do not have access to education. A lifeline in times of turmoil, access to quality education provides girls with safety, dignity, and the opportunity to thrive. Yet, education is often one of the first services to be disrupted and the last to be restored. In humanitarian contexts adolescent girls are acutely vulnerable – girls are two-and-a-half times more likely to be out of school than their male peers. Current negotiations on the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration present a powerful opportunity to prioritize girls’ education in international policy, data analysis, and funding. Experts Yasmine Sherif and Matthew Reynolds discuss how international organizations and policymakers can work together to advance stability and prosperity by ensuring all displaced girls have access to the twelve years of quality education promised in the Sustainable Development Goals. 



STONE: Good afternoon, everyone. It feels like a family reunion in here. Warm crowd.

Well, I just wanted to welcome all of you and to thank you so much for joining us today at the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Meighan Stone, and I’m so honored to be a senior fellow here in our Women in Foreign Policy Program. Before I joined CFR, I served as president at the Malala Fund and worked with the U.N. World Food Programme. So I’m particularly grateful that all of you made time to come out today to have this discussion together.

Our mission at the Women in Foreign Policy Program is to analyze how elevating the status of women and girls around the world advances U.S. foreign policy objectives. So we’re thankful to you for voting with your feet to come to this event so we can continue talking about these important issues here at the Council.

So to that end, the conversation today is on the record. I know many events here are off the record. Today is on the record, and as part of that, I want to encourage everyone that has one of these with you to feel free to tweet—if you hear something that’s meaningful or engaging out of today’s discussion to continue to talk about these issues beyond the building. So you can use our Twitter handle at the Women in Foreign Policy Program, which is #CFR_WFP.

So we’re going to have a conversation with our esteemed speakers today for the first thirty minutes and then we’re looking forward to opening it up to a really robust and vibrant discussion with all of you at 1:00. So we’re looking forward to your thoughts and feedback after we hear from our guests.

So we all know it was World Refugee Day yesterday, and so talking about refugee education could not be more important or timely. We know that particularly vulnerable populations like adolescent girls really need to be served by policymakers and international organizations, and they need to work together because, ultimately, we’re advancing stability and prosperity and helping to ensure that all displaced girls have this fundamental right to twelve full years of education that’s enshrined in the sustainable development goals, which includes all girls including refugee and displaced girls, including girls impacted by conflict and disaster.

So we know that the timing right now is particularly important. We know that wars, violence, and persecution have uprooted record numbers of men, women, and children worldwide. UNHCR, of course, released their Global Trends report this week and they found that 68.5 million people have been driven from their homes, globally, and we know that close to twenty million of those are refugees.

So right now today, we have thirty-nine million girls actually that are living in countries impacted by conflict or natural disasters who do not have any access to education, and we know this intrinsically, right, in our own families and our own shared experience that education is what makes the difference. We know that it’s a lifeline out of poverty but especially in times of turmoil. We know that it gives safety, it gives dignity, and it gives the opportunity to thrive. We all have seen that in our own lives and our own families.

So we also know, unfortunately, though, that education is often one of the first services to be disrupted in a humanitarian crisis and it’s often the last to be restored. In humanitarian contacts we know that adolescent girls are acutely vulnerable. They are two and a half times more likely to be out of school than their male peers, so a real need to be addressed by policy.

So this makes these new solutions like Education Cannot Wait and the global deal on refugees being discussed currently more critical than ever. The current negotiations on the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration present such a powerful and important opportunity to prioritize girls’ education international policy in our data analysis and in our funding.

So I’m thrilled and honored to have such deeply-experienced expert speakers with us today—Yasmine Sherif and Matthew Reynolds. We’re privileged to welcome Yasmine, who serves as the director of Education Cannot Wait. She previously served as the president of international relations at the Global Center for Justice and Humanity and as the director of the International Humanitarian Law Resource Center.

I think she’s worked in every agency of the U.N., at the end of the day, when I look at the list. UNHCR—

SHERIF: Except World Food Programme I haven’t yet.

STONE: Except for—we’re still waiting at WFP, but until then, UNHCR, UNDP, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She’s worked in Afghanistan, Cambodia, the Balkans, Sudan, the Middle East, and also at U.N. headquarters in New York and Geneva. So, Yasmine, we’re so thrilled to have you.

We’re also joined by Matthew Reynolds, who is the regional representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for the U.S. and the Caribbean, based here in D.C. Before joining UNHCR, he served as the North America representative for UNWRA and as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, and also as staff director of the House Rules Committee, a professional staff member in the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees, and as a congressional chief of staff and legislative director. Matthew, we’re thrilled to have you with us today.

We could not be more grateful to benefit from both your experiences and perspectives and so I want to dive right in with you, Yasmine, so I’d love to start a conversation talking about Education Cannot Wait.

So I remember at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 when you launched in your first ever fund that’s expressly dedicated to education in emergencies. You’ve done so much to start this work in such a short time, and I think we all know from multilateral funds that’s easier said than done often when you’re starting out, and I just want to congratulate you on that and, say, for today, as you look across the landscape, what are the most urgent challenges and opportunities for you and your team at Education Cannot Wait?

SHERIF: Thank you very much, first of all, and thanks, Meighan, for inviting me here and it’s wonderful to see so many beautiful faces around the table of whom some I have met. I just met somebody that used to work in Afghanistan with me in 1991. They’re over there. (Laughter.) I couldn’t believe this. What are you doing here? So that’s quite incredible. And, of course, Julie, she’s our—one of our strongest partners in Education Cannot Wait. And we—so happy to work with you, and everyone else that we haven’t met yet. We have some other colleagues here, as well, from the Global Coalition. There you are. There you are, my dear.

OK. So it’s lovely to be here and it’s real exciting. Now, what are the big challenges and why was Education Cannot Wait created? And I speak from a perspective of what it looks like in a—in a conflict—armed conflict, natural disasters. When you come out in these armed conflict situations, there will be certain areas where everyone comes rushing in. You know, we are very good at coming in with the tents and the water and making sure that the logistics is there and try to provide as much as what we call lifesaving assistance, right, and try to make—help people to survive.

