How to prevent a global education disaster?

  • The education losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic are invisible but will worsen the situation for millions of the world’s poorest children.
  • The world can – and must – take immediate action to mitigate the damage, writes Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save The Children UK.

“The beauty of learning,” the great blues guitarist BB King once wrote, “is that no one can take it away from you.” Born and raised in poverty, King understood the value of education as a force for change. If only political leaders responding to the COVID-19 pandemic had an ounce of his insight.

COVID-19 is turning into a global educational emergency. Millions of children, especially the poorest and young girls, risk losing out on life-changing learning opportunities. Because education is so closely linked to future prosperity, job creation and improved health, a setback of this magnitude would jeopardize countries’ progress, reinforcing already extreme inequalities. Yet this emergency has yet to be put on the pandemic response agenda.

Lockdowns have closed more than a billion children outside of school. For an estimate 500 million, it means to receive no education. A Save the Children survey in India found that two-thirds of children stopped all educational activity during lockdown. The danger now is that a perfect storm of lost schooling, rising child poverty and deep budget cuts will bring unprecedented setbacks to education.

This is an emergency superimposed on a pre-existing crisis. Even before the pandemic, 258 million children were out of school and progress towards universal education had stalled. Today, the increase in child poverty alone could cause ten million children are not going back to school. Many of these children are at risk of being forced into child labor or early marriage (in the case of adolescent girls). Meanwhile, already catastrophic pre-pandemic levels of learning, which left half of all children in developing countries unable to read a simple sentence by the end of primary school, will get worse.

Pre-pandemic learning levels left half of children in developing countries unable to read a sentence.

Image: World Bank

Pioneering research on the impact of 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, Pakistan seizes the risk for learning. Schools were closed for three months. When it reopened, attendance quickly picked up. But four years later, the children aged 3 to 15 who lived closest to the fault line had lost the equivalent of a year and a half of learning.

Imagining this outcome on a global scale gives an idea of ​​what is at stake. Education empowers people, reduces poverty and improves health, and the human capital it generates shapes the destinies of countries. Lost education will erode this capital, effectively placing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals out of reach.

Governments should invest now to prevent this outcome. Unfortunately, education budgets are being drained by the recession and the diversion of public spending – and international aid – towards health care and economic recovery. As a result, governments in low- and middle-income countries could end up spending $77 billion less than expected on education over the next 18 months.

So what to do to avoid disaster? In his new world save our education countrysideSave the Children has established a three-part recovery plan.

The first priority is to continue learning during the confinements. Governments should make every effort to reach children through radio, television and distance learning initiatives. Countries like Ethiopia, Uganda and Burkina Faso have developed ambitious national distance learning programs. They and others need more donor support to implement them at scale.

Second, the pandemic creates an opportunity to address the broader learning crisis. Too many children are taught at the wrong level, due to schools’ rigid application of poorly designed curricula. Every child who returns to school must undergo a learning assessment to identify those who need support. Remedial education programs such as those initiated by organizations like BRAC and Pratham can then prevent these children from falling further behind, thereby reducing the risk of future school dropout.

Third, increased international funding is essential. Many of the world’s poorest countries, particularly in Africa, entered the economic downturn with limited fiscal space. This room for maneuver is shrinking further as the recession sets in and external debt problems intensify.

Rich country governments have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by tearing up their fiscal and monetary policy rules and signing up to ambitious national stimulus packages. They should be equally bold in supporting education in developing countries.

A more effective use of the balance sheets of multilateral development banks is an obvious starting point. the Education Committee advocated the creation of a International Finance Facility for Education provide loan guarantees, thereby enabling the World Bank and other institutions to borrow cheaply on international markets and lend the funds to developing countries. Every dollar of guarantee under this program could unlock $4 in funding for education. This approach, which would include rigorous debt sustainability assessments of recipient countries, could mobilize resources on a scale commensurate with the crisis. Donors and the World Bank should support it.

To its credit, the Bank draws on resources already allocated to the International Development Association, its concessional lending arm. But an unprecedented crisis surely requires more than that. The Bank should establish a supplementary IDA budget of at least $35 billion and step up its support for education.

Debt relief is another potential source of funding. The G20s Debt Service Suspension Initiative for IDA members (the 73 poorest countries in the world) is a small step in the right direction. Unfortunately, private and Chinese creditors, who account for more than half of these countries’ debt service payments (about $25 billion this year) showed little interest in participating. As a result, countries like Cameroon, Ethiopia and Ghana currently spend two or three times more on debt servicing than on primary education.

Indeed, countries face the payment of short-term debt by eroding long-term human capital. Allowing private creditors to deprive children of their right to education is morally indefensible and economically ruinous. This is why Save the Children has proposed a mechanism by which debt securities can be converted into investments in children.

We can measure the impact of COVID-19 on adult health by tracking infection and death rates, and we can measure its economic effects in terms of lost GDP, higher unemployment, and increased public debt. The urgency of education is less visible to policy makers. But it will leave millions of the world’s poorest children with the scars of diminished opportunity for the rest of their lives. We can – and must – protect their future.

Aurora J. William