Popular Education as Refugee Education

Jeffrey Dow, 2012 (Originally submitted as coursework for Basic Education and Social Development, The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK). 

 "Today, there are 72 million children out of school worldwide and more than half of them-37 million-live in conflict-affected fragile states (Save The Children 1; 2008). The magnitude of the problem and the scale of the response have been completely misaligned over the last decades, specifically in the Pan-African context, home to roughly 2.69 million refugees and internally displaced persons (World Refugee Survey 1; 2009). Refugees and conflict afflicted populations are in a particularly vulnerable situation in regards to formal education provision, as they are no longer entitled to public services from their nation of citizenship, often due to conflict or political persecution, and are often trapped in refugee camp situations in host nations with extremely weak and overburdened educational systems.

     Education is a critical component of the humanitarian response, and has been increasingly included as the "fourth pillar of humanitarian response," along with food, shelter, and medicine (Paulson 2007; 341). The UNHCR has stated that education is necessary in the immediate aftermath of refugee flight to provide for "familiarity and stability" (Boyden and Ryder 10; 1996). The question of how education should respond to displacement and crisis is often overlooked in favor of standardization and regimentation of delivery, ignoring the role of empowerment and localized needs in favor of quick fixes and monitoring successes (Davies 4, 2004). In addition, the quality of this education provision, stemming from the lack of coordination between host nations, nations of origin, and NGO players providing services, has been historically poor. Key areas of teacher training, educational materials, immediate response, and psychological support for children has been sorely lacking, further subjecting the most vulnerable citizens on the planet to lives of disempowerment and stagnation (UNHCR 2001; 6). 

     In this paper, I will argue that the most effective response to the largest number of these stated deficiencies in refugee education systems is the popular education approach of Brazilian educationalist, Paulo Freire, which specifically meets the unique challenges of primary and secondary school refugee education more effectively than currently implemented programming, and that popular education is a feasible, implementable alternative to the chaotic standardized educational responses currently being employed in refugee camps in the African context. In framing this argument, I will be looking at the specific case studies of refugee camps in Ethiopia, to analyze what is being done, what are the pitfalls, and show how popular education could better respond to these unique challenges. I will then conclude by recommending a specific policy outline for this new implementation. 

     Paulo Freire's approach to education involves a radical shift away from the traditional "banking" model, in which teachers "talk about reality" and "fill" their students with information (Freire, 2005; 56), and instead, focuses on peer learning and empowerment through dialogue (Blackburn 2000; 9). Critical thinking of students, the self-analysis of their struggles, is seen as a key in the breaking from the formal educational system, which exists for the goal of maintaining the status-quo in societies (Blackburn 4). Popular education's basic premises, including overcoming poverty and injustice, collective action, empowerment, and, primarily, the emphasis on local knowledge as the key for the leaning process (Hall 2012), display characteristics that offer a much more adaptable, resilient, and appropriate basis for formalized educational services in refugee camps. “Education as the practice of freedom…” (Freire 265) will give power and dignity to lives which have been thus, denied. Transformation of students’ lives, in understanding they have the power and ability to both understand their situations and to learn from them, (Freire 266), is vital in refugee education, and must be the focus of educational platforms implemented at the primary and secondary level.

     We also need to consider other scenarios in which the popular education approach has been formally implemented into refugee camp and conflict situations, to assess the feasibility of this approach as a framework for the delivering of educational services in these complex environments. The scenarios of poverty and violence, those characteristics which certainly prevail in all conflict-related refugee situations, was addressed by a popular education approach in El Salvador's 12 year civil war, in which, "…a pedagogy to encourage active participation and the development of critical consciousness, a close relation between the school and community life, and a commitment to educating everyone," was stressed (Hammond, 1999; 70). Combatants in the struggle, both adult and youth, were able to gain significantly in literacy and self-empowerment through the approach, which "…uses material derived from the real lives of poor people," (Hammond 72). Active reflection on personal vocabulary invites both literacy training as well as the questioning as to the learner's reality (Hammond 72). The flexibility, low cost, and low training required, as well as the simple practicality of the approach in El Salvador led to its large-scale adoption and success in literacy training.