What we have realized is that these kind of what we call emergencies they usually last more than a week. They actually end up lasting maybe seven, ten, fifteen years, and if you have children and young people who are sitting there and they are being provided with all that sort of logistical support but not being provided with education during the most formative years—that is, from primary to secondary—and you’re sitting there for ten, fifteen years, you can just imagine what happens to their minds during those years and where they might end up.

For girls, what mostly likely will happen is they will get married by the age of eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve years old. A girl in South Sudan today is more likely to die of childbirth than to enter—to graduate from secondary school. That’s the reality. In Afghanistan, we have 3.5 million children—school-age children—of whom 75 percent are girls who have never gone to school.

So they will end up in child marriage. They will be drawn into trafficking. We see this happening already in places like the—for the Rohingyas in the refugee camps. We see them in the Middle East in the camps in Lebanon, in Jordan—trafficking, prostitution, and, of course, abuse in all sorts of forms for the women and for the boys.

A young man who is not going to school, who’s not being provided with life skills to be a constructive member of the society will most likely or be very—very likely to be drawn in to much more destructive ways of managing the trauma and managing his future. So they will be drawn in to extremist groups and they’ll pick up arms. There will be drugs and so forth. So we are going to create a whole generation of young people—if they are not provided with education as soon as they cross that border or as soon as that conflict breaks out, we are going to—we are creating generations without that backup.

There’s another aspect that is equally important when we are—when we talk about education besides having the numerical or the literacy skills. It’s also about value systems. It’s about getting universal values, human rights, how to resolve conflict peacefully, how to, in general, being able to be a constructive member, maybe to become a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer, and if all of that is taken away from you. So, again, we are creating what eventually become a national security—(inaudible)—to every country, not only in the—in the neighboring regions—across the globe and we know what the world looks like today.

So education is as important as any lifesaving assistance because it’s about investing in the human mind—investing in the mind of this new generation. Seventy-five million children and young people today do not have access to quality education or any education at all—75 million. Let’s multiply this. Where will it be ten years, fifteen, twenty years from now? So this is a very serious issue from many aspects besides—there’s also, of course, a humanitarian issue to that and the right to education is a fundamental human right. That’s the last thing you take away from a person because that’s the tool you have to build a new future.

So Education Cannot Wait was created after that. Despite all the efforts that were being made by actors to deliver on education in this specific space of emergencies and armed conflict, no one was delivering adequately. So Education Cannot Wait was created. We are a global fund and our job is to attract resources, inspire political commitment to education, and to bring everyone to work together.

We don’t—we are not UNICEF. We are not UNHCR. We don’t deliver education. But we are that sort of overarching facilitator to get the funding and get it out quickly and to make everyone work together. So this is how Education Cannot Wait was created, and if one were to summarize what we are about, I would say it’s about attracting the resources and delivering them and working with humanitarian speed for development depth. Education is a development sector. It’s not a humanitarian sector, per se, but you’ve got to work with speed. And often what happens when development actors go out in a conflict, they bring the development approach with them and then they sit with their systems and their plans and this, and we know whoever has been in the conflict, those plans are not going to work and the systems—and that Education Cannot Wait for all of that to be in place. We are working with very abnormal circumstances, and whatever is abnormal often requires external solutions. So we are about speed, depth, crisis-sensitive, move. Get everyone together. Get that education out as fast as possible to the 75 million. Make sure we save the generation and save the world—national security, stability, and our principles of humanity—and we are also hoping as we do this maybe we can also spur some U.N. reform as we go along.

STONE: That’s a very ambitious agenda we support.

Well, I would love to shift to Matthew then to talk about—you know, just picking up on the—having both speed and depth, you know, in response, you know, and I know we all dug into the Global Trends report. I saw so many people sharing its content and really putting a strong focus on it yesterday, you know, and it really just tees up the Global Compact process, right.

So could you share with us, from the UNHCR perspective, the importance of education and humanitarian response, and with a special focus on girls and adolescent girls? And then what would you say is the state of play about how education is being discussed or addressed right now within the discussions around the Global Compacts?

REYNOLDS: Sure. Thank you. Thank you very much. And thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations as well for hosting this today. Usually, in the past, I’ve often been one of the people sitting here, so now I’m intimidated. I’m on the front and I have to say something. And I’ll warn you in advance I’m a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. So I don't have as much technical expertise on some of the technical things. But I hope to cover as much as I can.

Look, I thought I’d, first, start off by answering that by referencing the trends that went out yesterday, which is our annual big (membership ?) of numbers. And I know no one likes to hear a lot of numbers so I try to make it an American gee-whiz fact so that you can understand the scope of what you're looking at when we’re talking about these things.

As Meighan noted, we have now seen 68.5 million displaced in 2017—this is Texas and California combined—that 16.2 million of those were the addition of this year, which is the largest ever in the last five years, and that’s including new refugee—new displaced and repeated displaced. That’s 44,500 a day, or one person every two seconds is displaced. That’s the entire state of Pennsylvania and Oregon or, if you’re from the middle part, Illinois and Kentucky combined, fleeing, so—or being displaced.

Now, two-thirds of this number—of the—of the overall 68.5 million are internally displaced persons and they’re staying within the borders. But sometimes the borders are quite large. You look at something like the Democratic Republic of Congo where most—where there’s a huge IDP population, but it’s also a huge country, or a place like Colombia.

Now, of that large number, 25.5 million of them are refugees. These are individuals who’ve crossed the borders to escape persecution, war, and conflict. That’s—think of—that’s the—that the population of Texas, though—oh, this is on the record. I should be careful. Some people might like Texas to move. But—(laughter)—I’m from New England—but so that’s the population of Texas, and half of that group, though, are children and many are unaccompanied.

