The Mastermind: Yasmine Sherif

Yasmine Sherif
Director
Education Cannot Wait (ECW) Global Fund
New York, USA

Here is the full part of the glittering conversation with Ms. Yasmine Sherif. The InCAP appellations her The Mastermind, what she precisely deserves.

The InCAP: Yasmine Sherif and Education Cannot Wait (ECW), we all know these two entities are entirely inseparable. What inspired you to engage with this kind of unconventional work?

Yasmine Sherif: We are all inseparable from Education Cannot Wait. Education Cannot Wait is an UN-hosted entity and a movement for Sustainable Development Goal 4: quality education for the 75 million children and youth left furthest behind in brutal conflicts, climate-induced natural disasters, and forced displacement. As an UN-hosted fund and a movement, it is both conventional and unconventional. One does not exclude the other. On the contrary, to make a difference in this world, we need a combination of both. 

Most importantly, these 75 million children and youth, of whom 39 million are girls, are part of humanity. Investing in their learning, growth, and development means investing in our shared humanity. We are all interdependent and, therefore, also responsible for one another. As one humanity, we are all inseparable.

I have dedicated most of my life to international service for those left furthest behind in crisis-affected countries, so this is one strong incentive. I do what I love. As a human rights lawyer, I derive inspiration from advocating and empowering children and young people to exercise their rights in crisis. Quality education is a human right that is a critical foundation for all other human rights. If the young generation is kept illiterate, especially girls and adolescent girls, how can we end discrimination against women? How can we ensure the rule of law, good governance and the whole spectrum of social, economic and cultural rights, if we do not allow the young generation to learn to read and write, address the traumas of their experiences, develop their social and emotional skills and receive a diploma? The lack of education is the biggest barrier to realizing their inherent human rights. 

Education Cannot Wait was established at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 after many years of very powerful, collective global advocacy by civil society, UN agencies, and governments. Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the UK, who is now the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Global Education and the Chair of Education Cannot Waits High-Level Steering Group, played an instrumental leadership role in the creation of Education Cannot Wait. Working with him is very inspiring. He has a brilliant mind and enormous moral courage. His passion for Education is unprecedented. Clearly, he and the whole education community inspire me, as do the millions we serve. 

When I meet parents, teachers, children, and adolescents, not the least the adolescent girls, in countries like Afghanistan, Chad, or Colombia, I see in their eyes a glimmer of hope. When I watch them speak up for their right to inclusive quality education, and when I hear their stories and learn of how they invest in their own Education with ECW’s support, I am profoundly inspired by them. I see in them so many future leaders and great professionals, who can make this world a better place. 

We must not forget that those who suffer brutal conflicts and forced displacement tend to develop unique capacities of resilience. As a result of their suffering and their will to survive in the harshest of realities, they are often endowed with extraordinary potential. However, this potential requires a good education to fully blossom. We cannot afford to lose their incredible force of life. They are an asset to their communities, their countries, and to the world – provided that they have a chance to nurture and transform their resilience in a safe learning environment and through good Education. 

What are the core functions of ECW?

As the first global fund dedicated to education in emergencies and protracted crisis, ECW pursues five strategic objectives in a mutually reinforcing fashion: 

First, to inspire political commitment and support. Education in humanitarian settings has been of a lesser priority with a figure that is fluctuating between 2.4 percent and 3.4 percent allocated to Education in the humanitarian response. A political commitment means getting the priorities right in situations of conflict, disasters, and forced displacement. If 3 percent is all we are willing to invest in a child or young person’s education, we need to ask ourselves if this is how we prioritize our own children’s future. Of course not. We know that Education is essential.

In the world of international aid and investments, it has to be just as essential for the 75 million children and youth who suffer the brunt of these crises. The European Union, through the European Commission, made a political commitment to allocate a minimum of 10% to Education in humanitarian settings, and the UK and Canada, among others, have made girls’ education a top priority. It all starts with a political commitment, and it is happening. 

