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In Washington to prevent a lost generation of Syrians

October 13th, 2013

This year’s annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF saw the news dominated by the state of the world economy. It’s a familiar occasion because I used to work for the World Bank and my current job brings me here often. But for me this time the meetings would be memorable with three things.

First, the deluging rains of near Biblical proportions. It poured so hard and ceaselessly for days that the rainwater turned the streets of Washington DC into rivers. At a public meeting on resilience one of my fellow panellists, the finance minister of Columbia Mauricio Cardenas, talked about extreme weather as the “new normal”. And the pounding rain outside just hammered his point home.

Second, the shut-down of the US government. It might have made the traffic lighter but it weighed heavily on world economy concerns. I was speaking about fragile states at an IMF seminar and with the US crisis in the world’s most important economy looming in the background it provided the strongest evidence that fragility in the world is on the increase.

Third, there was the overwhelming presence of the Syria crisis. It was the focus not just of my program but also a priority for many others in DC. And of particular concern right now is the desperate plight of millions of Syrian children.

At a high-level meeting I co-chaired with the UK’s International Development Secretary Justine Greening we tackled the issue of preventing a lost generation of Syrian children – an outcome which will blight not just their lives but also the future of their country when the time surely comes to rebuild their nation.

The meeting took place against the backdrop of some positive movement. The work of dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal was the precursor, only a week earlier, to the UN Security Council finally addressing “the significant and rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria”.

A presidential statement urged the Syrian government to facilitate “safe and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need through the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighbouring countries.”

If this commitment is fulfilled, humanitarian workers will be able to reach more than two million people who have been beyond our reach for too long. Never forget, the majority of the victims of this conflict are children.

Children are bearing the brunt of the Syrian war. In refugee camps and in the ruins of their homes they play war games and draw pictures full of horror because that is all they know. As Tony Lake, the chief of UNICEF said, no child should have to witness what too many of these young people – the future of their country when it finally emerges from conflict – have seen.

I was impressed by the clear-sighted strategy which Tony set out for our meeting. It will target the six million children across the region to improve their access to learning and protection and to improve their ability to return to normal life once the conflict ends.

And at the same time greater efforts will be made to shield close to three million children from the omnipresent threat of violence, displacement, separation, and sexual and gender-based violence, as well as recruitment into armed forces.

It’s chilling to learn that four thousand schools have closed in Syria as a consequence of the fighting. A staggering 1.9 million children dropped out of school during the last academic year.

For the one million children who have fled Syria, the situation is nearly as bad. Of the 600,000 school-age refugee children, 68% are not in school. And children from the generous host communities in neighbouring countries are now in classrooms that are overstretched, overcrowded and under-resourced.

I can understand that the huge problems that children are facing have gone unnoticed for too long in the tumult of chaos stemming from a conflict which goes from bad to worse with every passing day. What I cannot accept is that we remain silent about it any longer. And the determination I have to change this is shared by our international partners.

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