So I just want you to remember that when you’re looking and thinking about all the work that’s being done on education because—and just think of that fact that 16.5 million of them are new so—or different. So because think about that when we’re looking at education. In some places where you have populations that have been stabilized, maybe in big camps like in Zaatari in Jordan or Kakuma in Kenya, you have a system already set up, but all of these new players in the field.

And also consider the fact that 58 percent of refugees today are in urban areas. We all think of refugees in camps. That’s actually a pretty growingly smaller, smaller, smaller group of people. Most are in the urban centers. So access to education—it’s not just go into a camp and build a school. Now you’re having to go into neighborhoods both rural and urban to find and to help those individuals who are displaced and those who are refugees.

And look at where this is happening or where they’re from. If you look at the top five, which is two-thirds—which is two-thirds of all refugees, what are the top five countries where they all come from? It’s Somalia, Myanmar—or Burma—South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria, and for those of us in the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela is looming around the corner.

If you want to look at where they go, I would also point out one-quarter of the—one-fifth of those refugees are Palestine refugees, but those come under the mandate of UNWRA and not UNHCR. If you look at where they go, 85 percent of these refugees are in Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Lebanon, and Iran. If you look at sort of the education trends of what’s—of where it is, as has been referenced, more than half—this is for refugees that UNHCR is concerned about—more than half, or 3.5 million, of the 6.4 million school-age refugee children do not go to school.

Refugees are five times more likely to be out of school than the normal average. Sixty-one percent of refugee children go to primary school, compared to 91 percent at the global level. This means that 1.5 million children—refugee children—are not in primary school. Twenty-three percent of refugee adolescents attend secondary school, compared to the global average of 84 percent, and 1 percent of refugees go to university, compared to the global average of 36 percent, and more than 50 percent out of those—of school refuge children are in seven countries. As you can imagine, they’re the poorest—Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey.

So it’s—and it’s difficult for—as you can see, for all refugee children to access education and, as I said, they are more than five times likely to be out of school than their peers. If you want a lot of very good information on all of this, I just refer you to UNHCR. We put out a report in March of 2018 called Her Turn, because I’m going to reference specifically now girls’ education and this is the focus of Her Turn.

Girls, as has been alluded to, have far more trouble accessing education than refugee boys, and the older the girl is the greater the gap. For example, in secondary schools, for every ten boys there are only seven girls, and in tertiary education, of the 1 percent of refugee students that are actually able to access it, only 41 percent are girls.

Now, what are the barriers, because we have to deal with barriers in order to get the access. It’s a cost of schooling. It’s the social and cultural factors, as—such as community beliefs. We have sexual and gender-based violence at school and in the family or in the community. We have safety concerns on the way to school. We have a very inadequate learning environment, one that does not meet the specific needs of girls, that lack the right sanitary facilities, clean water, or private toilets, and there’s a lack of female teachers and role models.

So we’re trying many ways to address these barriers the best we can and there are many activities that UNHCR engages with, particularly with partners, and partners play an important role. We have a—there’s a UNHCR youth education program to reinforce the links of education and training pathways. You want to make sure that girls feel welcome and safe in school. So, again, the infrastructure needs need to be met so that they can engage in a gender-sensitive learning environment.

Supporting female role models that girls can look up to, such as female teachers, community leaders, and small business owners is very important if you want to break through. Another breakthrough, of course, is helping girls’ families overcome financial barriers that prevent them from accessing school, especially if they’re in a single-parent family led—with a household led by their mother—by a woman—and that includes payment of school fees, exam fees, provision of uniforms and textbooks, and all these things.

So there’s lots of practical things. We think of the big high issues, but there’s a lot of practical things that we can do as well to get that ball rolling.

STONE: That’s so good. Thank you for sharing such a comprehensive landscape of the overarching issues around refugees, children, and then, particularly, girls and adolescent girls as well. You know, when we look at the Global Compact negotiations—you know, I’d love to open it up to a discussion amongst, you know, both of you—you know, the approach that the global community is taking to it. I don’t know, Matthew, you know, if you have anything to lend on that and then, you know, just in terms of the ethos or the values or what’s the framework that we’re taking to approach this.

You know, Yasmine, I’ve heard you talk a lot about reaching the furthest behind first or sometimes I’ve heard you use this term of progressive universalism, which kind of reminds me of Partners in Health when they started advocating for ARV therapy and they kept talking about a preferential option for the poor. You know, people were, like, that’s impossible, and then, you know, things progressed, ultimately.

So, you know, I hear you delivering some of the same messages, you know, about this is doable if there’s prioritization and there’s a sincere constant dedication effort, and we need to fight for that. So as you're taking that perspective, as these Global Compact negotiations are underway, what is both of your perspective about how girls’ education could be part of those conversations and we make sure that it’s enshrined in what’s going to be in the compacts, ultimately?

REYNOLDS: Sure, I can—briefly, at the high level, mention the compact is moving—the Global Compact on Refugees, which is the one the UNHCR is involved—there are two compacts—there’s one on migration but that’s not within our jurisdiction—is moving quite along, quite—almost to completion now and we’re hoping—perhaps, in July. We’ve gone through many drafts and I know some of your organizations have been involved in that consultative process.

But there’s a couple of real innovative and important angles that it’s taking. I think one of it is that it’s the idea of burden sharing but it’s also the idea of acceptance. And so what I’m referring to, really, is the community-based sort of responses and approaches, particularly when you look at countries that are having a high level of refugees, whether it’s Uganda or Lebanon or others. A lot of times in the past, people have focused directly on the refugee community. Groups come in, organizations come in, U.N. organizations come in and take care of the refugees exactly.

A perfect example of this—because it’s an old model that’s only in one agency, which is UNWRA—it’s a whole self-directed creation of schools and clinics and so on for the one population, and that can breed a lot of challenges to the rest of the population. You know, you see refugees coming in. They’re getting something. You’re the poor community, because in many of these countries most refugees are in underdeveloped countries to begin with. We forget about that when we’re sitting here in the Global North that the burden is really shared by the—is really taken on by the Global South.

