What can we learn from financing refugee education in Lebanon?

With almost half of all of out-of-school children around the world living in conflict-affected countries, the international aid community is facing pressure to not only increase the amount of funding available in these settings but to also determine how to channel and sustain funding for high numbers of refugee children in protracted crisis areas like the Syrian refugee conflict. Millions of Syrian children are now deprived of an education and many are in neighboring host countries, including Lebanon, a fragile middle-income country, adding to the complexity of the financing challenge. 

Lebanon is hosting 1.5 million refugees, approximately one-quarter of the country’s resident population. And, without the support of an adequate international financing mechanism, Lebanon is undertaking the massive task of extending education to its Syrian, Palestinian, and Iraqi refugee populations. While the United Nations stepped in to provide initial education support, the Lebanese government is now leading the response through the Reaching All Children with Education (RACE) strategy. Lebanon faces the challenge of scaling up its efforts beyond the 106,000 Syrian boys and girls currently enrolled in its public schools without stable, long-term funding. Thousands more need access to education.

Financing mechanisms for refugee education in countries like Lebanon are limited. Lebanon has limited access to grant financing from traditional donors and they do not currently fall within the mandate of the Global Partnership for Education. Given that countries like Lebanon are unlikely to borrow to educate refugees; other financing solutions need to be found involving a range of international actors and types of financing.

The July education summit held in Oslo recognized the importance of conflict as a barrier in meeting the education needs of children and youth now living without education. A major outcome of the summit was a commitment to work toward establishing a dedicated fund or other modality to address education in emergencies by the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.

In a paper prepared for that same Oslo Summit on Education for Development, Steve Zyck and I presented five recommendations to address this crisis in Lebanon.

  1. Lebanon’s commitment to absorbing Syrian, Palestinian, and Iraqi refugee children into the education system must be matched by a stronger and more sustained financial commitment from the international community as part of a “delivery and financing pact” to improve delivery capacity and meet targets for education. Partners in Lebanon are committed to significantly scale up the education response through the RACE strategy and meet the needs of all school-aged children that lack access to quality education through formal and non-formal schooling.
  2. The use of multi-donor channels is promising and should continue to be pursued as long as they genuinely strengthen donor coordination within the education sector and contribute to improved public financial management (PFM). The Lebanon Syrian Crisis Trust Fund (LSCTF) could prove to be an effective channel of funding for education. A more active role on the part of Lebanon’s government in streamlining and expediting the process would likely encourage more donors to contribute to the LSCTF. Existing donors are already demonstrating their commitment while supporting Lebanon to make reforms that will maximize the effectiveness of resources and expand public sector service delivery.
  3. Donor contributions to the education sector in Lebanon must continue to focus on delivering the best results for children targeted by the RACE strategy. Specific needs of children that cannot be addressed through the formal system need to be targeted by relevant actors in cooperation and in line with a framework established by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE). The Lebanese government and its partners are committed to reaching refugee children and vulnerable Lebanese children through the Lebanese public education system. This critical commitment would yield more dividends for children if donors continue their growing practice of investing in public institutions while also expanding the capacity of non-formal education providers targeting out-of-school children and youth.
  4. Opportunities for improved cost-effectiveness of programming need to be reviewed and reassessed. The plurality of actors, including international NGOs, U.N. agencies, the government of Lebanon, and local NGOs supporting the education response has resulted in several different models of finance and delivery. As the response to the refugee crisis becomes a longer term endeavor, all parties should work to identify operational efficiencies in finance and program implementation. It is important to acknowledge the greater-than-usual costs in scaling up operations and delivering a large-scale education response to crises in a middle-income setting.
  5. Engaging with private education providers and novel financing arrangements should be explored to leverage Lebanon’s market for education services. As the amount of refugees in Lebanon increases, and donor support and internal reforms materialize, the public education system will be able to take on a growing number of refugee children. As part of these reforms, it will be crucial to leverage the capacity of the Lebanese private school system.

With the next school year starting in a few weeks, there is an urgency to act on a tremendous opportunity for the international community to successfully address one of the world’s most challenging education crises—not only in Lebanon but also in Jordan and Turkey, where each government needs substantial financial support to provide education to all children within their borders. Some donors have already stepped up their funding since the Oslo Summit on Education for Development, but many more need to engage to ensure these efforts can be sustained for what is now likely to be for the remainder of the school years of Syrian refugee children who are in primary school today.