Syrian refugees would be getting an education if the West actually delivered on its pledges

This article was featured in the Independent newspaper on 29th October 2015:

One of the silent casualties of the war in Syria is education.  Despite all the outpourings of international sympathy for Syria’s children there has been a lack of hard cash from international donors. Yet the sums involved are pathetically small beer for Western Governments. The UN says that just £145m is required for Syrian refugee education. If Governments had done what they promised, there would be no problem, but less than a quarter of pledged funds have actually been paid.

A lack of funding means that aid agencies have been forced to cut monthly payments for thousands of refugees, which leaves those living in countries like Jordan without free education unable to afford the school fees. In refugee camps, it also means that education is badly overstretched. For instance in Jordan’s huge Za’atari camp class sizes of 80 – 120 are common.

Improving poor teacher pay in the camps, hiring more of them, and giving them better training, would improve the nightmarish conditions of overcrowded classrooms and language barriers that they face every day.  Given the stretched resources of the host governments, this funding can only come from international donors.

The experience of conflict zones from Rwanda to Bosnia is that those in secondary and vocational education tend to see the greatest disruption to their education.  Refugee teenagers are often forced to work since their families, who have spent all their savings on the journey, can no longer support them. Education for older teenagers remains a Cinderella cause – donors tend to focus slim resources on the primary years.   For the future of Syria it is essential that this generation of young people are given skills to help rebuild the country and to avoid the hopelessness that could see them sucked into violent extremism.

The international community also needs to give financial support to countries such as Lebanon that are becoming overwhelmed by the pressures placed on their schools by the influx of newcomers. This can have a negative impact on the Lebanese children in class, who can be held back while Syrian children, who speak only Arabic, take class-time to learn rudimentary English or French.  To aid integration, more international funding needs to be given to ensure that the settled population in refugee host countries does not see a decline in education quality.

This is already happening in some countries. UN agencies, the World Bank and bilateral donors have agreed to provide 200,000 free school places in Lebanon for Syrian refugees, covering the cost of tuition, schoolbooks and basic stationary, relieving some of the pressure on the public school system. This kind of support must be extended to   Turkey and Jordan, where the education system is being stretched by the crisis.

Funding is not only required in the classroom. Many Syrians already have qualifications that are not recognized outside the country. Years of study and knowledge count for nothing in many of the countries to which they have fled.  There needs to be a concerted effort to calibrate what equivalent of these qualifications is in their new countries.  Those who fled with barely the clothes on their backs often do not have the necessary paperwork to prove their qualifications.

Resources need to be invested in a system that, where possible, collects the available data from Syria – and allows schools, universities and employers to verify which qualifications an individual holds.

Many of the problems facing young Syrian refugees are hard to fix – from the physical and mental scars of war to the sense of cultural dislocation that comes from having to leave their homes. But finding the comparatively small sum needed to provide decent education should be simple – particularly when vast sums are being allocated to help the refugees that make it to European countries.  Germany alone has budgeted £4.7bn to help predominantly Syrian asylum seekers in the country.

The UN should convene an emergency summit to discuss the educational crisis affecting Syrian refugees – in which international leaders would come under pressure to raise the necessary funds. And deliver them in full this time.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation 

Asian Businessmen!

Not wanting to cite specifics but one of the thing that annoys me is how people’s egos get the better of them. Whether we’re talking personal, professional or other, where is the need to make unfounded claims? By doing so, you’ll likely to get caught out, just like an “Asian businessman” who I had respect for – has had his cover blown in today’s tabloid press.

Asian businessmen have contributed significantly to the UK, for this reason, I hope that today’s very sad episode doesn’t sully all the hard work done by the majority. Let’s hope the media play fair.

Is the UK a corrupt nation?

That corruption in India is an issue is not news to anyone. Just look at the news headlines being generated by Anna Hazare’s attempt to reshape the Lokpal Bill. You see scores of everyday people piling in behind this, BUT…

What I’m dismayed about is the manner in which big business has keep out of the fray. In a country that accords celebrity status to the likes of the Ambani’s and other businessmen / promoter families, why is there such a deafening silence?

I’ve often canvassed opinion on the issue of corruption in India, and the overwhelming opinion of businessmen is that paying people off is justified as long as it progresses their matter! It’s the cost of doing business in India.

Aggrieved that I’m accusing their country of being a shady place, they quickly retort by asking rhetorically whether our business practices are cleaner and cite examples such as BAe systems case dropped by the Labour government in the national interest. Or more recently, the hacking scandal that’s engulfed the media industry. They also cite the parliamentary expenses scandal as another example in which the UK is as corrupt a society as India.

So, what’s your view?