     In assessing the applicability of popular education as a response to the deficits of refugee camp educational systems, we need to look specifically at these contexts, in order to identify the key binding constraints to educational service delivery at the primary and secondary level, and examine how the popular education approach's key characteristics meet these constraints. Ethiopia is a nation surrounded by humanitarian emergencies, and thus, is home to refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan (Forcedmigrationonline; 2012). The Sherkole and Tongo Refugee Camps are two camps located in the Assosa Region of Ethiopia. Sherkole has been in existence since 1997, and Tongo was recently established in 2011. Both camps have been administered under the guise of the UNHCR, the world's major international refugee organization, and ARRA, the Ethiopian government's refugee ministry, which is the standard arrangement across East Africa, with ultimate oversight coming from the host nation, but delegation of responsibility given to implementing multilateral and NGO actors. Host nations are "…obliged by the Convention on the Rights of the Child to permit the education of child refugees within their borders" (Sinclair 16). 

     Both the Tongo and Sherkole refugee camps are facing similar challenges: lack of immediate educational response and coordination, a severe deficiency of all teaching resources, a lack of trained teachers, limited flexibility, and limited capacity to address mental health issues of children, (UNHCR, 2011, Education Support Mission ; 3). Tongo, after two months of existence, had "…no education program-whether formal or non-formal-put in place... (UNHCR 5). Despite the presence of "trained and qualified refugee teachers who are enthusiastic to be recruited and help the children," (UNHCR 2011; 6), coordinating and implementation of formalized services failed to respond in a timely manner. This is fairly consistent with new refugee camp climates, often categorized by chaos and rapid influxes of refugees.  

     Rapid action is often cited as critical in humanitarian-response education; (Sinclair, 2001; 9), but thus, if camps take months, if not years, to establish educational programs, the needs of learners are being grossly neglected. Rapid action is critical to both psychological healing and to prevent youth from the initial temptation to join armed groups (Sinclair 9). However, as we see with the case of Tongo, critical response has not been forthcoming, as multi-laterals, government agencies, and NGO's struggle for coordination in complex crisis situations. The issue of coordination in these difficult environments is the chief contributing factor that leads to delayed implementations; communications problems (Sinclair 38) as well as the necessities of complex administrative tasks that underpin formalized educational systems (Boyden and Ryder 12) further lend themselves to our seeking out a more flexible, localized, and less administrative-intensive approach to educational provision. Further supporting this point, in 2010, the UNHCR reported that in the recently established Bokolmanyp and Melkadida camps, also in Ethiopia, school enrollment rates were less than 30% (UNHCR, 2010; 3) When educational response is needed most, formalized, standardized educational provision is not effective nor efficient; this is the opening that a popular education approach can best fill, in the immediate aftermath of refugee crises.  

     When learners are using their own knowledge as the basis for learning, and educators are primarily facilitating, education becomes far more flexible and immediate. When students become “critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher,” (Freire 265), formalized materials become less important. When value is placed primarily on local knowledge and resources and utilizes simple dialogue rather than standardized textbooks and curriculums (Hall, 2012), resource dependence decreases and opportunities for immediacy increases. The availability of refugee teachers amongst refugee populations lends itself to the opportunities for utilizing these human resources in a flexible manner, before appropriate standardized procedures and curriculums can be analyzed and implemented. It has been noted that "It is not always possible to set up a permanent formal education system in the immediate aftermath of an emergency" (Boyden and Ryder 5). Thus, the gap that usually exists, and that has been seen in these specific contexts, can be readily addressed by a popular education platform. 

