Education in Emergencies Post-2015: Insights from Quantitative Research

Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda  Compare 43:6 December 2013
Compare Forum Special Issue on Post-2015 Education and Development Agenda
Compare 43:6 December 2013

Julia Paulson

Bath Spa University

Robin Shields

Bath University


This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article submitted for consideration in Compare [the exclusive right to publish residing with Taylor & Francis, copyright BAICE]. The final version can be found here.


The question of what next for education in conflict and emergencies is one of many being asked within the broader discussion of education’s place within post-2015 development goals. The education in emergencies (EiE) community, which has emerged since the turn of the century, has succeeded in ensuring that the needs and realities of children and young people affected by conflict and natural disaster are now clearly part of the international education agenda. The impact of this advocacy message is readily apparent in the 2011 Education For All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report (GMR) entitled The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education, which details how conflict is “destroying opportunities for education on a global scale” (UNESCO 2011, 132).

However, this ‘mainstream narrative’ (Human Security Report Project 2012) has recently been challenged. Authors of the 2012 Human Security Report (HSR) argue that the evidence base for EiE is grounded on research that suffers from ‘worst-case bias’, assuming that the devastating effects of conflict that have been documented by researchers in particular contexts can be applied to the conflict experience in general. The HSR, which reviews recent quantitative research around the effects of conflict on education outcomes, argues that, in fact, education is “a development indicator that… appears to improve during many periods of warfare” (2012, 79, original emphasis).

If this is the case, suggestions that EiE should occupy a more prominent place on the post-2015 education agenda (e.g. Talbot 2013) may be unfounded. We have been conducting a research project to understand and respond to the challenge that the HSR poses the EiE community. Part of this project involves scrutinising existing quantitative research, particularly those studies used in the HSR. Equally, it involves undertaking our own quantitative analysis and working to situate this research within broader theoretical discussions about the nature and causes of conflict. Here we briefly summarize debate around the quantitative evidence for EiE, present our own initial findings and consider these in terms of what they might mean for EiE post-2015.

The existing quantitative evidence does raise uncertainty about the impact of conflict on education. However, it does not completely undermine the assumption that generally conflict is not good for education. All of the quantitative studies that the HSR reviewed find negative impacts of conflict on education. For instance, a 2010 UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) study found negative effects of conflict on education in 23 of 25 countries included in their analysis, though not always on both of the outcome variables (share of population without formal schooling and average years in schooling). The negative legacy of conflict was often more visible at sub-regional (rather than national) level or on the attainment and/or participation of particular groups of students[1]. Thus, the HSR (2012) calculation that in 40% of cases educational indicators were better at the end of the conflict period than they were at the beginning is able to stand alongside the UIS (2010) finding that in the vast majority of cases conflict does have some negative effect on education.

An econometric study that explored the effect of conflict on the MDG goals using all developing countries as its sample (Gates et al. 2010, 2012) is summarized by the HSR (2012, 103) as showing that “the average effect of conflict on education outcomes is, at most, a minor decrease in the rate at which they improve.”  This is indeed what the second part of the team’s analysis found: fixed-effects model regression analysis showed that conflicts did adversely affect primary and secondary education rates, but not in a way that was statistically significant. However, the preceding cross-sectional model analysis showed that a ‘standard example’ war-affected country with 10,000 battle deaths would experience a relative decrease in attainment of approximately 7.5 percent (Gates et al. 2010).  As with the UIS (2010) study, however the analysis does not allow for the attribution of this difference to conflict.

Overall, existing quantitative studies provide evidence of a relationship between conflict and educational outcomes. Increasingly, they provide sophisticated insight into nuanced differences across gender, socioeconomic groups, ethnicity and rural/urban location. However, they also suffer limitations: purposive selection of a sample of countries limits the generalizability of findings in a majority of studies. More importantly, cross-sectional analysis does not provide insight into how enrolment changes over time, as it is quite possible that lower educational outcomes and conflict share a common underlying cause.  The HSR (2012) suggests that this common underlying cause may be fragility.

Therefore, our recent research (under review) longitudinally examines the relationship between net enrolment rates in primary and secondary school, conflict, and state fragility. Our sample includes all countries for which data are available, about 150 in total[2]. Using multilevel modelling techniques, we test whether a relationship exists between conflict and the overall trajectory of country enrolment rates between the years 2000 and 2011.

