A deeper dive into the life of ECW Director Yasmine Sherif, the UN’s billion-dollar woman.
– Conflict, forced displacement, climate change and COVID-19 are disrupting the education of millions of crisis-affected children and adolescents around the world.
Yasmine Sherif is the Director of Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the United Nation’s global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises. When she and ECW partners from around the world operationalized the Fund in 2017, an estimated 75 million conflict-affected children were out of school. Today, that number has risen to 128 million – more than the total population of Japan.
Just a few short years later, under Sherif’s leadership, ECW is already a billion-dollar global fund, with US$1.1 billion raised in its Trust Fund and another US$1 billion leveraged through in-county multi-year resilience programmes to support these crisis-affected children and youth with the quality education that they desperately need.
To address this vast, unprecedented humanitarian and developmental crisis of disrupted education, visionary leadership, drive and direction is required. Not only is education an inherent human right for every child, but it is the foundation that supports achievement of all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Over the past few years, ground-breaking efforts have been made to re-position education as a top priority in humanitarian crisis contexts. The upcoming Summit on Transforming Education, as well as staunch support from the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, are testament to the central role education plays today in the multilateral UN system and beyond.
The clock is ticking. We now have just eight years to achieve the SDGs, or to at least close the gap, while simultaneously addressing the growing number of forcibly displaced people, the escalating climate crisis and building back better from the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To achieve these Global Goals – and build a more peaceful, more just and more prosperous world – a global movement grounded in the multilateral system, civil society and private sector is required. That global movement is Education Cannot Wait.
“I can’t see us combating extreme poverty, managing climate change, ending world hunger or creating gender equality, if we are going to leave millions of crisis-affected children and young people, not the least the girls, illiterate and disempowered without an education. If you want to invest in all the Sustainable Development Goals and universal human rights, you’ve got to start with the foundation and the glue. That foundation and glue is education,” Sherif said.
ECW’s pioneering approach as a global fund within the UN system, which reduces bureaucracy and improves accountability by closely aligning with civil society and the private sector, is a model that reforms the way the UN works. The Fund – connecting with partners across the globe through results, innovation, passion and accountability – showcases how humanitarian relief and longer-term development interventions work together through multi-year programming to respond to emergencies rapidly and sustainably.
Since ECW’s inception, this breakthrough Fund has invested in over 5 million crisis-affected children and adolescents in 42 countries and crisis contexts with safe, inclusive, child-centred, holistic education and emergency support.
ECW was formed in 2016 at the World Humanitarian Summit under the lead of the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, with the support of a wide coalition of UN, government, civil society and private foundation partners. It is through them, the world class team that Sherif has built and its strong governance boards, that ECW has been able to break through barriers and deliver quality education in the world’s most complex crises.
As head of the thriving global fund and movement, Sherif’s diverse background in human rights and her focus and determination to deliver results is making her a key champion and thought leader on the international stage for the rights of those left furthest behind. Whether she is driving the creation of the first education response plan for refugees in Uganda, calling for an end to attacks on schools in Cameroon or leading the first all-women UN delegation to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, Sherif delivers her work based on the principles of human rights, human dignity and human empowerment.
“From a young age, I wanted to serve those who were in the most difficult circumstances of injustice, conflict and marginalisation in the world. I felt very responsible for humanity. I’ve always felt a responsibility for the world and believed that I could make a difference,” she said.
Sherif was born in Stockholm and grew up in Sweden. From a young age, she was exposed to different cultures. Her Swedish mother and her Egyptian father encouraged her to be a world citizen, to read, learn and appreciate different customs and religions, and to adopt an inner moral compass in life and serve others. This ingrained in her values that she still holds today: to be respectful of all religions, beliefs and faiths, and to embrace diversity in all its forms. For her, it was only natural to pursue a master’s degree in International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law from Stockholm University in 1987.
Shortly after graduating, Sherif joined the International Committee of the Red Cross as an intern for their legal department, starting her long career in humanitarian and international development. Following this internship, Sherif spent a few years working for Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan who led the UN coordination of economic assistance to Afghanistan in 1989. In this position she was first posted in Geneva, Switzerland and then in Kabul, Afghanistan. After this, she joined her first UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia in 1992 as part of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) mission.
“For me, the United Nations seemed like the natural trajectory in my life,” she said. “It represented the diversity of my own upbringing, and its Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented the values that ran like a blue thread through my childhood and adolescence.”
In 1994, she joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and led the first repatriation of refugees back to Bosnia. In 2000, she joined the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and was responsible for the new political and practical portfolio on the Protection of Civilians. She then spent over a decade with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) where she led the establishment and growth of the UN’s largest rule of law programming for crisis contexts.
“With my human rights background and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s UN reform, everyone needed human rights expertise. While having a family and two children to bring up, I was still able to move around between different UN agencies in need of human rights, protection and rule of law expertise. This allowed me to understand their different mandates and roles and deeply enriched my experience,” she said. “This has been invaluable for Education Cannot Wait. My team and I have to be catalytic and ensure that all UN agencies and all civil society organisations are given the same attention and financial investment opportunities. Without favouritism, we collaborate to achieve greater results.”
