Educating the COVID recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic and the health and economic crises it created are jeopardizing education gains. How can we build back better, and what mechanisms are at our disposal to ensure education is not left out of recovery plans?

June 04, 2020 by Robert Jenkins, UNICEF, and Liesbet Steer, International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity
8 minutes read
A girl is studying at home, in Abidjan, in the South of Côte d'Ivoire.
A girl is studying at home, in Abidjan, in the South of Côte d'Ivoire. UNICEF, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, started a project "School at home". Videos of teachers teaching were produced and are broadcast on national television during the period of isolation due to COVID-19.
Credit: UNICEF/Frank Dejongh

We face a lost decade … or a decade in which children have an equal opportunity to learn and gain the skills they need to succeed in work and life.

It’s a choice.

We are in the midst of the worst health and economic crisis in a century, with millions of children locked out of school. Unless we act now, a significant share of them will never return.

The education crisis we faced before is now magnified. The risk now is that short-term school closures will lead to long-term reversals in education, with the world’s poorest and most marginalized children bearing the brunt.

School closures put adolescent girls in particular at risk, as incidences of early pregnancy, child labor, transactional sex and sexual assault rise. For example, after the school closures in Sierra Leone because of the Ebola outbreak, enrollment rates of adolescent girls fell by 16 percentage points, child labor by girls increased by 19 percentage points, and some parts of the country saw a 65%increase in adolescent pregnancies.

A recent survey of education providers coping with COVID-19 confirms these concerns; also noting the potential harm to adolescent boys who may be at risk of becoming child laborers especially in countries where the harvest season is underway.

Building back better – but how?

Over the coming 2-3 years it is expected that $10-20 trillion of public funding will be spent to prevent incomes falling and to restart economic activity. How to spend this money is the subject of intense discussion in Finance and Planning ministries, international financing institutions, and the academic community. There is a short-term and long-term aspect to this.

The way that money is spent will have implications for the lives and learning of many children and the longer term implications could be significant. The phrase ‘Build Back Better’ captures the wide-held belief that this unprecedented injection of public funds must not simply restore the same inefficient, unequal, risky status quo but reset our economy and communities in a fairer, more equitable and sustainable way.

Within this debate, the health community rightly argues that public health must be among the highest priorities. And climate advocates rightly argue that, done right, the reflation of the economy could drive a brighter low-carbon and climate-resilient future.

Leading world figures, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the IMF’s Kristalina Georgieva have made compelling statements in favor of “greening” the recovery, and international meetings of ministers have convened to advance the agenda of low carbon stimulus. Such leadership is inspiring and much needed.

But where does education fit in to the recovery plans? It’s still early days and data are highly incomplete, but evidence to date suggests it may currently account for less than 1% of the planned spend. Yet, the same logic applied to “greening the recovery” can be made to “educating the recovery”.

In both the short term and the longer term, prioritizing education can help deliver precisely the outcomes that policymakers need. In the short term, investments could include grants to help parents with school fees, support school feeding programs, upskill teachers and the wider workforce, as well as new technologies to deliver education in new ways.

In numerous ways, education investments can be among the most effective and pro-poor investments available. And the right spending today – in learning, in the education workforce, in closing the digital divide and more – can get the world back on track for achieving SDG 4, without which none of the other SDGs can be achieved.


Allocating resources to education is one of the most powerful forces for short-term stimulus and long-term growth imaginable.

Policymakers may want to look at four opportunities to “educate” the recovery.

  1. Leverage debt relief packages to uphold investment in education

    Debt-for-education swaps, a type of debt relief that converts a portion of external debt owed to the creditor into funds to invest in their own education system, were first considered in the early 2000s. There are several cases in which this instrument has been successful.

    In 2000, for example, Germany cancelled a bilateral debt of 25.6 million Euros, and Indonesia spent the local currency equivalent of half this amount on teacher training over three years, which had a highly positive return. Similarly, in 2005 Spain and El Salvador agreed to convert 10 million USD of debt owed by El Salvador to Spain into funds to support a rural school construction program.

    With the encouragement of the World Bank Group, the IMF and others, G20 economies are allowing the world’s poorest countries to suspend repayment of debt, and many creditors are considering debt cancellation.

