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Syrian Refugee Crisis Promoting Surge in Education Privatization

Education International report shows private actors from global north investing in disaster

Press Release – WASHINGTON—The plight of education for refugee children and the involvement of private actors with mixed motives are explored in a new report commissioned by Education International.

The Syrian conflict has caused an education crisis among migrants of breathtaking scale: In Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey combined, 900,000 Syrian children have no access to education. This has triggered a flood of aid offers from the private sector, the size and intention of which are explored in the report “Investing in the Crisis: Private Participation in the Education of Syrian Refugees,” by University of Massachusetts assistant professors Francine Menashy and Zeena Zakharia.

The study shows how 61 of the 144 organizations and other non-state participants working in education in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are “private actors”—46 businesses and 15 foundations. Three-quarters of these are from the “global north,” and almost two-thirds (61 percent) do not have education as their core business.

Together, these interventions represent a new form of aid: “philanthrocapitalism.” This study unveils a growing tension between humanitarian assistance and the profit-driven motives of private actors in education where the Middle East region is seem as a large and growing market. Syria alone is home to a highly educated middle-class population: Before the conflict, 94 percent of K-12 Syrian children were enrolled in school.

The study also highlights how much of the work by private entities on the ground lacks organization and coordination with other stakeholders. There is frequent duplication or failure to meet urgent needs by proposing solutions unsuited to the refugee situation.

The report concludes that, in the face of declining aid budgets and one of the biggest refugee movements in living memory, money and support from businesses and foundations are desperately needed. But that comes with serious challenges, including the limited capacity of the private sector to understand and work within rapidly evolving humanitarian contexts.

States must fulfill their obligations with respect to the rights of Syrian refugee children, including the provision of free, high-quality public education.

The report also states that interventions must be well-coordinated and contextualized, with a focus on equity and grounded within a commitment to refugees’ educational rights. The ethical tensions between the humanitarian and profit motivations of businesses to invest in the crisis reinforce the need for the state to regulate their involvement by establishing legal frameworks for private actor engagement.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said: “Every child has the right to free, high-quality public education. At a moment when Syrian children are in our hearts and minds—given the atrocities of last week—we need to make sure that when they do get safe passage, they are supported, not exploited. Civil society, businesses and foundations can play an important role, but refugee children should never be used as profit centers. I commend the authors for highlighting this tension and pointing to a solution: that states fulfill their obligation to provide free public education for Syrian refugees and real accountability for non-state actors.”

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