Inarguably, education is one of the best investments any country can make, to enhance its development. Sadly in many parts of the world, conflicts are a major threat to education structures. Africa is no exception and the World Innovation Summit on Education (WISE) initiative believes however, education is the winning lane to peace.
Within a plethora of other shortcomings, lack of security and peace is one of the biggest hindrances to a thriving education system across the world, but more so in Africa. The fate of the still missing Chibok school girls, abducted from their school by Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria 2 years ago, and the continuous insecurity, threats, and attacks on schools in the area, are symbolic of devastating effects of conflict on education. Two more, albeit less reported, abductions of school girls have happened in Borno State since Chibok.
And although many peace advocates believe, in times of civil conflict or war, education can effectively promote reconciliation and win peace, in some parts of Africa, whether they are in or post conflict situations, the education system becomes one of the worst affected, and its institutions most prone to collapse. The Chibok saga attests to that. But there are many other examples on the continent.
Just a year before the Chibok abductions, in the DRCongo, the M23 rebels were largely responsible for putting 250 schools out of use in 2012 alone; and between April and December of that year, more than 240,000 students went without schooling, according to the UK’s Guardian newspaper. The respected daily also revealed that in the Central African Republic, more than half of the country’s schools remained closed following the Séléka rebel coalition’s takeover of the country in April of 2013 and that in Mali, following widespread attacks, more than 1,500 schools in the north of the country needed repair, new equipment and removal of weapons as the conflict has disrupted the education of more than 700,000 children. “The education of 1 million children has been jeopardised as a result,” it reported.
Education for peace
Conflict worldwide is indeed largely to blame for putting millions of boys and girls out of school and lowering literacy levels. As such, initiatives such as the Dialogue for Education and Peace, recently organised by the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), in the Tunisian capital Tunis, are not misplaced.
“WISE addresses the impact of conflict on education in much of our work, and this has also been a top concern of Qatar Foundation Chairperson, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. We support many actors and organizations, which work in conflict and post-conflict environments, and the importance of education for peace will be a recurring theme in WISE activities,” Stavros Yiannouka CEO of WISE tells New African.
The one day Forum – which took place at the IHEC Carthage on 26 May, could not have had a stronger keynote speaker than someone who knows just how devastating war, can be on education, more so that of girls and women – Dr Sakena Yacoobi – the Afghan educationist and founder and Executive Director of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL), an Afghan women- led NGO, which among others, provides teacher training to Afghan women.
The 2015 WISE Prize for Education laureate was emphatic in her remarks to the over 200 attendees: “Education is such a powerful tool in peace building…through education we can overcome poverty and unlock human potential…we can overcome terrorism and violence. Education is the key. It shines a light.”
Joining her on stage was her fellow keynote speaker and panellist, the equally respected Ouided Bouchamaoui – a 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (as of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet which took the revered Prize last year) and renown businesswoman who is also President of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) . She was featured in New African magazine as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Africans of 2015.
“The stability of a country’s economy relies on three pillars,” she told the Forum: “The strength of its civil society, women’s empowerment and education.”
But as laudable as the WISE initiative to promote education as a tool for peace may be, there are also those that throw doubt arguing as that as a non-political organisation, WISE is prone to some deficiencies . And pressed to explain how education can solve conflict when dealing with entities such as Boko Haram in Nigeria calls for more political will than just dialogue, WISE CEO Stavros Yiannouka puts it into perspective and explains to New African:
“World-renowned education activists such as Malala [Yousafzai] and Sakena Yacoobi speak widely of the importance of education in countering extremism. Their work is based on the recognition that acts of aggression and hate stem from ignorance and radicalization. Therefore there is no need for education to have a political angle in order to fight extremism and violence. By giving educational opportunities to young generations, we reduce the potential that they turn to violent ideologies later on in their lives. Education can prevent conflict, as well as helping post-conflict reconstruction and development and protecting country’s precious human capital. Let’s remember also that extremism in Nigeria is only a very small element in that large and complex society that has achieved so much recently.”
The Dialogue for Education and Peace forum, which has also been dubbed Wise@Tunis is one of the first of the new initiatives WISE is embarking on as it diversifies its work globally.
