No More Empty Classrooms

More than half of all schools in the Central African Republic have closed due to bloody conflict. Reopening them -- and keeping them safe -- should be an international priority.

Humanitarian needs in the CAR, devastated by conflict since 2012, are enormous: Nearly half the population requires assistance, and relief organizations need $250 million to ensure they can reach those who need the most help. Millions of children are among those affected by the conflict. They have witnessed the killing of mothers, fathers, and other family members. Many have been targeted for recruitment by armed groups. Overwhelming numbers have fled without their families and are either residing in camps or hiding on their own.

Last summer, nearly half of the country's schools were closed. Almost half of the school year had been lost, and, mainly out of fear, seven out of 10 primary school students had not returned to their classrooms. More than 500,000 children had dropped out because of violence or displacement.

A representative assessment in February showed that 65 percent schools across the CAR remained closed. Many schools have only been able to operate for four weeks in the current school year. Hundreds have been attacked and looted or used as shelter by refugees, particularly in Bangui, the capital. Many schools are in urgent need of being repaired or rebuilt and re-supplied with learning materials -- a slow and expensive task, particularly in the least secure areas. 

Put another way, the CAR's education system is broken.

As in many conflict contexts, the combined effects of prolonged displacement, idleness, lack of opportunity to study, and daily exposure to violence have a dangerous knock-on effect on children's chances of ever escaping the cycles of poverty and conflict. Being deprived of education in proximity to violence and religious tensions is also explosive.

Responding to this wretched state of affairs is, not surprisingly, extraordinarily difficult and dangerous. Many teachers fled the country's most dangerous areas. Getting them back into schools requires that their safety be ensured and that they are remunerated for this physically and emotionally taxing work. It is also important, but challenging, to identify local and national authorities who can help reopen schools and keep them safe.  

The U.N. decision to send peacekeeping troops could make a critical difference in improving safety in the CAR's schools. But these troops are not scheduled to arrive until September. And even more is needed.

Rebuilding the CAR's schools should start with an international commitment to fund a sound recovery plan for education. The funding would support the training and retention of teachers and the rebuilding of basic structures that give parents the confidence to send their children back to school.

Indeed, the international community needs to focus now on injecting necessary resources into a seriously underfunded situation. Four months into 2014, the CAR's humanitarian appeal remains grossly underfunded. The education sector will need to receive $33 million throughout the year to keep up with immediate emergency needs.

Over the past five years, the Global Partnership for Education has facilitated education planning with many partners in the CAR and provided $37.8 million in grants to help build and rehabilitate almost 1,000 classrooms, train 1,500 teachers, and distribute more than 1.3 million textbooks. In addition, the Global Partnership has provided $3.7 million in accelerated emergency funding during the conflict to rehabilitate schools and support community teachers. More intensive engagement by the international community could build on these efforts and gains.

International partners, including U.N. agencies and both domestic and international NGOs focused on humanitarian issues, are in a position to launch small-scale initiatives to set up temporary learning spaces and makeshift schools in the worst-affected and most divided communities. This could help mitigate the dangerous impact of ethnic and religious violence. Most importantly, it would give children sanctuary away from the heart of the conflict and show them an alternative to violence through education. Safe education spaces, in other words, would keep them protected.

The international community must also help provide an equal learning opportunity to children from diverse ethnic and religious groups to lay the foundation for reconciliation among various segments of the population. Similarly, we have learned from other conflicts that coordination across the region is essential to ensure all children receive a foundation in education. In the case of the CAR crisis now, humanitarian partners need to be able to reach refugee children in neighboring countries.

The CAR's current plight is emblematic of the challenges other fragile and conflict-affected states face with regard to funding education: More than half of all the children out of school globally live in such conflict zones. Without sufficient investments of resources to keep the schools open, the CAR's children are at risk of losing their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for basic education. On a larger scale, their society will be starved of the human potential it needs to thrive over the long run. Unless the international community steps up its investments in education there, the prospects are slim that the CAR will recover -- even after the violence and crisis ends.



Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out, Mr. President

Why Obama's Asia trip only made China angrier and inflamed regional tensions.

President Barack Obama has just returned from his Asian tour -- but it may have been better if he had never gone in the first place. As part of his major effort to "rebalance" to Asia by demonstrating U.S. presence and leadership in the region, Obama intended to implement a three-part agenda: assuring allies of the credibility of U.S. security protection, warning China of the dangers of its expanding maritime claim, and fostering a regional free trade zone so the United States can increase its economic advantage. Now, after his April 22-29 trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Obama's allies are uncertain, China is increasingly unpleased, and the trade deal remains unsigned.

The only place where Obama made any progress was in reminding U.S. allies of its presence. To assuage Tokyo, Obama clarified that the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea fall under the U.S.-Japan security treaty. And on April 27, the United States announced an agreement with the Philippines that paves the way for the U.S. military to again use Filipino bases. Beijing believes the purpose of that agreement is to deter China, which claims islands and islets in what the Philippines calls its exclusive economic zone.

But the record of Obama's administration, and that of his predecessor's, is of security assurances backed up lately only by inaction. The United States has failed to stop Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It failed to stand up to Russia's adventurism in the formerly Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, or in Crimea in March of this year. Granted, none of these places are treaty allies of the United States. But if the United States won't face Russia in Europe, will it really challenge China in the East and South China seas?    

By refusing to restrain Japan, the United States is instead impelling China to build up its defenses, so it can eventually handle U.S. coercion in regards to the Diaoyu. How can China respect a world power that would ally with its former enemy Japan -- while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still pays tribute to the militant shrine that honors World War II war criminals? Has the United States forgotten that Japan's wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who gave the order for the attack on Pearl Harbor, is also enshrined at Yasukuni? 

Clearly, there exists a territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu. Premier Zhou Enlai first proposed "shelving the dispute" in 1972, and received verbal agreement from his Japanese counterpart Kakuei Tanaka. In his 1978 visit to Japan, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping furthered this proposal by offering to "discuss it without haste in coming years" -- sensible advice, to which Japan responded positively. For nearly four decades, China has followed this "shelving-the-dispute" formula -- it has only very occasionally sent official vessels to the area. It is Beijing's restraint that has helped assure the peace and stability in the East China Sea over the last few decades.

Tokyo, however, has consistently pushed the envelope. Despite China's strong opposition and words of caution from the United States, the Japanese government "nationalized" the three main islands in September 2012. This seriously hurt the status quo of the region -- and pressed China to respond. Since then, Beijing has more frequently sent its official vessels to the waters surrounding the islands, in order to demonstrate its sovereignty. This is not provocation, but a natural reaction to Tokyo's ratcheting up of tensions.

The United States could help reduce the tension by admitting the existence of a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu, and stating that the best approach to preserving peace and stability is for neither party to change the status quo. China and Japan could negotiate, hold talks, and welcome mediation. Tokyo could then de-nationalize the islands, and China could reciprocate by sending fewer official vessels.

Rather than employing that fair approach, Obama has taken the biased and risky move of siding with Japan. And Tokyo's refusal to recognize the dispute raises the chances of physical confrontation. Instead of containing the sparks generated by his ally, Obama has added fuel to the fire, unnecessarily endangering the United States. To be sure, China is still interested in peacefully settling the dispute with Japan. But given Tokyo's provocation and Washington's partial support, regional tensions are higher than they've been in more than half a century.

Obama has also failed on the trade portion of his agenda. None of the U.S. allies would be foolish enough to sign a trade deal with Washington just because the United States -- whose credibility is increasingly in doubt -- has offered. These Asian governments are elected by their own people, not appointed by the White House. TPP in its present form, as desired by the United States, could jeopardize these governments domestically, since the TPP could lead to substantial job losses in these countries. 

The United States is increasingly unable to balance Asia and the world. Obama may not recognize that, but one of his successors certainly will. The future for all of these countries lies increasingly with Asia -- not with the United States.