Surviving School: Education for Refugee Children from Rwanda 1994-1996

reviewed by James H. Williams - 2005

coverTitle: Surviving School: Education for Refugee Children from Rwanda 1994-1996
Author(s): Lindsay Bird
Publisher: UNESCO,
ISBN: , Pages: 140, Year: 2003
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Education is challenged to respond effectively in a world where—in increasing numbers of armed conflicts—children constitute the majority of victims and sometimes serve as combatants. Recent publications have highlighted the close ties among education, war, and peace (see Davies, 2004; Smith and Vaux 2003; Williams, 2004): Education serves multiple roles—as contributor to war, as target and victim of conflict, and as a way toward peace. In postconflict contexts, education provides children with daily occupation, resumption of a kind of normality. Perhaps for this reason, communities restart schools very soon after the end of hostilities. In Western Tanzania in 1996, for example, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) established makeshift classes within 2 weeks of arrival (p. 101). Unfortunately, external agencies working to help war-affected communities have been far less sanguine about the near-term value of educational provision. Lindsay Bird’s excellent book provides a rich case description and analysis of the provision of education to Rwandan refugee children in Tanzania and the DRC from 1994 to 1996, following the remarkable 100 days of genocide in April 1994 during which time some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered.

Research for Surviving School [available online] was carried out as part of a series of case studies of education in emergencies and reconstruction by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO’s) International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP). IIEP, along with the Inter-Agency Network on Emergency Education, has taken the lead in documenting the experience of education in postconflict situations, analyzing and synthesizing that experience, and preparing training materials for agency officials and educational authorities. This particular volume is complemented by Anna Obura’s (2004) superb case study of education within Rwanda, preceding and after the genocide, Never Again: Educational Reconstruction in Rwanda (also published by IIEP). Other case studies in the series include those on Burundi, Kosovo, Palestine, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Timor-Leste. The cases serve an advocacy role, making the argument for education as an early imperative in reconstruction. More specifically, however, the objective is to learn from experience rather than repeat it.

Such learning is particularly important for the field of emergency and reconstruction education. Officials in previous emergency situations may have done the best they could, but resources, never adequate, have been wasted and opportunities squandered. Education has been given quite low priority in emergency contexts. Too little is known about effective response, and there too few informed specialists to respond effectively. Education systems, as normally administered, are generally not up to the task. For one thing, crises may develop quite rapidly. Within a single 24-hour period in 1998, for example, 250,000 Rwandan refugees crossed into Tanzania (p. 30). Moreover, children affected by conflict may be traumatized, separated from parents and communities. Their needs are often much greater than in peacetime, extending far beyond the academic curriculum that schools are organized to provide at the same time that the normal supports of community and family are also compromised. Education ministries are often affected by conflict in ways that complicate their normal functioning, much less their ability to respond to crisis. Governments may be implicated in the conflict, their legitimacy and intentions suspect. External agencies—international and bilateral development agencies as well as international nongovernmental organizations—are likely to assume a leading role in crisis situations, but their relationship to education ministries and to communities is unclear. Until recently, no one really has known how to respond to this kind of educational need. In this context, Bird’s case study is a fertile and instructive text.

Ignorance of what to do about education in emergency settings results, in large part, from a persistent denial by international agencies of the importance of education in these settings. In such contexts, education has typically been seen as a development issue, not a relief issue. Yet with the ending of hostilities, a displaced population has little to do. With the disruption of traditional communities and relationships, education provides a structure and focus for social reconstruction. Education can provide children with a form of protection (Triplehorn, 2001), as a population with few roots and lots of unstructured time is inherently unstable.

As an example of the type of lessons the book can provide, it is useful to discuss the ways that Bird indirectly suggests agencies may respond to refugee demand for education. On the one hand, agencies and ministries may ignore the educational impulses of refugees, relegating education to a later “development” phase of assistance. This happened in the DRC, where the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) discouraged education in the refugee camps, funding no educational activities for a full 6 months (p. 19). Ironically, this lack of central support led parents to initiate a flurry of ad hoc educational activities, though of varying quality and uneven access.

Alternately, education authorities may ban educational activities, usually in the belief that educational provision discourages repatriation. Education was banned in the DRC, where, in 1996, the Ministry of Education issued instructions to “stop all educational and community-service activities” (p. 19). In such situations, children have little or no access to education, leading to a waste of human potential and denial of human rights and instigating a contributing factor in future conflict.

In the interests of efficient and effective response, agencies may respond with their own ideas of what needs doing, especially in the absence of careful assessment of needs and context. Based on experience in Somalia, UNESCO, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNHCR, and the German national development organization (GTZ) signed in July 1994 a memorandum of understanding with Tanzania’s Ministry of Home Affairs outlining the provision of education for Rwandan refugees and adopting the “Ngara model” of staged provision. The model consists of three stages: (a) a recreational phase of games, songs, and play to assist in psychosocial recovery; (b) a “TEP.” or Teacher Emergency Package, phase, which uses educational TEP kits developed internationally to provide basic materials, curriculum, and a teachers’ guide for instruction of 40 children in grades 1–3; and (c) a formal curriculum phase, in which the home country curriculum is adopted. This model, although successful in Somalia, where educational conditions were substantially less developed and where few trained teachers were available, was resisted, Bird found, by Rwandan teachers, who were ready and able, they felt, to reestablish formal education from the outset. As a result of this externally driven approach, reestablishment of formal education was delayed 6 months or more and community initiatives ignored.

On a more hopeful note, the agencies were able to learn from this experience. Subsequent programs for refugees from Burundi and the DRC in 1996 were established immediately. Rather than importing prepackaged kits, agencies supported refugee-initiated activities with materials, financial, and technical support. As a result, schools were set up and operating within 2 weeks of refugees’ arrival.

Bird’s book both contributes to learning in the field and documents some of the learning that has taken place. Aimed primarily at practitioners, the book will resonate with officials who have worked to develop educational programs in emergency settings. Each of the two cases is examined along four dimensions: policy and planning, access and equity, quality and relevance, and development of planning and management capacity. The book discusses the history of the conflict and its astonishing spillover effects: The conflict in Rwanda and the destabilizing effects of one million Rwandan refugees contributed, for example, to civil war in the DRC in 1996 and 1998, resulting, directly or indirectly, in 3.5 million deaths since 1998 (p. 18).

The book is well written. It provides a rich description of educational initiatives and their apparent consequences in two different national contexts. Examined with the other case studies, Bird’s book will provide great insight into patterns of fit between response and context. With this book and others, the field of emergency and reconstruction education is beginning to find its feet.


Davies, L. (2004). Education and conflict: Complexity and chaos. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Obura, A. (2004). Never again: Educational reconstruction in Rwanda. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, International Institute for Educational Planning.

Smith, A., & Vaux, T. (2003). Education, conflict and international development. London: Department for International Development

Triplehorn, C. (2001). Education: Care and Protection of Education in Emergencies: A Field Guide. Washington, DC: Save the Children.

Williams, J. (2004). Civil conflict, education, and the work of schools: Twelve propositions. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 21(4), 471-481.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1514-1517 ID Number: 11775, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:51:34 AM

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