When crisis for many means opportunity for some: Private profit and the education of Syrian refugees – by Fred van Leeuwen, General Secretary, EI

The war in Syria has been on the front pages of newspapers for six years now. We have witnessed the plight of those who flee, the long winters in refugee camp tents. But little is said about the fate of refugee children when it comes to their education. Do they have schools to go to? Who teaches them?

A new study answers these questions. “Investing in the Crisis: Private Participation in the Education of Syrian Refugees”, conducted by Francine Menashy and Zeena Zakharia from the University of Massachusetts, examines the situation of 900,000 refugee Syrian children who are out of school in their host countries, with enrolment rates ranging from 70 percent in Jordan to 40 percent in Lebanon and 39 percent in Turkey.

Clearly, there is a deficit in access to education for refugee children – and private providers are actively engaging in that space. Naomi Klein, who coined the term ‘disaster capitalism’, outlined how the private sector is quick to respond whenever a crisis or natural disaster strikes. However, in the case of education in such emergencies, little has been known about the scope and aims of private engagement.

This report highlights a surge in private actor involvement in the Middle East since 2015, with 144 non-state actors currently engaged in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This includes 46 businesses and 15 private foundations, the majority of which have their headquarters in the global north, and 61 percent of which do not have education as their primary mandate.

What other drivers apart from education pull private investment into the region?

In their study, Menashy and Zakharia explore the nature of private sector involvement in the education of Syrian refugees. The study raises questions about the profit motive driving these actors which may be at odds with what is best for refugee children, including their right to quality education. Furthermore, part of the new trend of ‘philanthrocapitalism’, which is increasingly influencing education policies and programmes, is the involvement of private companies in the education of Syrian refugees which may contribute to undermining democratic governance and accountability in education that was once inextricably linked to social dialogue and legislative processes.

While the intervention of private actors may be unavoidable in certain crisis contexts, the study unveils clear areas of concern. Private actors on the ground seem to be insufficiently coordinated, leading to imbalances and duplication of services – a situation which is worsened through inadequate communication between the private actors and the state.

The authors also highlight that private stakeholders often overemphasise the role and presence of technology in education. This emphasis on ICT is questionable given the scarcity of resources, with schools often lacking the most basic infrastructure and tools. Do children need tablets when they have no benches to sit on, no toilets to go to at school? In this regard, governments are well advised to seek and consider the expert voice of teachers and their unions – a vital part of a humanitarian response in education – to ensure that interventions are contextualised and appropriate for the reality in the classroom.

Lastly, the engagement of private actors in Syrian refugee education is translating into political influence, where numerous businesses are becoming key decision-makers in refugee education policymaking. This influence can and will promote an increase in the private provision of education and non-formal education environments. This is deeply problematic due to the overall lack of accountability in terms of educational quality and equity, as previous studies commissioned by Education International have shown.

This report lays bare the undeniable obligation of all governments to ensure that the rights of all children, including refugee children, are met. This includes the provision of free inclusive and equitable quality public education. Beyond this, governments are also required to regulate the involvement of private actors within clear legal frameworks addressing the commercialisation of education in fragile settings. We must challenge the exploitation of those in need. Seeking to profit from those in need cannot be labelled as anything but unethical.


EI’s research report Investing in the crisis: Private participation in the education of Syrian refugees can be downloaded here http://bit.ly/2oUFqSB

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Key findings

  1. A surge of private involvement in Syrian refugee education
    • With 900, 000 Syrian refugee children out-of-school there has been a surge in corporate actors engaged in their education.
    • 144 non-state actors are now involved in the education of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Tukey and Lebanon, of which 61 are businesses and private foundations, the majority based in the Global North.
  2. Investing in the crisis
    • While some corporate actors say they have humanitarian motivations, many also say they have profit-oriented goals for involvement in the education of Syrian refugees:
      1. High profile humanitarian activities can improve a business’ brand image both externally and internally.
      2. Crisis allows companies to experiment with new ideas and innovative products, creating a potential future market after the crisis has passed.
    • Profiting from crisis has been coined as ‘disaster capitalism’ by Naomi Klein.
  3. Inadequate, uncoordinated interventions
    • Many private actors with different aims and priorities results in a fragmented response. Their coordination is insufficient, and produces duplicated, disorganised or imbalanced interventions.
    • Some businesses have rushed their involvement, possibly due to a ‘bandwagon’ effect. Several businesses eager to elevate their own brand images arrived on the scene without adequate planning and coordination with those already involved.
    • Corporate actors are also not coordinating sufficiently with public actors. Without consulting local stakeholders, including Ministries of Education, teachers or teacher unions, private actors lack an adequate awareness of the issues at play for successful implementation of initiatives at a classroom level.
  4. Overemphasis on technology
    • The interventions made by the private sector have an overemphasis on technology.
    • Nearly half of private actors involved in Syrian refugee education are supporting some form of educational technology. But this is often decontextualized from the reality on the ground, in terms of content, form, delivery, and needs, and for instance where electricity is not always available.
  5. Private actors bring undemocratic decision-making into the sphere of education
    • There is the potential for a rise in private schools at the expense of public provision.
    • The involvement of private actors in the education of refugees goes beyond the provision of resources, infrastructure and training. ‘Philanthrocapitalists’ are now becoming key decision-makers for policy as well as providers of funding.
    • This is problematic not only because these private actors are unelected, making their decision-making power undemocratic, but also because they have little accountability.
  6. Recommendations
    • States must fulfil their obligations with respect to the rights of Syrian refugee children including the provision of free quality public education.
    • The limitations of the capacity of the private sector to understand and work within rapidly evolving humanitarian contexts needs to be acknowledged.
    • All interventions made must be well coordinated and contextualised, with a focus on equity and grounded within a commitment to refugee educational rights.
    • Ethical tensions between humanitarian and profit motivations of businesses to invest in the crisis suggest the need for the state and international community to regulate their involvement by establishing legal frameworks for private actor engagement.