Learning to learn together: lessons on education in refugee settings from Ethiopia

23 November 2020



For a refugee learner, education can restore a feeling of belonging. It is the key to a brighter future. For an educational planner and policy-maker, this means accounting for the learning needs and fundamental rights of all learners – including refugees. It also raises important questions over how to support integration, introduce national curriculum and examinations, and allocate financial and human resources, among many others.

Ethiopia commits to inclusion

Ethiopia – home to one of the largest refugee populations in Africa – is a prime example of a country committed to the inclusion of refugees. The country has two main government bodies responsible for education in host and refugee areas: the Ministry of Education and the Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA). In recent years, IIEP-UNESCO and UNICEF Ethiopia have supported the government of Ethiopia, and its partners, in bridging and harmonizing efforts to plan and manage education for refugee and host communities alike.

“If we start exercising joint activities, I think the tradition, the culture will evolve. I think that [joint planning] is very crucial.”
An education officer in Ethiopia who participated in IIEP-UNESCO and UNICEF workshops.

Now, a new report shares perspectives from a variety of national education officers, as well as key lessons learned to continue to support Ethiopia on the path towards refugee inclusion in education. These include the importance of sustained government leadership and strong coordination and collaboration between different government entities. Given the protracted nature of crises today, the report’s authors stress the importance of having a long-term vision for refugees that is supported by financial and human resources. Lastly, schools attended by refugee and host communities in Ethiopia face a wide range of natural and conflict-related risks. Therefore, this calls for a more systematic approach to crisis-sensitive planning – across regional, Woreda (district), and school levels – and reliable data. This would not only protect education investments, but would ensure education continuity, and save lives, says the report.

Supporting Ethiopia

These new recommendations have emerged on the heels of a multi-year technical cooperation programme with UNICEF Ethiopia, which first began in 2017, one year after Ethiopia made new pledges to increase the enrolment of refugee students – from pre-school to tertiary education. At its crux, the project has strived to support a shift towards joint planning for refugee and host communities. This entails one, holistic vision for education for all – and greater coordination and collaboration among refugee and host communities. Ultimately, this could contribute to greater social cohesion among Ethiopia’s diverse population, and address long-standing challenges in how education service delivery for refugee students is managed.

In Ethiopia, today, there is a lot of momentum and greater acceptance around the importance of planning education for refugees. Before, it was really anchored in emergency response, making it difficult to see the potential of integration. Now, it is well understood that displacement is often protracted, and the result is a longer-term commitment.
Thalia Séguin, member of IIEP-UNESCO’s crisis-sensitive planning cluster and co-author of the report.

All voices at the table

“Before this project, the stakeholders did not work all together on refugee education issues,” said one Ethiopian education officer involved in the project. “This project has brought all stakeholders – the Ministry, ARRA, UN agencies, and regional and Woreda education offices – to the same table on making refugee education the common concern for every organization. This was a great opportunity to break through the critical challenges that I face at Woreda and regional level.”

For more than three years, education officers involved in the IIEP and UNICEF project, at various levels of the education system, from federal to Woreda level, learned about the use of school mapping tools and geographic information systems (GIS), discussed the importance of having and using risk-related data for planning, and supervisors and inspectors were trained on how to better support schools in developing improvement plans and explored how to extend federal quality assurance mechanisms to schools attended by refugees. Combined, these activities have helped form a critical mass of education officers who are committed to crisis-sensitive planning.

Jean Claude Ndabananiye, a co-author of the report who provided technical cooperation from IIEP, has also observed a widespread shift in refugee affairs. “In Ethiopia, the management of refugee education was, in past years, a separate system, but now regional officers are attuned to it and are increasingly assuming education for refugees as part of their responsibilities, because of various projects and the initiatives of local partners,” he said.

There is also much on the horizon for the continued integration of refugees. Ethiopia’s next Education Sector Plan, which will take the country to 2025, includes refugees for the first time – a crucial step as it signals their inclusion from the start of the planning cycle.