Najwa Hassabu doesn’t know where her mother is. Escaping the war in South Sudan, they were separated unexpectedly. After traveling alone for many days, Najwa reached Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where she lives now. When she arrived at the refugee camp she had no previous education. Fortunately, there is a program in Kakuma that helps girls like her catch up on their studies, and she was steadfast in wanting join. Today she’s getting good grades, especially in English.

Najwa’s determination, in spite of all the odds, to receive an education is inspiring. But there are too many children and young people like her, who are refugees or displaced, who do not have access to education. In fact, 3.7 million school-age refugee children are not in school[1]. Addressing this issue comes with particular challenges. As explained in the UNHCR report, Missing Out: Refugee Education in Crisis, refugees often live in regions where governments are already struggling to educate local children. Those governments face the additional task of finding school locations, trained teachers, and learning materials for tens or even hundreds of thousands of newcomers, who often do not speak the language of instruction, or have missed out on an average of three to four years of schooling.

Routine approaches aren’t enough; we need innovative solutions.

Looking for cutting-edge solutions

When the UK Department for International Development (DFID) reached out to UNHCR and UNICEF about conducting an impact evaluation for refugee education innovations, those involved soon noticed a knowledge gap. A lot of projects seemed to be in the process of scaling, but had not yet scaled successfully. The focus of the initiative then shifted to creating an accelerator program that could be applied with an evaluative model. The idea was to take elements that are universal across accelerators—mentorship, financing to build capacity, establishing a cohort that works together—and merge those elements with an evaluation based program.

That’s how the Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA) came about. The HEA selects promising projects that are transitioning to scale and, over the course of three years, provides them with tailored mentorship and up to £300,000 to strengthen their evaluation capacity. For the HEA’s first cohort was established in 2016, three projects were selected following a rigorous application process. The first cohort is made up of these projects:

  • The World University Service of Canada (WUSC) – Equity in Education: a project that aims to improve learning for refugee and host community girls via remedial classes. Najwa, mentioned above, is a student in this program.
  • War Child Holland – Can’t Wait to Learn: a project that uses innovative, cost-effective technology solutions to increase the number of emergency-affected children with access to quality education in Sudan and two countries in the Middle East.
  • Kepler Kiziba – Higher Education for All: a pilot project at Kiziba Refugee Camp in western Rwanda that pairs online learning with in-person instruction and work experience opportunities while students earn a fully accredited U.S. bachelor’s degree from Southern New Hampshire University.

The launch for applications for the second cohort followed swiftly after the first, and the HEA programme is excited to include the following 2 additional projects:

  • Libraries without Borders (LWF– Ideas Box which has currently scaled to Burundi, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, with a few select European locations as well uses a portable media centre that provides tools for: Learning (numerous educational contents, available offline through a local server, books and e-readers), playing (games, a cinema), connecting (internet, 30 computers and tablets), and creating (cameras, arts and craft, puppets, a stage and sound system).
  • Caritas — Essence of Learning is an integrated pedagogical psycho-social learning program that promotes children’s ability to learn and as a consequence prepares children in conflict and crisis situations for a successful re-integration into school. Currently, it is scaling in West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon.

Each of the five projects is pursuing different models for scale. They are looking into expanding geographically, reaching other age groups, and applying existing models to the refugee context. The fact that they are exploring such different approaches to scaling will hopefully allow for building a wide evidence base of what works and what does not. The goal is to gather evidence that could be universal and applied to other humanitarian innovations looking to scale. This includes documenting mistakes along the way to learn from and share.

Developing evaluation expertise

To help selected projects improve how they measure, evaluate, and scale their impact, the HEA has enlisted an external evaluator—the American Institutes for Research (AIR). AIR will work closely with the cohort members to help them build capacity for conducting high-quality process and impact evaluations.

According to Thomas de Hoop, Senior Researcher at AIR, building the capacity of the innovation teams to do as much as possible themselves, is one of the most crucial aspects of the program.

“We hope to build the implementers’ capacity for monitoring and evaluation,” Thomas says. “We’re coming in as externals and we might not be available five years from now. We want to help them improve over time, to learn to collect more relevant and reliable information. Evaluation is really learning by doing, and we want to work together with the teams as much as possible.”

De Hoop pointed out that working in the refugee context presents unique challenges and opportunities. For example, mobility is high among the population, which makes data collection difficult. However, mobile phone ownership is also very high, which could present an opportunity to gather data in innovative ways.


Peer-support and cross-organizational sharing can be insightful for projects at the transition-to-scale stage. To this end, the HEA organizes annual bootcamps. The first bootcamp took place in Nairobi in October 2016 and included participation from all three partners in the first cohort, along with mentors from AIR and representatives from country, regional and global offices of UNHCR and UNICEF.

Teams shared common challenges, exchanged advice, and explored the main concepts shaping the HEA: scale, evaluation, sustainability, and innovation.

According to Nina Weaver, Director of Refugee Education Programs at Kepler Kibiza, “engaging conversations and insightful discussions” were one of the best parts of the bootcamp, but it was also “daunting to think about unanswered obstacles ahead.”

Groups also held one-on-one sessions with the AIR team, during which they discussed and refined their research questions. Working together, the cohort and AIR team members came up with two types of research questions, which they will be exploring going forward:

  • The effect of the programs on education outcomes for refugees
  • The barriers to scaling these programs and keeping them effective

The AIR team also worked with the cohort to identify their individual data needs and gaps.

Looking to the future

It’s exciting to be working with these innovative projects and to be a part of their scaling journey. We’re looking forward to learning more with them over the next few years. Finding ways to increase access to quality education for children and young people living in crisis situations is not just inspiring– it’s a global priority. Working with children and young people is cruciaL, as their engagement will help us find better solutions for the world’s toughest classrooms. It’s great to hear Kepler student Adam say that attending the program has made him “more optimistic,” and that he has “hopes for achieving a lot of big things in the future.”

At HEA, we share that hope.



To learn more about the HEA, go to:

[1] Missing Out, Refugee Education in Crisis:



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