     Another area of refugee camp educational provision, witnessed with primary and secondary level students, is the necessity of dealing with psychological trauma related to displacement. Mental health is critical to adolescent development; disruptions in education can invoke a relapse into violence for refugee children (Sinclair 7). The setting of education, which should be well-structured, as well as the interaction and engagement, are critical. "Conflict-affected people also need help in discussing the situation they are in, and identifying constructive ways to build a better future" (Sinclair 11). The participatory approaches of Freire's popular education, with emphasis on empowerment and creativity (Blackburn 5), involve the critical engagement and interaction, as well as self-examination, which is critical to refugee children's mental health in the immediate aftermath of crisis. Children must be directly involved in the process of dialogue and design. Even the youngest have been shown to be able to give their inputs into the dialogue process of education (Hart 2006, 1).

     Finally, we need to address the core area of educational resources, both in teachers, teaching supplies and monetary assistance, and their role in the delivery of refugee camp education, in finalizing the platform that popular education is a more appropriate redress to these circumstances. Currently, only 4% of the UNHCR's budget is committed to education services (UNHCR, 2011, A Global Review, 43). Education is seen my many as "development" and not "humanitarian response." Thus, is it often subject to blockages in funding and non-stable donor environments (Boyden and Ryder 3). The humanitarian response "Relief bubble" can adversely affect educational planning (Buckland 1). Thus, is a less administratively intensive approach, one which has the need for less organizational and administrative framework and oversight, in itself, a key contributing cost factor to formalized programming, a better approach? Additionally, school materials in these environments are often subject to looting (Boyden and Ryder 5); thus, in budget starved refugee camps, participatory, dialogue-based instruction, with less focus on formalized materials, can be a salient replacement. Refugee teachers themselves are being inefficiently utilized in these situations due to the technical problems of coordination; the ability to better harness the human resources on the ground in these crises through less organizational bureaucracy and administrative needs is another advantage of the approach.

     The basic formalization of educational structures in refugee camp environments is not the answer, at least in the critical initial phases of response, that best responds to the question of flexibility and quality. Refugee crises are fluid and changing, by nature; strict guidelines and formalized curriculums designed, in most cases, by foreigners or unsympathetic host country governments, are not addressing the situations at hand. Unified curriculum development is extremely time-intensive and specialized, and the technical capacity for these activities is often slow in being implemented into conflict areas and refugee environments. (Brown, 2006; 1). What, instead, are the possibilities for progressive integration of popular education strategies? "The most effective education programs are those based on curricula derived from the situation of the children and relevant to their everyday concerns." (Boyden and Ryder 31). There has been attention paid to emergency situations as opportunities for "positive change" (Sinclair 27), in that new design can be promoted and implemented with the break in formalized educational systems. Can this opportunity be harnessed to encourage participatory design and popular approaches, in environments where host-nation curriculums are completely inapplicable, and where progressive NGO and multilateral agencies have more jurisdiction over design and coordination?  In these specific circumstances, international donors and agencies are the primary source of funding (boy den and Ryder 17); thus, increased finding brings increased ability to change the status quo.  In the developing world, informal and non formal, participatory education is often seen as inferior to formalized systems. Thus, in addressing the context for change, local needs and priorities need to be addressed in design (Boyden and Ryder 4). Participatory methods lend themselves to this adaptation and localized context in content design. In these situations, the formalized approaches that “obviate thinking” (Freire 260) can be much improved upon.

