This blog post was originally published in Project Syndicate.
WASHINGTON, DC – African political leaders have their hands full: rising COVID-19 infections, fragile health systems, increasing food insecurity, and, in some areas, growing social unrest. And as government revenues dry up amid the continent’s sharpest economic contraction in decades, the resources available to address these challenges are dwindling.
For now, cash-strapped governments and their international development partners are rightly putting public health, social protection, and economic stimulus first. But they appear to be forgetting one of their most important tools: education.
Recent analyses indicate that some African governments are cutting education budgets in response to the pandemic – and if the 2008 global financial crisis is any guide, donors will do so, too. And whereas governments were able to maintain education budgets during the 2008 crisis by issuing debt, the continent’s current public-debt burdens are already heavy, and borrowing conditions are unfavorable.
But education is one of the largest and most consequential government activities in Africa, and policymakers and aid agencies ignore it at the continent’s peril. Indeed, by continuing to support education during the pandemic, governments can strengthen their countries’ immediate COVID-19 response and long-term recovery in four key ways.
First, COVID-19 is hitting Africa’s most vulnerable people the hardest: food insecurity has increased alarmingly, and the economic recession is likely to push an additional 23 million people into extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. But once schools reopen, they will be powerful vehicles for delivering social protection to families that need it most, which will encourage attendance. For example, school programs that provide take-home food rations and cash transfer support incentivize families with minimal resources to send their children to school while providing them with much-needed nutritional and economic support.
Similarly, the education sector plays an important role in supporting the health sector’s pandemic response. For example, life-saving COVID-19 health messages – from proper hand-washing techniques to wearing facemasks – can form part of national distance-learning programs. This strategy of empowering children with knowledge in order to change their families’ behavior has proven effective in past public-health campaigns, and countries such as Tanzania, Ghana, and Uganda have already adopted it for COVID-19. In addition, schools have also regularly served as important front-line sites for public-health interventions such as vaccination campaigns.