Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 8 Feb 2022

Education in Developing Countries: Discussion

I apologise to members and witnesses. We had a vote in a plenary session of the Dáil which resulted in our meeting starting somewhat later than scheduled.

I note that due to the easing of Covid restrictions, we have something of a hybrid meeting, with some members in the room. I see Deputies Stanton and Gannon and Senator Wilson online. Most importantly, I welcome, in person, Ms Jane-Ann McKenna, CEO of Dóchas; Eamonn Casey, policy officer of Misean Cara; Ms Lorenza Quadrini, programmes lead, EU unit, Plan International Ireland; and Ms Brid Kennedy, regional programmes director, Concern Worldwide. They are all welcome. Joining us remotely, I welcome Fr. Frank Bird, director of Marist Asia Foundation, supported by Misean Cara, who joins us from New Zealand at an ungodly hour of the morning. I offer a similar warm welcome to Mr. Laban Onisimus, education lead, acting head of social development programmes, Plan International, who joins us from Nigeria. I welcome Mr. Ahmed Ali Dirshe of Concern Worldwide, who joins us from Somalia. I thank everybody for assembling with us this afternoon in Ireland and our witnesses from around the world for joining us at most different times of the day and night. I welcome members who are present and members who are attending remotely from their offices.

The format of the meeting will include opening statements followed by a discussion with questions and answers with members of the committee. I ask members to be concise in their questions to allow all members the opportunity to participate. Hopefully, we will have a second round for members to come back if they so wish.

Education in the developing world is an important topic. It is one of the issues that our members chose as something of a specialist topic for 2022, so we are grateful that the witnesses have joined us so early in the year. We hope that, during the course of our year, this is an area that we would revert to, because it is an issue that we feel is of great importance as far as Irish policy, strategy and interests are concerned. I thank the witnesses for being with us.

I remind our witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that we should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make them in any way identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of that person or entity. Therefore, if any statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person, speakers will be directed to discontinue their remarks, and it is imperative that such a direction be complied with.

There are some limitations to parliamentary privilege for witnesses attending remotely outside the Leinster House campus and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present does. I do not expect this will arise in the context of our discussions this afternoon.

I remind members present in the committee room, and those attending remotely from their offices, of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House, or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make that person identifiable. I remind members they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located within the Leinster House complex, which, from their backdrops, I can see they are.

I am very pleased to call Ms McKenna from Dóchas to introduce the speakers and to make her opening statement. I congratulate her on her appointment as chief executive officer of Dóchas. I look forward to working closely with her and her members over the coming years. I again thank all the representatives for joining our meeting.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I thank the Chairman. I am delighted to have the opportunity to meet with the committee in person. On behalf of Dóchas and our members, I warmly welcome the committee's engagement with us on the issue of education in international development. I also thank all committee members for their engagement with my colleagues on the Conference of the Parties, COP26, and the need to shift from commitment to action. We welcome the fact that the Oireachtas has moved to approve the climate budget framework, which will allow for greater monitoring of Ireland’s actions to reduce emissions and contribute to a more sustainable world for current and future generations.

Today, Dóchas members would like to speak to the committee about their role in supporting the provision of quality education for children and young people living in marginalised communities around the world. We know that for many of these children, conflict, poverty and the real impact of climate change on their livelihoods has been compounded by the devastating impact of Covid-19. This pandemic has caused the largest disruption to education in history. Since April 2020, global school closures have impacted over 90% of the world’s student population in more than 200 countries. It is the most marginalised - girls, children with disabilities, those in conflict-affected regions and those living in poverty - who are bearing the brunt of school closures. For example, according to recent research from the Brookings Institution, published last year, when schools reopened after six months of closure in Uganda and Kenya, up to 20% of girls failed to return. Similarly, a study of nearly 400 of the hardest to reach rural adolescent girls in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda found that 34% had lost a parent or guardian to Covid-19. Of that number, 70% had to pursue income-generating activities and 86% could not afford to return to school.

This unprecedented disruption to education has rolled back substantial gains made as part of sustainable development goal 4 on education. In fact, as recently as two years ago, it was predicted that getting children into primary schools was one of only two goals that were likely to be achieved within the timeframe. It goes without saying that this is perhaps now no longer the case. It is imperative that we act now to prevent the exit from education of millions of children, especially girls, from being a permanent one. Building back stronger, more gender-responsive and resilient education systems that are prepared for future shocks, stresses and school closures requires a multipronged approach. Underlying causes, including vaccine equity, conflict resolution and equality, must be addressed to ensure that children can fulfil their right to education, health and protection.

I will introduce my colleagues who will speak to the committee virtually today. Fr. Frank Bird will be first to speak. He is the director for the Marist Asia Foundation, which has been supported by Misean Cara to carry out a Burmese migrant secondary education programme on the Thailand-Burma border. We will then cross continents to speak to Laban Onisimus, education lead with Plan International in Nigeria. Finally, we will cross to the Horn of Africa to speak with Mr. Ali Dirshe who is working with Concern Worldwide in Somalia.

