Yasmine Sherif, director of Education Cannot Wait
— There are moments when the world has no choice but to come together. Those moments become historic turning points. This is one of them. We are now faced with the greatest education emergency of our time. Over one billion children are out of school. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented crisis of such magnitude and depth that the next generation might neither have the capacity and tools, nor the will, to rebuild — let alone build back better.
The world has not planned well for the future. At its worst, education has for too long been underprioritized, and at its best, has been viewed as just one among many competing priorities. Before COVID-19, the funding gap for education in low-income and middle-low income countries – many already plagued with extreme poverty, weak infrastructure, armed conflicts, climate-induced disasters and forced displacement – amounted to $148 billion. This funding gap is now estimated to increase by up to one-third.
COVID-19 has laid bare our collective failure to prioritize education. “The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and magnified the global learning crisis. The future of an entire generation is at risk,” warned United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when launching his Policy Brief on Education earlier this month, “The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history.”
The number of out-of-school children who may never set foot in a school again is now rapidly escalating. An estimated 30 million children and youth are of immediate concern, according to UNESCO’s assessment. In a letter to the international community, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the Education Cannot Wait’s High Level Steering Group, the Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, together with 275 world leaders, politicians, academics and civil society, calls for urgent action to address the global education crisis triggered by COVID-19.
In support of the mission of Education Cannot Wait, they state: “We cannot stand by and allow these young people to be robbed of their education and a fair chance in life. Instead we should be redoubling our efforts to get all children into school – including the 260 million already out of school and the 75 million children affected by protracted conflicts and forced displacement, including 35 million children living as refugees or internally – with the comprehensive help they need – and to make it possible for young people to start or resume their studies in school further and higher education.”
Similarly, the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencies, composed of UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, has issued an urgent call for firm political action to make financial investments in education for those left furthest behind in armed conflicts, forced displacement and climate-induced disasters, calling on the international community to “act fast and keep recovery and preparedness in sight.”
In the same spirit, the global education community has come together to Save Our Future, a coalition composed of the UN, the World Bank and civil society, raising the alarm of an entire generation at risk due to the rapidly escalating learning crisis, as a result of the massive funding gap, “The Covid-19 pandemic brought about the biggest cataclysm to education any of us have seen!”
On the ground, joint programming supported by pooled funding keeps delivering results. Education Cannot Wait’s 2019 Annual Results Report, Stronger Together in Crisis, launched on 11 August, illustrates that it is possible to deliver quality education to those left furthest behind – provided we come together, politically, strategically, programmatically and financially.
As the global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, ECW’s joint investments are rolling out the New Way of Working and ensuring humanitarian-development coherence, bringing together all partners: host-governments, affected populations, UN agencies, civil society, private sector, the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, and the International Facility for Financing Education, among others. Stronger together, we share a sense of absolute urgency and uncompromising commitment to results, which is put into action thanks to sustained funding by our strategic donor partners.
As a result, Education Cannot Wait has already reached 3.5 million children and youth since its inception. Yet, the scale and the depth of the education emergency in crisis-affected countries needs to be matched by adequate and scaled up financial investments to end the learning crisis for those left furthest behind, and to swiftly shift the course towards the SDGs. With 20 times more funding, the estimated 75 million children and youth can be reached. Indeed, financing stands between what is possible and what is not for these vulnerable girls and boys.
This truly is the defining moment in our time. There can be no sustainable development goals without education. “Education is a fundamental human right, the bedrock of just, equal and inclusive societies and a main driver of sustainable development,” the UN Secretary-General stated at the launch of his Policy Brief on Education, “As the world faces unsustainable levels of inequality, we need education – the great equalizer – more than ever. We must take bold steps now, to create inclusive, resilient, quality education systems fit for the future.”
We now have a chance to learn from the past by acting in the present, and, as the Secretary-General concluded, recognize the fact that: “The future of education is here!”