This blog was written by Ritesh Shah, University of Auckland (lead author); D. Brent Edwards Jr., University of Hawaii Manoa; S. Garnett Russell, Teachers College Colombia University; Claudia Mitchell, McGill University; Mauro C. Moschetti, Autonomous University of Barcelona; Ha Yeon Kim, Carly Tubbs Dolan and J. Lawrence Aber, New York University (NYU)NYU Global TIES for Children. It was first published on the Humanitarian Practice Network website on 25 July 2023.

If interested in discussing this topic more, you are encouraged to come to Dr. Ritesh Shah’s presentation at the UKFIET conference in Oxford on Thursday, 14 September, 9-10:30am in Room 15, Examination Schools. Time will be given to identifying how to collectively address this concern.

New models of humanitarian aid and partnership are urgently needed – models which reckon with histories of colonialism, racism, white saviourism and hegemonic privilege. Yet, as Maha Shuayb identifies, those holding power within our current humanitarian structures hide behind discourses of localisation and partnerships, which is a ‘gentler approach, tip-toeing around the heart of the issue’. The issue, as we see it, is one of humanitarian funders, and those receiving the majority of such funding, acknowledging the asymmetrical power dynamics and incentives that preclude a radical rethinking of partnership and action. Despite funders and large INGOs embracing a rhetoric of accountability towards populations affected by conflict and crisis, their actions remain primarily guided by the social, political and economic interests of their own constituencies and leadership.

We draw on two recent examples from the education in emergencies (EiE) community to highlight the harm that is done when the self-interest of funders supersedes the needs and priorities of a sector which remains chronically and insufficiently funded. Additionally, such actions belie the community’s ambitions to support evidence generation and advocacy on the importance and impacts of quality education provision in times of crisis, and to establish and sustain more equitable and effective partnerships across the sector.

The current context of the education in emergencies community

The education in emergencies community was born out of a recognition that quality learning opportunities for children of all ages is both a right and a freedom that promotes human flourishing. Yet, education provision for those living in situations of conflict and crisis is often an afterthought in humanitarian response, despite such situations being more protracted and increasingly common over the past 20 years. The result: nearly 80 million children and youth find themselves out of school.

The EiE community was institutionalised with the establishment of the Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) in 2000. INEE quickly became a leader on EiE advocacy, policy, and standards for the community. Its membership has rapidly grown and diversified over the years, and now stands at over 20,000 members. Despite these successes, however, funding to education in humanitarian contexts remains woefully inadequate.

Within this already limited pool of funding, there has been insufficient investment in research and evidence-generation to improve programming and policies shaping education provision for children and youth affected by conflict and crisis. Hence, Dubai Cares’ pledge in 2016 of approximately $10 million to fund research through its Evidence for Education in Emergencies Research Fund (or E Cubed) was met with excitement and hope. Dubai Cares aimed to fund research that was, ‘freely accessible to, designed for and inclusive of the voices of those people and institutions on the ground in crisis-affected contexts’. This meant that different to other funded research at that time, it would not predetermine thematic or geographic focuses. Additionally, all research completed was to be freely accessible to all stakeholders, with INEE playing an important role in research dissemination efforts. Finally, and importantly, it was expected that the research would empower and build the capacity of local actors through meaningful and equitable partnerships between Global North research institutions, and scholars and practitioners in the Global South.

In each year between 2017 and 2020, the fund allocated approximately $2 million to a series of multi-year research projects. Dubai Cares partnered with INEE to ensure that the proposed projects were aligned to evidence gaps and needs that had been identified by its membership and not duplicating other research activity in the sector. As part of this, INEE designed and facilitated the pre-award submission and review processes while Dubai Cares selected shortlisted proposals for funding, and managed post-award grants.

Similarly, in 2020, the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI’s) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) followed suit and supported four research partnerships between UK research institutions and Southern academics, activists and practitioners on education in conflict and crisis worth £7.7 million. Like E Cubed, the GCRF required Southern partners to play a leading role in problem identification and called for mutuality in learning and capacity-exchange activities.

In both instances, these commitments to meaningful partnerships and research driven by the needs of the Global South have since been undermined by the funders’ sudden withdrawal of financial support with seemingly little regard for the direct or collateral damage caused.

What harm was done

Following the UK government’s decision in 2021 to drastically reduce its overall Official Development Assistance budget and priorities following a change of political leadership, UKRI revoked its commitments to fund GCRF projects – which it had only agreed on the year prior. It led to several projects being terminated, and others needing to be significantly scaled back. The impacts of these cuts were most acutely experienced by Southern-based partners, some who faced anxiety and uncertainty over their continued role in this work. Several of those impacted by these cuts noted the unethical way in which UKRI went about managing this process, and its failure to uphold standards of transparency and mutual respect, which it encourages researchers to abide by.

