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Education: Act Now, Don’t Wait for the Bill

PARIS, Oct 20 2020 (IPS) - School reopening doesn’t mean that education is back on course. For a start, schools remain closed in over 50 countries, affecting more than 800 million students. The poorest ones may never make it back to school, driven by poverty into child labour or early marriage. Distance learning has been out of reach for one third of the 1.6 billion students affected worldwide by school closures. They may disengage altogether if school closures continue.

Stefania Giannini

The health crisis is at risk of eroding decades of progress. For the first time since its conception, the Human Development Index is slated to decline, with education accounting for one third of its measure. At least 24 million students from early childhood through secondary school and university are at risk of dropping out because of COVID’s economic impact alone. Young children have missed out on vital health, nutrition and early learning in critical pre-school years. Youth have seen skills’ training centres shut down without any alternative. Learners with disabilities were left without support. Girls have faced heightened exposure to violence and early marriage. Adults’ literacy programmes were interrupted. University students couldn’t afford to continue their studies. The world was already facing a learning crisis before the pandemic. Now it could turn into a generational catastrophe if governments and the international community fail to prioritize education as a springboard of the recovery.

But as it stands now, education is not being prioritized. Education and training is receiving a nearly invisible share of stimulus packages set up by countries to support recovery from the COVID-19 crisis – 0.78 percent or USD 91.2 billion according to UNESCO’s preliminary research. Europe and North America allocated the largest amount to education (USD 56.9 billion) followed by Asia and the Pacific (USD 30.5 billion), while other regions may have spent around USD 3.8 billion altogether. The IMF policy tracker finds that only 37 out of 196 countries and territories cover education or training in their fiscal measures, especially stimulus packages. Leaders hardly referred to education when they met virtually at the UN last month to set priorities on financing for development post-COVID-19.

This does not stand up to economic logic. The recovery cannot be a competition for funds but one that builds on the connections between education, health, jobs and fighting poverty and inequalities. Access to education has lifetime repercussions on well-being, earnings and gender equality. Fiscal space is shrinking everywhere, but at minima, education budgets must be protected, if not increased to maintain the same level of spending. It is morally unacceptable to make governments choose between funding essential public goods and servicing debt.

There is a cost to every lost school day. Education will take time to recover from a universal disruption. The pandemic will notch up the funding gap for education by one third to as much as USD 200 billion annually in low and middle-income countries. The recovery requires investing now in campaigns to re-enrol the most marginalized students, in catch-up and second chance programmes and in health and hygiene facilities to ensure children and teachers are safe in school. As the pandemic curve is far from flattening, investments will be needed in remote and online learning options as they become an inevitable part of the “new normal”.

But by making the right investment choices now, rather than waiting, the additional funding gap incurred by the pandemic could be reduced by three-quarters. Aid to education, that was already losing steam as a priority among many donors, accounting for less than 11% of total official development assistance, could decline by 12% as a result of COVID-19. It must be stepped up. Children and youth are paying a high price for the health crisis. The pandemic cannot sound the death knell of their education – and their future. We can’t let our education systems break down in the name of a recession or a pandemic.

As an international community, we are calling on world leaders to make pledges to protect their education budgets and act in solidarity to support those farthest behind. We are convening a global meeting hosted by the Ghana, Norway and the United Kingdom this 22 October where we need to rally around the call to #PowerEducation and protect learning. Governments and the international community have it their power to prevent an educational fallout that will deepen inequalities and set back human development everywhere, threatening the already fragile social fabric of our societies. The COVID-19 generation deserves a better deal for the future, and this starts with the promise of a decent quality education.

Stefania Giannini is Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO


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