Digital Learning in Fragile Contexts: Higher Education in Emergencies

On yet another one of those sweltering days in Kakuma refugee camp in North West Kenya a group of university students collects data on access to micro-credit for female entrepreneurs who have found refuge in this multi-ethnic camp of 230,000 from conflict and drought in Somalia.

Equipped with their cell phones on which they store their recording app, consent forms, small packs of biscuits to remunerate their research participants and a supportive boda boda driver to carry their research materials they move from one market stall to another in Hong Kong, the name by which the market center in the camp is known to its residents. From their review of the literature they had consulted on-line in the learning hub run by a Refugee-led Organisation specialising in supporting tertiary education students in the camp, they had concluded that micro-credit was readily available and that businesses were thriving. However, their personal experience did not match the research findings they had come across, and they set out to fill an evidence gap.

Over two days they needed to contact 20 female entrepreneurs of Somali origin and engage them in interviews that were to produce the qualitative data they would subsequently analyse with open source software back in the learning hub, provided the seasonal rains were not making paths impassable and cut off the internet for days. Knowing that curfews were strictly enforced by the police they had to rely on their personal contacts and networks to complete all the interviews within the allotted time and budget. When they submitted their capstone project a month later they had not only used their lived experience in the refugee camp and their in-depth understanding of Muslim entrepreneurial culture, but also their knowledge of different Somali dialects and tribal connections to produce evidence that did not corroborate published findings: Muslim entrepreneurs in Kakuma, and female entrepreneurs in particular, had serious challenges accessing micro-credit that was compatible with their religion, i.e. which was not to be repaid with interest.

In addition, the “thriving” market was suffering from consumer demand, as refugee workers had lost their jobs with NGOs due to the pandemic and reduced rations, and entrepreneurs had difficulties procuring merchandise as they needed to obtain movement passes to leave the camp; undergoing the 2-day bus journey to Nairobi was costly and not a sufficient reason for them to claim a movement pass from the camp authorities.

Most actors, stakeholders and donors in the humanitarian sector either question the need for tertiary education in refugee contexts, or insist that the demand at primary and secondary level is such that they need to prioritise numeracy and literacy skills. With only 65% of refugee children in primary school, and significant drop-out rates after primary or lower secondary, and overcrowded camp schools struggling to offer quality education, the argument is understandable. But the above story illustrates the range of skills higher education students are able to acquire in low-resource environments and how their skill sets can support authentic and equitable knowledge production that is meaningful for their communities and could potentially shift the narrative on livelihoods and self-reliance of refugees in these contexts.

The pandemic illustrated the crucial need for reimagining education in general, and education in emergencies (EiE) in particular. With the entire world as EiE context during the pandemic, EdTech was seen as key to overcoming the gaps in learning. But in protracted emergency contexts the lowest levels of technology – educational radio – were summoned by those who lived there and could support learners directly as international and even national staff were no longer able to work on the ground. This dual emergency in a conflict-and-crisis-plus-pandemic context illustrated the importance of local assets both in terms of human resources and social infrastructure which together become a fertile ground for sustainable solutions designed and developed by those for whom the refugee camp had become home.

The above story further illustrates the value of community, of cultural literacy, and highlights the motivation of refugee youth to critically engage with a humanitarian system they know has sustained them far too long as simple beneficiaries without truly engaging them as actors, stakeholders and agents of change capable of developing high-level and relevant skills they are ready to put in the service of their communities. While we may argue that in this day and age of ubiquitous learning anyone with an internet connection could access information and learning opportunities – and a fair number of Global North universities have launched courses delivered entirely online to refugees living in camps and settlements – we need to remember that close to 80% of the world’s refugees are hosted in neighboring developing countries in the Global South and that Global North institutions’ curricula and course content are not designed for the contexts into which these courses are delivered, nor are the academic credits transferable to host country institutions. Host country institutions, however, are struggling to meet the demand of their own citizens, let alone those of the refugees they are hosting.

From the Grand Bargain commitments of the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016, to the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) and the Global Compact on Refugees, commitments have been made to transfer more of the resources directly to local actors and to mainstream refugees into host country education systems. The second Global Refugee Forum in December 2023 will revisit and take stock of pledges made during the first Forum in 2019 and prepare new pledges the humanitarian actors and stakeholders would need to commit to over the next four years.

One of the most important resources, apart from funding, are the refugees themselves. Supporting their education across the entire education continuum, and ensuring that tertiary education is within reach, relevant to their contexts and conducive to strengthening their communities, their livelihoods and well-being, recognising the value of different types of knowledges and of knowledge production, represents a culturally responsible approach to sustainable development that offers hope to forcibly displaced youth to bring lasting solutions to their communities.

Written by Barbara Moser-Mercer for OEB Global 2023.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.