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Press Release

Back to school in humanitarian settings finds $135 million funding gap and increased digital divide

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  • New analysis from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) finds widening education and digital access gaps among children in humanitarian settings stemming from COVID-19.
  • Education remains one of the least-funded sectors in humanitarian response, with a current COVID-19 funding gap of $135 million.
  • School closures are impacting refugee girls harder than boys, with more than half not expected to return.

As children in wealthier countries begin to head back to a different model of school or continue remote learning, a new analysis from the IRC finds continued disruptions for children within humanitarian settings, leading to widening gaps in accessing quality education. Prior to COVID-19, 250 million school-aged children were out of school, with the majority of those impacted living in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. COVID-19 has further widened this divide, with 86% of children in developing countries at the primary school level no longer having access to education, compared to 20% in developed countries[1].

As schools in fragile states remain closed, and as the economic impacts of COVID-19 continue to take their toll on families, children are at a higher risk of dropping out of school altogether.  The consequences are even more dire for girls, who face additional risks of exploitation, early marriage, pregnancy, and child labor. Estimates suggest more than half of all refugee girls will not return when schools open[2]. Those without access to digital technology are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 as they cannot transition from the classroom to online learning. A recent analysis found less than one-quarter of low-income countries are providing any form of remote instruction[3]. Moreover, remote learning options available to children in wealthier contexts are impossible in humanitarian settings given limited access to the Internet. In the least-developed countries, only two in ten households have access to the Internet[4].

Education remains critically underfunded in humanitarian settings, receiving less than 3% of aid annually, and prior to COVID-19, faced an $8.5 billion annual deficit[5]. Despite increased international attention to the loss of learning stemming from COVID-19, this has yet to change. The Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 calls for a mere 4% of the $10.26 billion appeal to go to education. As of August, only $277 million of the $403 million requested has been provided for education programs--a $135 million gap for the rest of this year alone[6]

“While the global scale of this crisis is unprecedented, interruptions to education and threats to children’s learning are commonplace in countries affected by crisis,” said Sarah Smith, senior director, education, International Rescue Committee. “But we know that children and their families are inherently resilient, and we now have an opportunity to work together to transform business as usual and provide quality, innovative learning opportunities in the most challenging contexts on earth. By getting creative in how children access learning and ensuring the most vulnerable children are included in all educational plans that take into account their unique experiences and varying degrees of digital access, we can lessen the disruptions and build better systems that work for all children.”

Given the lack of Internet in many humanitarian contexts, the IRC has designed tailored response plans to help mitigate the loss of learning brought on by school closures:

  • In Tanzania, latest figures show that an estimated 2 million children between the ages of 7 and 13 are out of school and almost 70% of children aged 14-17 are not enrolled in secondary education[7]. Although schools reopened in June following lockdown measures, many students have yet to return. In response, the IRC converted classroom-based lesson plans into worksheets and at-home activities with a focus on continuing the development of literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional skills. Bundled with food and medicine, these materials are being distributed to 78,000 children.
  • Prior to COVID-19, the Colombian government opened its public schools to displaced Venezuelan school-aged children living in the country. However, challenges such as the costs of transportation and school materials have impeded access, resulting in 260,000 children still unable to attend[8]. The IRC designed a new platform called Autoclass to help teachers provide engaging audio content to students in their homes through radio, mobile phones, and tablets. Teachers are provided with a content bank to develop lesson plans as well as ways to track students’ progress.
  • Three years after the start of the Rohingya crisis, more than 300,000 Rohingya refugee children in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh are missing out on an education due to the COVID-19 pandemic and government restriction on Internet access. As of today, 6,000 learning institutions in the largest refugee camp in the world are closed[9]. In the face of these barriers, the IRC piloted an innovative approach: a localized, high-quality, interactive and guided curriculum that can be accessed on a tablet which allows students to take charge of their own learning without relying on a physical classroom, the Internet or a formal teacher[10].
  • Prior to COVID-19, 66% of Syrian school-aged children living in Jordan were enrolled in public schools[11]. Following the closure of schools, daycares, and other preschool programs to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the IRC adapted its Ahlan Simsim early childhood programming to reach caregivers of young children remotely via WhatsApp and phone calls. Since the IRC launched this adaptation in May, more than 12,000 children and caregivers have been reached through this modified programming across the region. However, the digital access gap remains a challenge in Jordan where one-sixth do not have Internet at home and one-third do not have a computer[12].

Innovative solutions are available to reach crisis-affected children, but they require financing and political will. Host governments must ensure refugees and other displaced populations are included within national education initiatives, both while schools remain closed and when they do reopen. Donors must fund the global appeal for education, and provide multiyear, flexible financing to partner organizations supporting education during and after this challenging time for those who risk being left even further behind.


[1] https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/GHRP-COVID19_July_update.pdf

[2] https://www.globalpartnership.org/blog/displacement-girls-education-and-covid-19

[3] https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1ndHgP53atJ5J-EtxgWcpSfYG8LdzHpUsnb6mWybErYg/edit?ts=5e6f893e#gid=0

[4] https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/FactsFigures2019.pdf

[5] https://www.educationcannotwait.org/annual-report/pdfs/ECW2019-Annual-Results-Report.pdf

[6] https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/Global-Humanitarian-Response-Plan-COVID-19.pdf

[7] https://www.unicef.org/tanzania/what-we-do/education

[8] https://en.unesco.org/news/significant-efforts-colombia-ensure-nearly-200000-venezuelan-children-and-youth-have-access

[9] https://www.rescue.org/press-release/new-irc-report-more-300000-rohingya-refugee-children-need-internet-access-remote

[10] https://airbel.rescue.org/projects/pop-up-learning/

[11] https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/stories/2018/3/5a9ec9ad4/school-offers-syrian-girls-jordan-chance-flourish.html

[12] https://blogs.worldbank.org/arabvoices/covid-19-and-digital-learning-preparedness-jordan

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.