Learning might not be the key to peace

October 17, 2003

Education is not always helpful in alleviating the problems caused by conflict and sometimes even exacerbates the situation, an Ulster University expert has warned, writes Olga Wojtas.

Alan Smith, who holds the Unesco chair in UU's School of Education, disputes the belief that education is always a force for good. In a report commissioned by the Department for International Development, he says it is crucial to look at how education could be part of the problem as well as the solution in areas of conflict. Professor Smith said: "It is recognised that education can be a casualty of conflict, but it may also exacerbate the tensions and underlying causes of dispute."

State education could inflame the situation in various ways, such as the language of instruction, attitudes of superiority in the way that other nations were described, and history textbooks being manipulated for political purposes, he said.

There was a lot of debate about the need to include education in frontline humanitarian aid initiatives, he said. "While there is no doubt that this can play an important role in protecting civilians from the worst effects of conflict, there is a danger that immediate responses are disconnected from long-term development plans for the education sector."

The report, co-authored by Tony Vaux, head of the Humanitarian Initiatives consultancy, concludes that as countries emerge from conflict, the best solution may not be simply to replace what has been destroyed in the conflict. It warns of the urgent need to develop "conflict-sensitive" education systems that can help transform the area.

"Education has an important part to play in the process of reconciliation by addressing the legacies of conflict," Professor Smith said.

"This has serious implications for long-term development for countries in the immediate aftermath of armed conflict, humanitarian catastrophe or political transition."

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