Here in Ireland, we recognise the importance of investing in education. We have seen the real societal and economic impact this investment brings. Today, the committee will hear how, against many odds, communities around the globe, supported by Dóchas members, are doing all they can to ensure thousands of children receive a quality education. We ask that members of this committee support our aim of ensuring that all children can access safe, quality education, no matter where they live. We ask the committee to support the right to a free education for all children, especially those in marginalised and forgotten communities, and to ensure it stresses the importance of dedicated and flexible funding for children in emergency and conflict settings, particularly those who are refugees or are displaced. Finally, we ask that as part of Ireland's commitment to achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030, the committee monitors and interrogates Ireland's approach to how we can reach the furthest behind first, when it comes to sustainable development goal 4 on quality education.

I will hand over to Fr. Bird, who is joining us from New Zealand.

Fr. Frank Bird

I am a Marist priest of the Society of Mary and my congregation is a member of Misean Cara. I have been director of the Marist Asia Foundation for the past few years. We are extremely grateful to Irish Aid, through Misean Cara, for supporting our Burmese migrant secondary education programme in southern Thailand on the Thailand-Myanmar border.

I will give some context. In the south of Thailand, we are in what is called a migrant corridor. From the bottom of Myanmar, we take a boat for 20 minutes and then travel into Ranong, a fishing town. We have the highest density of Burmese migrants in Thailand. Many migrants and their children work in fish factories, charcoal factories and construction, which are typically the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs of migrants. To give some context with numbers, an estimated 80% of migrant children do not go to school. Of the 20% that do, 80% leave at age 12. This simply continues the cycle of poverty, oppression and desperation for Myanmar migrant families in Thailand.

Many migrant children do not have documents. Poor Burmese migrant families are desperate to survive and make their children go to work as soon as their bodies are big enough, which is often around the age of 12. Discrimination between Thai and Burmese causes many restrictions to entry into the Thai Government school system. Myanmar migrant children lack the Thai language, which means if they do get into Thai schools many of them drop out. We identified five significant problems. We recognise the need for access to inclusive, quality, accredited and sustainable education. With the help of Misean Cara, we were able to develop a Burmese language, Thai language and English language pathway, creating access to a secondary education and creating a quality and recognized curriculum, and we promoted teacher education pathways so that migrants can become teachers and leaders for their own community.

We have built a centre with the support of Misean Cara, which now has 250 students and, amazingly, a retention rate for migrant children of more than 85% each year. We now have graduates working in the United Nations, World Vision, Save the Children, the International Organization for Migration, the Fishers Rights Network and other civil society organisations. We recognised that primary education is not enough; it does not solve enough problems. Migrants need secondary education so they can become leaders and teachers and can access higher education.

We have what we call a fragile learning context on the border between Myanmar and Thailand and their two systems. We have developed a three-language programme and we are now integrated into the Thailand Ministry of Education's non-formal education programme. Our goal is not just education, but also leadership and development of the local community. We are not in an emergency problem or a migrant problem. We are in the midst of a community with great needs. As missionaries, we can walk in different worlds and different cultures. We are seen as bridge-builders and problem-solvers. By living among the people in the long term, we have developed trust and collaboration.

We recognise that we cannot solve all the problems of international migration, or the migrant problems for the Burmese, but we can offer them an education so that they can solve their problems. We recognise that education is the greatest gift we can give to migrants, refugees and displaced peoples. I thank the members of the committee for their time and support.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I now introduce Mr. Laban Onisimus from Plan International, who is joining us from Nigeria.

Mr. Laban Onisimus

My name is Laban Onisimus. I lead the education teams in conflict-affected regions of Nigeria focusing on child protection and education in emergencies. My key responsibilities involve influencing states’ commitment to ensuring access to education and gender-responsive education, with an emphasis on the nexus of development and humanitarian intervention.

The protracted crisis in the Lake Chad region remains one of the most severe humanitarian emergencies in the world, affecting the north-east of Nigeria and the far north of Cameroon. More than 17 million people have been affected across the four countries of the Lake Chad Basin. Approximately 10.7 million of them are in dire need of humanitarian assistance to survive and more than 6 million of them are children.

The following are the key issues affecting us: abduction of children; sexual violence against girls; attacks on schools; and recruitment and use of girls for attacks. On 14 and 15 April 2014, 276 female students aged between 16 and 18 were abducted in Chibok in Borno State. This was the first major case of abduction that received global attention. As I address the committee today, some of those girls have yet to return home. Some parents have died waiting for those children. Thousands of adolescent girls have been denied the right to education and a dignified life because of the 11 years of crisis in that region. This has led to mental, emotional and health-related issues. In some cases, the lack of access to healthcare facilities has resulted in people dying.

The root cause of this crisis is the hostility to secular education. Because of this, we have repeated attacks on schools, universities, teachers, administrators and students, wreaking havoc on the existing fragile education system in the country. Children are being abandoned and have been displaced from their communities. Many teachers are being forced to flee to other states.

I will now digress a little bit to highlight the use of girls in armed conflict, including those used as suicide bombers. Girls are normally viewed as less of a threat than their male counterparts. From June 2014, when the insurgent groups reportedly deployed their first female suicide bomber, to date, approximately 468 women and girls have been deployed for suicide attacks. This is the most by any terrorist movement in the world so far.

What are we doing to respond to these challenges? Plan International has been supporting the increased access to safe inclusive and quality primary and secondary education for both boys and girls, especially in areas of displacement and resettlement. We have gone a step further by providing credible alternatives for relevant and flexible accelerated basic education as well as non-formal education opportunities for out-of-school children. Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world with about 10.5 million children out of school. We are also strengthening the capacities of public administration and community engagement through school-based management committees to help with the delivery of safe and inclusive education services.

