Rohingya children in a temporary classroom at a refugee camp. Sk Hasan Ali/shutterstock

Rohingya children in a temporary classroom at a refugee camp. Sk Hasan Ali/shutterstock

During periods of emergency, children often shake loose from the central underpinning of their lives—school. Education is a stabilizing force even in times of peace and prosperity. But for the 75 million children living in crisis settings, losing school structures not only disrupts learning and development, it increases exposure to violence, trafficking, and child labor. And in the long haul, it removes a ladder that can help them climb back to normalcy when crises subside.

Despite that, education appeals receive less than 2 percent of humanitarian funding. That glaring deficit rose to top of mind during a 2019 UN General Assembly week panel discussion that explored transforming the delivery of education during acute and protracted crises, and encouraged increased support for the global fund Education Cannot Wait (EWC).

In a tweet following the event, ECW thanked donors for pledging a total of $216 million in new gifts during UNGA, pushing the organization’s total contributions past the half-billion-dollar mark. Donors were mostly European government development agencies—Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland and the UK—along with $12.5 million from the LEGO Foundation, and $650,000 from Pro Futuro, a funding collaborative of the Telefónica and La Caixa Foundations. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) committed 12 million, as part of a joint pledge with LEGO. 

Education Cannot Wait

The first global fund dedicated to education during emergencies and extended crises, EWC is relatively new on the scene. It was established during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, with the aim of providing all crisis-affected children and youth with the “safe, free and quality” education promised by the SDGs. 

The organization is a hybrid. It’s hosted by UNICEF and administered under its financial, HR and administrative rules and regulations. But its operations are run independently. ECW advances five core goals: inspiring the political will to keep kids in school, helping to close funding gaps, sparking the ability to plan and respond collaboratively, strengthening response capacities, and improving accountability. All but 5 percent of its investments go to in-country emergency response and multi-year engagement programs. By 2021, the organization hopes to raise $1.8 billion to support the nine million children that’ll be caught up in conflict and disasters around the world.

The Power of Play

The U.S. commitment was made alongside the LEGO Foundation, a leader in learning through play, something Rasmus Prehn, Denmark’s minister for Development Cooperation, calls “an important Danish tradition.”  

Based in Billund, Denmark, the foundation believes the power of play helps children become creative, engaged, lifelong learners during critical, formative years. It works to put quality early education on the global agenda, make playful learning available to millions of children, and is a vocal advocate for the value of play in improving children’s lives.

The foundation funded its first humanitarian project in 2018, with a $100 million commitment to the Sesame Workshop, for a program to reach vulnerable children in Syria and Rohingya. The five-year investment reinforces the Sesame Workshop’s partnerships with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), NYU’s Global TIES for Children program, and the Bangladeshi relief organization, BRAC. BRAC has been part of the LEGO Foundation’s portfolio since 2016, when it funded more than 200 play labs in Tanzania, Uganda and Bangladesh.

Additional corporate support for Education Cannot Wait came through Pro Futuro, a collaboration between the foundations of two Spanish powerhouses, Telefónica, the telecommunications giant, and La Caixa, one of Spain’s largest financial institutions. Founded in 2016, Pro Futuro is now one of the largest digital education initiatives in the world, and expects to reach 10 million children living in vulnerable world settings. 

International Funding Building Blocks

As reported in Inside Philanthropy, other leading philanthropies have recognized the gap in the humanitarian response to child education, and the importance of intervening early. The LEGO Foundation’s partnership with Sesame Street followed a $100 million commitment by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to fund an evidence-based, early childhood education for refugees from the Syrian crisis, in partnership with the IRC. 

The IKEA Foundation also believes that “playing is learning and learning is playing,” within a broader strategy of supporting refugees and combating child labor. In 2016, it pledged $53 million to “Let’s Play for Change,” an international campaign that supports children’s right to play, working with organizations like Save the Children, UNICEF, Room to Read and War Child. In three years, the partners have created safe spaces for more than 250,000 kids in 10 countries. 

Moving the needle on 2 percent will take the active engagement of funders from beyond state structures. When announcing The LEGO Foundation’s support, CEO John Goodwin, stressed the urgency of the situation, and the number of children that are being left behind, saying, “We stand to lose an entire generation if we don’t take immediate action to support education in crisis settings.” 



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