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.