More recently, Dubai Cares abruptly cancelled its ongoing commitments to research projects already approved and commenced due to unforeseen financial challenges facing the organisation, as well as a shift in the organisations’ strategic priorities – in part influenced by the United Arab Emirates’ hosting of the belated 2020 World Expo and the upcoming COP28 summit. Quickly it moved from being a key funder in education in emergencies to having a much less significant imprint in the space. This included stepping down from INEE’s Steering Committee at the end of 2022. Dubai Cares demanded that all E Cubed researchers stop work immediately. Important research on topics came to a sudden halt, including: how best to enhance accelerated and other accredited non-formal education pathways for refugees, girls and other marginalised groups; supporting processes of peacebuilding and transitional justice within education systems affected by conflict; harnessing technology to support equitable and timely responses to future crisis; and implementing culturally grounded social and emotional learning programmes.

This work was being carried out directly with communities affected by conflict and crisis, alongside civil society partners, ministries of education, and local research institutions. Unfortunately, the Global South partners and researchers with whom we collaborated are most directly affected by Dubai Cares’ decision. The cessation of funding has led to the loss of employment and/or study opportunities for at least 10 early-career scholars across our research projects. Beyond this, our partners – who worked diligently to co-create research projects and/or strengthen networks with government actors, other civil society actors, educators, and community leaders – are left explaining why the planned work will not go ahead. Several have highlighted to us the reputational risk it poses to them personally, as well as to their organisations. The need to cease research immediately left us unable to wind down our work in a respectful or ethical manner, and insufficient time to hand over the work already started to others. The populations and communities with whom we engaged through our research continue to ask, ‘What next’?

In both instances, key decision-makers and the political leadership influencing their agendas do not appear to have considered how their sudden cancellation of funding would directly and indirectly negatively impact the livelihoods and ongoing work of our partners in the Global South. This is particularly problematic given that the projects being funded explicitly targeted research on and in vulnerable contexts in the Global South. By abruptly terminating funding, with little prior consultation or communication, Dubai Cares has left our partners in greater precarity than before. In several instances, our institutions have been unable to compensate them for work they had already completed or that was well underway as we await reimbursement from Dubai Cares. Some of our partners have had to draw on monies from other ongoing projects or activities directly serving conflict- and crisis-affected populations to stay afloat in the interim.

INEE, as a key partner with Dubai Cares in establishing and supporting aspects of E Cubed, has not commented on Dubai Cares’ recent actions. Neither has INEE said much about the impacts of the UK government’s decisions in 2020 to cut funding to GCRF. This silence seems hypocritical considering the network’s commitment to calling out instances of racial inequity, power imbalances and harm done by the humanitarian aid community. So why, then, has INEE remained silent? INEE remains largely dependent on these same funders for its own survival. Despite being convened as a ‘neutral’ space, INEE has historically been governed by a steering group comprised mainly of these funders and other actors supported by these funders.

A call to action

As Francine Menashy and Zeena Zakharia note, there is a critical need to acknowledge and address the power imbalances that pervade current EiE partnerships. This will necessitate ‘uncomfortable self-reflection’ about how funders often reproduce racialised, colonial and economic inequities that undermine attempts by others at building meaningful and positive partnerships in both EiE practice and research. Ideally, these discussions would lead to consensus on the need to extend INEE’s Minimum Standards for Education to also include expectations for funders in terms of how they reflect principles of care, trust and respect; ongoing and organic communication; mutual learning and multidirectional knowledge sharing; and self-reflection in their own work – all in a way that does no harm. Additionally, power needs to be wrested away from dominant funders who have for too long shaped the conditions and outcomes of knowledge production in EiE. Mario Novelli, for instance, suggests establishing an independent watchdog that ‘monitors and critically evaluates the working patterns and research outputs in the field’. Finally, to create truly equitable spaces within INEE’s broad membership, its leadership needs to establish its own set of principles for accepting funding to ensure it can maintain a level of independence, autonomy and accountability to the wider communities it serves.

In writing this, we acknowledge our own privilege, as scholars of Global North research institutions, and whose livelihoods and lives are less directly impacted by the types of actions these funders take. In the past, we too have been silent, and benefited from structures that have been exploitative to those living and working in EiE settings. Now is the time to openly discuss how those who give and receive funding within our EiE community can do so in ways that are anti-racist, anti-colonial and ethical. Only then can we aspire to the goal of E Cubed, which is to ensure that our work is designed with and by and inclusive of the voices of those people and institutions on the ground in crisis-affected contexts, and in ways that do no harm.