A unique United Nations Success Story : interview with Yasmine Sherif, Director Education Cannot Wait

Education Cannot Wait – a unique United Nations Success Story Interview with Yasmine Sherif, Director Education Cannot Wait

It is always nice to meet positive and dynamic people, and Yasmine Sherif is one of them. She is modest, hardworking and loves her work in the United Nations.

It was a pure coincidence that we heard about the substantial gift from Germany of 200 million euros to the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises. With her staff, Ms Sherif has built up the fund to make it one of the United Nations’ success stories. Being of the curious sort, we wanted to learn more about this unique fund and its exceptional director, and Ms Sherif was kind enough to agree to answer our questions during her short visit to Geneva. So, now we open the floor to her, so that you all can discover the achievements of Ms Sherif and her dynamic team.

Q: Could you please tell us a little about yourself?

It is interesting because we are sitting here in the Palais des Nations, in Geneva, and that is where I started my United Nations career in 1988. I had just graduated from Stockholm University with a master’s degree in international humanitarian and human rights law, so, I’m a lawyer by training. I came as an Intern to the Centre for Human Rights, the forerunner to the High Commission for Human Rights. From there I moved on to Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan, who led the Afghanistan relief effort in the Villa La Pelouse down here in the Palais. Then I went to Afghanistan. I have worked with the UNDP, Peacekeeping Operations, with different United Nations agencies such as the UNHCR, OCHA, and now I’m the Executive Director of Education Cannot Wait, which is a global fund for education in emergencies and humanitarian crises. It was established at the world humanitarian summit in 2016.

We are hosted by UNICEF, but we serve the whole United Nations system and civil society. So, it is a hosting arrangement, like the Peace Building Fund was once hosted by the UNDP. We are quite happy where we are. In 50 percent of my time, I have worked in conflict affected countries and the rest at headquarters. I worked with the UNHCR during the war in the Balkans, during the peace keeping elections in Cambodia; also in Sudan, in the Occupied Palestine Territory, in Jordan on the Syria crises, Democratic Republic of Congo and then of course I have travelled to almost every single conflict country on missions around the globe. So, it’s been a long time for me, almost 32 years, in the United Nations. My work has always been humanitarian contacts, with humanitarian, development work or human rights work. I have worked in Geneva, but today I’m based in New York.

Q: Today you received a huge grant of 200 million Euros from Germany. In these donor crisis times, how long time did it take to negotiate this?

We were established and became operational in 2017. At that time, we had headquarters only in New York, and then I made a decision to split so that we also had a presence in Geneva because Geneva is the humanitarian capital whereas New York is the political capital of the UN. It is also closer to Africa, Asia and the humanitarian community. We started with four or five strategic donor partners, and now have 21 strategic donor partners. They are part of the governance board, so, they not only give us funds, they are also part of decision making.

We have an Executive Board and a Steering Committee chaired by Gordon Brown at a ministerial level, and then we have a director level, an Executive Committee chaired by the United Kingdom.

When it comes to Germany, they have been a partner with Education Cannot Wait for three years now. This is the biggest, single contribution anyone has given us in one day! 200 million euros! A year and half, maybe two years of negotiations. It is not really negotiations, because they are our members, they get our reports, they see the results, you build up credibility, and you build up trust. They realise that Education Cannot Wait is a very lean global fund. We have 31 staff and secondments from United Nations agencies and member states. So, we are very cost effective. 99.99 percent of the funds go directly to the children and youth we serve. We do not have any big overhead costs. We are 31 persons, and that’s it, but we are reaching millions and millions of children and youth. So, I think donors, member states and private sectors like this because they want their money to go where it is needed. So, that is what helps.

We are very strong on accountability, and results. We have a slogan that the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres also uses, “Less bureaucracy, more accountability,” and we really try to live by it.

We have slashed all the redundant bureaucracy, and kept that which is required for financial management and transparency. We are focusing on results and action, and we are very agile. We go out to these countries; we are not a fund that sits in headquarters and open envelopes. We go out and make the Unite Nations and the NGOs work together with host-governments. We use the United Nations coordination mechanisms that have been in place for decades, and we pursue implementation of the UN Secretary-General’s Reform. So, it is a whole new way of working! We bring in everybody to work together through joint programming. We are very strict on results and quality. You must be when you have a major actor like Germany or the United Kingdom, which is our second largest donor, or the Scandinavian countries, like Denmark or Norway, and then of course Canada and the EU and others. What they see, year in year out, is results, accountability. They have decision-maker power. We are in this together. Of course, they would want to invest. They invest because they know that it’s going to give results. I think that’s what we offer. It is a very good example of how the United Nations really delivers.

So yes, sometimes it takes two years, sometimes it happens over a meeting. It all depends, but most of them have been members of Education Cannot Wait for a long time, while others are coming on board every year.

Q: Education Cannot Wait – was it your idea?

This idea belongs to the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, The Hon. Gordon Brown who is the United Nations Special Envoy for Education. He is the chair of the High-Level Steering Group. He came up with this idea years ago. He has always been very passionate about education. He realised that there was too much bureaucracy and that we could not move in a crisis. There was also the realisation that refugees – you may wait for 15 to 20 years to get an education because humanitarian priorities are very different. Tents – yes they’re important. They’ll get education even though it’s not part of the humanitarian response, but they will wait 20, 30 years or even longer. Look at Afghanistan. So, he said, “This is not OK. Education has to be part of the response.” Back then, out of the humanitarian funding, only 2.1 percent went to education. This begs question: is this what, we would invest in the education of our own children? The answer is: of course not! He said we have to raise investment funds, which we did, working closely with OCHA and Mark Lawcock. We look forward to doing the same with Martin Griffiths. So, he created it, and I was appointed to build and lead it.