Captives in Cambodia
Sherif’s time at the UN is marked by great accomplishments and has taken her to over 40 countries. During her work in Cambodia in the early 1990s, she was responsible for human rights in the Battambang province, the country’s second largest province, leading a team of UN Civil Police officers. One day, a French police officer with the UN Police reported to her that there were undisclosed detention centres in the province, detaining political opponents. In the midst of a UN election, this required investigation. Sherif requested the officer to produce further evidence and he obliged. Pictures and concrete information were brought forward and Sherif launched an investigation together with the UN Civil Police.
“It was so sensitive and dangerous. We would interview witnesses at night in our UN Land Cruisers, so as not to be bugged in our guest house,” she said. “I would sleep with cassettes of the interviews under my pillow.”
Sherif worked with her human rights superiors in the capital, Phnom Penh, and police commanders in Battambang to plan a date to enter the undisclosed detention centres. In the meantime, local authorities had become suspicious and she received death threats.
“I remember the day we entered the detention centres. In the police station, I was on my walkie talkie, awaiting news from the UN Civil Police carrying out the operation. I was walking back and forth, and I said to myself: ‘Oh my gosh, what if you’re wrong? What if they enter these locations and there are no prisoners?’”
These doubts were erased when she received the call over the walkie talkie from the mission commander. They had entered the detention centre and found 20 political detainees.
“At that moment, the sky just opened. Our instincts had been right, our efforts were paying off and, most importantly, we did what we were there to do: ensure free and fair elections.”
This investigation led to a shift in the human rights approach of the UNTAC mission, with colleagues across Cambodia uncovering more undisclosed detention centres and saving more political prisoners. At that point, Sherif was only 26 years old and she had already contributed to the direction of a UN peacekeeping operation.
Rule of law
Another one of Sherif’s proudest achievements is her role in building UNDP’s rule of law programming across crisis-affected countries. This work drew on her legal expertise and experience in establishing legal aid and improving the capacity of justice systems in crisis-countries. Here, she strengthened her knowledge to better operate in the UN system through global programming investments, work across the humanitarian-development nexus and bring together partners through joint programming – all of which she has brought with her to Education Cannot Wait.
In the Darfur region of Sudan, atrocities such as rape and sexual violence were commonplace, and justice was not being delivered. To combat this, Sherif helped establish legal aid centres to support victims and their families through joint programming with UN agencies, civil society, and government institutions.
“I remember there was a little 10 year-old girl and a lower-level policeman had raped her. Her mother came to one of our legal aid centres and received legal help. We took the case to the court, and through the trust we had built and the capacity we had developed, the court worked and delivered justice. The policeman was sentenced to 10 years. We had many of these cases,” Sherif said.
After her mission to Sudan, Sherif was called to UNDP headquarters and asked to build UNDP rule of law programmes in all the crisis-affected countries they supported. It grew so fast that the then UN Secretary-General decided to establish a joint office for rule of law, co-hosted by UNDP and the Peacekeeping Department. This led to the UN jointly delivering rule of law in over 60 fragile or crisis-affected countries.
Building a global movement
In her current role, Sherif continues on her human rights mission. By spearheading the global movement that follows children and youth in crisis-contexts and using concrete results to measure success, she is a key advocate for their fundamental right to quality education.
Through ECW’s investment modalities that deliver rapidly at scale while ensuring depth in quality and sustainability, millions of girls and boys in crisis situations around the world are able to resume or continue learning. In these contexts, education is invaluable and their only hope for a better future. It provides a pathway to their future and to that of their nations, while also offering protection, psycho-social services, school meals and a sense of normalcy.
To maximise ECW’s reach, Sherif works closely with public and private donors, strategic donor partners, host governments, UN agencies, and international and national civil society organisations to provide children with the quality learning opportunities they are entitled to. This includes providing whole-of-child services to address specific challenges.
Sherif credits The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, who spearheaded the establishment of Education Cannot Wait and now serves as Chair of the ECW High-Level Steering Group, for providing an effective and efficient platform that enables ECW to be the positively disruptive force that it is.
“Without Gordon Brown, there would be no 5 million children given a holistic, quality education in the contexts of armed conflicts, forced displacement, climate-induced disasters and protracted crises. He is the key person who inspired others to join him. I have great respect for him,” she said.
Although there is much work ahead, Sherif is very thankful for the small but dedicated ECW team of experts with whom she works, crediting their hard work for the Fund’s success. She is also very thankful for ECW’s many strategic and trusted donors and partners who continuously show their commitment to the Fund’s mission and share its overarching philosophy.
Sherif’s heart is committed to ECW’s mission. In spite of increasing threats to the education of millions of crisis-affected children around the world, she is confident that ECW will rise to the challenge and continue to grow and meet the needs of those left furthest behind. “We have to be optimistic and work as if success is inevitable,” she said.
Quoting Joan of Arc, she expresses her sentiments: “I am not afraid, I was born to do this.”