We recommend the following: improve the security conditions for adolescent girls: advocate for comprehensive and sustained measures to protect education from attack; take measures to mitigate the security threats faced by adolescent girls as a result of the economic and associated food and water crises; recognise that girls have their own specific rights, needs, and agency in humanitarian settings and require age-appropriate policy responses; facilitate access to education, which responds to the specific needs of adolescent girls, particularly at secondary school level; and increase funding for development and humanitarian aid to the north-east of Nigeria.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I thank Mr. Onisimus for his insightful picture of the current situation in north-east Nigeria. I will now hand over to Mr. Ahmed Ali Dirshe, of Concern Worldwide who is joining us from Somalia.

Mr. Ahmed Ali Dirshe

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the committee today. My name is Ahmed Ali Dirshe and I joined Concern’s Somalia office in 1994, one year after our education programme was established. We have been providing education in Somalia, almost without interruption, since 1993.

“I am among the fruits of the tree that Concern planted,” said one of our former beneficiaries, a Member of Parliament in the south-west state. In the video we shared before this meeting, members will also have seen the testimony of Ubah Mohamed, a young woman from Mogadishu who studied in one of the schools Concern supports and went on to become the deputy head teacher. These are just two of thousands of students Concern has supported through famine, drought, flooding, and conflict, with support from Irish Aid, the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, ECHO, Education Cannot Wait, the Global Partnership for Education, and others.

We rehabilitate damaged classrooms and provide food, water, and sanitation and health facilities. We have seen significant improvements in learning outcomes by training teachers, reviewing school curricula, providing textbooks, and tackling gender-based violence and corporal punishment. From 2004 to 2020, we supported 42 schools. In 2021 alone, we enrolled more than 10,000 children, 47% girls, and supported almost 400 teachers, one third of them women. Our retention rate of 85% was almost evenly spread across boys and girls. Generations of professionals have emerged, among them nurses, teachers, politicians, and engineers.

Our approach is centred on partnership with learners, parents, elders, local institutions, and communities. By establishing community education committees and ensuring that members of the community are involved in the design, construction, and management of schools, we have increased community ownership and school enrolment.

In providing education in emergencies, our focus is on access, quality, well-being, and continuity. To ensure that our investment in education is sustainable, we advocate for the Government to engage. The Government has now taken over management of seven Concern-supported schools in Mogadishu, in partnership with communities, and the work to ensure ownership is continuing. A key aspect of our work with the Government has been to develop the community education committees policy framework and training manual, both of which were endorsed by the Ministry of Education. To roll this out, we have trained dozens of facilitators who gave training in no fewer than 651 schools, reaching 4,557 committee members. I am sure this committee will agree that this is an excellent start but more must be done to further institutionalise the policy framework.

One of the lessons we have learned is the need to plan for unforeseen costs and be ready to adapt to crises, such as flooding and pandemics. To be able to respond and adjust quickly to new realities, we also need flexibility from our donors. The generous support of Irish Aid and the Irish public has enabled generations of young Somalis to receive an education.

I take this opportunity to call for strengthened support for peace-building and conflict-resolution efforts to address the root causes that threaten education, students, and teachers, and investments made to date. I also call for continued funding for education in humanitarian and development assistance, which is an investment in the youth and future of our country.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I thank Mr. Ahmed Ali Dirshe for that great presentation which highlights how, even in the most difficult and challenging environments, with the right approach significant progress can be made with regard to quality education. I would like to introduce my other colleagues to the committee. I am joined by Ms Lorenza Quadrini from Plan International, Mr. Eamonn Casey from Misean Cara and Brid Kennedy from Concern. We are happy to answer any questions members may have on the presentations they have just heard and to respond to any other comments they would like to make.

I thank our guests for their opening statements. While they were about different parts of the world and different circumstances, they dealt with similar issues and challenges. We are very grateful for their contributions. We will now move to questions and statements from members. Senator Ardagh is first.

I thank Ms McKenna and her team for coming here today to give their really insightful presentations. It is super how, with the advent of Covid, we have been able to meet people from all over the world and get their perspectives. That is one positive effect of Covid.

All of the speakers referred to violence against women and the failure of girls to access education, which still goes on. Women in Ireland have always known that in order to protect themselves they have to act in a certain way. Our male colleagues and friends are starting to realise that life is a little different for women. We are having a conversation about that in Ireland now but obviously things are a lot worse for girls living in war-torn countries.

The statistic indicating that 20% of girls did not return to education after Covid is shocking. Disadvantaged communities in Ireland were also adversely affected by education going online, especially communities that did not have access to broadband but I can see how that would be a whole lot worse in developing and war-torn regions. The statistics relating to migrant children are even worse. While we did not get a breakdown in relation to males and females, I imagine the pattern is the same in terms of girls getting left behind.

The kidnapping of Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram happened in 2014. Since then, it has largely been forgotten about, although mass kidnappings do occasionally pop up in the media. What could we do, perhaps in the context of our seat on the UN Security Council, to help the situation?

Deputy Brady is next in line. As Senator Joe O'Reilly is due in the Seanad at 4 p.m, however, I ask Deputy Brady to give way to him. In return, Senator Joe O'Reilly promises to be very brief and to the point.

