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Examining Race, Power, and Privilege Dynamics within the Education in Emergencies Sector

‘Education in emergencies,’ or EiE, is a fundamental part of any humanitarian response and aims to ensure uninterrupted quality learning opportunities for all ages in situations of crisis. More than ever, education needs to be centered around racial equity, yet bar the INEE Statement on Anti-Racism and Racial Equity, there are few—if any—resources, articles, inter-agency working groups, or toolkits reflecting on how racism interplays with EiE responses at global, national, and local levels.

This is surprising, when in 2020 Black Lives Matters touched every industry, including the aid sector, forcing long overdue conversation on anti-Blackness, anti-racism, and power and privilege alongside Covid-19, a pandemic that has exacerbated inequalities, discrimination, and division. While EiE practitioners may have been integrating equity-based approaches into program responses, there is a dearth of documented evidence that clearly articulates how racial injustice intersects with other systems of oppression and informs EIE practice, policies, and practices.

Even prior to the pandemic, those most likely to be excluded from education were disadvantaged due to language, location, gender, and ethnicity. Sriprakesh, Tikly, and Walker’s (2019) powerful article describes the ‘erasure of racism’ as being deeply entrenched in education and international development, and arguably, EiE is also complicit in this silence. This is a critical oversight given that contextually specific formations of racism, like ethno-nationalism and ethnic strife underlie many of the major conflicts and disorders in the world today.

Despite the majority of EiE interventions taking place in formerly colonized countries, hostile frontiers, and resettlement contexts where children become racialized or ‘othered’, rarely is racism explicitly mentioned in any advocacy, policy, research, or programmatic design. Furthermore, while there is robust evidence on the returns on racial and ethnic diversity in the corporate workplace, relative racial homogeneity prevails in ‘global-level’ EIE positions and inter-agency working groups, with headquarters situated in settler-colonial and former imperial powers, reinforcing structures and cultures that fuel inequality.

Like the rest of the humanitarian sector, EiE needs to deeply interrogate structures that produce inequalities. Hugo Slim (2020) argues that racism is part of the reluctance (at global decision making level) to localize humanitarian action. Rarely are national organizations, community, or refugee-led initiatives credited for their role in implementing education responses. Instead, at a global level, there is a focus on capacity building ‘their’ expertise and ‘competencies’ to manage projects that local partners often have limited input into creating. Without any acknowledgment that learning should be two-ways, these practices are deeply problematic and reflect colonial legacies of whose knowledge is valued.

Discussions around culturally-relevant pedagogy, advocacy to decolonize curricula, and reflections on how colonial legacies, biases, and racial and ethnic discrimination continue to play out in classrooms, curricula, and teacher professional development in many contexts across the globe are largely missing from current EiE discourse and practice. Even more so during a crisis, identity markers (such as language, socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, disability, childcare responsibilities, migration status, gender, sexuality, and age) intersect and influence access, meaningful participation, and education transition rates as children and teachers exist in socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts where categories of difference interact upon multiple levels of in/justice. This is evident from the World Inequality Database on Education, where data demonstrates how disparities for different groups shape education and future opportunities.

Arguably, data is key if we want to have equitable education responses, yet the availability of nuanced data falls short, in part due to the humanitarian sector’s tendency to homogenize displaced children. As such, different forms of social inequities can be reinforced in EiE practice by inadequately analyzing how structures and histories permeate classrooms or by using ambiguous language to describe learners' experiences. For example, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners frequently mention that refugee children and families face ‘discriminatory policies and practices’ accessing education and experience bullying by peers and teachers, yet rarely are “experiences due to racialized markers, captured by the discourse of measurement that dominates current global development research and practice.”

Going forward, equity needs to be centered throughout the EiE program design cycle. All practitioners—regardless of whether they are working in their country of origin or with limited understanding of the historical context, language, or cultures—need to:

  • Self-reflect on how they ended up in that position;

  • Self-reflect on their positionality (relative to privilege and/or oppression) in all aspects of their identities (e.g., race, class, gender, nationality, religion, language, dis/ability). This will give an indication of who else should be in the room co-creating and/or leading the intervention design;

  • Reflect and reframe the concept of ‘implementing partner’, ensuring co-creation, acknowledgement of distinct roles, integration of local knowledges, enable dialogue around fair remuneration and visibility of the national partners and community-led organizations in organizational advocacy and communication;

  • Take a conflict-sensitive approach to enable inclusion, reflecting upon the political, historical, and cultural biases, and positionalities throughout the education program structure, curriculum, teacher professional development, research, and advocacy;

  • Ensure monitoring, evaluation, and research practices capture the intersecting markers that influence education equity and consider if existing processes are ethical, decolonial, and not merely extractive.

For years, education has been one of the most neglected humanitarian sectors. It is precisely because there is so little investment in EiE that it is even more important that what we do is fully accountable to affected populations. The EiE sector must recognize that the programs, structures, and systems that are put in place today will lay the education foundations and trajectories for future generations. This is precisely why EiE must be overtly anti-racist, equity-based, and inclusive of diverse people, perspectives, and experiences to improve education in emergencies.

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