On top of everything else, the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a global education emergency. With more than 1bn children out of school because of social-distancing and lockdown measures, the crisis threatens to leave behind a “Covid generation” whose future prospects have been irreparably damaged. According to one recent study, Pakistani children who were displaced from school for just three months in 2005 by an earthquake showed signs of having lost 1.5 years of education four years later.
Worse, the crisis is deepening pre-existing inequalities. Unlike the more fortunate children who have been able to continue their educations online and in alternative venues, the world’s poorest have been locked out entirely from learning, as well as from free school meals. Without this critical source of nutrition, 300mn boys and girls are facing the threat of hunger.
Another immediate concern is the estimated 30mn children who may never return to school at all. These are among the world’s least-advantaged children, for whom education is often the only route out of poverty. For adolescent girls in this cohort, school is the best defense against forced marriage; and for many poor children, it is the last protection against exploitative and dangerous labour.
Because education is a critical factor in almost every area of human development – from child survival and maternal health to gender equity, job creation, and inclusive economic growth – today’s crisis has implications for the fate of the entire 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. According to the World Bank’s latest estimate, the educational losses now being inflicted on the Covid generation could result in lifetime foregone earnings totaling $10tn.
Those who are in a position to prevent millions of young people from losing a fair chance in life must not stand idly by. This is the time to redouble global efforts to ensure that all children receive a quality primary education.
Even before the pandemic, there were 260mn children out of school, including many of the 13mn child refugees and 40mn internally displaced children. Moreover, half of all children in developing countries suffer from “learning poverty,” demonstrating little to no basic literacy or numeracy even at age 11. Around 800mn young people have left school with no labour-market qualifications whatsoever.
To have any chance of reversing these bleak trends, the millions of children who have already lost half a year of education will need to be afforded assistance so that they can catch up. Resources are urgently needed to resume young people’s education and “build back better” with investments in online and personalised learning, more trained teachers, conditional cash transfers for poor families, safer schools, and other outlays.
To push for more funding in these areas, a coalition of global organisations recently came together to launch the Save our Future initiative. The effort is a response to the fact that while extra resources are needed now more than ever, education funding is facing a triple whammy.
First, the pandemic-induced recession will result in less revenue to fund public services, not least education. Second, as governments determine how to allocate scarce funds, they inevitably will focus spending on public health and economic recovery, once again neglecting education. And, third, the intensifying fiscal pressure on developing-country governments will perversely lead to a reduction in international development aid for education, which has already been losing out to other priorities in the allocation of bilateral and multilateral aid.
In fact, the same multilateral donors who already underinvest in education may now reallocate even more funds away from schooling. Hence, the World Bank estimates that over the next year, overall education spending in low- and middle-income countries could fall by $100-150bn below what was planned.
This funding crisis will not resolve itself. It is thus imperative that the G20, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, regional development banks, and all countries recognise the scale of the crisis and intervene to help displaced children catch up.
First, every country should pledge to protect education spending and emphasise the needs of the most disadvantaged children wherever possible, including through conditional and unconditional cash transfers to promote school attendance.
Second, the international community must increase aid for education, particularly for the most vulnerable, including the poor, girls, children in conflict zones, and the disabled. The fastest way to free up resources for education is through debt relief. With the world’s 76 poorest countries on track to incur $86bn in debt-servicing costs over the next two years, debt suspension is urgent so that this money can be reallocated to education and other high-priority investments for children.
Third, the IMF should issue $1.2tn in Special Drawing Rights (its global reserve asset), and its members should agree to channel these resources toward the countries that need them most. For its part, the World Bank should unlock more support for low-income countries through a supplementary International Development Association budget. And all advanced economies should follow the lead of Britain and the Netherlands, which together have pledged $600mn to the new International Finance Facility for Education, which will leverage such donations to extend grants and guarantees on a much larger scale.
All of these new sources of funding should be in addition to the funds for replenishing the Global Partnership for Education and Education Cannot Wait over the next two years. And, obviously all governments must continue to support Unesco, Unicef, and other United Nations agencies working to provide all children with an education.
The challenges posed by Covid-19 are momentous, to be sure. But they also represent an occasion to redouble our efforts to achieve the fourth Sustainable Development Goal: quality education for all. The children of the Covid generation deserve nothing less than the chance to reach their full potential. – Project Syndicate

Ban Ki-moon, Deputy Chair of The Elders, is a former secretary-general of the United Nations and South Korean foreign minister. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, is Chair of The Elders. Graça Machel, founder of the Graça Machel Trust, is Deputy Chair of The Elders. Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, is a former administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. Gordon Brown, a former prime minister of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity.

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