I thank the Chairman and Deputy Brady for facilitating me. I do not have a question on the presentations as such, which were very clear, but I want to acknowledge and express my appreciation and admiration for the work our guests do, both collectively and individually.

It is a valid point to make that while there is an absence of opportunity generally, it is a particular problem for young women. It would seem that Covid has represented a big setback and I ask our guests to comment on how that might be overcome. Reference was made to vaccine equity which is an important staging point. It is classically the case that all of the marginalised areas suffer the most.

I was very interested in the school described by Father Bird and the great success there. Perhaps he could tell us a bit more about that. What was interesting about Mr. Onisimus's presentation on Nigeria were the security issues it highlighted.

It is a horrendous situation with the security issue. I do not know how that can be addressed.

The question we all want to ask is in what way can we do something that we are not now doing? What should we, as a committee, recommend doing?

I welcome everyone this afternoon. Our guests are in far flung places across the world. One of the major benefits, if anything has come from the Covid world, is how the ability to meet online has made the world a bit smaller. Another challenge that Covid threw up was in education. In Ireland when the schools had to close, I, as a parent, saw the challenges, particularly as my wife tried to educate our children who were home from school and who were depending on the Internet. I can only imagine the challenges in many of the places we are discussing where online education simply did not exist as an option.

I am truly shocked at the figures. I thank the witnesses for presenting them. It is only when we see the harsh realities, we see how seriously and negatively impacted communities have been across the globe. I am looking at the figures for Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda where 34% have lost a parent. That is absolutely heartbreaking. In Uganda and Kenya 20% of girls have not returned to school. That is frightening. Some of the reasons for this were outlined. We see that in areas of conflict. This committee has heard before how getting women's input into any peace process is invaluable. Women can be kingpins in many of these communities and are the first to fall out of those processes to go back to hold the family together and keep food on the table and provide for the family. It is having a really negative impact.

Vaccine equity was touched on. We were one of the first committees to hold hearings on vaccine inequity and we made specific asks. Unfortunately, we remain in a situation where we do not have vaccine equity. What is the real impact of this? We talk about the 20% of the girls who have failed to return to school for various reasons. How much of that is due to their not being vaccinated and the fear of spreading Covid?

I agree with the three primary requests outlined by Ms McKenna. This committee should seriously look at these. I would support them fully as a very basic and essential tool to make inroads into the areas needed.

Irish Aid is a key tool for exerting our influence and for us to make an input to address a very serious challenge. How much of the funds are going to these areas, including education?

It is probably different across the countries but is there a rough figure for how many children, a percentage of the population, were in the education system prior to Covid and how do the figures compare now? What is a reduction of 20% in real terms mean?

I commend all the organisations here and particularly those who have been on the ground during very challenging times who have kept the show on the road. I commend the teams of people and the volunteers who undertake the invaluable work. On my own behalf, I thank everyone from the bottom of my heart.

I propose that we go back to the witnesses for a response before we return to the members.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I thank everyone for their questions and comments. It is great to have such an engaged discussion on this. I will ask Mr. Onisimus in Nigeria who is probably the expert on this to respond to Senator Ardagh. Under Irish Aid's policy for a better world, gender is a key area. Ireland has shown great leadership at UN level on promoting the inclusion of girls particularly on education and in other areas. Will Mr. Onisimus outline what he thinks Ireland can do on the direct attack on schools or to ensure that the safety of schools is protected?

Mr. Laban Onisimus

Prior to 2021 the country had no policy on school safety and security. I am sure members will know that in October last year, we hosted an international conference on the safe school declaration. Nigeria is a member country having signed the declaration which means that we have a policy in place. It is one thing to have a policy and another for us to really popularise it and know what it entails and thereby implement it. It is a question of our popularising the safe school declaration policy and continuous sensitisation to the community on school safety because the solution lies in the community in terms of early-warning signals for schools. The attacks, not just the Chibok, have happened in so many areas of the country. In May around 300 or 400 children were abducted at the same time. These terrorists do not come unnoticed. There are key areas in the community and we will have to sensitise each and every member of the community on early warning signals.

Then there is the need for strong political will to stop this. We know it is a security issue but there is a political aspect to it too. There is a need for the government to ensure that it deploys a strong political commitment to stopping abduction in schools. The list of abductions in Nigeria goes on and on. I believe that once the safe school declaration is popularised and that the community is sensitised and you train teachers and children on early warning signals, it would be one way to prevent cases of abduction and attacks on schools in Nigeria.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I will address Deputy Brady's questions on Covid-19 and vaccine equity. I know the committee has discussed this. Members might be familiar with the People's Vaccine Alliance here in Ireland which is championing the issue.

I believe we can agree on the impact of vaccines in Ireland in allowing us to return to a sense of normality and children to return to school. That is critical worldwide.

My colleague Ms Kennedy will go through some of the actions we could take to overcome some of the challenges associated with building back better, ensuring the exit of girls from education does not become more permanent and determining how we can include them in the next few years.

Ms Brid Kennedy

One reason children are not returning to school after the pandemic is the worsening economic crisis in an increasing number of countries. Both issues are inextricably linked. Children are ending up in more child-labour circumstances because, as we have heard, one or both parents of a child may be dying. Some parents who are not employed find it easier to get the children employed, with girls in one role and boys in another. It is important to address the economic situation, support good governance and support governments to be accountable and deliver on their own plans for their countries.