     We have seen through both historical details of popular education programs in conflict zones and a review of key deficiencies of refugee camp educational provision in Ethiopia, that a popular education approach to primary and secondary school provision would be both more practical and effective than current formalize structures struggling to meet the needs of refugees. We need to remember an essential point in our policy design, which focuses on the refugees themselves as a resource for education (Buckland 1). Communication is essential to meaning and empowerment (Freire 260). Under the guise of the chief implementing agency, the UNHCR, which is tasked by the international community with the response coordination in refugee crises (Crisp, Talbot and Cipollone 1; 2001), a popular education framework for emergency education needs to be designed and implemented. This will include the identification of refugee teachers (or facilitators), a sampling of popular education questions to employ in initial "classroom" settings, an overview/guidance on the popular education approach to literacy and local empowerment, and, if possible, one or two skilled popular education practitioners (on standby, as a “rapid response team” for crisis education) to model the approach and conduct rapid teacher training in the basic premises, which can then be turn keyed to applicable local teachers. A focus, as was done in El Salvador, on personal reflection as a basis for vocabulary acquisition, must be stressed, as well as dialogue, empowerment, support, and critical thinking through relation. This popular education mandate, together with a regionally context specific popular education “toolkit,” can be rapidly deployed in refugee situations. Coordinating partners can then oversee the production of locally produced learning materials, created in the popular education approach through local learning and sharing, which can be used as low-cost teaching materials, less prone to theft and pillage. Curriculums can be developed after the initial stage, which focus on local needs and local priorities, as well as local motivations in attending schooling (whether this be formal education integration or not). This simple, non-resource intensive deployment can be made in the initial stages of humanitarian response, quickly, and at minimal cost, to ensure the educational development of the most vulnerable of global citizens is not further jeopardized. 

Works Cited: 

Barosso, Monica Mazzer. "Reading Freire's Words: Are Freire's Ideas Applicable to Southern NGO's?" Center for Civil Society Working Paper 11, The London School of Economics, 2002. 

Bird, Lyndsay. "Education and Conflict: An NGO Perspective."  Forced Migration Review Education Supplement. Oxford: Refugee Studies Center, July 2006. 

Blackburn, James. "Understanding Paulo Freire: Reflections of the Origins, Concepts, and Possible Pitfalls of His Educational Approach." Community Development Journal 35, January 2000, pp. 3-15. 

Boyden, Jo, and Ryder, Paul. "Implementing the Right to Education in Areas of Armed Conflict." Oxford: Department of International Development, 1996. 

'Brown, Tim. "South Sudan Education Emergency." Forced Migration Review Education Supplement. Oxford: Refugee Studies Center, July 2006. 

Buckland, Peter. "Post-Conflict Education: Time for a Reality Check?" Forced Migration Review Education Supplement. Oxford: Refugee Studies Center, July 2006. 

Davies, Lynn. "Education and Conflict: Complexity and Chaos." London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004. 

Forcedmigrationonline.  "Refugee Situations in Ethiopia." Forcedmigration.org, 2012. 

Freire, Paulo. "The Banking Concept of Education." Ways of Reading (7th Edition). ed. David Berthol-Mae. New York: St. Martini Press, 2005, pp. 255-267. 

Hall, Anthony. "Popular Education and Grassroots Action." Class Lecture, Basic Education for Social Development. The London School of Economics, Feb. 21, 2012. 

Hammond, John. "Popular Education as Community Organizing in El Salvador." Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 26, No. 4. July 1999, pp. 69-94. 

Hart, Jason. "Putting Children in the Picture." Forced Migration Review Educational Supplement. Oxford: Refugee Studies Center, July 2006. 

Paulson, Julia. "Education and Conflict." International Journal of Educational Development 27, 2007, pp. 340-347. 

Save the Children Alliance. "Delivering Education for Children in Emergencies: A Key Building Block for the Future." London: International Save the Children Alliance, 2008. 

Sinclair, Margaret. "Education in Emergencies." From: Crisp, J.C., and D. Cipollone (eds) "Learning For a Future: Refugee Education in Developing Countries." UNHCR, 2001. 

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. "World Refugee Survey 2009." Online Resource Library: www.refugees.org, 2009. 

UNHCR. "Education Support Mission to Assosa (Sherkole and Tongo Refugee Camps): 20-24 December 2011." Compiled by Girma Yadeta, UNHCR Ethiopia, 2011. 

UNHCR. "Ethiopia." UNHCR Global Report, 2010. Geneva, 2010. 

UNHCR. "Learning for a Future: Refugee Education in Developing Countries." Ed. Crisp, Jeff, Talbot, Christopher, and Cipollone, Daina. Geneva: United Nations Publications, 2001. 

UNHCR. "Refugee Education: A Global Review." Geneva: Policy Development and Evaluation Service, 2011.