The COVID-19 pandemic has put front and center societal problems that education advocates have been grappling with for decades. Economic dislocation, rising inequality, persistent discrimination and exclusion, continued underfunding, and growing authoritarian populism around the world, have shaped the context in which education policy has taken place over the last 50 years.
In turn, this history sheds light on the mechanisms that have helped to drive progress despite the trenchant challenges, and points to new opportunities to mobilize and deliver on the right to education.
A half-century of history: The education advocacy movement
In the immediate post-WWII era of decolonization and post-imperial nation-building across the globe, education emerged as a human right and development priority. During the 1960s and 1970s, the focus shifted to inclusion and literacy as people sought opportunities to escape poverty, join the modern economy and participate in the political process.
The Jomtien World Conference on Education for All (EFA) in 1990 was a watershed moment when universal basic education broke through as a global public policy goal and the “Education for All” movement began to take shape. Civic activism for the right to education expanded and political will accelerated.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) and international agencies joined efforts to help national governments expand education in many countries. International funding expanded to support these efforts, despite calls for austerity and privatization from opponents.
At the turn of the century, education was featured prominently as one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). A groundswell of support from civic organizations, teachers’ associations, and the public in the early 2000s ensured that the U.N., governments, businesses and philanthropists knew that education was a top priority affecting every person around the world.