On the question of what we can do, we should support the right to free education, be it through NGOs or through supporting governments in providing good-quality education systems that allow children to go to school such that they do not have to do child labour to support their families to survive. Also, we could interrogate how we can reach the furthest behind, especially regarding sustainable development goal 4, which is all about quality education. Children often drop out of school because the system in school is not favourable. It may not be safe to go to school and there may be corporal punishment. The physical shapes of schools may not be good, and there are rainy seasons and very hot seasons. Therefore, it is a matter of determining how we can support quality education.

The funding word was mentioned but it is a matter of increasing funding. We really commend the Irish Government on how it has been continually increasing funding for education in recent years. That is making a difference. The statistics in general show more children have been getting educated over the past two decades than before that. The pandemic has resulted in a bit of a setback so it is a question of getting the figures back up again. Education in development and emergency contexts must be considered. Only in the past few years has ECHO, the humanitarian organisation of the EU, started funding education in emergencies. Education needs to be prioritised almost as much as the provision of food, water and shelter in emergency contexts so children will not fall back into dreadful coping strategies required by their parents.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

One of Deputy John Brady's questions was on what Ireland has committed. We have committed over €250 million to be spent over the next five years on quality education. How we can target those who are furthest behind is yet to be seen. I will hand over to Mr. Casey to address the issue of progress made prior to Covid-19, particularly with regard to the strategic development goals and what catching up we must do now.

Mr. Eamonn Casey

As Ms Kennedy pointed out, there was solid progress on access before the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, owing to the pandemic's health implications and the social restrictions introduced by governments across the world, 1.5 billion children were put out of school across the world. When we hear about the percentage who will not be able to go back to school, we understand that as many as 20 million may not be able to do so, on top of hundreds of millions who were not able to go to school before the pandemic. Therefore, there are genuine problems with access. When children and youths get into a school, an important issue arises over quality. Certainly for girls, there is the core issue of getting into school. It is a matter of protection as much as education. The two really go hand in hand. Protection is to avoid early marriage, trafficking and child labour. Once the girls are in school, there is a genuine chance of quality education that will improve their circumstances.

Our faith-based organisations working in education are trying to tackle the supply-side barriers to access, especially girls' access — for instance, through improving schooling, improving sanitary supplies and facilities, tackling unsafe environments, as Ms Kennedy mentioned, and addressing the issue of distance to school, sometimes by providing bicycles or safe transport. Also, there are sometimes genuine challenges associated with persuading people of the value of going to school when their households are poor or when it is a challenge. It is therefore a matter of addressing attitudes to schooling, especially girls' schooling, and of ensuring a value is attached to it. Much of the time, there is a genuine outreach issue in persuading parents, communities, community elders and local politicians to support girls' education and in raising awareness of rights concerning sexual health and avoiding unplanned pregnancy. It is a question of holistic approaches to increasing household income so households do not regard the cost of educating people, especially girls, as insurmountable.

Despite the scale of the challenge, there really are positive stories of success — for instance, in northern Nigeria. Even in South Sudan and Somalia and in situations of conflict and fragility, there still can be stories of success if you stick at it for the long term and especially if you reach out to the furthest behind. In addition to NGOs and missionary organisations strengthening access and quality and supporting systems, they tend to have a particular focus on reaching out to the furthest behind. I am conscious that I may have used more than my share of time. One of the ways we have done what I am talking about in Misean Cara has been by focusing education efforts on post-conflict environments, slum environments and isolated rural areas, in particular, and also by exercising positive discrimination in how we support projects that offer educational supports to people with disability, girls, migrants, and internally and forcibly displaced people. These are some of the ways in which we are responding to strategic development goal 4.

I assure Mr. Casey that he did not over-speak, because that was an important contribution. I thank him.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I hope we have addressed many of the queries but we are happy to answer more questions.

I thank Ms McKenna. I call Deputy Stanton, who is to be followed by Senator Craughwell.

I welcome our guests to the meeting and thank them for their presentation and the unbelievable work that is going on across the world in areas of tremendous conflict. On reading one of the submissions, I was struck by the fact that teachers had to flee into the jungle because they were afraid. A couple of hundred years ago, we had hedge schools in Ireland because education was not allowed in certain circumstances. People were taught in fields, hedges and so on. What has been described today is so much worse because Covid, climate change, conflict, corruption and extreme poverty are all rolled into one in many areas, yet there are people putting their own lives at risk to deliver education.

I am struck as well by the human potential where you have girls and boys saying they want to be doctors and teachers. If the help is given they can achieve those ambitions, which is fantastic.

I am struck also by the issue of the use of sexual violence, rape, etc., and how awful that is. We had that debate last night on our national broadcaster, but I refer to the scale and extent of it there. It is used as a weapon of war. It is horrific. I am not sure what we can do about that.

Irish Aid and the NGOs are doing tremendous work. There is a lot of money being spent and we are a very small country. For many years, Irish missionaries and Irish NGOs have been respected and have been working across the world. I met many ministers from different countries in the UN a number of years ago who acknowledged that. Is there any other country out there that is doing good work that could be shown as an example of best practice so that we could look at it as well? How is the First World generally responding to the challenges and can we, in our role in the United Nations, do more to highlight what is going on?

Many people in Ireland do not realise what has been described today or do not know about it because it is not something that is highlighted here. My God, I think we live in an oasis here in Ireland compared to what was described, which, in many instances, one could say was hell on earth, and yet we have stories of success which are great to hear.