So approach with the compact is, really, instead of targeting the refugee, it’s targeting where they are going. So in a place like Uganda, you’re looking at building all the infrastructure in the village in which they’re at so that the school—so that the local community, which is also hosting, which also—there may be trends of xenophobia in others—realize that the refugee community is not a burden but, in fact, can actually bring in development, bring in support, and bring in projects.

This is extremely important, and I think is where it comes important with education because even in places like Lebanon where we have seen where the public school system is quite poor and quite—is not as developed—a lot of—most Lebanese go to private schools—it’s a cultural thing—but with the Syrian refugees coming in and going to Lebanese public schools, the international community has been able to beef up the Lebanese public school system for all to benefit.

So the poor Lebanese student benefits just like the Syrian refugee, and that brings not only good will but it brings good practices as well. And as part the compact, it’s looking at a broader range of individuals. So, for example, UNHCR has now engaged in a very new relationship and partnership with the World Bank so that we’re able to access and look at how World Bank funds, which are quite tremendous and under IDA18 sub-window for refugees, there’s a lot of additional resources. But these are resources, again, that can go to a country to develop those systems and, again, it’s not just helping the refugee. When you're changing and reforming the local school system, you’re helping local girls as well. Not just refugee girls—the whole society, and that addresses beyond the refugee education problem.

STONE: Thank you for sharing that. That’s really an effective methodology for doing this work.

Yasmine, how does that touch on your work at Education Cannot Wait?

SHERIF: Yeah. No, it touched very much. I mean, just to give the context of Education Cannot Wait, we are based in UNICEF but we cater to the entire system, and UNHCR is a key partner to us.

REYNOLDS: We like them. (Laughter.)

SHERIF: They are also a member our governance structure.


SHERIF: And we have some really good things coming out with UNHCR that actually goes back to the Global Compact and what they call the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.


SHERIF: And the beauty of that—and that is also very much why ECW was created is that instead of having the development actors doing their little own thing over there and the humanitarians there is you bring them together and you make sure that there is multi-year—it’s predictability. So you invest three or four years at a time and, of course, for the Global Compact and the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, it’s multi-sectoral for the refugees in host communities.

Our added value—so we’re coming in on the education side, and I think there—and I’m sure you will agree with me—is that Education Cannot Wait has probably—is becoming one of the pioneering sectors doing this with UNHCR and that’s a little bit also reforming the U.N. system or helping it reform—not UNHCR but the rest of the system, and you’re doing well already.

But so in Uganda, for instance, we came out last year. There was 1.3 million refugees fleeing from South Sudan of whom half are refugee—are school-aged students and half of them girls—coming in from—across the border from South Sudan into Uganda and, of course, there is no one to be able to cater to them and create the multi-year investments in their education.

So they are immediately the ones that are left out and furthest behind because they are sitting there and they can’t—they can’t do anything except being these aidless—the helpless recipients of aid. And that’s where we joined forces with UNHCR. It is one of those countries for Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework as a test pilot country, and we brought together, working with UNHCR together, a million dollars. I know that USAID is playing a key role on that and also DIFI came together and all the humanitarians and development actors.

And we actually locked ourselves—just to see what it looks like—we locked ourselves up for one week in the UNHCR premises and developed a roadmap for coming up with a comprehensive response, multi-year, for education for refugees but a special emphasis on girls’ education, and that plan is now about to be—to be launched. There’s going to be a big, big launch and this is also one of the first experiments that we have together.

But that is what it means with reaching the furthest behind. It’s not (good to do who ?) are easily accessible, with those who are already doing OK. It’s the ones that are completely forgotten. You go out in Afghanistan and you see these girls who’ve been wandering around at home for most of their life, and you have to bring them back to school and give them accelerated learning. They’re fourteen, fifteen years. They’ve never been to school.

So those fourteen and fifteen years—young girls who have been sitting at home all their life, they are the furthest behind. Get them out of that and into school. But then you have to be very creative in how you do it because their parents may not send them to school if school is very far away. So you have build a school close to their home. That’s the first—the first step.

Another way is—and that’s what we are supporting in Afghanistan—you invest, and 70 percent of the teacher education we are investing in are women teachers because then they’re more likely to send the girls to school if there are women teachers—if you have a protective environment, because you’re not going to change that attitude of mixing schools and, you know, the way our schools look. It is—it’s a process. But you need to get them back into school. So that’s—so that is what reaching furthest behind—it’s really to go to that—to the really downtrodden that no one pays attention to.

And that another way of doing that is often what happens we do our planning. We love to see the agencies and the NGOs and the donors and maybe forget that there are refugees and displaced out there and, you know, they need to be part of this discussion as well. And when we had this discussion in Uganda, someone had set up a meeting for me with twenty refugees, separate from our consultations. So they were somewhere else in another room and I was going to go meet with them there so and then the consultations were happening elsewhere. And so I went over and spent time with them and said, listen, come, let’s go into this consult.

So they all walk into this big consultation and everyone’s looking—refugees coming into our room. But it was—yeah, and it was not UNHCR because you always do this—but others who were not used to have refugees in the room. And I said come in, so they all walked in one by one by one and took place around the table, and you would think that they would sit there and feel very intimidated.

Oh, they were tough. They said, you want us to do this—yes, we want quality education. Yes, we want all the things you are saying. But I need to tell you one thing: I cannot go and—go to your quality schools and quality education unless you either give us cash or you exempt us from school fees because we cannot afford—we don't have money to go into those schools, and I need to work because I have to pay for my siblings and my grandmother and my father and this—and my mother is handicapped and so and so—I work.

So these are practical issues to make education available to refugees. So you come up with cash assistance. You come up with different forms. And they came with that thinking to us, because we assumed—we didn’t think that refugees had to work to support their family or the grandmother or their siblings.

So it’s so important to have their voice there, and I remember—I have to tell you this story because it’s a little bit of a departure but it’s about women. I remember in—after the Taliban fell in Afghanistan in 2001 after what they call the Bonn Agreement and then—it was called UNIFEM back then, and I was with UNIFEM. That was one of those agencies I worked with. I was their advisor in Afghanistan because I used to work there before with Puneet Talwar. We were the early pioneers. Anyway, and so U.N. Women was going to organize this big roundtable for Afghan women who finally had been liberated from Taliban, and we brought them to Brussels and we were going to have this discussion.

