01/28/2016 12:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Unfinished Business


Photo: Theirworld

By Tom Fletcher, Global Strategy Director of the Global Business Coalition for Education

At Davos last week, individuals, companies, egos and states have collided, competed and sometimes collaborated in the battle to shape the global agenda. Speed dating for ideas geeks. Policy Vegas.

Much of Davos was about artificial intelligence. But I was there to promote the idea that we help the next generation of humans to think, not just the robots. Our coalition of donors, governments, businesses, universities and individuals is trying to get 1m Syrians back to school. Wherever you stand on who is to blame for the destruction of Syria, we can surely all agree on one thing - it is not the fault of these 1m children. Their fight for education is about international justice, equality, rights and opportunity. For me as a participant in years of failed diplomacy in the region, it is unfinished business.

At Davos, business responded. We announced that over 50 companies would commit over 50m USD to the effort. These private sector leaders recognise that when business works for education, education works for business. They understand that this is about head as well as heart - fail to get a generation back into school uniform, and we risk seeing more of them in life jackets and suicide vests. We must offer Syrians more to choose from than a barrel bombing tyrant, the box office barbarity of ISIL, and the perils of a Mediterranean raft.

Those who think these refugees are somehow different to us haven't met any - faced with their choices, what would you do? At a discussion on migration, I made the argument that the answer to the 21st century is not a bigger wall - history suggests that walls don't last long. Some in the room, like some in the US Presidential race, disagreed. One responded that economic uncertainty meant that "we have reached the limits of our compassion".

Yes, Syria seems overwhelming. It is. But we have an education plan, and it is working. From Davos we move to London, where the governments of the UK, Norway and Germany are bringing together the world's leaders on 4 February to respond to the massive humanitarian challenge. The UN Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, has called on them to deliver the remaining finance to get the 1m children back to school.

But this is also about more than finance. To deliver the plan, we need nothing short of the disruption of the existing humanitarian model - sincere and well meaning as it is. Lack of buildings is an obstacle - could IKEA help with that? Lack of connectivity is an obstacle - can Facebook help with that? Lack of transport is an obstacle - can Uber help with that? Governments can't deliver alone. So on 4 February, we'll be asking not for more cash from business, but creativity. Not for platitudes, pity and concern, but solutions, engagement and action.

Tech is a vital part of this effort. The smartphone can yet prove to be the strongest weapon in the Middle East. We need to show the people and companies already changing the world that this is their battle, their responsibility, their frontline.

So, no. I don't believe that we have reached the limits of our compassion. Nor human ingenuity and creativity. A growing global coalition of the coexisters are fighting back. Please don't wait to be asked to help.



Tom Fletcher is a Visiting Professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, and the Global Strategy Director of the Global Business Coalition for Education. He was UK Ambassador to Lebanon, 2011-2015. His book on the future of power and diplomacy is published by Harper Collins in June 2016, and he is leading a review of UK diplomacy for the FCO.