It is something that we need to do more on. Our place in the United Nations may be something we could use more to highlight this and maybe our own broadcasters here could do what they can to highlight what is going on there. I am shocked at what I have heard. I cannot even begin to imagine what some people are having to go through.

I thank our guests for being here today and say "Well done" for the work they are doing. They certainly made an impact, on me and on my colleagues as well.

I thank our guests for being with us today.

Looking at the presentations that were made and the written work that was sent in, I have to say it is utterly depressing. As the brother of eight sisters, the father of a daughter and the grandfather of two beautiful granddaughters, it is utterly depressing to think that sexual violence is the way we fight wars and the way we deal with these things.

On the positive side, as a teacher I engaged with many Nigerian students in particular, and the work ethic that I saw from them was way above the average. That is great. It strikes me, when we are talking about funding, that the days of funding education alone are over as that is no longer a solution to the problem because there is personal security involved. One has an image of young women travelling to and from school and constantly in danger of being assaulted or kidnapped. There were 276 girls taken from a school. It strikes me that not only do we need to fund the teachers, we need also to fund secure environments and secure transport. I am not even sure if they should travel home. Perhaps we should be looking at some form of boarding school for safe education. That is something I would like them to address.

Do they have any evidence today of the take up between male and female students? I am aware, for example, here in Ireland among certain ethnic groups that there is male engagement in the education system up to approximately the age of 16 at which stage they withdraw totally, but the females continue on. I have seen some wonderful work among some of the ethnic groups, but mainly from females. The males seem to have departed by 16. I wonder does that follow through when we are talking about Somalia, Nigeria and other such countries.

The speaker from Somalia spoke about outcomes. Every time I hear the word "outcomes" the hair on the back of my neck stands up. As a former teacher, something that really bothered me about the way EU funding in education in Ireland was going was it was based on outcomes. Funding would follow based on how many students did you take, how many modules did they study and how many they pass whereas for some of us to survive a year attending school, maybe three days a week rather than five, would be a massive achievement. Over a period of time, it might take a student three years to achieve what another student could achieve in one academic year. With all due respect to the presenter from Somalia who I fully understand, I worry when I hear statistics on outcomes and that sort of thing. For me, it is far more important that a student would attend and start to develop an educational programme which might take longer than one year or two. Going back to my own education days, it was my experience that some of the worst students I had in first year in further education turned out to be the most dedicated students by third year.

Our guests mentioned the vaccine programme. They will be aware that we had a fairly significant debate in the Seanad on the issue of vaccine equality throughout the world. I am still horrified, and it still bothers me every day, that one of the major drug companies is making $65,000 a minute on the vaccine while we have tens of millions of people in the world who cannot be vaccinated. I say that because I think our guests need to say that all day, every day. They need to get that out there. The animal instincts of capitalism in the case of vaccine are utterly sickening.

On the issue of Afghanistan, when we took over the UN Security Council seat our ambassador made a statement about how we stand with the women and girls of Afghanistan. I was quite critical of that at the time because words are easy to say. I wonder have our guests any knowledge as to what is happening in that part of the world. Where are we with girls, particularly girls' education? I stated here previously that I cannot imagine what it must be like to be 17 years of age, having been through the education system in Afghanistan and suddenly have it all taken away from you. I cannot begin to understand it.

My final question is about multinationals which have, for the want of a better description, raped these countries of their resources. How much funding is coming from multinationals? Does anything come the way of our guests from multinationals that are involved in these areas?

I thank our guests very much for the work they do.

I do not see other members offering. Deputy Gannon has left for the Chamber where there are statements.

Before bringing matters to a formal conclusion, I will add to the questions of the members who spoke most recently. I refer to Ms McKenna's opening statement. With particular reference to the sustainable development goals, SDGs, in particular, goal 4, Ms McKenna states, and we have heard this previously in the context of Covid, that the pandemic itself and the consequent social restrictions, and the economic consequences of such social restrictions, have blown the SDG targets off course. It seems from Ms McKenna's statement that with the last two SDGs, one of which we are dealing with today, namely, goal 4 on education, whatever chance we had of reaching that target is blown off course now with Covid. That means that none of the goals will have their targets reached by 2030.

With specific reference to education, I note that SDG 4 deals not only with education but "quality" education. That word is used. Before we conclude, I ask some of our guests at the coalface to deal with the issue of quality. For me, quality education means attaining a certain standard, having quality teaching, having a reasonable type of infrastructure and having a class size that might be considered appropriate for the delivery of quality education. It appears that in some countries, particularly some African countries, class sizes could be off the Richter scale as far as we are concerned in Ireland, with 100, 120 or 130 people, perhaps no formal hours and perhaps competing interests of a type Mr. Casey mentioned. My question is a difficult one but how do our guests see SDG 4 on the matter of quality education coming back to some type of realisable target for 2030, and that the developed world does not just engage in some hand-wringing and say it is not going to reach this goal because of the Covid-19 pandemic? What can we do to catch up, as it were?

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

There were a few questions there. I will start with your question with regard to quality, Chairman, because it touches on Senator Craughwell's comment regarding outcomes and what we are measuring in the context of quality education, and that it is not just about access but about the long-term impact we are having. I will hand over to Fr. Bird to comment on how we are measuring or able to measure quality education and what it looks like in practice with regard to SDG 4.

