Dialogue Series, Race & Society, Regional Studies

The Regional Humanitarian Crisis

The Regional Humanitarian Crisis

Reach Out To Asia is a Qatar-based non-profit organization that works to ensure that people affected by crisis across Asia and the Middle East have continuous access to relevant and high-quality primary and secondary education. Since its inception in 2005, ROTA has had a vision of providing education for children and youth to discover their potential to become full, responsible citizens building their communities and their futures. Today ROTA has education and development projects in thirteen countries and it has a major strategic initiative to build local capacity and community service in Qatar. 

Essa Al-Mannai, the executive director of ROTA, delivered the talk, “The Regional Humanitarian Crisis: How ROTA is Mobilizing Resources to Tackle the Refugee Crisis through Education,” at the Center for International and Regional Studies on February 7, 2017. He shared these grim figures about the status of refugees today:

  • Currently there are twenty-one million refugees in the world.
  • About fifty percent of the world’s refugee population is children.
  • On average, a refugee will live away from home for seventeen years.

There are sixty-five million forcibly-displaced people worldwide. This number is comprised primarily of internally-displaced people who do not have any country or state that would acknowledge their citizenship, and the aforementioned twenty-one million refugees. Tragically, against these disheartening numbers, Al-Mannai reported that only 107,000 refugees were resettled in 2015. He cautioned of the danger of just looking at the magnitude of these problems in terms of the numbers, however. “When we talk about refugees, we are talking about humans with ambitions. People who have hopes and the right to fulfill life dreams,” he said. 

ROTA upholds education as the top priority in humanitarian crises because children are the most marginalized and most vulnerable. Providing access to education in safe, nurturing environments can enable children to develop critical lifelong skills. Al-Mannai explained that it is essential for children in emergency situations to have a sense of normalcy, to make friendships, build self-confidence, acquire knowledge, and have a chance to become something in the future. Furthermore, he said, “The simple fact is that illiteracy is isolation, and isolation can lead to destructive tendencies towards the self and towards others.” 

What benefits does the world get by educating refugees? “It’s our moral obligation as humans to identify and respect the human mind through fulfilling its desire to learn, to acquire knowledge, to ask questions, to debate, and ultimately to create something,” said Al-Mannai. It is a human need for everyone, regardless of status or where you are from, and he said, “without education this right is denied.”

Another benefit of educating refugees is the huge return on investment for a country that has experienced a crisis, such as the civil war in Syria. Eventually there will need to be resettlement and rebuilding. “Do you want to rebuild a country with engineers and doctors or people who are illiterate?” Al-Mannai asked. “The benefits of education are self-evident.” He reported that, according to the World Bank in 2016, education is an investment where, overall, each year of schooling will raise individual earnings by ten percent; bringing better results than almost any other form of investment. However, of all the international aid that goes for emergencies, only 1.4 percent goes to education.

The Syrian refugee crisis rose from 3.7 million in 2015 to 4.8 million in 2016. Schools were severely in need, with a broken-down infrastructure and limited teacher capacity and access to materials. ROTA’s basic approach to this dire situation was to increase teacher capacity and offer non-formal education, because schools simply could not meet the great needs of the refugee populations. “Education goes beyond the book, the teacher and homework,” Al-Mannai said. Non-formal education can provide a support system to children and youth and offer a positive environment with psychosocial support, and other assistance. ROTA does not just build schools, they take a holistic approach because, he explained, “education is a multi-party process that engages the community, the government, ministries of education, the school directorate, the parents, and even the teachers and the school administration.”

Al-Mannai said a shift is occurring in the global agenda for international humanitarian work and development. In the year 2000, leaders from 189 countries gathered at the United Nations and approved eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Progress was achieved in a number of those goals, but the new target is Sustainable Development Goals. The big lesson learned from the international community, according to Al-Mannai, is that “Giving is not enough. We have to give, but we also have to build local capacity.”

Global development goals are moving from quantity measures towards quality. According to Al-Mannai, the focus in the past was on the most needy, poorest countries; now there is recognition that everyone must be included to achieve targets. The previous approach was top-down, donor to beneficiary; now it is bottom-up, and developing capacity is the new goal. Al-Mannai said the new understanding is that top-down will never work, because the needy will continue to come back and ask for more. Teaching people to build their capacities, systems, and governance are the new global directions. The current draft of the Sustainable Development Goals has seventeen goals, and include peace, stability and human rights.

ROTA is building local capacity in Qatar through youth engagement, community service, and global citizenship. ROTA has created various platforms for youth to become active locally and internationally, and to serve as representatives of Qatar in the region. To date, over one-thousand youth have been trained by ROTA. There are currently eighteen Qatari-based youth clubs, each with its own unique vision and mission. Some international platforms that Qatari youth have participated in include the UN General Assembly and the UN World Humanitarian Summit, and ROTA hosted the Global Youth Consultation in 2015, which shapes youth engagement in humanitarian work.

ROTA is a partnership-led initiative, working with organizations in other countries, because Al-Mannai said, “One solution will not fit all, and no one organization has all the solutions.” There are many humanitarian and aid organizations, each with their competitive edge and good capacities. ROTA is mobilizing resources and is building the capacity of the community as a whole, and is partnering with other local non-governmental organizations to increase its impact.

Not since World War II has the world witnessed the number of refugees that we are witnessing today, according to Al-Mannai. The world is developing, but there is a huge percentage of the world that is lagging behind, and he says, we are at risk of these two worlds growing apart from each other. ROTA’s deep commitment to partnership, sustainability, and building local capacity could go far in reversing this alarming trend.

Essa Al-Mannai was appointed as ROTA’s Executive Director in 2010. Under his leadership, the organization has led initiatives in thirteen countries and local programs in Qatar. Additionally, ROTA has led adult literacy trainings, youth leadership programs, and programs designed to benefit students and teachers. He has served on the steering committees of various international and local groups in the fields of development and social responsibility. Recently, Al-Mannai represented the Qatar NGO sector at the high-level event on Refugees’ Education in Emergency Situations hosted by the Permanent United Nations Missions of Portugal, Qatar and Turkey.

Article by Jackie Starbird, Publications and Projects Assistant at CIRS.