On 8 February 2021, Canada’s Minister of International Development, the Honourable Karina Gould, announced the “Together for Learning” campaign, a new global campaign to enhance access to education for refugee and other forcibly displaced children and youth. This three-year campaign will seek to “promote quality education and lifelong learning for refugees, forcibly displaced and host-community children and youth.”

The campaign with focus on four key areas:

  • Advancing the principles of the 2018 G7 Charlevoix Declaration on quality education for girls, adolescent girls and women in developing countries, especially in contexts of fragility, crisis, and conflict;
  • Amplifying local voices in the planning, delivery and evaluation of education programming, to be realized through the launch of the Refugee Education Council;
  • Diplomatic engagement to build support for the initiative; and,
  • Improving the “quality, availability and use of data to guide efforts and ensure effectiveness.”

These are important and timely goals. Building on the broad support for refugee education evident during the Global Refugee Forum in December 2019, but in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has had a profound impact on the ability of refugees to access quality education, this initiative has the potential to make an important contribution – not only to refugee education, but also to demonstrating the level of collection action and international solidarity envisioned by the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees.

From rhetoric to reality

To implement these ideas, Global Affairs Canada will soon issue a call for proposals for Canadian organizations to partner with actors in sub-Saharan Africa to develop programs that will improve learning outcomes and to improve the capacity of local organizations.

As organizations prepare for the details of the call, this is a critical moment to review the evidence from recent experience on what it will take to turn these objectives into reality.

To deliver on the objectives of this initiative, organizations will need to navigate not only the critical issues relating to refugee education, but also the meaning and practice of refugee participation and localization.

These are issues that have been central to the work of the Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN) for the past three years. Through the LERRN-IDRC webinar series, we have brought partners together to critically examine refugee education, refugee participation, and the challenging of leveraging diplomatic engagement to enhance cooperation with and for refugees. These issues have been central to the work of our partners in East Africa and the Middle East, along with our collaborative work with refugee leaders.

Here are some of the key lessons from this work and some evidence to help guide discussions on the implementation of the important goals of the Together for Learning campaign.

Refugee education

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many of the challenges and inequalities experienced by refugees in seeking to access quality education. In the context of Lebanon and Jordan, research has highlighted how inequalities of legal status and economic means compound the disadvantages faced by refugees.

These constraints and realities, however, long pre-date the pandemic. Research by LERRN’s partners, the Dadaab Response Association, has detailed the factors that lie at the core of these inequalities, not only between refugees and host communities but also between male and female refugees. In their paper on female dropout rates in secondary schools in Dadaab, for example, Arte Saman Dagane and Abdullahi Yussuf Aden highlight how a range of factors influence the decision of female students to drop-out of school. In response, they propose a comprehensive range of interventions in schools, communities, and in policy discussions to reverse the trend.

These issues highlight the political and policy context within which refugee education needs to be understood. Research in Jordan on the transition from education to employment by Yasmeen Shahzadeh, for example, highlights the need to approach education in the context of opportunities post-graduation to motivate learners to remain in school.

Moreover, the Lead of LERRN’s Working Group in Lebanon, Maha Shuayb, has led important research in recent years on the meaning of refugee education, the gaps between refugee education and broader educational efforts, and the critical importance of having a long-term vision of the objectives of refugee education. In the absence of such a vision, Dr. Shuayb cautions that refugee education can disempower refugees, not empower them.

Meaningful refugee participation

The COVID pandemic has also highlighted the critical role that refugee participation can and should play in improving humanitarian responses. To this end, the central role of the Refugee Education Council in Canada’s new initiative is of critical importance. But what makes the participation of refugees and other displaced persons meaningful?

This question has been central to LERRN’s work since the policy dialogue we hosted with the Refugee Hub at the University of Ottawa in September 2019. These discussions contributed to LERRN Advisor Mustafa Alio being named as Refugee Advisor to the Delegation of Canada to the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva in December 2019. This represented an important step forward in the objective of ensuring that refugees can engage in a direct and meaningful way in global policy discussions that are intended to benefit them. To continue this work, LERRN was proud to support the launch of the Refugee Advisory Network in June 2020.

Our work on refugee participation highlights that for refugee participation to be meaningful it must be substantive, sustained and substantial. For participation to be substantive, it must mean that input from refugees must have the potential to make a measurable difference in the outcomes of a process. For participation to be sustained, it must include refugee participation in the design, implementation and evaluation of policies and programs. And for participation to be substantial, it must ensure that refugees are able to participate in sufficient numbers to bring diverse and representative views while also equipping and empowering refugees to participate with the skills and background information that places them on par with counterparts around the table.