Fr. Frank Bird

We found access was important with free education. As more and more students began to join the education programme we hit the quality issue. The quality education programme is based on a quality teacher. How can we get quality teaching in fragile contexts? Misean Cara supported us in adopting an integrated model. After a secondary education, we had an online university programme which trained teachers. It is not a scholarship model that sends a person away out of his or her community, which is very expensive. We train locally, using online university programmes for training teachers. They taught and they were learning and becoming educated teachers in their community, not sent away for four years and possibly never to return.

Quality education can be accessed through online university systems and it builds hope, especially for the teenage girls, that they can become teachers. With girls, parents want them to be safe, and they are safe at home, sometimes at school. Teaching is a very well-regarded role in the community and it provides very positive role models. There are university online systems that are providing teacher education. We have benefited from that and it has grown the quality of our education programme because we are not just asking for volunteers or having a secondary graduate, but having someone who is trained. Online university has been a very significant part for us to bring quality education to our migrant education programmes.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I thank Fr. Bird. Another question initially was about where there are examples of other countries that are doing well in this regard or where we can learn from, perhaps, the different initiatives that have been introduced that have been quite successful. I will ask Ms Quadrini to address that.

Ms Lorenza Quadrini

I do not want to talk about other countries as I would like to stay focused on Nigeria. The picture from Nigeria is very grim but we are working to improve the situation with Plan International. We are especially targeting out-of-school children. Globally, 20% of the out-of-school children of the world are in Nigeria. We are targeting those children through EU funding. We have developed an accelerated education curriculum that has been approved by the ministry of Nigeria and has been approved for roll-out countrywide. We are hoping to bring back as many children as possible to school - children who were not in school before Covid and children who are not coming back to school after Covid.

We are piloting the curriculum in a programme that is ongoing and we have found that we actually can gather all the children who want to go back to school. In organising the courses, training the teachers and organising the courses in facilities that are safe, with the number of students per teacher at no more than 45 children per teacher, as the guidelines say is best practice, we have seen not only that the children learn but also that they do not want to go back to primary school when they have learned enough to be reintegrated. Unfortunately, primary school does not allow them to have the same level of protection and the same level of quality of education that we are providing to them in those courses. That is a new challenge that we are trying to solve now.

That links to the issue of quality education, but it also shows that there is still hope, even in countries and in contexts that are getting worse by the year. When we started the programme in north-east Nigeria the security was not good but definitely was not as bad as it is now. However, we are still managing to get success. We are working with 123 primary schools and we are managing to get the children back to school and managing to teach them as best as we can with the infrastructure we have. We have great teachers in Nigeria because they are qualified and good teachers. I do not know if this answers the question, but I hope it brings some hope.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

It also demonstrates how flexible funding can allow for pilot programmes to be introduced that are adapted to local circumstances or the changing context in many of the places in which we work.

It also demonstrates how one can turn a challenging negative into a positive. Thank you for that.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I will hand over to Mr. Dirshe in Somalia with regard to the question about the drop off of girls in school comparative to boys. Where do we see that drop off happening and what are some of the measures that have been taken, from his example in Somalia which has been quite successful in retaining girls in school in those challenging circumstances?

Mr. Ahmed Ali Dirshe

We have come a long way in getting that number of girls into school. Initially, when we started the programme in 1993, we had a very small percentage of girls attending school. Mostly, it was that the civil war was at the peak at the time. The understanding of the people of sending girls to school was very low at the time. Also, people in our culture were not used to sending girls into school. From there we have tried our best to encourage parents onto CECs. Initially we built the community education committees who were managing, because at the time there was no government at all in Somalia. We were dealing directly with the community. We established community education committees. We gave them training and then we also gave them awareness so that they encouraged parents to send their girls.

There is still a long way to go but we have reached the point that some 40% of girls are now attending the schools supported by Concern. One of the approaches we used was to recruit female teachers, which was not done at the time. When we were recruiting the teachers, I remember we advocated that a proportion of female contenders apply. We set the number at 50% of the school teachers. That is how these teachers became models for the girls and parents started sending their girls to school.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I thank Mr. Dirshe. That reiterates Mr. Onisimus's point that female educators are one of the key areas we need to address in terms of driving girls' education. I will hand over to Ms Kennedy to respond to the question for Afghanistan. Concern is working in Afghanistan at the moment and probably has a good perspective on the situation there.

Ms Brid Kennedy

Afghanistan is at a point somewhat similar to where Somalia was, as Mr. Ahmed explained. Concern's approach to education has evolved over the years and has become much more community focused. As Senator Craughwell said, we used to look only at numbers of children rather than quality. Over the years, we have developed an approach of working with the community, parents, caregivers, girls and boys, and working with teacher training right up to national level where we can. We are trying to use that model in Afghanistan with the support of Irish Aid. In the areas where we are working in Afghanistan we are able to access our education programme and deliver it in that manner. There are other areas in Afghanistan where this permission has not been given. We are maximising on the permissions we have. Irish Aid is very flexible and we welcome that but a number of donors have sanctions against the current government in Afghanistan in the areas of education and health. We encourage the Irish Government to use whatever leverage it has to lift those sanctions because we are denying fundamental basic human rights to children who have no responsibility for contributing to this war. They should not be denied their basic rights.