    Debt relief packages offer an important opportunity to encourage upholding education spending. Creditor countries can link debt relief to debtor country commitments to not cut back spending for education or to implement debt-for-education swaps to avoid loss of human capital and stem increases in poverty and inequality levels in the future.

  2. Connect emergency social safety net programs back to education

    In poorer countries, education finance depends heavily on household expenditure, which accounts for 38% of spending on education in low- and middle-income countries as opposed to 19% in high income countries.

    Poor families make extraordinary efforts to support their children in school, and as unemployment rises and economies struggle, many families will struggle to make ends meet.

    As emergency cash transfer programs are being deployed around the world, the education sector could collaborate with social protection and other sectors to accompany cash with information campaigns and soft conditionalities to encourage school participation.

    In the past, conditional cash transfer programs such as ‘Oportunidades’ in Mexico and ‘Bolsa Familia’ in Brazil were successful in doing exactly that.

    Social safety net programs that are part of pandemic relief could also include reducing direct and indirect costs to attending school. For example, after the Ebola crisis, the Sierra Leone Government waived tuition fees for two years, and development partners, along with civil society organizations and NGOs, provided books, uniforms and school supplies to offset education costs borne by families.

  3. Make corporate bailouts work for education

    As governments dole out massive bailouts for corporations in the wake of the pandemic, conditionalities could include investment in both current and future workers. Conditioning bailouts on reform is already the norm across the world in public and private sectors in many countries, as demonstrated during the European debt crisis that struck in the wake of the Great Recession.

    Some of the conditions typically included were pension system reform, rainy day protections, and management requirements. Including conditions on investment in education and skills training for future employees could make the economic impact of corporate bailouts more meaningful and help create the human capital engine for recovery and future growth. In the context of COVID19, Canada has led the way by linking corporate bailouts to climate disclosure requirements.

  1. Use public spending and policy programs to expand education and reimagine its design and delivery

    A final opportunity to “Educate the recovery” is the public investment programs that will come on stream to create employment and reboot economic activity. To benefit education, these programs could include training and upskilling programs as well as upgrading of technology.

    This could include training and workforce development programs for education professionals to provide additional support around inclusion and well-being for the most vulnerable children, especially girls, and lay the foundation for a transformation of the education workforce.

    Public investment programs could also be focused on enabling all students to learn remotely—whether that is through no-tech, low-tech, high-tech or blended learning.

    The COVID-19 crisis has exposed deep inequities in digital access. In sub-Saharan Africa, 82% of learners lack access to the internet. In low income countries women and girls are 33% less likely than men to access internet and evidence from past pandemics shows that they are less likely to return to school and benefit from remote learning opportunities.

    But even in highly developed countries such as the United States, the digital divide continues to be a persistent problem. Closing this gap should be a key priority for public recovery programs.

    With the right kind of investments, the crisis provides an opportunity to reimagine education, including blended learning models which, with the right investments in the combination of educator-led instruction and technology, could allow for meeting the learning needs of every child through effective pedagogies.

    This may also include ways for youth to learn skills independently of the school system, giving them agency to choose the type of curriculum that is most relevant to their future workforce needs.

    The pandemic is putting a spotlight on the digital connectivity gap and learning crisis, but it is also providing a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to ensure all children and young people access learning anywhere, any time.

    Schools closures have shown what is possible for education technology, and education systems can incorporate these tools more permanently and on a wider scale. Once schools have reopened, systems can continue to use remote learning and other technologies, blending them with traditional instruction.

But if we fail…

Let’s be clear, if education is left out of stimulus packages, we face a grim decade. Three years from today, many governments will be “spent out”, and we are likely to face a decade of relative austerity with longer-term spending on education also at risk.

With likely declines in overall spending, governments will be facing difficult trade-offs and education is likely to suffer even further. With more limited budgets, choices will also need to be made within education.

Given most countries are committed to free primary school and face political pressures maintaining spending at the tertiary level, secondary level education and early childhood programs may be particularly at risk. Fees will rise, equality of access to quality education will fall, and the SDGs will fail.

We must not let this happen. We have a choice.

We must “educate the recovery” for a better future – not only for every child and young person, but for the prosperity of our economies and our communities.

With thanks to Elena Losada for research support.


Read all the blogs in the "Financing our future" series

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