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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Deliver Aid to Education or Study It?

by Dana Burde, New York University, USA

Ten years ago when I started teaching courses on education in emergencies, I didn’t think much about the tension between “delivering” aid and studying it. Although I was an aid worker before becoming an academic, I took for granted the importance of research. Indeed, my drive to understand the structure and organization of international aid was part of what drove me to graduate school to begin with.

Yet when I became a faculty member and a researcher, the tensions between research and program objectives became more apparent. In the classroom, for example, students wanted to understand why we would spend time discussing theoretical models of conflict or humanitarian aid. Some of them wanted classes that were more oriented toward hands-on training than toward understanding these abstract concepts. Outside the classroom, colleagues in the field working on education in emergencies programs also challenged the importance of research. Practitioners highlighted their concerns about limited funds—they objected to using resources for research that, in their view, could be better spent on program support that was urgently needed.

Hands-on training is important, but to change the world—as many students and practitioners would like to do—the first step is to understand it. Indeed, reflection is critical to becoming a better practitioner. And two of the most important elements of reflection include an understanding of (1) theoretical models, and (2) research methods that scholars use to carry out their studies.

First, learning how to categorize real world problems into more abstract and generalizable ideas, or theoretical models, allows students to identify patterns in their own and in other people’s work. To understand better what we do as well as why we do what we do, we typically start the semester in my classes by discussing definitions of humanitarian aid—what it means, how it came to be defined the way it is today, and who the primary humanitarian actors are. Learning about strengths, weaknesses, and tensions within humanitarian aid, helps educators understand better why education has been often excluded from this work and how to ensure that it is included in the future. Reading theoretical studies of humanitarianism also shows how INEE interacts with the larger world of humanitarian aid—a key point that I discuss with students.

Similarly, to be better practitioners working in countries affected by conflict, it is crucial to understand the relationship between education and conflict or peace. We read articles that assess the causes of conflict and the mechanisms of peace building. We discuss how patterns of violence interact with education policies and aid to education. 

Second, understanding research methods allows readers to judge the quality of research studies that may assess program outcomes. To do so, it is important to take the time to acquire a basic understanding of research methods—both qualitative and quantitative. In the recent past, certain interventions were elevated to “best practice” status with little empirical data to support them. Although there may be good reason to believe that particular interventions were likely the best way to approach a problem, even widely-held assumptions can be disproven once tested. In addition, description of these practices did little to provide a systematic analysis of data to show the positive effects of a particular intervention, relying more on anecdotal reports to show results. The number of studies of humanitarian aid as well as of education in emergencies programs is increasing all the time. Understanding research methods helps readers evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these studies’ conclusions, ultimately better assessing approaches to delivering aid. 

Finally, outside of the classroom, the importance and urgency of delivering aid should not eclipse the possibility of studying it. In Afghanistan, for example, the needs for investments in education were so great in 2005 that the educators I worked with were deeply concerned about applying any resources to research that they believed would have been better spent on programs. They suggested, for example, that research funds be used to hire more teachers or build more schools.

These are certainly critical and basic requirements for any education system. But many research funds, including those that funded my study in Afghanistan, are explicitly earmarked for research and cannot be used for programs. In cases where these two overlap, the amount committed for research is often a fraction of what goes to programs. Most important, however, studying the effectiveness of interventions, or mapping patterns of educational attendance after an earthquake, or mapping patterns of school attacks, or exploring a well-constructed question with in-depth qualitative interviews provides practitioners, parents, and all concerned with critical information. These data help overcome barriers and promote children’s access to good quality education during crises and beyond.    

Should we (all concerned) deliver aid to education or study it?

Of course this is not an “either/or” question. We should do both.


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