So I had this colleague of mine say, yes, and we’ll bring them in and we have to be careful how we talk with them and sit there in the circle and, you know, and I said, no, no, no, no—these are tough women—they used to run underground schools during Taliban—don't treat them like this because they’ll smash your face. (Laughter.) So, you know—

STONE: Is that a policy term?

SHERIF: Yeah, they—yeah, it’s a policy term, at least my—it’s a new policy term. (Laughter.) Anyway, so they’re not going to—they’re not going to be treated like this because they are tough. They are the furthest behind but they have—they have endured and they are survivors.

So, rightly so, they came in and it started off with all sitting around in a circle and how are you, how do you feel, and they just took over, and they asked us all to sit down and just listen to them and then they described for us how they used to run the underground schools and how they want to move things and how they need to reclaim their rights and da—and tough, tough women. So being the furthest behind sometimes you’re very vulnerable but sometimes you bring in a lot of resilience.


SHERIF: We just need to give them the platform and the space for their voice and they can teach us a lot—a lot. So it’s different ways of looking at the furthest behind. So that is—and the progressive universalism is very much about that is that they—all this—the marginalized and conflict-displaced families, the disabled, the girls who are at the—and the refugees who are on the margins, they cannot sit and wait for our systems to be in place, for our procurement processes and the government to work and whatever government, you know, we are—you know, whether it’s Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Their education cannot wait, and progressive universalism is exactly about that—that they cannot wait until we are about to hit the deadline for our development goals in 2030. We have to go in immediately and try to bring them up to speed in their right to education so when we hit this agenda of 2030 where everyone should have universal education, they should have been up to speed, you know, in terms of numbers and access.

STONE: Yeah. That’s so important. I remember talking to a group of refugee girls and saying, like, we win this fight for the SDGs by 2030. And they just kind of looked at us and they’re, like, why is it going to take you so long? Like, I will be out of school by then. And I was, like, we need—well, I appreciate you speaking to inclusion. I know my colleagues at CFR and myself and on the Women in Foreign Policy team have been talking about making sure that our future conversations will include refugee voices, you know, and I think that’s a challenge across the entire international development sector is, you know, not in your name without you and we have to shift these paradigms. So I appreciate everything you shared.

We’re going to do a quick lightning-round question to you both but we want to open it up to questions. So this is your moment to get ready for your question. Just a reminder that, of course, at CFR we put our placards up if we want to ask. You know, just please, briefly, identify yourself and share a brief question so we can get to as many people as possible.

Don’t “State of the Union” right now in here. Just give us your thoughts, and we’ll try to get around to as many people as we can. So just a quick question while people are getting ready to prepare their questions for you both. You know, it’s an important season, whether it’s the Global Compacts or appropriations here in the U.S. Of course, CFR is very focused on U.S. leadership. U.S. is the single largest humanitarian donor.

I know that the U.S. gave, of course, to Education Cannot Wait—gave $20 million when you were launched, and there’s so many opportunities, whether it’s policy or funding right now, that are so important. You know, for each of your perspectives, what do you think are those key opportunities right now to keep this work moving forward?

REYNOLDS: Well, from UNHCR’s perspective with the U.S., we couldn’t ask for a better partner. I mean, the U.S. is our number-one financial and political supporter and it’s on all levels, coming from the executive, if you will, with the State Department—the State Department funds UNHCR—to Congress, because we can’t forget they are Article I of the Constitution, not Article II, and they have the power of the purse—all the way down to the individual American donor and American taxpayer. So I have to just say thank you, thank you, thank you.

And I think the U.S. has done its fair share and I think where the opportunities come—and this is where American leadership is very important, particularly for UNHCR—is to help remind the rest of the world that they can share some of that burden, not just financially but, you know, as much as there’s been a lot of debate about resettlement in the United States—and resettlement is a very important tool—it’s less than—less than one-half of 1 percent of any—of refugees will ever see third-country resettlement but it’s a very, very important option for the most vulnerable of refugees.

But it’s an important signal about burden sharing, and the United States continues to be the number-one resettlement country. We want others to step up to the plate. So I think in terms of that sort of aid and support, we’ve got a great team player with the partner—with the U.S. We just encourage them to continue to use that international clout they have to help us help the refugees get more from others because there are a lot of others that can and should step up to the plate.

STONE: Yasmine, for you?

SHERIF: Well, I could say so much about it, besides the fact that we are extremely grateful for the—for the resources that we have received. But it’s also, I think, the inspiration of working together, and I worked a lot with the U.S. in many parts of the world and I remember when the Darfur conflict broke out and USAID was on the ground, and before you knew it we had created a whole new legal aid system addressing impunity against rape, (even ?) moving around. And it takes a sort of attitude to move things and to make things happen that is not—that is not so risk averse and that is creative and want to think and do things big, and I think that’s the typical U.S. attitude—American attitude—and that’s why—and I think it’s always about people coming together.

So you have—you know, yes, there are governments investing in ECW and working on education but there are people inside those institutions, and this is what I personally enjoy the most working with the U.S. Then it’s the gratitude for the resources that we receive, and then I think there’s the very important aspect—and we have discussed that with Julie—is how we can mobilize private sector because that’s—this is—here is where you have the entrepreneurship—you have the creativity, the—(inaudible)—move things. And you have some incredible private sector in this country, and that can also inspire, you know, other companies abroad. So Julie has kindly agreed to shoulder—(inaudible)—to get this going, to bring private sector in to this sort of normally dusty bureaucracy called the U.N. ECW is sort of trying to open up, like many who are in the U.N., and we are very—we are very appreciative of this.

