Higher education for refugees in emerging countries: a realistic utopia?

Updated: Jun 22

In the film Syriana (1), co-produced by Georges Clowney, a new leader, Prince Nasir in a Middle Eastern country, comes up with an innovative strategy for his country that challenges the transnational lobbies on the subject of energy.

We wanted to believe in it, it was so beautiful! A utopia that could not be realised at a certain time.

With the ecological transition necessary for the world, the Middle East and other regions of the world, notably Africa, which supply the world with fossil fuels, will certainly be obliged to create visionary and innovative strategies for the 2030-2050 energy agenda.


This is a matter of survival given the very large youth populations in these regions (2). Social peace also depends on it.

This can be seen in the case of Saudi Arabia, where new cities such as Neom (3) (a new Dubai in the desert) are being built. Inevitably, the pressure of the transition will encourage fossil fuel producing countries to innovate in order to accompany this transition.

In addition to this major energy issue, these countries host the largest number of refugees in the world. Four African countries (Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Rwanda) have more refugees than the 27 European countries!

This is a double punishment, as we know that the local employment situation in these countries remains very difficult, not to mention that the arrival of the Covid crisis has only increased the poverty of the refugees (4)



The logic of some of these countries, in terms of higher education for refugees at scale, is non-existent. This may be understandable. There is strong pressure from their population to consider young nationals first.




Initially, refugee situations started out as transitory. In view of the average of 17 years of presence in refugee camps, as well as the geopolitical reality (5), this subject should now be considered rather as a state of proper transition. The UNHCR figures attest to this: only less than 3% of refugees have entered higher education (6).



Higher education in the rush to find a job?


If we do not count the refugees in this region (which is also utopian, given the geopolitics of energy and the impact of climate change), the MENA region (without West and East Africa) will have 250 million young people (0-24 years) in 2050 (2).


There is an important number of unemployed people in these regions, ranging from over 35 to 50% today depending on the country. The COVID crisis has added a further gap.

In order for established international NGOs managing refugee crisis, and emerging states that host a very large number of refugees to move on to higher education, as the UNHCR plans (15% in the Global Compact on Refugees by 2030 (7)), what strategy should be adopted? What training should be provided so that these states remain consistent with their national policy?



What speciality in higher education should the grants go for, in order to match employment country needs ?

In our experience, the budgets allocated to the "livelihood" department or to innovation, which can finance postgraduate scholarships in these very large NGOs, remain extremely low, and we rely on small NGOs to implement these innovations.


New initiatives for financing these innovations are coming up (Development Innovation Fund) an emanation of the Nobel Prize winner Esther Duflo and the AFD (https://fundinnovation.dev/#news). This shows, among other things, that the market for humanitarian educational innovation is starting.

International development agencies and donors (AFD, US Aid, GIZ, World Bank, European Development Bank, ...) are also present since long time, sometimes giving grants with states and/or NGOs to enable the integration of educational pathways between vocational training and scholarships for higher education.


We see here the complexity of a scale model of higher education for refugees.

A 21st century digital world and a win-win opportunity for training and employment in emerging refugee-hosting countries:


There is no longer any need to attest to the decidedly digital truth of this century. What would be the winning strategy for the country hosting refugees?

one of the successful strategy is training for "Role model » as a coder. This leads to employment for refugees: local schools in the Middle East (RBK and Luminus group in Jordan, Codi in Lebanon, Recoded in Iraq, ..) are already doing this with funding from foundations for associated scholarships or crowdfunding campaigns as well (Vip.fund).


Clearly it is a scale up model. This allows for the nurturing of local start-ups and businesses (upskilling/reskilling), given the resilience of refugees and their willingness to succeed in these countries. It also allows local governments to aspire to well-integrated quotas of refugees in the country. Many digital awareness courses are unfortunately still funded by foundations or public institutions, which do not lead to employment. There is certainly an intellectual and humanistic interest, but it is rather the display of KPIs relating to the number of refugees that takes precedence.

Digital learning platforms: A qualitative hybrid model for the future of refugee digital education


Today, one can become an expert in the Kafka big data framework or a specialist in the Cardano crypto-currency programming language (https://cardano.org/discover-cardano/#purpose) by means of pedagogical engineering adapted between classroom and distance learning, and highly specialised content providers. This also allows for continuous learning at the speed of innovation of frameworks and computer languages. The job at stake is highly sought after by companies locally and internationally. One will have a certificate that can be upgraded by new training courses throughout one's life. Startups such as Holberton schools, which is engaging in an Operating System for Education, point to a future "platformable" learning between their own courses, knowledge brokers (MOOCs in particular) and other content providers. Connecting for exemple the Almentor e-learning platform (https://www.almentor.net/en/home) , a successful middle east startup with content from Coursera, that trigger specific educational path would become a reality. Holon IQ details some elements on this subject too (8). And the mantra "Skills versus Degrees" in digital is on the march in Europe and the US for more than 6 to 7 years! This will have a positive impact on employment in the long term in emerging countries. Conclusion: refugees have created a new world in perpetual motion, just as our digital era wants! Dirck van os created global capitalism in Amsterdam (the very first multinational company in the world - the Dutch East India Company), Steve Jobs the smart phone, new rules in Rwanda demonstrate a major creative energy by refugees, the role model in digital could also, under certain local government policies favor local talents to get employment at scale. This is a very realistic utopia! Sofiane ammar - Chams founder


Watch the testimony of Elizabeth, a refugee student from our first cohort

References: (1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syriana (2) MENA EdTech. Accelerating innovation across the Middle East and North Africa. https://www.holoniq.com/notes/mena-edtech-accelerating-innovation-across-the-middle-east-and-north-africa/ (3) Neom: a vision of a new future: https://www.neom.com/en-us (4) In Lebanon, the "ever darkening misery" of Syrian refugees https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2020/12/30/au-liban-la-misere-toujours-plus-noire-des-refugies-syriens_6064820_3210.html (5) "Millions of Syrians are long-term refugees in the Middle East, there is a humanitarian and economic emergency https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2021/03/30/des-millions-de-syriens-sont-durablement-refugies-au-moyen-orient-il-y-a-une-urgence-humanitaire-et-economique_6075015_3210.html (6) Tertiary Education https://www.unhcr.org/tertiary-education.html (7) Global compact on refugees https://www.unhcr.org/the-global-compact-on-refugees.html (8) A global view of OPMs, MOOCs and Bootcamps and the Academic PPP Landscape. https://www.holoniq.com/notes/mapping-university-partnerships-opms-moocs-bootcamps/ ---- Chams is an NGO that creates and operates code schools in Jordan (and hopefully in Kenya and other countries!) for refugees and local vulnerable populations. To support our expansion, today was world refugee day, and we have a matching offer from the Daphni investment fund: 1 euro counts double: https://cutt.ly/An1hPzl

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