COVID-19: Building a sustainable and just future for all

While the long-term impact of COVID-19 on education will be dramatic, the future will be much more precarious if we do not focus on building systems for lifelong learning that safeguard quality and inclusiveness, writes Per Magnusson

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The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an unprecedented global crisis affecting societies and communities in a multitude of ways for which few of us were prepared.

Closing schools has been part of the strategy to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus in almost all countries around the world. With a peak of 1.5 billion children out of school in April, the number is still estimated to be around 1.2 billion, or 70 per cent of total enrolled learners (13 May). Even if many countries have simultaneously introduced programmes to allow for continuity of learning and distance learning, in varying levels of digitalisation, we can be certain this will not compensate for the learning lost when schools and education institutions are up and running in ‘normal’ times.

The school closures will undoubtedly have long-term effects for both individuals and societies. We also know that school closures will have an even more intense impact for girls, especially from the poorest and most vulnerable groups because they are the ones most exposed to domestic violence and sexual harassment, including pregnancies and early marriages.

It is safe to say the global pandemic has generated an even greater education crisis. Although most people instinctively recognize the short-term impact of school closures when it comes to the ability to read and write, the impact on lifelong learning might be even more severe. Children who do not learn to read early enough often fail later in school or when they enter the labour market: Close a school today and you will end up with an increased share of illiterate adults.

So, children deprived of their human right to education is serious, but the long-term effects will be devastating for a lot of people and countries. Not to mention that even before this crisis, Sustainable Development Goal 4 progress was already off track.

The investment case for education is strong. No one today questions that education is the most powerful way for a country to alleviate poverty, empower girls and women, and strengthen health among citizens, not to say to increase the capacity to attain sustainable development. Still, in a lot of countries the proportion of public funding for education is staggering below the global benchmark 4-6 per cent of GDP to education. Contemplating the economic forecasts gives anyone concerned about global development reason to worry. Both government and donor spending on education will probably plummet because of the economic setback. With national budgets shrinking, governments will presumably not increase or even maintain investment levels to education. The same goes for donors. At the moment, the pattern observed is that many donors re-allocate resources to COVID-19 response interventions where education is not the main target area.

The effects will hit poor countries and the most vulnerable the most. Oxfam has calculated that economic hardship during the pandemic might push half a billion more people into poverty unless urgent action is taken, and that the global poverty rate will increase for the first time since 1990. We might witness a further erosion of social and economic rights in many societies. As millions of people around the world are losing their jobs and economies are suffering, it is crucial to address the short- and long-term socio-economic consequences broadly in development cooperation. This could be done by strengthening human rights and democracy, education, gender equality, opportunities for decent work and social protection.

Global cooperation, and especially international development cooperation, obviously has an important role here. The pandemic reminds us that we cannot tackle global challenges alone and offers an opportunity for collaboration and international solidarity.

Some concepts are really important to uphold in this situation.

  • While countries deal with their national situations, they must also engage in the global response. Some see an opportunity to weaken international cooperation and redraw the global playing field. We must support international commitments and institutions at a time when we need them the most.
  • We must close financing gaps and mobilise additional resources in order to avoid depleting funds for regular development and humanitarian assistance. Although additional funding is needed, the main principal should at all times be to provide partners with non-earmarked core support, which is vital to give organizations the flexibility to quickly adjust and take early action as needs arise.
  • We must take into consideration that COVID-19 responses have to encompass more than just health interventions. The needs look different in different countries, so the adjustment that will be made, and in some cases is already done, will require context-specific analyses and assessments. Many organisations in human rights, democracy, education, gender equality, employment and other fields are being reprogrammed to respond to the direct or indirect consequences of COVID-19.
  • Despite the urgent situation for education in the world at the moment, the impact for both individuals and societies will be much more precarious in the long run if we do not focus on building holistic national education systems for lifelong learning that safeguard quality and inclusiveness.
  • Individuals who are already discriminated against and marginalized are most at risk. It is crucial to integrate a human rights and gender perspective into the response, in both the short and long term – leaving no one behind.

Together, we can lay the foundations for a more sustainable and equitable world with better global preparedness for future crises. The backbone in the approach from a development policy perspective must be to ensure we adhere to the goals set up in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and pay close attention to the role education and lifelong learning plays in building a sustainable and just future for all.

Per Magnusson is Senior Programme Manager, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and is also a member of the UIL Governing Board.

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