So for us, the U.S. is a—is a—is a key player in many aspects. It’s the attitude. It’s the approach. It’s the—it’s support provided so far. It’s the new—(inaudible)—private sector. And I think the ability to think big and move big because Education Cannot—as a global fund, we are not a little project. We are here to transform the way education is delivered in emergencies and crises, and for that you need to think big and strategically, and I think for that the U.S. is our dream partner. And I’m looking at Julie here but I—I really—she knows how excited I am—(laughter)—because when we meet we think—we think this way and this is what is exciting.

I also look to the U.N. for many—I’ve been with the U.N.—the United Nations in and out for 30 years. But no matter. You know, sometimes we get upset with the U.N. and sometimes you feel that you have other responsibilities. But I think every American should be very proud of the fact that the U.N. was created in San Francisco, and it’s still here, and it comes from a history in this country, of the Declaration of Independence, safeguarding human rights, and including individual rights, which is just as important. So I think that there is—there’s a beauty here that we need to spread.

STONE: All right. Well, thank you for those words of inspiration.

I want to open it up to discussion and questions. I’m going to start with our colleague, Elizabeth, from U.N. Women.

Q: Thank you very much for those interesting presentations.

I wanted to pick up on your comments about bringing the refugees in and I just wondered if you were able to create some sort of standing committee or consultative body, because it also made me think about UNHCR’s refugee women dialogues, and I think the original were in, what, 2008 maybe and then they’ve held them again. And I, personally, especially doing humanitarian work in the past, have gone back to the findings from those dialogues so many times because they’re rich, they’re informative, and they’re what women refugees are asking for and saying that they want.

So it just made me think that, one, something that we don’t do enough of in the U.N. is use each other’s research and data and, you know, not start from scratch and keep, you know, building on what we’ve done before, but also how can you, you know, leverage and build on this group of refugees, and it may not be exactly them but create a group to be part of, you know, ongoing M&E or feedback and things like that.

Thank you.

STONE: Who wants to take that? Matthew.

REYNOLDS: Well, I can—maybe—we’re in a—UNHCR is in a little different situation than many others, in part because we’re principally a front-line agency. So 80-plus percent of our staff are located on the front lines doing operational jobs every day. I’m kind of that 20 percent that gets a nice office in Washington because I’m not on the front lines in Central African Republic today.

But I point that out because they’re dealing and communicating and evaluating and getting feedback from refugee women, children, and men every single day and incorporating it into the work they’re doing every single day because it’s there, front and present. So if there’s a challenge of girls getting into a school maybe in a place, that sub-office field director and the protection staff will be on the front lines trying to help that.

I think where we can probably do a much better job ourselves in UNHCR, recognizing, too, that each field is a little different. The challenges we’re seeing with Venezuelan—Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago is different, obviously, than perhaps refugees in Uganda.

Where we, perhaps, can do a better job of that is bringing that information from all those sources and then synthesizing it up for others to use. Internally, we’re able to use it pretty well and share experiences about this happened here—how do you fix that and so on. I think, you know, one of the challenges of probably funding is having more people or more ability to take all of that experience, and all of that information that is there, and solutions that are there, and sort of fuel them up so that others at that broader, more policy level can see them.

We’re kind of the practitioners and we need to share more of sort of the academic side, and I know we hold certain conferences but that’s not the answer to it. But I think maybe getting more of our field experience and analysis out there is probably better.

STONE: Sounds like a good take away. How about—Yasmine, how are you consulting in authentic and meaningful ways with the community?

SHERIF: Yeah. Even as I said, I mean, and this is precisely why we work with UNHCR. Whenever we go in and invest in education on refugees, UNHCR is our natural partner, and while we have staff in the UNHCR office for the region in the Middle East, it’s UNHCR that will—their staff at field level when the—when the program is developed, the one that is going to be launched for Uganda, the next going to be launched for Bangladesh and the Rohingyas, it’s UNHCR’s staff that are drafting it together with UNICEF staff, UNESCO, others, and it’s their engagement with the refugees that will drive the design of the program.

So we are the facilitator, the catalyst, but we—everything derives from our partnership with UNHCR or, when we work with UNICEF, their consultations with children. So and this is the beauty of Education Cannot Wait. We are not—we are not created a body on other bodies. We are just pulling them all together and they are the implementers, and we don’t even—when we raise resources, that resources is not going to ECW. It’s coming through us and our added value is that we bring everyone together and make sure that UNHCR gets it, UNICEF gets it, but within what we call a joint program.

But it’s through their staff and their field presence that the refugees are being consulted. When we go out on missions—and we travel a lot so that we are connected to the field because we don’t want to be a global fund that sits and open envelopes in headquarters and don’t know what’s going on. So we travel a lot. Then, of course, we go with UNHCR. We meet with the refugees. We go with UNICEF and meet with the children, the teachers, and so forth. So we make sure we are constantly connected.

STONE: That’s so good.


STONE: Well, Imran, I’d like to go to your question.

Q: Hello. I am Imran Chowdhury. I’m a professor at Pace University in New York.

This is a question for Matthew. We don’t hear much about, or at least I don’t see much about, the Yemen conflict in the U.S. So I wanted to hear about what the UNHCR is doing with respect to women’s education and education in general for people who are suffering from the conflict in Yemen.

Thank you.

REYNOLDS: Ironically, at 2:00 I’m going to meet at the State Department with the deputy secretary about Yemen. There’s a monthly meeting with USAID’s administrator, as well, because it’s a very important issue. It’s one—I’m going to deflect a little bit in part because UNHCR is not the lead, sort of. We don’t have the largest footprint much in Yemen. Ironically, there are still tens of thousands of refugees in Yemen. They are from Somalia. They are from other places, and so there is still a refugee population. Our concentration in Yemen right now is actual emergency services right away—getting core relief to people.

And so our first priority is really—I hate to go back to the old fashioned, but it’s shelter and food and medicines. Access to—access is incredibly difficult. Getting supplies to people is incredibly difficult. So our concentration right now is on that emergency. So I hope we can move into a situation where we spend a lot more time looking at the educational needs of the kids. Right now, we’re just trying to keep them alive, and the situation with the fight for the ports is horrific. So I hate to deflect it, but we’re kind of at that—we’re at the stage one of an emergency and we’re not even at that 1.5 to be able to—

STONE: Yasmine.

