Financing refugee inclusion in national education systems: What we don’t know

Given the growing commitment to refugee inclusion and limited evidence on what works, it is a critical moment to question assumptions about how to finance refugee-inclusive education systems to ensure future investments meet both immediate and long-term needs of all learners.

January 25, 2024 by Arianna Pacifico
5 minutes read
Students at the Second Bourj Hammoud Public School raise their hands to answer their teachers questions, in Beirut, Lebanon. Two-thirds of the students at the school are Lebanese and one-third of the students are Syrian. Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Students at the Second Bourj Hammoud Public School in Beirut, Lebanon, raise their hands to answer their teacher's question. Two-thirds of the students at the school are Lebanese and one-third are Syrian.
Credit: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Amid increasing levels of forced displacement, refugee inclusion in host country education systems is an expanding global policy priority to improve education access and quality. Pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum, including those by GPE, demonstrate powerful commitments to support refugee and host community learners through national systems.

Given the growing commitment to refugee inclusion and limited evidence on what works, it is a critical moment to question assumptions about how to finance refugee-inclusive education systems to ensure future investments meet both immediate and long-term needs of all learners.

The following questions stem from a qualitative comparative case study I conducted across Lebanon and Turkey and point to areas for further research.

How can investments in refugee education through host country education systems be sustainable long-term?

Policy documents on inclusion anticipate that participation in national systems will support sustained and predictable financing for refugee education. However, there are often steep political barriers to transferring services for refugees onto national budgets and limited fiscal space to channel more funds towards education in the low- and middle-income countries that host 76% of the world’s refugees.

At the same time, in donor-dependent contexts, it’s unclear whether donors will manage to provide adequate, predictable and long-term financing for education for refugees, leaving host governments to do more with less.

Despite donor commitments to support the enormous strain on Turkey and Lebanon’s education systems, both countries experienced reductions in international financing due to competing crises (e.g., the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukraine war) as well as cuts in official development assistance (ODA) tied to the global economic downturn and leadership swings in donor countries towards governments that prioritize domestic over foreign spending.

In this way, there’s a divide that remains unchanged between global support for refugee inclusion predicated on the reality of protracted displacement (67% of refugees have been living in exile for more than 5 years) and the underlying limitations of donors to commit to longer-term support for refugees.

The inability for host countries to plan for adequate long-term financing is a significant barrier to quality education for refugees.

What does it mean to share responsibility for refugee education?

Global frameworks that promote inclusion are based on the long-standing principle of responsibility sharing–that host countries should not bear the responsibilities of hosting refugees alone. Education for students living as refugees often costs more because they require additional support to enable their access and learning (e.g., language classes, accelerated learning programs, psychosocial support).

Costing frameworks for refugee-inclusive education also need to include vulnerable host communities. Given the need for more schools, classrooms and teachers, refugee inclusion requires financing for infrastructure and recurrent costs (like teacher salaries) which few donors are willing and able to provide.

As such, responsibility sharing agreements must meet the primary objective of the Global Compact on Refugees: to reduce financial strain on host countries as well as consider education support beyond financing, such as addressing the underlying causes of displacement, promoting durable solutions including expanding resettlement of refugee communities and technical assistance to support host governments’ education priorities.

Agreement on what it means to share responsibility for refugee education is necessary to avoid education sector complicity in ‘responsibility dumping’ or the transfer of responsibility for refugees to countries that are less wealthy and have weaker education systems without adequate compensatory measures.

How can education financing incentivize not only access to schooling but belonging, connectedness and cohesion?

A rationale for inclusion assumes improved social cohesion and conflict mitigation within host countries. However in Lebanon and Turkey, refugee education within national schools has at times exacerbated intergroup tensions through the inequitable provision of aid and heightened concerns over school identity and quality.

Other studies have found that the ways in which inclusion policies are enacted can impede learners’ social connection, sense of belonging and ability to feel represented in the classroom.

The term ‘inclusion’ in global and national policies most often refers to access to national schools, curriculum and certification. But long-standing approaches emphasize that inclusion is a dynamic 2-way process that requires both refugees and host communities to adapt.

This aligns with foundations of peacebuilding scholarship: recognizing diversity and identities supports the attitudes, institutions and structures that sustain peaceful societies.

National education systems are key instruments of nation-building used to forge national identities, cultures and languages. Still, they can represent a significant barrier to belonging, connectedness and social cohesion when these visions do not include refugees.

How can investing in refugee inclusion strengthen education systems?

Support for inclusion can strengthen education systems by improving school infrastructure, data systems, capacity development, governance, financial management and education quality.

These combined changes across an education system can lead to using resources more effectively and strategically, leading to additional cost savings in turn.

However, international action and financing for refugee inclusion don’t necessarily build efficiency or institutional capacity within education systems. For example in Lebanon, promises that over USD $300 million in investment would transform the education system through increased and equitable access, improved learning outcomes and stronger school-based management remain largely unfulfilled.

This illustrates the need to carefully examine how education investments can strategically build toward long-term education goals, how donor coordination, architecture and policies impact ministry function and how financing can support inclusion in ways that account for the political, economic and social realities of host governments.

The questions raised here are intended to challenge thinking on financing refugee-inclusive education and to support the potential of global investment aligned with promises of shared responsibility.

Research is still needed to identify realistic pathways for sustainable financing that: does not fall on (often already vulnerable) host communities, can meet both immediate and long-term needs of national education systems aligned with their priorities and can build institutional capacity to respond to crises through trusting and transparent partnerships.

In light of today’s compounding crises, resource scarcity and the politicization of migration, research is also needed to understand how refugee-inclusive financing approaches can both promote belonging and positive social relationships within host education systems as well as address global inequities.

Read more on GPE's commitments at the Global Refugee Forum


Read other blogs in this series on the importance to include refugee in education systems

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