(Beirut) – The education system in Lebanon is at risk of collapse, with devastating consequences for children, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities’ egregious planning failures have aggravated the impact of the country’s financial and Covid-19 crises, and increased the likelihood that hundreds of thousands of children may miss out on education for the third consecutive year.
To avoid government inaction and delays, and given credible allegations of government corruption, international donors should seek to channel more aid directly to schools, teachers, and school-children’s families to ensure that every child in the country will be able to attend school.
“The Lebanese government is abandoning schools, teachers, and parents to muddle through the acute economic crisis and the pandemic on their own, exacerbating the inequalities between the few children whose parents can afford a quality education and the many who cannot,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There needs to be an all-hands-on-deck response from the government, donors, and the UN to avert a disaster for children and the country.”
The school year is threatened by a number of unresolved problems.
Due to teachers’ strikes, the Education Ministry postponed opening all public schools from September 27 until October 11. Public school teachers have refused to return to work without pay increases and other incentives, saying that their salaries lost 90 percent of their value in the last two years due to rapid inflation. A public school principal in the Chouf district told Human Rights Watch that her monthly salary is just 2,100,000 Lebanese pounds, currently worth US$119.
On October 7, 2021, Education Minister Abbas Halabi announced a new compensation package for public school teachers that would, if approved by the government, increase the salary of full-time public school teachers by 50 percent, grant them an additional $90 per month paid out at the market exchange rate, and a higher transportation allowance. The public primary school teachers’ union tentatively agreed on October 8 to return to teaching.
Only private schools with the necessary resources opened on time in September, although teachers are also on strike at some private schools. No start date has been announced for the second-shift classes at public schools for Syrian refugee students. Second-shift teachers, who work on temporary contracts, have also asked for wage increases and transport allowances.
In addition to concerns over teachers’ compensation, schools lack the funds they need to operate amid steep inflation, a rapidly devaluing currency, a nationwide electricity crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Two school principals and a school administrator told Human Rights Watch that their schools were struggling to afford basic items like stationery, computer equipment, and hygiene material for Covid-19, and have only a few hours of electricity per day, or none at all.
Parents and students are also under immense pressure, as Lebanon’s crises have forced 80 percent of families into poverty, making school-related costs like transportation unaffordable for most. Before the crisis, over 60 percent of students in Lebanon used to attend private schools. However, the UN estimates that 100,000 to 120,000 children whose families could no longer afford the cost transferred to public schools between 2019 and 2021, further straining a sector that was already under-resourced.
This year, some private schools have increased tuition by as much as 80 percent, without allowing parents to see their budgets, and have demanded payments in US dollars rather than Lebanese pounds, in violation of Lebanese laws, Lama Zein, the president of the Private Schools Union of Parents’ and Guardians’ Committees, told Human Rights Watch.
About 700,000 children, a third of the school-age population, received no education last year, and the 1.3 million children who were enrolled often received little education during prolonged school closures due to anti-government protests, Covid-19, and the Beirut port explosion, which damaged 163 schools. Distance learning was inaccessible for children who lacked devices, internet connections, or reliable electricity.
Nearly 42,000 children dropped out of school last year alone, and the UN and the World Bank predict that more children will be excluded this year. In the past year, 50 percent of households cut spending on education, 15 percent pulled children out of school, and 9 percent sent children to work, the UN found. For Syrian refugee children, attendance dropped by 25 percent last year. The preliminary findings of the 2021 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon report that 30 percent of Syrian refugee children have never been to school.
Despite these pressing challenges, the Education Ministry’s plan to get children back to school and funding needs remain unclear, weeks after schools should have reopened. During a meeting with parliament’s education committee on October 5, Halabi reported that the UN and the World Bank had donated $70 million to the education sector, half of which would be used to support teachers, with the rest going to help public schools cover their operating costs and afford stationery, books, and hygiene supplies. A ministry official told Human Rights Watch that back-to-school plans had been budgeted. However, it is not clear when those funds will be available to the ministry, or whether funding is adequate for education needs.
The authorities also have failed to plan for predictable student needs. After nearly two years of lost learning due to anti-government protests and Covid-related school closures, Education Ministry officials first mentioned in mid-September that they plan to study how to establish catch-up classes, without details or a timeline. The ministry cut the curriculum this school year by half and reduced in-person classes to four days per week, but it has not indicated if or how it plans to make up for these additional lost lessons. It has also not planned for the contingency that schools may not be able to open.
The ministry has provided no guidance to humanitarian groups on reopening informal programs for about 60,000 children who received no formal education last year or needed those programs to stay in school. Several humanitarian groups said they were also unaware of the role they would be asked to play to implement the ministry’s new five-year education plan, which so far has been shared only with international donors.
International donors provide $300 million toward education in Lebanon annually, and they helped repair the schools damaged in the Beirut port explosion. But donor funds cover only a fraction of students in need. The main donor-funded plan covers the school fees of just 528,000 Lebanese and Syrian children, as well as the costs to schools of running second-shift classes for Syrian students, and is only 41 percent funded, while another emergency plan, which is not yet funded, targets 220,000 students, not including Syrians in “second shift” classes or Palestinians, and aims to provide families, schools, and teachers with in-kind and cash assistance.
In January, the World Bank approved an Emergency Social Safety Net project for Lebanon, with a $23 million education budget to support school-related costs, including transportation, for 87,000 students ages 13 to 18. But ten months later, Lebanon has yet to meet the requirements to release these “emergency” funds.
Humanitarian organizations and donors have also raised concerns that the Finance Ministry typically takes months to transfer the money to the Education Ministry, so it is unclear when the money pledged to the education sector will reach schools, teachers, and parents in need.
Further, some aid to Lebanon’s state institutions, including the Education Ministry, has been squandered due to corruption and mismanagement. In one example, donors funded the UN to purchase laptops for public schools, but the importing company falsely claimed 2,335 laptops were destroyed in the Beirut port explosion and sold them. Some donor plans now aim to provide funds directly to schools and families, bypassing the bureaucracy.
Lebanon is obliged under human rights treaties to ensure free and compulsory primary education even during economic crises and pandemics. Although other aspects of the right to education may be hindered by a lack of resources, the burden is on the government to demonstrate that any harmful measures such as cuts to hours of instruction were made only after careful consideration of alternative options, and while fully using the maximum available resources.
In the immediate term, Lebanon should transparently allocate resources needed to meet teachers’ and students’ needs, ensure electricity for schools, and fulfill the conditions to receive emergency World Bank funding. The Education Ministry should widely disseminate its five-year education plan to enable a coordinated response to the education crisis, urgently plan catch-up classes for students, and commit to fast-track approval of contingency planning if schools do not open. Donors should urgently ensure that education plans are funded, including back to school plans, and channel that aid directly to beneficiaries like teachers, students, and schools where possible.
In the longer term, Lebanon should increase its public education budget from 2 percent of its gross domestic product – one of the lowest in the region – to between 4 and 6 percent, the minimum level agreed at the World Education Forum to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of sustainable, inclusive quality education.
“Even in times of crisis, governments should prioritize access to education for all children, and yet Lebanon’s plans for this school year are late, flawed, or nonexistent,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Covid-19 pandemic and the exchange rate are not excuses, they are calls to action for Lebanon’s new government and its international partners to stop the hemorrhaging of children’s education.”