For the people who follow these debates, the last few words Ms Kennedy uttered on the impact that sanctions would have on Concern's programme are extremely important. If I heard right, she was asking that sanctions, particularly in the area of education, be lifted.

Ms Brid Kennedy


Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

The main question remaining was on safe school places and some of the practical measures being put in place to enable children to attend school safely and regularly. I will hand over to Mr. Casey to address that.

Mr. Eamonn Casey

We have looked at this, particularly in regard to girls. Safety in schools is a particular problem. In one respect, much of it comes down to teachers. Much of the time, there has been a culture where corporal punishment is accepted and acceptable. A big part of the challenge is to change this cultural attitude. While the laws or policies may change, the culture does not necessarily change. It is often about trying to bring the teachers and school leaders with us. That starts outside the school because the teachers are not going to change their cultural attitudes if they are in a community, district or region where the prevailing attitude is that it is okay to inflict corporal punishment on students.

A particular emphasis on safe schools would be tackling gender-based violence in schools. Other measures include addressing student-on-student violence, which can occur, engaging family support and communities, improving sanitary infrastructure for girls, which is often a flashpoint of difficulty that causes girls to leave school, and improving school infrastructure. There are times - this came up in a briefing we had with the committee in 2019 - where dormitories are necessary. While they bring their own challenges, both in terms of cost and protection, sometimes in the wider chaotic environment they are the only option. Much of the time, it depends on the context and changing attitudes, behaviours and policies with school leadership.

Misean Cara has a flagship programme in South Africa where we support a project through some of our members. It seeks to improve school behaviours and address violence across all the Catholic schools in South Africa and learn from each other about what works. Crucially, it does not stick only to Catholic schools but is also linked in with the ministry and its strategic leadership unit to see what kind of practices work best and in what kinds of locations in order that they can be brought in across the state system. That is the kind of strengthening of the educational system the project is trying to model in Catholic schools and then expand to all the schools.

On the security issue in schools, in parts of Africa we have seen young men as young as ten or 11 years running around the place with Kalashnikov rifles. Violence seems to be the name of the game for them. Does Mr. Casey envisage the possibility of needing to have armed guards around the school to allow for a safe environment? I know the two things are mutually repugnant but the important thing is to get quality education in a safe environment. Does he see any need for that?

Mr. Eamonn Casey

I cannot imagine that kind of a context because what really works is where the education is embedded in the local community and responds to the relevance for the local community and the demand for education in the local community. It has to be tailored to the cultural context. Sometimes we may want to challenge or change the cultural context but I cannot imagine a situation where there would be a securitised approach. It would be about building trust and relationships and maybe bringing in measures like safe cycling and walking routes to school or negotiating with local elders and tribal leaders to create community approaches to tackle community problems, rather than a securitised approach.

I am going to wind our way towards a conclusion. On behalf of the joint committee, I thank our guests for joining us and for their submissions and the comprehensive manner in which they dealt with members' questions. As I said, this is an area the committee has indicated will be a specialist topic for us during the course of the year and on which we intend to produce a report. This engagement has been important to us and very informative. It is one to which we will revert.

Before I ask Ms McKenna to make a final comment, I thank her colleagues, Ms Quadrini, Mr. Casey and Ms Kennedy, for joining us. I express the appreciation of the committee members to Fr. Frank Bird in New Zealand, Mr. Onisimus in Nigeria and Mr. Ahmed in Somalia. Oftentimes we look on technology from a negative perspective but this afternoon we have seen its joys. I thank the witnesses for their contributions.

On Ms Kennedy's point about sanctions, I ask that the committee write to the Department and ask that we make representation on the lifting of sanctions for education.

We will include reference to that. I want to acknowledge what Deputy Brady said earlier when he indicated a proposal that we would accept the recommendations as put forward and we should do that. We can include reference to what Senator Craughwell said, albeit that is a difficult political issue. I agree we should look at options when it comes to Afghanistan but there are real and serious political concerns about any form of recognition of the regime there. I do not see any options on the table and if members agree with that we can urge the Government to look at a suite of options that do not appear to be present in Afghanistan at the moment.

I notice members of the media present this afternoon. We were previously restricted in that regard due to Covid. I would remind them, as I remind our guests, that this time last year the committee produced an important and comprehensive report on Covid-19, vaccine equality and COVAX, which Deputy Brady referred to. We should reiterate and reaffirm our support for the contents of that report, which might not have found favour in the greater political debate, as they did within the confines of this room. I acknowledge Deputy Brady’s reminder of that and I agree with him. I acknowledge the important work of Irish Aid and Misean Cara, as has been mentioned. I will leave the final word to Ms McKenna and I thank her for being with us.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna

I thank the committee for having us in to share some of the progress that has been made as a result of Irish Aid's funding and Ireland’s support for education and we hope this continues. It is obvious from many of the contributions today – and I particularly thank those who joined us from Somalia, Nigeria and New Zealand – that regardless of where we are in the world there are some common approaches that work in progressing education for those who are marginalised and for girls. In particular, I mention having a community-based approach and targeted programmes that are addressed and tailored towards girls to ensure their participation. There are a number of groups that fall outside educational systems, including migrants and refugees. We need to ensure they are brought in and that those who are the furthest behind get access to education and fulfil their right to quality education.

I thank Ms McKenna for being with us and we look forward to continued engagement throughout the year.

Sitting suspended at 4.43 p.m. and resumed at 4.47 p.m.