“Education is an essential right and need – it should be part of every humanitarian response”

Alistair Dutton Big Interview

Children in conflicts, Children's welfare after natural disasters, Early childhood development, Education in emergencies, Girls' education, Refugees and internally displaced people, Right to education, Safe schools

We talk to former Jesuit novice and humanitarian worker Alistair Dutton - now Director of SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund).

Alistair Dutton joined SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund) after five years as Humanitarian Director for Caritas Internationalis and more recently as interim Director of The Sphere Project, which sets standards for humanitarian aid delivery.

A chartered engineer, he studied physics at the University of Durham and philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford. Dutton has worked in the international relief and development sector for 18 years. He has led several major humanitarian responses and worked in over 30 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

He entered the sector when – as a Jesuit novice working for the Jesuit Refugee Service – he was seconded to Caritas Nepal. Here he is interviewed by Theirworld writer Billy Briggs.

Which emergency situations are SCIAF currently involved with and could you outline briefly what SCIAF’s educational work with children involves in these places?

Helping people in emergencies such as earthquakes, cyclones, floods, drought and war is an essential part of SCIAF’s work in developing countries.

Operating as part of the global Caritas network of Catholic international aid agencies, we’re currently helping communities affected by the East Africa food crisis in South Sudan, Malawi and Ethiopia which has left millions of people at risk of starvation.  

We’re also helping families whose lives have been devastated by the Syrian conflict, both in Syria and those who have fled their homes as refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.  

This includes providing food, clean water, money for rent and healthcare. It also includes trauma counselling for children, support with nursery and primary education in Caritas centres and paying transport costs for children to get to state schools.

Alistair Dutton 2

Why is education so important in the field of humanitarian assistance?

Education substantially increases the life chances of children born into poverty. Unfortunately many humanitarian emergencies utterly disrupt these vital formative years when a child should be going to school, growing and learning.  

The average time someone is a refugee is 17 years and it’s not uncommon for a whole generation to lose out on having a normal life. This has been the case in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, to name only two.  

Schools can be closed, families may not be able to afford the necessary costs of sending their child to school or the children may have to help their family survive, by walking long distances for water or finding food.  

This has major long-term consequences for the healthy development of the child, their community and country. 

Restoring education as soon as possible in humanitarian situations is therefore vital – both for the child’s present and future wellbeing, and also the development of society and our global community in the years ahead.    

With attacks on schools around the world and 75 million people having education disrupted by emergencies, what can be done to provide safe schools for children?

It’s important that we continue to emphasise that international humanitarian law is as valid and relevant today as it was when it was written after World War II.  Despite recent rhetoric in the war of terror and other conflicts, civilians and basic infrastructure like schools, clinics and hospitals must be protected.  

Disaster Risk Reduction Plans, including preparation, prevention and managing risk, can really help to reduce disruption to education while better development, such as stronger buildings, mean they’re less likely to be destroyed by natural disasters.

What more needs to be done, in your view, to meet the Sustainable Development Goals target of getting every child into school by 2030?

The international community must continue to recognise the central role education plays in combating global poverty and developing a safer, healthier and more just future for humanity as a whole.  

This commitment must flow down through all levels of government and society, right down to the local level.  

Syrian Refugee At Caritas Jordan School Project

A girl at a school in Jordan where Caritas helped to provide emergency education for Syrian refugees (Caritas)

Working tirelessly to establish peace where there is conflict is vital. The safety of children and teachers, and the schools and spaces where they meet, has be secure. Otherwise attendance plummets and children’s learning falls behind very quickly.  

We also have to remove the many other things that stop children going to school. 

These can include poverty, which leads children into working or scavenging for food, and not having access to clean water close to people’s homes so children have to spend hours walking to fetch water.  

Having access to water close to the home can be particularly important for girls who are often charged with collecting it.  Looking at traditional gender roles and encouraging equal access to education is also a huge factor.

At the Supporting Syria conference in London last year, the co-hosts – including the EU – promised to get every Syrian refugee child into school in neighbouring countries during the 2016-17 academic year. Despite great progress, that hasn’t been achieved. So when do you think those Syrian refugees will finally be in school?

It’s difficult to say. SCIAF is working hard with Caritas Lebanon and Caritas Jordan to help young refugee children to get into education. 

Education must be understood as a basic but essential right and need. It should be part of every humanitarian response. Alistair Dutton

One of the major issues affecting both countries is their ability to cope with the huge influx of refugees and the impact this is having on existing infrastructure and social services including schools, health centres and hospitals.  

In Lebanon alone, the number of Syrian refugees currently stands at 1.5 million – that’s one in four of the country’s population. The Lebanese should be commended for their extraordinary generosity. 

Many schools are now running two school shifts – one in the morning for Lebanese children and a further round in the afternoon to accommodate the huge numbers of refugee children.  

Clearly, the international community must do much more to support refugees and the countries that are hosting the current huge numbers.

How important is early childhood development in helping every child to fulfil their potential?

There are few factors as important as education in enabling children to grow, live in dignity and reach their full human potential.  

Education must be understood as a basic but essential right and need. It should be part of every humanitarian response.  

Alistair Dutton 1 Val Morgan

Ensuring children are cared for, especially in the first three years of their life, is disproportionately significant, in terms of brain development, stunting or growth and general mental and physical health.

Girls – especially those in the poorest countries – are still lagging behind boys in school enrolment and completion. What do you think could be done to specifically tackle that issue?

Traditional gender roles which see girls spending many hours of their day collecting water and working in the home is a major problem. Removing some of these demands on their time would have a huge impact.

We should also proactively challenge some of the norms that exclude girls from school, such as early or arranged marriage which often lead them to be confined in their homes doing domestic chores.  

Promoting economic development, so parents can earn the money they need to pay for school fees, and improving children’s access to a nutritional diet can also increase attendance levels generally. 

Installing hygienic sanitation facilities such as toilets can reduce the vulnerability of girls and increase the likelihood of them attending school.     

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