10 things about the Mumbai blasts

So far, this is what we know:

1. Dadar is a congested area. Nationalist party, Shiv Sena have their HQ there. Dadar station is also a railway hub where people change trains to get home from work.
2. Zaveri Bazaar is a market which is located in South Mumbai, like Opera House area. Lots of people travel in rush hour from there. Zaveri Bazaar also houses many Gujarati businesses.
3. Opera House is a affluent area in South Mumbai. These attacks target everyone. Not just the poor.
4. Today is Kasab’s birthday, the only captured gun-slinging terrorist from the 2008 attacks.
5. Hillary Clinton is expected in India next week. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister is expected by the end of the month also.
6. The two groups – Indian Mujahaddin & Lashkar e Toiba have been fingered. It seems that two members of the former were arrested yesterday in Mumbai.
7. Pakistan’s President & PM must be tense at the moment. Hoping India keep their calm. They’ve expressed their sympathy.
8. Like I said previously, Pakistan doesn’t have a handle on its own security. Left hand doesn’t know what right hand does. Wouldn’t be surprised if this is the work of a sleeper unit that’s now termed as being ‘Indian’.
9. Attacks often give rise to communal tension, esp in Mumbai. Like last time, all communities will stand together, I’m sure. In 2008, Mumbai’s Muslims didn’t even allow for the killed terrorists to be buried in their graveyards!
10. More to follow…

Do Londoner’s care?

Have to congratulate Mayor Boris Johnson for launching the Team London initiative today with Samantha Cameron, Peter Andre, and Barbara Windsor in attendance today.

Whilst trying to model it on what Mike Bloomberg has done in New York, I’d like to encourage him to take a closer look at home for examples of success like Sewa Day (www.sewaday.org), which I’m totally supportive of.

Also, not really sure that they’ve set an ambitious target. If in year one Sewa Day managed to recruit 5,000 volunteers (of which the bulk were in London), I don’t see why the Team London team can’t stretch beyond the 10,000 target they’ve set. After all, BoJo’s volunteering czar – in her opening remarks outlined that volunteering seems to be in London’s DNA as 75% of all Londoners volunteered for good causes. If so, why just 10,000?

One of the good ideas that’s emerged is the recognition on ‘stars’ who go above & beyond the call of duty by pouring their time and resources to create a significant impact to a cause. I know there are many such awards, but you just can’t have enough of these – in such hard times, we need positive role models and inspiration to contribute to our local communities. For this reason, well done.

My only advice for the Team Londoners is to ensure this turns into a real, wide ranging, initiative that reaches out to all marginalised communities & utilises its best resources – it’s people.

Londoners do care. Wish you the very best.

Invest in capacity building in Pakistan, Mr Cameron.

Interestingly, David Cameron’s visiting Pakistan to re-set relations with them. There was a time when political leaders would say one thing to India and an altogether different story to the Pakistani establishment, which, thankfully, has become increasingly difficult to do as a result of the birth of organisations like Wikileaks, and with the growth in citizen journalism.

If Cameron wants to start afresh with Pakistan, he may be advised that in addition to talking about security, terrorism, aid, and trade, he ought to offer our help in capacity building initiatives that strengthen their civic institutions – much like a certain other former British Prime Minister is doing in Palestine.

Most Pakistani people, at least the ones I know, are no different to you & me, who I suspect constitute the majority. We should invest wisely in giving them a voice. By doing so, you stand to expose the duplicity of the leadership provided by various quarters in a country that is incredibly important and central to our safety & prosperity back in the UK.

Let’s not forget they fought for us

Jemima Khan, former wife of Pakistani cricketer turned politician – Imran Khan – captured my attention today, maybe, for the first time. Perhaps, it was to do with where I was stood whilst reading my Twitter timeline, which included her musings. Let me explain. Her tweets read:

“Helping my boy with his GCSE choices- Sciences (Biology, physics, chemistry) are obligatory. History and geography are not.”

“Ofsted found that England is the only country in Europe where children can stop studying history at the age of 13. #harrumph”

“Last year more than 100 state schools did not enter a single candidate for GCSE history.”

I was reading this whilst stood in the spring sun at the top of Constitution Hill, near Buckingham Palace, where the Commonwealth Memorial Gates were erected nine years ago to pay tribute to the sacrifices of volunteer soldiers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and other Commonwealth countries.

Having lived in London for many years, I had walked and driven past these Memorial Gates many times, but never once had I stopped to take a closer look. Baroness Flather, who worked tirelessly in making sure this memorial was erected explained:

“It took over fifty years after World War Two ended to build a lasting memorial to honour the five million men and women from the Commonwealth nations who volunteered as part of the British Empire in both world wars.

As someone who’s clear about his identity being British, a sense of sadness swept across my face when I heard the Gurkha bugler play the Last Post whilst reading Jemima Khan’s tweets on the uptake of the History GCSE.

I’d like my kids to learn, along with the oft-narrated stories about the Great Wars to learn about the sacrifices made by my ancestors, without which we may not be enjoying the lives we lead today, which leads to the larger point that if children don’t understand any history, how can they comprehend the world?

Please make a point of visiting the Memorial Gates on your next visit to London. You can find out more here: http://www.mgtrust.org/

Indian Budget 2011 – what’s going on?