Q: Education is the basis for everything. How do you choose your partners on the ground?

Through the United Nations Coordination Mechanisms under the Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator and the Inter-Agency System, that is how you remove the conflict-of-interest element. You have in a country two sorts of coordination mechanisms in a disaster crisis. One is the cluster system which goes under an OCHA inter-aid standing committee. They have a cluster for education that cooperates with the cluster for cooperation, and a cluster for water and sanitation. It is the Humanitarian Coordinator that leads that process. When you have refugee situations, the High Commission for Refugees coordinates the situation, so, it all depends on the context. For example, if I go to Uganda, where we have a major refugee and education plan, UNHCR helps us coordinate that together with other agencies, donors and civil society. We are running a massive education response plan there for South Sudanese refugees, children and youth. It was also among the first ones, then came Afghanistan and Lebanon. Now we have 24 multi-year joint programmes and investments in 43 crisis countries.

If you have internally displaced persons, then it is the Humanitarian Cluster that leads the coordination. Through that process, we organise meetings where all the different partners are invited to join, and we outline strategic plans of Education Cannot Wait, and what we expect as an outcome, and then they embark on the assessment in the country, they develop the joint programme. “Who has the competitive advantage?” “You are better at school feeding…” Then you might have one programme with five, six or seven different actors working hand in hand. The humanitarians do a quick response and then the development actors do the medium- and long-term investment. That’s the humanitarian-development nexus in one programme! Then we put in seed funds, 25 millions – 45 million. The total cost of the programme might be 200 million. Then we mobilise in-country or outside means, to find the remaining $155-175 million. We use all avenues to bring in resources. We see ourselves as a catalytic fund to help our colleagues, host governments, communities on the ground, families and children to get resources on the ground. We do not take resources for ourselves because we are only 31 staff. We are just operating at minimum. As long as we have our salaries and are able to travel and be the convener, that’s it! We do not want a big bulky bureaucracy. That is what makes it so exciting. We are not here to build an empire but to empower!

Q; How has the Covid pandemic influenced your work?

Well, it is challenging because children cannot go to school, social distancing and all that comes with it. So, we have a choice, because most of us in the international community would like to stay at home and work remotely. My staff and I discussed it, and we said that we are a crisis fund. So, if the house is on fire we go into the fire. With this Covid we went into these countries, we put our masks on, we got our vaccines, followed the protocol for social distancing and we went to Lebanon, to the Sahel, to Afghanistan, to the Rohingya in the midst of Covid 19. We are not going to run away even if there is a crisis. We go into a crisis.

Of course, when member states and donors see this, this gives them another incentive to say, “Education Cannot Wait delivers even when everything else breaks down and collapses. Education Cannot Wait, they are not staying at home.”

I also think that this is one of the reasons that we are getting more and more recognition. We are a very fast-growing fund. Our donors told us in the last Executive Committee that Education Cannot Wait started out as a two-seater plane and today it’s a jumbo jet with over two billion dollars mobilized or leverage, and we haven’t even turned 5 years yet.

Q: Congratulations!

It’s team-work where everybody is collective – ODA donors, private sector, governments, United Nations agencies, civil society, communities, children. It is all of us.

Q: Do you collaborate with UNESCO?

Of course! UNESCO leads our work in Lebanon. They are doing great work! When the explosion took place in Beirut, UNESCO was the fastest responder and became a partner for us. They received a major investment together with others.

Whenever we see the competitive advantage, through the coordination mechanism, we work closely with UNESCO, as we do with UNICEF, UNHCR or WFP, as well as a number of civil society organizations. There is not a single United Nations agency on education or education-related that we don’t work with. For instance, we work with the World Food Programme. Do they do education? No but they do school feeding. Great!

Q: It is all very impressive. How many hours a day do you work?

Well in the beginning, when you build something from the scratch, you probably work 15 to 16 hours a day. You have no choice, and you face a lot of challenges. Building, and building credibility, you can only do so by results. It takes time.

It also takes time to build a winning team. Everybody has to be on the same wave-length. The person dealing with finances and operations has to be at the same frequency as the person doing advocacy and the person doing programming and strategic development. If you have a weak link in that house, it can drag the rest down.

Here I have really worked. I have brought in motivational speakers, some of the best motivational speakers in the United States. We have a library of great books on efficiency, motivational speakers, thinking big, having a vision. The United Nations Charter is on our walls – understanding why the United Nations was created, trying to reduce ego. We do not allow gossiping; we do not allow internal conflicts. We do not have time for that. Everybody is absorbed and passionate, driven by the-sky-is-the-limit of the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the SDGs.

I think what we are doing in Education Cannot Wait can be done across the entire United Nations system. I have seen it in other teams where I worked. We just have to think very big because we have massive suffering to alleviate. We have to de-bureaucratize ourselves and step out of our small box. We have to look fear in the face, and remember the fear felt by the children and youth in their communities, in these countries. And finally, not the least, we grow as human beings. If we change, the United Nations will blossom. It is already doing so in many parts. I see great colleagues across the United Nations.

I think we should never be in the United Nations for selfish reasons. We should be in the United Nations because we have an unaverred desire to deliver on the United Nations Charter, serve humanity and make the world a better place. As a German philosopher, Goethe, once said, if you make a commitment, the universe conspires to assist you. We also say that if you are working very hard and you are kind – kindness is important – then, amazing things will happen. We are living that now.

Upon these points and this positive news, we leave Ms Sherif run off to her next meeting and wish her and her team more success stories to share with us in the future.