Comment: We must prevent Covid-19 from causing a Global Education Disaster

The education losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic are invisible, but will leave millions of the world’s poorest children carrying the scars of diminished opportunity. The world can – and must – take immediate steps to mitigate the damage.
Comment: We must prevent Covid-19 from causing a Global Education Disaster
The impact of Covid-19 on education could lead to millions of children missing out on opportunities. Picture: File Picture.

“The beautiful thing about learning,” the great blues guitarist B.B. 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 mutating into a global education emergency. 

Millions of children, especially the poorest and young girls, stand to lose the learning opportunities that could transform their lives. 

Because education is so closely tied to future prosperity, job creation, and improved health, a setback on this scale would undermine countries’ progress, reinforcing extreme inequalities. Yet it has yet to register on the pandemic response agenda.

Lockdowns have shut more than one billion children out of school. For an estimated 500 million, that means receiving no education at all. 

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, increased child poverty, and deep budget cuts will lead to unprecedented reversals in education.

This is an emergency layered on a pre-existing crisis. Before the pandemic, 258 million children were out of school, and progress toward universal education had stalled. 

Now, increased child poverty could result in ten million children not returning to school, and time spent out of school can have an enormous impact. 

Education empowers people, reduces poverty and improves health. 

Governments should now be investing to prevent that outcome. 

Unfortunately, education budgets are being hollowed out by recession and the diversion of public spending – and international aid – to health care and economic recovery. 

So, what can be done to avert disaster? In its new global Save Our Education campaign, Save the Children sets out a three-part agenda for recovery.

The first priority is to keep learning alive during lockdown. Governments should do all they can to reach children through radio, TV, and remote-learning initiatives.

Second, the pandemic creates an opportunity to address the wider learning crisis. Too many children are being taught at the wrong level, owing to schools’ rigid application of poorly designed curricula. 

Every child returning to school should undergo a learning assessment aimed at identifying those in need of support.

Remedial teaching programs can then prevent these children from falling further behind, reducing the risk of future dropout.

Third, increased international financing is critical. Most of the world’s poorest countries entered the economic downturn with limited fiscal space. 

That room for manoeuvre is now shrinking further as recession bites and external-debt problems intensify.

Wealthy governments have responded to the Covid-19 crisis by tearing up their fiscal policy rulebooks and underwriting ambitious national recovery plans. They should be equally bold in supporting education in developing countries.

More effective leveraging of multilateral development bank balance sheets is an obvious starting place. 

The Education Commission has advocated establishing an International Finance Facility for education to provide loan guarantees, enabling the World Bank and others to borrow cheaply on international markets and lend the funds to developing countries. Every $1 of guarantees under this scheme could unlock $4 of financing for education. 

To its credit, the Bank is front-loading resources already allocated to the International Development Association, its concessional lending arm. 

But an unprecedented crisis surely demands 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 financing. 

The G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative for IDA members (the world’s 73 poorest countries) is a small step in the right direction. 

But, private and Chinese creditors, which account for over half of these countries’ debt-service payments (about $25bn this year) have shown scant interest in participating. 

As a result, countries like Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Ghana are currently spending two or three times more on debt service than on primary education.

In effect, countries are meeting short-term debt payments by eroding long-term human capital. 

Allowing the claims of private creditors to rob children of their right to an education is morally indefensible and economically ruinous. 

That is why Save the Children has proposed a mechanism through which debt obligations can be converted into investments in children.

We measure the health impact of Covid-19 on adults by tracking infection rates and deaths, and we gauge its economic effects in terms of lost GDP, higher unemployment, and rising debt. 

The education emergency is less visible. 

But it will leave millions of the world’s poorest children carrying the scars of diminished opportunity for the rest of their lives. We can – and must – protect their future.

- Kevin Watkins is CEO of Save the Children UK.

©: Project Syndicate

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