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Children in crisis want education more than money, food or water

Surveys from toughest places on earth reveal top priorities for children in crisis
17 September 2019

Children overwhelmingly identify education as their top priority at times of crisis, a new report by Save the Children shows today. Education Against the Odds provides the largest analysis of what children – rather than aid planners – say they need during humanitarian emergencies.

The report’s surprising findings reveal children are more than twice as likely to rank going to school as their top concern, compared to immediate needs like food, water, shelter or money. Education remains chronically underfunded during emergencies, representing just two per cent of aid for countries grappling with war, disease and disaster.

Of 1,215 children surveyed in six countries, nearly one in three (29%) said education was their top priority. That was more than twice the number who identified food (12%), health (12%), or water and sanitation (12%) as their primary concern. 

It was three times the number who said they needed shelter (9%) or money (9%) most. Other concerns children identified as top priorities include clothing (3%), sport and leisure activities (3%), safety (2%) and family (1%).

The surveys were conducted over the last five years with children aged 5-18, during humanitarian responses across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 

Among the respondents were: 

  • Children struggling to survive in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; 

  • Child refugees from Syria and Afghanistan; 

  • Children living in conflict zones in the Democratic Republic of Congo; 

  • Rohingya children in refugee camps in Bangladesh; 

  • Children displaced by fighting in Ethiopia and South Sudan

One child fighting against the odds to get an education is 10-year-old Ali from Idlib, Syria. He and his family fled their village to escape fighting. When they returned home, Ali’s school was in ruins after being hit by an airstrike. Nearly half of the schools in north west Syria are currently out of action. [3] Ali said: 

“I saw my school was destroyed and broken down and it made me so sad. My friends and I, we will go back and study in it. I love my school – my wish is that it does not get bombed and destroyed again. We will rebuild it and make it better than before. I love to study. I want to become a doctor to treat people who are in need and serve my country.”

Save the Children’s analysis of UN data shows that – far from recognising children’s priorities at times of crisis – humanitarian aid for education trails far behind other sectors. 

Just two per cent of funding for countries grappling with emergencies was allocated to education last year. That represents half the levels earmarked for medical care, and one tenth of the support dedicated to providing supplies of food.

262 million children, one in five globally, are out of school, many of them due to sudden or protracted crises like wars, outbreaks of disease or natural disasters. But at current rates, the United Nations estimates 225 million children will still be out of school in 2030 due to stagnating levels of education aid globally.

This week Save the Children is calling for world leaders to dramatically boost the funding available for education in emergencies through Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the first and only global fund dedicated to providing education in countries affected by crisis.

Commitments of funding for the ECW are expected to be announced at a meeting at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday (September 25).

 Save the Children’s Senior Humanitarian Advisor Nadine Haddad said:

“What children have been telling us is clear and unambiguous. Even when food is scarce, water dirty and medical care almost non-existent, children still want to go to school.

“They know an education will give them the skills they need to escape a crisis. They know it protects them from child marriage, exploitation and abuse. They understand it helps them recover from trauma. Children want more than to simply survive. Education gives them the power to build a better future.”

For more information, content and case studies, please contact Evan Schuurman on 0406 117 937


  • Save the Children reviewed data from rapid field surveys by aid workers stretching back more than a decade, encompassing the hopes and fears of more than 8,000 children in the toughest places on earth. While most surveys we analysed were records of small group discussions, quantitative data was available from six countries between 2013 and 2018, from a combined total of 1,215 children aged 5-18. An average was calculated across the studies.

  • All other priorities children identified were: clothing (3%), sport and leisure activities (3%), safety (2%), family (1%), insecurity (1%), phones (1%), transportation (1%), collecting firewood (1%), and unspecified concerns (4%). 

  • International donors provided a total of more than US$25 billion in humanitarian aid in 2018, according to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS). US$606 million (2.41%) was allocated to education, US$1.5 billion (5.98%) to health and US$6 billion (23.85%) to food security.

  • UIS data for the school year ending 2017, the latest available, shows 262 million children were out of school, or 18% globally. Estimates from UNESCO suggest 225 million children will still be out of school by 2030 without urgent action.

  • Since its establishment in 2017, the Education Cannot Wait (ECW) fund has reached nearly 1.5 million children and young people – half of them girls – in 31 crisis-affected countries. Over the next four years, ECW needs to raise US$1.9 billion to ensure 8.9 million children caught up in humanitarian emergencies get to go to school.

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