Advancing refugee participation also means addressing the barriers that have typically constrained the role that refugees could play in shaping policy and practice.

These elements should be included in the design of refugee participation in the planning of programs to implement the Together for Learning campaign. As argued by Mohamed Duale in his research on refugee participation in Kenya, to make refugee participation meaningful, policymakers need to “embed safeguards and protections into refugee participation processes to legitimate and allow refugees and refugee-led organizations to be heard and have their views meaningfully considered.”

Indeed, as highlighted by the LERRN-IDRC webinar on refugee leadership, this is the time to deliver on global commitments to meaningful refugee participation. In affirming the Global Compact on Refugees in December 2018, states, including Canada, affirmed that “responses are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist.”

Canada’s leadership on refugee education provides a tangible moment to deliver on this commitment. As noted by Malual Bol Kiir, Refugee Advisor to Canada’s Delegation to the 2020 meeting of UNHCR’s Executive Committee and Member of the Refugee Education Council, “by integrating the expertise of refugees, Canada can lead other donor countries by example.”


Just as the Together for Learning campaign can help deliver on commitments to refugee participation, it can also help deliver on commitments in the Grand Bargain to support and empower local actors. For nearly two decades, we have known that the structures and approaches of international humanitarian responses tend to erode local capacity, while local actors remain best placed to navigate the everyday politics of refugee responses.

In fact, the combination of refugee perspectives and local actor expertise can, as argued by Asylum Access, create meaningful opportunities for change. Yet while desirable, localization is neither easy nor uncontested. It goes well beyond directing additional resources to national non-governmental organizations to deliver services.

The results of LERRN’s research in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, illustrate the range of interests and factors that need to be overcome to address the power imbalances between local and international actors.

In Kenya, research by Akalya Atputharajah and Javans Wanga highlights how localization has led to better training for humanitarian workers and an increase in the number of local staff working with international NGOs and sharing their nuanced understanding of local contexts. But this does not mean a transfer of power and decision making, as international NGOs remain the key partners of UNHCR, with national NGOs squarely on the periphery. The relationship between international and national NGOs remains profoundly imbalanced, and a missed opportunity to ensure that the expertise and experience of local NGOs are part of a collective response.

The localization means transferring the power to set agendas and make decisions from the exclusive domain of large, international humanitarian actors to include national and local organizations, many of whom have been on the frontlines of humanitarian responses for decades. It is only through such a shift that the knowledge and expertise of local actors can fully contribute to better protection and solutions, especially in light of very complex and nuanced local and national political realities.

These lessons need to guide all Canadian organizations that seek to collaborate with local partners to implement the Together for Learning campaign.

Diplomatic engagement

Finally, it is critical that the launch of the Together for Learning campaign highlighted the need for diplomatic engagement to advance its objectives. Refugee responses do not occur in a political vacuum, and leadership on refugee issues means engaging with the interests and actors that define the space within which responses can be best advanced.

The need for diplomatic engagement is reinforced by the constraints inherent in the design and governance of the global refugee regime itself. But there are encouraging signs of change. With the return of US leadership in mobilizing collective responses to refugees, there is an opportunity to reinvigorate the spirit of collective action and multilateralism that lies at the core of the refugee regime. The Together for Learning campaign is a moment to re-engage with the US administration, rekindle the enthusiasm seen during the 2016 Leaders’ Summit, and mobilize all the tools at Canada’s disposal to not only improve refugee education, but the very functioning of the refugee regime itself.

Canada has the tools to seize this moment to revitalize the refugee regime. In his 2020 report, for example, Bob Rae, Special Envoy of the Prime Minister of Canada on Humanitarian and Refugee issues, called for a new approach to refugees that leverages all elements of Canada’s foreign policy to promote protection and find solutions for refugees. During the LERRN-IDRC webinar, “Mobilizing a Global Response”, speakers how Canadian leadership on refugee issues – including refugee resettlement, investments in education and the promotion of refugee participation – will have the greatest impact if they are approaches not as discreet contributions, but as part of a broader effort to demonstrate the benefits of collective action.

The webinar concluded with the view that Canada should be prepared to seize the opportunities of the current moment to contribute to positive change surrounding issues of displacement, not only now but for generations into the future.

Approached in this light, the Together for Learning initiative will have its greatest impact, not only for refugee education but for the entire refugee regime and its mandate of ensuring protection and solutions for refugees.

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To contact LERRN, write to: LERRN@carleton.ca