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Can Access to Education Ensure Peace?

WikiMedia Commons

As part of the work of the Conflict Prevention Program on Education, Researcher Agnese Macaluso discusses the importance of sustainable and equitable quality education to ensure peace. The adoption of SDG No. 4 by the United Nations could represent a milestone in this direction.

International development specialists have prioritized increasing access to education over the last 25 years. The movement Education for All, launched in 1990 by UNESCO, UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank identified six objectives to meet by 2015, all related to access to education and learning needs. The millennium development goals also emphasize enrolment and universal access to (primary) education.  However, the links between education, peace and conflict remain contested. Evidence shows that unequal access to education– a fundamental human right – along religious, ethnic or linguistic lines, can exacerbate grievances and tensions among different groups in society, and it has become one of the main factors associated with the increasing risk of violence and conflict.

As this blog will argue, depending on the context and the way education is provided, it can also be a driver of structural violence and political oppression, and can even become a strategy of war.  The ambivalent nature of education implies that the international community needs to reconsider its developmental approach. In fact, while the focus on the access to education is important, in order to promote peace the latter needs to be complemented by at least three aspects: adequate life standards and access to the job market, the quality of programming and, especially in fragile contexts, more effective strategies to ensure safety and protection.

First, an equal access to education does not necessarily bring about non-violence or peace. Although there is empirical evidence demonstrating that higher education levels reduce the risk of violent conflict overall, recent international events such as the Arab Spring suggest that countries with relatively high education standards but with high rates of unemployment and urbanisation are more inclined to experience internal violence.

Second, education is not neutral and can be used as a tool to perpetrate or even encourage social and ethnical divisions. Examples range from Rwanda to the Balkans, where history education has become an essential component of political strategies to fuel national and ethnic tensions. This shows that next to granting equal access to schools, the quality of education, and the content of curricula and pedagogy shape attitudes and builds a culture of peace.

Schools can, moreover, become targets of war, as demonstrated by the attack on Malala Yousafzai and the Taliban bombing of a French-run school in Kabul and Peshawar, among many other examples. Between January 2007 and July 2009, education was disrupted by targeted attacks in at least 31 countries. Education facilities are often used as means for indoctrination and recruitment, as shown by the recent rise in the number of child soldiers taken from South Sudanese schools. Schools can even become military bases and, in turn, military targets. These alarming incidents suggest that promoting education enrolment and participation without ensuring students’ protection and safety can have devastating effects.

These challenges suggest that the emphasis on inclusion and access to education should be complemented by adequate access to job opportunities and social promotion. The creation of more training programs for students in secondary schools and universities and the design of curricula that are oriented to the needs of the local job markets should be a priority.

The design and implementation of relevant peace-promoting curricula should also be encouraged or even made a condition for aid by donors in the most vulnerable contexts at risk of social, ethnic or religious conflicts. The recent development of innovative financial mechanisms that allocate benefits and incentives on the basis of performance and achievements may address some of the traditional impediments to sustainability.

In order to ensure that schools remain safe and protected learning spaces, the United Nations and other key donors such as The World Bank should support the development of an independent system for monitoring the controversial link between education and violence while trends and motives of attacks should be studied in-depth. There is also a need for frameworks and norms to ensure the protection of schools and children from military attacks and for greater investment in the resilience of schools to armed attacks and the recruitment of students by armed groups. For all the aforementioned reasons, the inclusion of education in 70% of the publicly available peace accords signed between 1989 and 2005 is a positive trend.

Hence, to achieve sustainable results, education reforms will need to complement inclusivity and free access with a context-sensitive approach, and a focus on protection. The ongoing debate on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the thematic consultation on education in the post-2015 development agenda provide a timely opportunity to integrate this approach. In particular, the proposed SDG No. 4 on inclusive and equitable quality education suggests that we are moving beyond the traditional approach based on access to education only. If agreed, SDG No. 4 could lay the foundations for more ambitious and responsible policies to address the challenges described above.

Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” but, as with every weapon, it depends on the nature of its design and implementation. It is our difficult task to ensure education counters rather than entrenches the dynamics of violent conflict.

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