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Education Cannot Wait Interviews UNICEF Executive Director Catherine M. Russell

On 24 February 2022 in Afghanistan, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell listens to a girl reading from a textbook at a UNICEF-supported community-based school in Kandahar’s Dand district. Credit: UNICEF/Omid Fazel

Jun 7 2022 -  

Catherine M. Russell became UNICEF’s eighth Executive Director on 1 February 2022.

Ms. Russell brings to the role decades of experience in developing innovative policy that empowers underserved communities around the world, including high-impact programmes that protect women and girls, including in humanitarian crises. She has extensive experience building, elevating and managing diverse workforces and mobilizing resources and political support for a broad range of initiatives.

From 2020 to 2022, Ms. Russell served in the US government as Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. She previously served from 2013 to 2017 as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State. In that post, she integrated women’s issues across all elements of U.S. foreign policy, represented the United States in more than 45 countries, and worked with foreign governments, multilateral organizations and civil society. She was the principal architect of the ground-breaking “U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls.”

Previously, Ms. Russell served as Deputy Assistant to the President at the White House under President Barack Obama, Senior Advisor on International Women’s Issues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Associate Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice, and Staff Director of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Before re-entering government service in 2020, she taught at the Harvard Kennedy School as an Institute of Politics Fellow. She also served as the board co-chair of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, as a board member of Women for Women International, as a member of the Sesame Street Advisory Board, as a member of the non-profit organization, KIVA Advisory Council, and as a member of the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Women initiative.

Ms. Russell holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, magna cum laude, from Boston College and a Juris Doctor degree from the George Washington University Law School.

On 24 February 2022 in Afghanistan, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell talks to students at a UNICEF-supported community-based school in Kandahar’s Dand district. Credit: UNICEF/Omid Fazel

ECW: You have joined UNICEF as Executive Director at a critical time for education. Since Education Cannot Wait’s inception in 2016, UNICEF has not only been a host organization but also a trusted and strategic partner in our work. UNICEF is key to ensuring that children caught in armed conflicts, forced displacement, climate change-related disasters and protracted crises can access safe, inclusive learning environments. How can we reinforce our efforts to reach more children and adolescents at this critical moment?

Catherine M. Russell: Thank you for this opportunity. Since becoming Executive Director in February, I have seen how critically important education and learning are to all children – but especially those living in places that are affected by conflicts and other emergencies. Every child has an equal right to education, but not all children are able to realize this right equally.

I saw this on my recent visit to Afghanistan, where girls are denied a secondary education. These girls are not only missing out on their right to learn. They’re missing out on the hope and opportunity that education brings to them, their families, and their communities.

To reach every child in Afghanistan, UNICEF continues to work with many partners – especially including ECW, which has been supporting education programmes in Afghanistan since 2017, with a focus on girls’ and community-based education.

The war in Ukraine is having a dramatic impact on 5.7 million children – millions of whom have been displaced both inside and outside the country. Hundreds of schools have been attacked, and millions of children are out of school. These children are not only missing out on learning, they are also missing out on the social and emotional support face-to-face learning provides in such dark times.

When I was in Romania in the early days of the war, I saw how traumatized some of these children are and some of the challenges they are facing. But I also saw how eager they are to learn – and the hope that education holds for them. I am proud that UNICEF is supporting education for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children – including by providing education-related supplies and early childhood development materials.

These are only a couple of examples to give a sense of the urgency. Globally, millions of children are still out of school – and millions more are not learning.

Before the pandemic, over half of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read and understand a simple story. School closures and inequitable access to learning opportunities have already increased that number dramatically – and if we don’t act, it will only get worse.

UNICEF, the World Bank, and UNESCO are calling on governments to take “RAPID” action to reach every child and retain them in the classroom, to assess their learning levels, to prioritize teaching the building blocks of lifelong learning, to increase catch-up learning and help children progress, and to develop psychosocial support to promote wellbeing so every child is ready to learn.

To get every child learning, we need collective action that prioritizes the most marginalized children – including crisis-affected children. Increased, sustained investment in national education systems, including the education workforce, is the only way to prevent the global learning crisis from becoming a global learning catastrophe. If we fail to act, these children will pay the highest price. But our societies and economies will also feel the impact for decades to come.

