No More Empty Classrooms

More than half of all schools in the Central African Republic have closed due to bloody conflict. Reopening them -- and keeping them safe -- should be an international priority.


Humanitarian needs in the CAR, devastated by conflict since 2012, are enormous: Nearly half the population requires assistance, and relief organizations need $250 million to ensure they can reach those who need the most help. Millions of children are among those affected by the conflict. They have witnessed the killing of mothers, fathers, and other family members. Many have been targeted for recruitment by armed groups. Overwhelming numbers have fled without their families and are either residing in camps or hiding on their own.

Last summer, nearly half of the country’s schools were closed. Almost half of the school year had been lost, and, mainly out of fear, seven out of 10 primary school students had not returned to their classrooms. More than 500,000 children had dropped out because of violence or displacement.

A representative assessment in February showed that 65 percent schools across the CAR remained closed. Many schools have only been able to operate for four weeks in the current school year. Hundreds have been attacked and looted or used as shelter by refugees, particularly in Bangui, the capital. Many schools are in urgent need of being repaired or rebuilt and re-supplied with learning materials — a slow and expensive task, particularly in the least secure areas. 

Put another way, the CAR’s education system is broken.

As in many conflict contexts, the combined effects of prolonged displacement, idleness, lack of opportunity to study, and daily exposure to violence have a dangerous knock-on effect on children’s chances of ever escaping the cycles of poverty and conflict. Being deprived of education in proximity to violence and religious tensions is also explosive.

Responding to this wretched state of affairs is, not surprisingly, extraordinarily difficult and dangerous. Many teachers fled the country’s most dangerous areas. Getting them back into schools requires that their safety be ensured and that they are remunerated for this physically and emotionally taxing work. It is also important, but challenging, to identify local and national authorities who can help reopen schools and keep them safe.  

The U.N. decision to send peacekeeping troops could make a critical difference in improving safety in the CAR’s schools. But these troops are not scheduled to arrive until September. And even more is needed.

Rebuilding the CAR’s schools should start with an international commitment to fund a sound recovery plan for education. The funding would support the training and retention of teachers and the rebuilding of basic structures that give parents the confidence to send their children back to school.

Indeed, the international community needs to focus now on injecting necessary resources into a seriously underfunded situation. Four months into 2014, the CAR’s humanitarian appeal remains grossly underfunded. The education sector will need to receive $33 million throughout the year to keep up with immediate emergency needs.

Over the past five years, the Global Partnership for Education has facilitated education planning with many partners in the CAR and provided $37.8 million in grants to help build and rehabilitate almost 1,000 classrooms, train 1,500 teachers, and distribute more than 1.3 million textbooks. In addition, the Global Partnership has provided $3.7 million in accelerated emergency funding during the conflict to rehabilitate schools and support community teachers. More intensive engagement by the international community could build on these efforts and gains.

International partners, including U.N. agencies and both domestic and international NGOs focused on humanitarian issues, are in a position to launch small-scale initiatives to set up temporary learning spaces and makeshift schools in the worst-affected and most divided communities. This could help mitigate the dangerous impact of ethnic and religious violence. Most importantly, it would give children sanctuary away from the heart of the conflict and show them an alternative to violence through education. Safe education spaces, in other words, would keep them protected.

The international community must also help provide an equal learning opportunity to children from diverse ethnic and religious groups to lay the foundation for reconciliation among various segments of the population. Similarly, we have learned from other conflicts that coordination across the region is essential to ensure all children receive a foundation in education. In the case of the CAR crisis now, humanitarian partners need to be able to reach refugee children in neighboring countries.

The CAR’s current plight is emblematic of the challenges other fragile and conflict-affected states face with regard to funding education: More than half of all the children out of school globally live in such conflict zones. Without sufficient investments of resources to keep the schools open, the CAR’s children are at risk of losing their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for basic education. On a larger scale, their society will be starved of the human potential it needs to thrive over the long run. Unless the international community steps up its investments in education there, the prospects are slim that the CAR will recover — even after the violence and crisis ends.

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