It’s that time of year, again!

Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee met with Congress insiders to begin unveiling his thinking on this year’s Budget, which is expected later this month. His headaches include inflation, a current account deficit, high import duties, and importantly how best to increase government revenues.

So, before the big day, I’m asking all of you what to expect in this year’s Budget?

People keep on talking about India’s demographic dividend; will the septuagenarian Finance Minister understand what’s required to ensure that the future is prosperous for this massively important population bracket. A budget for the young, perhaps?

Will he use the opportunity to guarantee market reforms that enable foreign firms get a larger piece of the action? Will India Inc exert its influence to ensure home company advantage?

What policies is he going to put in place that will help India break the 10% GDP growth rate, that India desires? Education, Employability, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship are critical drivers to achieve this. What’s he thinking on these?

If you have any idea on the above, or on the forthcoming budget, leave your comments below.

On the election trail – can a leopard change its spots?

I was in Birmingham yesterday, by coincidence the Leaders debate was taking place at Birmingham University, being hosted by my Alma Mater, Aston University, where I was delivering the keynote address on entrepreneurship at an event organised by the excellent Aston India Foundation & Deloitte.

In conversation with a few guests who’d been invited to the Aston event, one person expressed an opinion which over the past few weeks has been aired but not really hit home with me, as I was too naïve and (perhaps) young to remember the last Tory government.

The gentleman, who’s a small business owner explained that he’d either be voting for Clegg or Brown, when I asked him why he wouldn’t consider Cameron, he said that it didn’t seem to him that they’d do anything to support SMEs – an argument I’ve heard several times, but the killer blow to me was that he went on and explained that he lost his house under the last Tory government. He relived the experience and took the time to, very painfully, explain what happened.

Similarly, I was talking to a hospital doctor, who spoke about how Labour’s done an amazing job in rebuilding hospitals and under the last Tory government, the situation was very bleak – as if they just didn’t care about the NHS. I’ve been expecting nurses and support staff to tell me these kind of stories, but not a doctor.

I’m a Governor of my local school, and in line with this duty, a parent approached me to echo exactly the same theme. He went further to point out that at least there some sense of normality out there – where we live – restaurants seem busy on Saturday nights, shops seem to be trading etc – during the last recession, he remembered reading the headlines in newspapers of people committing suicide because they couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages.

It strikes me, that after all this, can the Tories change the perceptions of being the so called, “nasty party” that people have been relaying stories about to me?

It may be cool and hip to jump on the bandwagon, but can a political ideology and set of values really change that much in such a short span of time?

Election diary of an immigrant

As much as I want to believe that those who display the St. George’s flag are proud, fair-minded, and patriotic people, the truth couldn’t be further. Let me explain…

Last week on St George’s Day, I went canvassing for a friend of mine who’s contesting a parliamentary seat in North West London. As those who’ve knocked on doors before will recognise, you’re provided with a sheet of names and door numbers of those who may vote for your party, so that you can (once again) confirm their voting intention for polling day. Should they confirm that they’re interested in voting for your candidate (e.g. my friend), you do everything possible to ensure they leave the comfort of their home to cast their vote on May 6th.

Knowing this, you come up with all kinds of ways to ask them the most important question – “Will you vote for x, y, or z?” and unsurprisingly each person reacts in their own way, but as far as my experience shows, no one’s nasty – some are rude – but never nasty.

So, for this reason I’m prompted to write this post. It just so happened that every house that displayed the St George’s flag happened to show their total dis-regard, ignorance, and lack of respect – which bordered on being nasty and racist. One lady, even brought her dog (a bulldog!) to the door to tell me she wouldn’t be voting for my friend. She let rip on every single problem that “the immigrants” are responsible for. Right from litter on her street, missing light bulbs on street lamps, all the way through to the recession – it seemed that we were to blame.

Normally, I’m not flustered so easily, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I’d heard the same kind of stuff at all the houses that I knocked on which had the St. George’s flag displayed in their window or on their car. I’d love to believe this was a coincidence, but other houses, in this otherwise aspirational suburb, didn’t express such views when I engaged them!

As the son of an immigrant, I consider this my home (not India or Kenya, where I was born) and I believe that our diversity is also our biggest strength. We live in a country that is facing challenges that it’s never had to deal with. Take the challenge of emerging economies like China or India and their impact on us in the next 50 years, or of as an island nation tackling the threats posed by global warming – I believe we need to embrace new ideas, new ways of developing solutions to face these issues, and for this reason, to believe that immigrants who bring varied experiences that contribute to our society are fundamental to our future success.

I know that the vast majority of people will think that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill out of one bad day at the doorstep, but it’s important for all of us (red, blue, and yellow) to reclaim the St George’s flag from these nutters (not just for the upcoming World Cup), who’ve hijacked an identity that is so respected all over the world.

Back to door knocking tomorrow…