SHERIF: I think on Yemen also—I mean, the refugees from Yemen, they’re not in Yemen. They’re in the region. So you’re doing a lot in Jordan and in those places.

REYNOLDS: Djibouti and Yemen.

SHERIF: Yeah, and that’s where your refugees are. But Education Cannot Wait—we have actually invested 14 million (dollars)—14—one four—million dollars for education in Yemen, so we have that big investment, $15 million—it’s actually $18 million now—for the Syria crisis, and, in total, we have delivered over a hundred million to—across 16 crisis countries over the—in one year—one year. So it’s—we’re moving in such a record speed, but that’s because we have this title—Education Cannot Wait. So it constantly pushes us to move fast. So we are there. We are there. We are there.

STONE: I mean, I know a lot of us noted yesterday as well the administrator of USAID, of course, talked about Yemen in his testimony, and I don’t know if our USG colleagues have anything they want to share about the U.S. response to Yemen. We would welcome it. I know that Stephenie Foster—we’d love to go to you for your question.

Q: Hi. I’m at Smash Strategies and formerly at the State Department in the Obama administration.

I have a question about technology. I think technology—obviously, we talk a lot about it now and it can be a great equalizer. But, especially for girls and women, often there’s less access to technology, in general and in refugee situations.

So I’m curious, just talk a little bit on the practical level—because I’m all about that—like, how do you see technology as part of the crisis response that you all are engaged in in terms of access to education?

SHERIF: You’re giving this one to me. (Laughter.) No, technology is very important and we are—we have something—you know, part of our work is to be very normative and also to be adaptable to the technological developments. And I’m not an expert on it but we are—we are very keen to look into—there are many new apps coming out where you actually can do all your education without even having access to 24/7 electricity, and you charge and you have a generator, and then you have these amazing, very creative apps, and I have actually been to some of these exhibitions and we are in talks with them—not me, but people from my team.

So yes, technology is very, very important, especially when people are on the move, because when you flee you can’t take your schoolhouse with you. You know, you have to have something in your pocket or something that you can carry with you, not to lose your—the continuity in your studies. So technology is going to be very important, and at Education Cannot Wait we are promoting that and we are looking into possibilities of supporting that through our—the programs and the funds that we provide. Absolutely.

STONE: I’ll just say also from the CFR perspective, as we’ve been thinking about how to deepen work on refugees and girls, actually, this issue is one that we feel like has not gotten enough attention, and there’s not a lot of resources right now that you can go to that tells you what’s really working. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence or, like, fun TED Talks but, like, what’s actually measurably able to scale, what’s showing real results. And so we’re trying to think, as a team, about how to help fill that gap with our resources here at CFR. So we’d love to talk to you about that.

Q: Because there—I think there is some interesting stuff happening that is refugee driven out there. So it would be—it would be interesting to talk about that further. Yeah.

REYNOLDS: And it’s a way you can penetrate some of the challenges, whether they’re borders or, you know, no availability to have schools and so on. I’ll put on an old hat from the previous job with UNWRA. When you had the Syria crisis—UNWRA has a TV station, and so what they were able to do, they used NileSat, OK, because the Gaza schools have two shifts so kids in the morning, and what do kids in the afternoon get? Well, they watch TV and everywhere—you know, in the Middle East most places you can find a TV somewhere and watch your favorite Egyptian soap opera but also watch—the kids could sit and get education.

So recognizing that there were many Syrian—Palestine refugees from Syria fleeing to Lebanon—different education system, math and sciences are taught in English or French in Lebanon, not in Arabic, and in Syria, they only know Arabic. So what do you do with all these kids that are coming from Syria that may be sitting in Lebanon and have access to a TV? Put them on NileSat, and instead of teaching the curriculum for Gaza that day, why don’t you have two or three hours teaching Syrian curriculum?

Now a Syrian refugee anywhere in the region that has access to a TV, whether they be in Turkey, they be in Jordan or Lebanon, can continue their studies of the Syrian curriculum. And this was early on in the war because people assumed maybe they could go home in a year. So you can keep up with that education in your national curriculum so that you’re ready for the tests that you need to take to graduate and so on.

So there, you don’t need to necessarily have very high tech to actually penetrate into a community and really keep something going for people, whether they were able to go to a school or just sit and, you know, maybe get the little local coffee house to put an hour of that NileSat TV on for them. So there’s a lot of innovative things to do that don’t require huge, huge amounts of, you know, Bill Gates and the, you know, brains that he has. (Laughter.)

STONE: We would take that as well. (Laughter.) Yeah. I mean, I think we’re particularly excited—just—I know the U.S. government is revisiting education strategy across the entire USG platform. You know, it’s, like, how will technology be part of that. It’s really an exciting opportunity and I know people are really interested in that.

We have about seven minutes left because we end on time here at CFR as a matter of practice. So I’m going to just take these last few questions and then ask our panelists to respond. So I want to start with our colleague from the embassy of Afghanistan. Yasaman, if you want to share your question.

Q: Hi. My name is Yasaman and I’m from Afghanistan, and I went to—I finished by secondary school in Herat, Afghanistan.

And my question is to Yasmine. I mean, until the past two years we even had incidents such as girls—even young girls being food poisoned in school or thrown acid at, and I wanted to ask how do you deal with challenges like that, or is there a part of your support that finds solutions to keep these girls and families encouraged to send their schools to girls (sic) and to even secondary education. So how do you deal with challenges like that?

STONE: Thank you for that. We’ll go to Puneet and get your question as well, and then Katie’s. Then we’ll have the panel respond.

Q: So, Yasmine, you've seen the strengths and weaknesses of the U.N. system up front and you referenced U.N. reform. I’m wondering what ideas you have on that front to help address this challenge.

STONE: That’s funny. We have seven minutes. (Laughter.)

SHERIF: (Inaudible.)

STONE: That’s a really great question. Katie, last question.