Our results indicate that there is a statistically significant relationship between conflict and education for both primary and secondary enrolment rates. The effect of conflict is negative but dependent on a country’s overall enrolment level. For countries with lower levels of enrolment (which tend to have higher rates of growth in enrolment), this negative effect is manifested as a decrease in the rate of growth: enrolment continues to grow during conflict, but at a slower rate than it would have otherwise. For countries with higher levels of enrolment, the effect of conflict is an overall decrease in enrolment levels.

However, when we expand our model to include state fragility – the state’s “capacity to manage conflict…implement policy and deliver essential services” (Marshall and Cole 2011) – it emerges as a more powerful explanatory variable for changes in enrolment[3]. The relationship between fragility and enrolment rates is significant and negative, but the relationship between conflict and enrolment controlling for fragility is not. Expressed in practical terms, this means that one would expect to see large differences in enrolment growth between a fragile and non-fragile country, with the former being lower overall. However, if we consider two hypothetical fragile countries, of which one is conflict-affected and one is not, we would not expect to see any real difference in changes in enrolments. The changes in net enrolment are better explained by state fragility than by conflict; and fragility could be the underlying cause of both conflict and negative growth in enrolment.

The research reviewed here holds important implications for EiE in the post-2015 context. Firstly, both our own research and the HSR (2012) point towards the need to deepen understanding and analysis of fragility and its effects on education and on conflict. The challenge is to unpick what fragility means. To do this requires a much deeper exploration of the root causes of conflict in given contexts and also in terms of changing regional and global dynamics – we see this as an opportunity for EiE research, a chance to build a stronger and more theoretically informed evidence base. However, we acknowledge that understanding fragility in order to reduce conflict (clearly important) may not be the stuff of tangible targets and goals. Therefore, we make a second suggestion. Limited state capacity and/or political will are central to definitions of fragility. While these challenges are not the same, the absence of both capacity and political will are issues that, if addressed, may benefit the causes not just of EiE but of many (or all?) of the various priorities being put forward for education post-2015.


Centre for Systemic Peace. 2011. State Fragility Index and Matrix.

Gates, Scott, Håvard Hegre, Håvard Mokleiv Nygård and Håvard Strand. 2012. “Development Consequences of Armed Conflict.” World Development 40(9): 1713-1722. doi: 10.106/j.worlddev.2012.04.031.

Gates, Scott, Håvard Hegre, Håvard Mokleiv Nygård and Håvard Strand. 2010. “Consequences of Civil Conflict.” World Development Report Background Paper.

Human Security Report Project. 2012. Human Security Report 2012: Sexual Violence, Education and War: Beyond the Mainstream Narrative. Vancouver: Human Security Press.

Lai, Brian and Clayton Thyne. 2007. “The Effect of Civil War on Education, 1980-97.” Journal of Peace Research 44(3): 277-292. doi: 10.1177/0022343307076631

Marshall, Monty G. and Benjamin R. Cole. 2011. Global Report 2011 Conflict, Governance, and State Fragility. Vienna, VA: Centre for Systemic Peace.

Talbot, Christopher. 2013. “Education in Conflict Emergencies in Light of the post-2015 MDGs and EFA Agendas.” Norrag Working Paper 3, January 2013.

UNESCO. 2011. Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2011. The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics. 2010. “The Quantitative Impact of Conflict on Education” Think Piece Prepared for the Education For All Global Monitoring Report 2011 The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education.

Uppsala Conflict Data Programme. 2012. Battle-Related Deaths Dataset, version 5. Uppsala: Uppsala Uppsala University.

[1] In different cases these were girls or boys, rich or poor students, rural or urban populations (see UIS 2010).

[2] Conflict data are taken from the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme’s (2012) Battle-Related Deaths Dataset, a well-established source also used in the 2011 EFA Global Monitoring Report and the studies reviewed above.

[3] Fragility data are taken from the State Fragility Index (Centre for Systemic Peace, 2011), a composite index of approximately 20 different variables related to countries’ political, social, economic and security contexts.