Second, to catalyze financial resources.  The result of a political commitment is that financial resources follow suit. According to the report by the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing presented at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, there was some US$77 trillion in total GDP in the world, and the figure today is about $80 trillion, according to the World Economic Forum. Imagine what we could do with $8 billion allocated to Education for children and youth, especially for girls, in countries affected by the crisis, which is 0.00009 percent. There are a lot of financial resources in circulation around the globe. The challenge is to share it humanely and wisely. Education Cannot Wait’s purpose is to unlock those resources, attract more funding to education in emergencies and protracted crises. So far, Education Cannot Wait has catalyzed over half a billion US$. Still, it is not enough. We need at least to unlock US$1.8 billion by 2021 in order to ensure quality education for nearly 9 million children and youth, of whom 60 percent are girls and adolescent girls. Quality education costs money and even more so in a country affected by the crisis. Yet, there is no other choice. It is a priceless investment. 

Third, to facilitate cooperation, collaboration, and coordination through joint programming. In the field of service, we can no longer afford to compete and work in silos. We have to rise above all that. In the same spirit, humanitarian assistance, alone, cannot create sustainable solutions. We need to look ahead long-term as well. Education Cannot Wait brings together both humanitarian and development actors through joint programming, whereby all work together within the same program for quality education, each with their own comparative advantage and yet interdependent. There are needs that are urgent (humanitarian) and needs that require systems-strengthening (development). By designing a joint program that caters to the immediate needs, while also laying the building blocks for long-term solutions, Education Cannot Wait transcends silos and put in place a coordinated framework that addresses both sets of needs in parallel. 

We can no longer work in silos. We need to work together and seamlessly link humanitarian and development efforts. It stands greater chances of sustainable impact. It draws on collective outcomes, and it moves faster with more speed. Education Cannot Wait’s Multi-Year Resilience Programmes (MYRPs) do just that. About ten such joint programs are currently up and running in Chad, Ethiopia, Palestine, and Uganda, and we aim at having 25 MYRPs in place by 2021. 

We believe that this model, which has been tested before, may be conducive to all SDGs. It supports the UN Secretary-General’s Reform, which calls for a New Way of Working. It is designed to bring everyone together and address a multitude of needs, it is implemented with speed, and it leaves none behind. 

Fourth, we seek to strengthen the capacity to respond.  This requires national and local ownership. In all Education Cannot Wait’s investments, we work closely with the host-government, who leads strategically on all our investments. The Ministry of Education is a critically important partner, as are the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Finance, who play essential roles in determining the future of the next generation in their country. In all our multi-year investments, Education Cannot Wait works directly through the in-country coordination mechanisms to allocates resources to the government to prevent and mitigate the impact of a crisis while also responding to, and manage, the delivery of Education to for instance refugees and host communities. It is very motivating to work with governments who care so strongly for the Education of their children and youth, and even more so when they are genuinely concerned for the Education of refugees seeking protection in their country. 

Local ownership and capacity also entail civil society and communities. Education Cannot Wait’s investments are also geared at empowering local civil society, teachers’ associations, and community-based schools. Civil society plays a critical role in situations of conflict and crisis. In a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the crisis has lasted for decades, we are grateful to the civil society for delivering on SDG 4 in the most difficult of circumstances. They need our support, not the least financial support, to keep carrying out their noble work. All in all, Education Cannot Works has already reached the target of 25 percent of the Grand Bargain, which is the target for the localization agenda, and we continue. 

National and local actors know their country more than anyone else. They are also the ones that will remain when all of us leave. Investing in them is the safest option to ensure that our investments are crisis-sensitive and sustainable. It is also the right thing to do. Why would we run it for them or above them? In the context of international aid, they are our teachers. 

Fifth, improve data and accountability. Education Cannot Wait focusses on quality education, not just any education. In order to plan and execute our investments, we need solid and scientifically collected data in order to measure impact and learning outcomes. It is not sufficient for a child to attend school in the midst of a crisis. It may be a severely dysfunctional school with no learning materials, with no trained teachers. Then what? They leave school and can’t read or write. It is all about intellectual honesty. Quality education requires quality data as part of the planning to get the right baseline and design. Then, data is a very powerful tool in how we invest funding and measure impact. 