On 4 April 2022 in Democratic Republic of the Congo, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell (left) visits Nizi Primary School in Goma. Many schools were destroyed in the Nyiaragongo volcano eruption in May 2021. Credit: UNICEF/Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

ECW: Education in emergencies generally accounts for just 2-4% of international humanitarian aid and the share for education declined during the pandemic in official development assistance, and countries allocated only 3 per cent of their COVID-19 stimulus packages to education. How can ECW, public donors, the private sector, and UNICEF help address this challenge as we race together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG4?

Catherine M. Russell: Education is one of the most critical investments any government can make. The economic returns on investment alone should put education high on the priority list for financing.

Unfortunately, there is an alarming lack of investment in addressing the growing learning crisis. Governments, donors, the private sector, and strategic partners must work together to secure sufficient, effective, and equitable financing of education at global and domestic level.

This means more financing, but it also means better and more equitable financing – ensuring that those most in need receive their fair share. UNICEF’s research has shown that in some countries, as little as 10 per cent or less of public education spending goes to children from the poorest households. This simply isn’t right.

UNICEF is urging governments to invest 20 per cent of their domestic budgets to education and to direct funds to the communities with the greatest need, including children and youth affected by conflict and crisis. We are also calling on civil society and the private sector to rally behind conflict and crisis-affected children – including by supporting Education Cannot Wait. These children have the same right as children everywhere to access a quality education. But we need sustainable, flexible financing to reach every child.

On 22 February 2022, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell (left) interacts with students at Islamabad Model School for Girls G9, where teachers use an innovative mix of digital and traditional learning to teach children. Credit: UNICEF/Asad Zaidi

ECW: Education is the great equalizer. How can SDG4 – ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ – help us reach the other SDG targets and why is education important to achieving global security and sustainable development?

Catherine M. Russell: In many ways, SDG4 on education is the bedrock of the SDGs. Education has a substantial impact on the health, wealth, safety, and equality of communities. For example, secondary education could lift 420 million people out of poverty.

Girls’ education offers additional benefits. When we invest in girls’ education, their future earnings increase, child marriage rates decline, and maternal mortality rates fall. It is essential to unlock a more gender-equitable, prosperous, and healthy future for all.

In emergencies, schools provide a crucial sense of normality and safety, as well as connecting children and their parents to essential health, mental health and psychosocial services. Education also provides children with life-saving information, including for those who live in areas contaminated by unexploded ordnance or in areas of high climate risk.

SDG4 isn’t just about getting kids into school. It also includes a clear target to achieve free, quality primary and secondary education – and better learning outcomes. Unfortunately, many education systems around the world are still not achieving this target.

Children and young people are counting on us to redouble our efforts. They are so eager to learn. They know how much depends on it. And they are raising their voices and taking action.

On my visit to Pakistan, where over 22 million children aged 5-16 are out of school, I heard directly from young people about the power of education. I met Shahnaz, who wanted to go to school so badly that when a boys-only center for accelerated learning opened in her village, she decided to dress as a boy to be allowed in the center.

I also met a young girl who uses a wheelchair – and who asked me to remind the world that children with disabilities are often the most excluded of all.

We need to reach these children – and we need to match their dreams and ambitions with concrete commitments and action.

We have less than eight years to achieve SDG4, and not a moment to lose. We urgently need governments to implement the RAPID framework to support remedial education and get every child learning, now.

On 26 April 2022, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell interacts with children at a child-friendly space supported by UNICEF at Higlo Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) site in Ethiopia. Credit: UNICEF/Zerihun Sewunet

ECW: The world will come together this September for the Transforming Education Summit, convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. How can we use this moment to reimagine more effective delivery of quality education for the more than 222 million crisis-affected children that need urgent educational support?

Catherine M. Russell: September’s Transforming Education Summit is a pivotal moment. With the eyes of the world on education, we need to use this opportunity to get everyone behind learning, for every child – including those living through crises.

UNICEF is supporting national consultations and opportunities for countries to discuss their roadmaps for education recovery – and beyond. We are using this opportunity to call for urgent, concrete action to address the learning crisis, prioritizing the most marginalized children. And UNICEF country and regional offices around the world are working with their governments to drive change at the national level.

The Pre-summit and the Summit will be critical moments for countries to share plans and actions coming out of these national consultations. We also need to share best practices, learn from each other, and establish roadmaps for recovery and transformation.

While the Summit is important, it should not be the end of our efforts. We need to look beyond September to 2023, 2030, and beyond.

UNICEF is committed to working with our partners to follow up and move forward – and we are working closely with young people themselves. We need their perspective and their ideas. It will be exciting to see these efforts bearing fruit in short and long term.

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