How can G20 assist the Global South to undo the negative impact of the pandemic in the education sector and help achieve the SDG targets?
By the end of April 2020, the global community faced the largest school closure in modern history. More than 90 percent of students in 190 countries experienced interrupted in-person education. Crisis-sensitive approaches managed to provide first emergency responses, but it soon became clear that implementing these responses was challenging and insufficient, especially for lower-income (LIC) and lower-middle income countries (LMIC). Different forms of remote strategies facilitated learning continuity, but schools found it difficult to work as essential public hubs to provide hot meals, healthcare, psych emotional assistance, amongst other support services were also impacted. The immediate and long-term individual and societal impacts anticipated by numerous studies have reinforced the importance of education systems as key institutions to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Amidst compounded inequalities within and amongst countries, the COVID-19 has set new challenges to guarantee quality education for all and accomplish SDG 4 targets.
Different forms of remote strategies facilitated learning continuity, but schools found it difficult to work as essential public hubs to provide hot meals, healthcare, psych emotional assistance, amongst other support services were also impacted.
This global crisis presents pressing challenges, especially for Global South countries. COVID-19 consequences undermine their capacity to plan and deliver education polices for emergency and recovery, as educational financing might be threatened by the budget constraints imposed by the economic and social crisis at national and international scales. Commitments established at the Addis Ababa international conference for financing development require particular consideration to ensure needed resources to achieve SDG4 targets by 2030. G20 countries have faced dual challenges responding domestically and internationally as OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors. However, with nine years ahead to meet the 2030 Agenda, the G20 should drive political attention to allocate resources aimed at moving from first responses to long-term educational recovery for the current and upcoming generations. Setting education policy priorities and advocating for financial resources allocation to achieve SDG 4 could mean a significant contribution by these countries.
Ensuring the prioritisation of educational policies
Education was first included as an official independent working group in the G20 under Argentina’s presidency in 2018. This enabled a new space within this forum to discuss national and international priorities regarding education policy as well as to nurture educational initiatives across G20 engagement groups, such as the Think20, Youth20, and Civil20. In addition, this encouraged new international discussions on global education policy through official education ministers meetings, summits, and side events. By introducing the Education Working Group in 2018, a turning-point was set for this forum: Leaders’ declarations in Argentina 2018, Japan 2019, and Saudi Arabia 2020 have increasingly driven attention on the importance of strengthening international cooperation aimed at education policies. Likewise, communiques and policy briefs delivered by experts from engagement groups, like task forces in the Think20—the G20 engagement group that gathers think tanks and research centres—have oriented recommendations on improving education access, completion and quality by prioritising policies addressing early childhood development, digital access and usability, STEM disciplines, girls’ education, amongst others. Italy’s presidency in 2021 has followed and underlined this path by considering education access as a key component to build more inclusive societies under the ‘People’ pillar.
The COVID-19 crisis has raised new challenges to accomplish these priorities and meet SDG 4 by 2030. Cumulative costs of lost learning and earnings of this cohort threaten economic and social recovery, after global school closures for an average of 6.7 months between March 2020 and March 2021. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, marginalised groups, and with less educated parents will be disproportionately affected by such learning losses. Globally, this is expected to have severe macro-economic effects: Lifetime earnings losses due to COVID-19 school closures could range from US $364 billion in LICs to US $6.8 trillion in middle income countries (MICs), and US $4.9 trillion in higher income countries (HICs)—globally, this amounts to US $15.3 trillion.
Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, marginalised groups, and with less educated parents will be disproportionately affected by such learning losses.
As remarked by experts from international agencies, think tanks and academia in the Think20, consequences from education disruption will produce institutional and individual-level inequities. While the former will affect education systems governance, the latter will compound on those in existing vulnerable circumstances, emergency and conflict contexts, and facing ‘hard core’ exclusion due to intersecting characteristics—for e.g., relative poverty, gender, race, language, disability, etc.)—and those experiencing new pandemic-related vulnerabilities and exclusions. Considering this scenario and its long-term impact towards the 2030 Agenda, the G20 should not only reinforce constant advocacy for international cooperation addressing education policies, but also ensure financial resources allocation for system overall and to target vulnerable areas and groups.
Driving financing for SDG 4 “Quality Education for All”
The global recession caused by COVID-19 is expected to impact economies and public finances with graveconsequences for LIC and LMIC. As remarked by the United Nations in August 2020, governments must mitigate long-term effects on children despite constraints on public spending, by ensuring education is included in COVID-19 stimulus packages and long-term recovery plans alongside health, social protection, and economy. However, experts from Western University (Canada), CIPPEC (Argentina), IIEP-UNESCO, UNICEF, INEE, and the Center for Policy Research (India) working in the ‘Social cohesion and the Future of Welfare Systems’ Task Force of the Think20 have warned that early indications for G20 countries show variable patterns, with a number of countries announcing financing cuts which might threaten the recovery of systems due to inadequate resourcing.
According to early evidence, public education budgets have been reduced in more than a half in of the LICs and LMICs since the start of the pandemic and official development assistance (ODA) for education remains low and unpredictable. While there has been a slow upward trend in humanitarian financing of education since 2012, it remains at just 2.6 percent, which is significantly lower than the 10 percent target of the European Union. Many countries are being left behind. The condition of the education of children and young people in these forgotten crises were already dire even before the COVID-19 pandemic. This builds on pre-pandemic estimations of an existing US $148 billion annual financing gap for LICs/LMICs to achieve good quality education for all by 2030; school closures due to COVID-19 have increased this gap by US $30 to US $45 billion. Experts agree that an increased and predictable multi-year funding for education is urgently needed.
Increase and protection of humanitarian and development aid to education must be a priority for G20 countries.
Even if international cooperation ensures budget increase to the education sector, this rise will need a precise criteria to ensure that the SDG 4 is achieved as COVID-19 has raised new distribution demands to mitigate disproportionate effects on vulnerable groups. In this regard, the G20 should catalyse equity-oriented financing strategies by encouraging governments to apply a ‘twin-track’ approach that allocates general funding for all and targeted funding for the most disadvantaged. According to UNESCO, this type of measures requires immediate intervention. In this fashion, G20 countries must commit longer-term resources to account effects of education disruption, consider cross-sectoral resources and multi-sectoral financing strategies and, when possible, strategically decentralise fund management so that spending can best reflect local priorities and expectations. These strategies need strong commitments by OECD DAC donors not only to ensure funding, but also to institutionalise these mechanisms. In short, increase and protection of humanitarian and development aid to education must be a priority for G20 countries.
Six years after the adoptionof the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, the COVID-19 pandemic has renewed demands for stronger cooperation. Humankind has already shown great capacity to address pressing challenges by responding to this unforeseen crisis in different action fronts. This crisis should work as a turning point to strengthen G20 countries support towards the 2030 Agenda. Ensuring education financing to accomplish SDG 4 “Quality Education for All” targets stands as a cornerstone to build that future for the global community. After all, equitable education opportunities represent the very baseline on which future generations are prepared to face the upcoming societal challenges.
 This article is based on the educational agenda led by CIPPEC in the Think20 since 2018. In particular, it builds on T20 policy briefs led by Prof. Prachi Srivastava (University of Western Ontario) and Alejandra Cardini (CIPPEC) in collaboration with experts from IIEP-UNESCO, UNICEF, INEE and the Center for Policy Research. This work was developed during Saudi Arabia 2020 and Italy 2021 T20 editions in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).