Education Cannot Wait, therefore, invests in data collection and analysis. We work with partners who have the capacity to collect and produce accurate data. We also have our own data and monitoring & evaluation team that is extraordinarily skilled and knows how to use data to achieve the best value for money. 

Lessons learned are equally important. One cannot keep doing the same mistakes over and over again. The learning process of what works and what doesn’t is imperative. The Education Cannot Wait’s multi-year resilience programs (MYRPs) build on tested models in other development sectors. It is a model we used in the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery in the United Nations Development Programme, which we now have expanded and further refined in Education Cannot Wait. 

Education Cannot Wait also aims at less bureaucracy and more accountability. By shedding the garments of redundant bureaucracy, we can focus on what really matters: speed without compromising quality. In a crisis, one has to move fast. At the same time, we need quality to ensure sustainability. We are accountable to the strategic donor partners who generously fund Education Cannot Wait. We are also accountable to the children and youth we serve. By remembering why we are here, we keep the focus on results and overcome bureaucratic hurdles. 

How many employees and volunteers do you have? How do you keep your team members keen and motivated?

Education Cannot Wait is a very lean and cost-effective global fund. This is one of our unique, added values. As a result, all funding goes to the quality education of the children and youth. We have 25 approved staffing positions and just half a dozen of secondments and interns. It is not a heavy bureaucracy at headquarters requiring huge amounts for salaries. On the contrary, as a small team with staff in New York, Geneva and Amman, we are a catalyst and use the funding to leverage the expertise and in-country presence of our partners who do the actual work. 

By working with UN agencies, like UNICEF, UNHRC, UNESCO, WFP, and civil society, like Global Citizen, Save the Children, PLAN, NRC, Jesuit Refugee Service, BRAC, War Child, and many local civil society organizations, we work as one team. They are the ones doing the real job on the ground. So, Education Cannot Wait is a very cost-effective global fund. We have no ambitions to do what in-country partners are doing already. Our ambition is to achieve our five core-objectives for the sake of the 75 million children and youth. In doing so, we raise resources for our partners who are out there, and we work as one team with all. We are, as I said earlier, one humanity. 

At present, ECW is becoming a global movement, but Ms. Sherif, do you think ECW is able to create enough impression on the global emergency?

We are a global movement, and this global movement is making an impact. Over 2 million children and youth, of whom half are girls, are now accessing quality education in situations of severe crisis. This is a collective effort materialized. It is happening. But it is not enough. 

There are millions more left behind, and we cannot stop until we reach them. Financing is essential. Without funding, it is simply impossible to deliver quality education. In a country like Sweden, where I come from, it costs about US$11,000 annually to provide quality education to a young person. We are not even asking for such amounts for each of the 75 million that we serve. But we do need the minimum, which is $1.8 billion by 2021, to deliver decent quality education to nearly 9 million children and youth. We urge governments and the private sector to help us help them. It is the most cost-effective priority we can make in addressing contemporary political and human challenges with which our world is confronted. 

Where and how do you want to see Education Cannot Wait (ECW) in the next five years?

A continued growth towards the goal of reaching 75 million children and youth. A minimum of at least 60% girls and adolescent girls included in all our investments, a minimum of 10% towards early childhood development, a significant inclusion of children with disabilities, and real learning outcomes for all benefiting from Education Cannot Wait’s investments. In terms of resources, we need is $3 billion at least by then. It seems like a lot at first, but if you compare it to the current annual global GDP of $88 trillion, it is an incredibly minuscule .00003%. Unlocking that tiny amount would have an amazing impact on education in emergencies and protracted crises. I also hope that all SDGs will benefit from Education Cannot Wait’s model. Our investments in SDG 4 warrant a similar change across the board. Educated children and youth will need the tools and opportunities to pursue socio-economic goals for their societies. They will need livelihoods, will want justice and peace, and will demand gender-equality. 

