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UNESCO official advocates for education in times of crisis




In the wake of a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina, or in areas recovering from conflict, such as Palestine, humanitarian organizations strive to provide basic needs to those affected. Food, shelter and clothing are considered primary concerns, but Helene Marie Gosselin advocated than another need be added to the list: education.

“Of course, we need to feed the population and provide shelter … but education is equally fundamental,” said Gosselin who directs of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO liaison office in New York.

Gosselin talked rapidly in a French-Canadian accent that betrayed her hometown as Montreal, but the words she spoke last week demonstrated a passion for people beyond her country’s borders.

“Education is absolutely fundamental for rebuilding the social climate and for political stabilization,” she said in her lecture, titled “Reconstructing the lives of children after war or natural disaster.”Approximately 50 people, primarily professors and graduate students, gathered in Neville Hall to hear her address.

Gosselin’s lecture coincided with an upcoming United Nations General Assembly debate on education in emergencies. During the daylong discussion to be held on March 18, attendants will propose and develop measures to protect and provide education during natural disasters and conflict.

The lecture was also well-timed for Lehigh’s College of Education (COE), said Gary Sasso, dean of the COE, in his opening remarks. He explained that Gosselin visit was only one small component of the college’s ongoing efforts to teach from a global perspective.

In the formal portion of her presentation, Gosselin described the crucial role education plays in the recovery process and the obstacles inhibiting UNESCO from implementing their ideal educational programs. She then allowed a half hour to address questions posed by her attentive audience.

For far too long, donors and member states of the United Nations have considered education as a second priority after an emergency occurs, Gosselin said. By providing education, an area in crisis may be stabilized sooner.

Regular lessons provide a sense of normalcy for both the students and their teachers. “Education is a very important psychological, psycho-social and psycho-cognitive protection,” Gosselin said. Also education may reduce damage from conflicts and natural disasters. An educated population is more likely to defend its rights as citizens, and children in areas prone to natural disasters, such as tsunamis, may be trained in school to spot danger and warn others.

Gosselin described changes she believed would improve education in post-emergency areas. National governments ought to develop emergency education plans, train people in proper responses to disasters, and increase the number of available teaching materials. However, policy changes happen slowly because of bureaucracy, and the creation of materials requires funding, which is limited. Gosselin believed that education can only be improved through cooperation of state governments, non-governmental organizations and other groups.

Gosselin avidly contended that the global community and national governments should hold accountable people who directly attack educational institutions. According to Article 26 of the U.N.’s International Bill of Human Rights, all people have the right to education. Based on this right, Gosselin argued that schools should be considered “safe zones.”

She spoke out against activities by organizations, including the Taliban, that specifically target teachers and their students, and she encouraged others to do likewise. Through discussions, the public may learn of these acts of violence and cry out against them, thereby hastening the action of larger bureaucratic organizations, such as the U.N.

Jill Sperandio, an assistant professor of education, was struck by Gosselin’s comment that conversations—be they casual chats, blogs or formal editorials—play an important role in pressuring the international community to enact rulings against those who attack teachers.

“It’s a way for ordinary people to support ordinary people in other parts of the world,” said Sperandio, who has worked as principal or a teacher in Uganda, Tanzania, Venezuela, Azerbaijan and the Netherlands before coming to Lehigh.

Gosselin’s belief that education can be a crucial component to maintaining peace and transforming cultural attitudes aligns with the COE’s Comparative and International Education (CIE) program, which co-sponsored Gosselin’s visit with the Lehigh University- United Nations Partnership.
The CIE program is one of only 27 in the country, and Sasso said that Lehigh’s CIE may become one of the foremost of its kind.

While many educational programs focus on training future teachers in their field’s best practices and methods, the CIE is different, explains Alex Wiseman, the associate professor and program coordinator of the CIE. “We think about how education can be used as a tool to change society.”


--Becky Straw

Posted on Tuesday, March 17, 2009

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