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Education in Worldwide Political Agreements: A Missed Opportunity for Peacebuilding?

by Giuditta Fontana

Investment in education, and reform of education systems in conflict-affected settings, are ‘an essential driver for achieving peace’ according to United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. However, my research shows that negotiators and mediators overlook the peacebuilding potential of education reforms when designing political agreements to end civil war and conflict.

My dataset of Formal Education in Political Agreements codes for formal education in all the 286 intra-state political agreements concluded between 1989 and 2016 worldwide, and provides the most extensive and fine-grained snapshot of education reform in peace accords to date.

Only 29 percent of intra-state political agreements map reforms of formal education. This is understandable, given the overwhelming focus on ending violence. However, such oversight of education undermines the potential to pave the way for long-term sustainable peace through legitimate education reforms after the guns fall silent.

Moreover, there is evidence that ethnically and linguistically diverse groups benefit from post-conflict education reforms, and that extensive education reforms help socio-economic development in low-income countries. However, peace accords addressing ethnic conflicts and those concluded in low-income settings, are not more likely to map reforms of formal education.

Furthermore, political agreements present education reforms as helping peace in three different ways. Some aim at fostering security by providing incentives for former combatants to abandon the armed struggle (for example, scholarships and vocational education programs for former combatants). Others aim at conflict management by redistributing responsibilities for education management, financing, and delivery (for example, provisions for the decentralization of education away from the central state and towards conflict-affected regions). Yet others aim at peacebuilding through long-term, structural changes to the context and content of education systems that benefit not just the individuals most likely to join rebellion, but all previously marginalized groups (including women, refugees, and people with disabilities). Political agreements focus overwhelmingly on short-term security, and overlook both medium-terms conflict management and (especially) reforms nurturing long-term peacebuilding.

Three recommendations emerge from my work: First, more peace agreements should include education reforms. Second, if education reform is beneficial in ethnically fragmented and low-income contexts, it should be deployed more systematically in these settings. Third, the education reforms in peace accords should be designed to promote peacebuilding, as well as conflict management and security.

Two questions remain: How can we build awareness and understanding of the functions and impact of different types of education reform in conflict-affected contexts? And how can we ensure that future peace accords include context-appropriate education reforms that help peacebuilding?

About the Author

Giuditta Fontana is an associate professor in International Security in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham (UK). She is interested in war-to-peace transitions, with a focus on the design of peace accords and the reform of cultural and educational institutions in conflict-affected settings. She is the author of “Security, Conflict Management, and Peacebuilding” in the Summer 2023 issue of Harvard Educational Review.