A brainchild of the Qatar Foundation under the leadership of its Chairperson, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, WISE was established in 2009 to global acclaim and has been attracting over 2000 influential thinkers, policymakers and gamechangers in the field of education who converge in Doha annually to debate, propose and find solutions to a myriad of educational needs internationally. From the very onset, WISE has been categorical stating in its ethos that “although the thrust for constant innovation has long prevailed in sectors such as technology and healthcare, education has generally lacked this approach in both policymaking and in the classroom, yet education is key to addressing the toughest challenges facing communities around the world today – poverty, conflict, inequality, unemployment, environmental sustainability and future challenges.”
By giving educational opportunities to young generations, we reduce the potential that they turn to violent ideologies later on in their lives. Education can prevent conflict.
For 7 years therefore, WISE has been providing a platform that brings global experts together to discuss and seek positive change. The hitherto annual summit also offered the WISE Awards, which recognise and promote six innovative projects in education. Seven of the $25,000 such awards have so far gone to projects in Africa since WISE commenced. The WISE Summit culminates with the WISE Prize for Education – a $500,000 Prize, dubbed the Nobel Prize for Education, which has so far been awarded to 5 laureates including the current holder, Dr Yacoobi who received hers in the presence of US First Lady Michelle Obama was one of the distinguished attendees at last year’s summit in Doha.
But goal posts are shifting in Doha, according to Wise CEO Yiannouka. “after consultations with local and international stakeholders, WISE has decided to shift to a biennial cycle of summits to allow more time and resources to be devoted to pursuing our global and local research and outreach agenda. As part of this effort, WISE has launched a series of local and regional gatherings that will take place between global summits and to which we have given the tentative name of WISE@. “
WISE@Tunis was therefore the first of the new direction and in will be followed up by WISE@ Beijing on 5 November 2016 and another likely to be held in Europe in early 2017, in the lead up to the next global WISE Summit which will hold again in Doha in November 2017.
It is left to Elyas Felfoul – Head of Administration at WISE to explaining more on the satellite forums WISE@: “We will partner with countries where we already see broad, national or grassroots efforts. WISE aims to support existing initiatives, and to allow them to inspire as well as inform each other, rather than prescribing lessons or strategies to countries. WISE@Beijing will he hosted in partnership with the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing and will focus on the theme “Innovating for Equity and Empowerment”.
Commenting on lessons from the first WISE@ forum in Tunisia he added :“Tunisia has been well-recognized as an emerging success, following a very challenging time. Tunisia is perhaps symbolic of a peaceful process thanks to the efforts of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, and many others throughout Tunisian society. As Tunisia’s new democratic system is established, positive economic growth and peace are crucial. Former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa appropriately called Tunisia a ‘start-up’ democracy. We believe that this society has great potential to play a positive role across the region.”
“The range of perspectives presented at the gathering proved complementary and stimulated new ideas. The event also showed that dramatically different environments, such as those of Tunisia and Afghanistan, can have numerous similarities, and leaders from both can learn from each other to build what is needed,” he concludes.
But as one delegate at WISE@Tunis intoned, education costs money, more so in Africa yet, governments budget allocations to education remain routinely abysmal by and large. “Is this a mountain WISE can climb with tangible results?”
“Of course, funding is crucial to education, and there are some very creative ways to enhance its impact and to gain access to it that have been explored and pursued by government as well as by local activists, independent groups and businesses. But funding alone is not a panacea. By supporting innovative, grassroots initiatives and solutions, WISE helps education systems to be more cost-effective and to complement existing efforts,” explains Felfoul adding:
“WISE helps address education challenges through its ground-breaking research series but it also gives visibility to projects which have already achieved success in addressing them. In many poor countries where the state struggles to provide good quality education, low-cost private schools are booming. Bridge International Academies, a 2015 WISE Awards winning project, is just one of several initiatives launched in Africa that have proven effective and efficient in providing quality education to disadvantaged populations. At WISE we believe that innovation comes from all sectors, and if solutions can arise from the private sector or public-private partnerships, we want to support them.”
It is perhaps no surprise therefore that the concluding session (above) was on “Entrepreneurship and Education” – with fitting closing message that said it all: “when young people are empowered with the right skills to build a future for themselves, they help lay the foundation for peaceful and prosperous societies.”