Q: Good afternoon.

So you were talking about targeting the local areas where the refugees are going and then helping that country and the refugees. But what are you doing with the internally-displaced people because that is, it seems, like a majority of the displaced persons. So how are you helping them when they don't have access to the schools?

STONE: Thank you for that. So, Yasmine, I think violence against girls in Afghanistan and writ large, how you address that, and then U.N. system reform. Do you want to start?

SHERIF: OK. For—the good news in Afghanistan—and I was there in February. This is a country I’ve gone back and forth since ’92 or ’91, and is—we today have in place a government who’s really keen to get girls back into school. So you at least, at that level, you have that support. The support is there. They want to bring girls back into school.

The international community is invested in Afghanistan today. And I was really—I mean, I travelled to Jalalabad and we met with the provisional governor, and the mullah came and all the shura, you know, with all the, you know, salwar kameez and all. I mean, all these men, and they were saying, I have eight daughters and I want them all to go back to school, and, I have five daughters and they’re back in school.

So that whole shift is amazing to see. It’s very inspiring. But then you will have—you have—I mean, because you have—you have this whole ISIL there—you have the Taliban, you know, who are not in the provincial capitals, who will be throwing acid and killing and raping, as has—this goes back many years.

I remember even in the ’90s you had some really hard-core fanatics who would throw acid. I remember this Hekmatyar. He was known for throwing acid in the face of women. So what is important is that education doesn’t come alone. It comes with protection mechanisms. It comes with different ways of mitigating the risks for girls to be exposed to that kind of violence.

So one is to make sure that the schools are built close to the community—that’s one—and you know how much the community safeguard their area—making sure that provisions are, of course, set in place within the school so that the girls can be kept in sort of a protective environment, and make sure that the curriculum and so forth for young boys are very sensitive to how girls should be treated and empowered.

So curriculum, the location of the schools, the engagement of the parental association, so that there’s a community-protective environment. Then, of course, you have the whole issue of external security, and there, it all depends on where you manage to secure the areas where you can actually have girls going to school, and these are difficult in many parts of Afghanistan. I think the government only controls 40 percent or so of the country.

So, you know, we are not going to go and establish a girls’ school in some ISIS territory. We won’t even go there. I mean, this is clear. So we can only reach those that are not posing this extreme danger, because there are also security restrictions for very natural reasons. But I remember being in Iraq after the—Mosul was liberated from the ISIL and, I mean, what the government was saying in Baghdad is, we have millions of children coming out of this area now—they’ve been in Mosul for three years, or whatever, under ISIL or ISIS and they’ve been taught to shoot and kill and so on—now we have to reprogram and reintegrate them into society again. And they would be among those who would throw acid and they would do this kind of thing.

So these are really—and then the security situation also is what permits you to go in and actually do something. So I can now say that there you have millions of children now that have to be reintegrated in society and you really have to put effort to that curriculum, and there they have to be a very gender-sensitive curriculum—and the girls.

On the U.N. reform—

STONE: Sixty seconds on U.N. reform. (Laughter.)

SHERIF: Sixty seconds on U.N. reform.

STONE: What are your top lines? What are your—

SHERIF: First of all, I was twenty-four when I joined the U.N. I’m fifty-four now, so thirty years, in and out, you know, and I believe this is the multilateral forum, globally. I’m a great fan of the United Nations. But like any bureaucracy—any bureaucracy—it can become stifling, it becomes risk averse, a lot of paper trails, and we forget the people we serve. We forget to be cost effective, how to use money, how to move funds, how to deliver results, because bureaucracies by nature are like that and that’s the danger of bureaucracies. It programs you into a sort of mindset, and I’m very allergic to that mindset because I see the consequences of it—you are not delivering on the ground, you’re not reaching out to the people, and you're not moving with speed.

So I think what we—the primary, primary way of reforming is the attitudinal change, people inside. We need to change, set our bars high. I think private sector and that entrepreneurship can contribute to shift that kind of attitude. So that is—I can tell you, we have just got a most beautiful executive director for UNICEF. Oh, wow, she’s going to change things. She comes from the private sector.

So this is—the attitudes. That’s number one, and number two—the attitudes—number two, you need to have—you need to have injections of good models and examples where you see that you can do things differently, and you have to live up to that change and say, you can do it—you can deliver—and I am hoping, as I have tried with the work I’ve done in the past, is that Education Cannot Wait will be part of that injection, and we will just keep pushing.

And I know the system. They will pick up and say, wow, look how they’re doing it—you can do it that way. So I’m hoping that that is how we will impact the system.

STONE: Well, let it be so. Matthew, sixty seconds on IDPs.

REYNOLDS: IDP—just, like, a one-minute on the House of Representatives floor, let me tell you quickly, we—like statelessness, we wish we had more ability to do more for IDPs, for UNHCR. It’s a resource and capacity issue to not be able to do more, and that’s also in our statelessness mandate.

But there are innovative ways to look at—for the IDPs, if you were looking at the way that World Bank and others can contribute to countries, and many IDPs are in places like Colombia. Let’s look at Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras. These can be part of a national education plan because there are still Hondurans within different parts of Honduras fleeing MS-13 from one area and going to another. That can be part of a national education plan that’s worked with the bank or the IADBs.

We already have in our sort of regional compacts of CRRFs, like the one in the Horn of Africa, countries like Somalia that also have IDPs. Again, it’s one of those places where, when you're looking at the whole of society, you bring in to help the whole—the whole society there. You’re helping not only refugees but also those internally displaced. So I think, in a nutshell, there are a lot of resources but there’s not enough attention given to it. But if you’d like to—us to do more, the world—to the world, the world can give us more and we’ll do more. (Laughter.)

STONE: Thank you to the gentleman from—(inaudible)—for yielding the balance of your time.

All right. Listen, thank you so much for joining us today. We were so grateful for your presence. I hope you’ll continue the conversation afterwards with our speakers as they’re able to stay, and we hope to see you again soon.

Thank you so much. Have a great afternoon. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.


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