You’re the author of “The Case for Humanity: An Extraordinary Session”, what is the theorem of this book.

When I grew up, I was taught about great role models, values, and possibilities to serve humanity. My mother, a very wise and intelligent woman, played an essential role in shaping my choices in life. At home, our shelves were filled with books about all the world religions, about great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela, historical personalities who did something for humanity, whether in art, science, or the humanities. These were issues we always discussed at home. Before my law-studies, I studied philosophy. I have always been attracted to those who try to resolve the challenges of human existence and make the world a better place. 

As a fresh law-graduate, I joined the United Nations in 1988. I had the privilege of working with some great minds and personalities committed to this global multilateral organization, whose Charter and Universal Declaration for Human Rights are inspiring testimonies to the potential of the United Nations. Both were crafted in the aftermath of a brutal World War II and promised a better world. 

But as so often happens, the bigger the organization, the greater the traps for losing the vision. There were times when I felt we needed to revive the original purpose, and there was a need to reignite the flame of 1945 when the UN was created. So, I created a semi-fictional story. I imagined all the great humanists, artists, scientists, and political leaders in our history and present time gathering in the UN Security Council to adopt an Agenda for Humanity. I researched them and let them speak to our contemporary challenges and fears, and our hopes and possibilities, in the era of the 21st Century. 

Using their own words, as these were once spoken or written, I created an authentic account of their wisdom to weave together an agenda for humanity. As a lawyer, I titled it The Case for Humanity. I was just a fly on the wall. They spoke through the book. They made the case, and interestingly they all were aligned as great minds do indeed think alike. 

I am a practical idealist. It is the action that matters. But we need an authentic and universal value system to guide that action. This requires vision and empathy. The Case for Humanity is about the vision shared by so many great and empathetic minds. I am convinced it is possible to translate it into action, which spurred me to write the book. 

Ms. Sherif, you’re a veteran of the United Nations, already passed over 30 years hither. What especial working experience do you want to write in your biography?

If I ever were to write a biography, it would be about the most inspiring and enlightened human beings I have met in my life, the ones who taught me about humanity. The children of Afghanistan, Cambodia, Darfur, Gaza, and the Sahel. The ones who suffered a pain that few of us can imagine. The ones who struggled in the darkest corners of the world and still found hope and a will to live. The ones who made me forget about myself and taught me about human resilience, compassion, and the meaning of life. They are my heroes and my teachers. 

You’ve seen the world with your extremely talented eyes. You’re an idol to many people. People follow you as an icon of leadership. Say something to them.

All that we see at the macro-level is a reflection of who we are as individuals. When we start changing ourselves, we also begin changing the world. Be value-driven, rather than success driven. Work hard, be kind, and have faith. Then everything is possible.

About Yasmine Sherif (LLM)

Yasmine Sherif is the Director of Education Cannot Wait (ECW) – a global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crisis established by the World Humanitarian Summit. A lawyer specialized in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law (LL.M), she has 30 years of experience with the United Nations (UNHCR, UNDP, OCHA) and international NGOs, starting her international career in 1988.

Ms. Sherif has served in some of the most crisis-affected countries and regions on the globe, including Afghanistan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and across the Middle East, including Jordan (the Syria-crisis) and the occupied Palestinian territory, as well as in New York and Geneva. Her expertise spans across the humanitarian, development, human rights, gender, and peacekeeping spectrum.

Ms. Sherif has also worked as an Adjunct Professor responsible for the Masters Programme on the United Nations, humanitarian assistance, and human rights at Long Island University (LIU), and has published on international humanitarian and development issues, as well as international law. She is the author of the book, The Case for Humanity: An Extraordinary Session, which was launched at the United Nations in New York in 2015, and a Champion for ‘No Lost Generation.’ In 2017, she received the annual award “Sweden’s UN Friend of the Year.”

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