The United Nations recently estimated that the number of crisis-affected children in need of urgent educational support has skyrocketed from 75 million in 2016 to 222 million today. That’s 222 million dreams dashed — and 222 million attacks on our collective humanity.
This growing crisis will have far-reaching effects on our economies and societies. But only 2-4% of global humanitarian funding is dedicated to education. As world leaders decide how to allocate resources in response to Covid-19, climate change, and conflict, they must make spending on education a much higher priority. This means rethinking international development policy with a view to achieving a world in which respect for equality and human rights starts with education for all.
How education boosts GDP
Education requires money, but it is an investment that empowers people, creates more resilient economies, and ends poverty traps that perpetuate negative cycles of hunger, displacement, conflict, and chaos. A space flight with Jeff Bezos was recently auctioned for $28 million — a sum that could provide close to 200,000 crisis-affected children with the safety, power, and opportunity for an education.
Every $1 spent on girls’ education generates approximately $2.80 in return. And ensuring that all girls complete their secondary education could boost developing countries’ GDP by an average of 10% over the next decade.
But we can’t just throw money at the problem. We need to think about the quality of our investments in education.
By making a global commitment to help every child and adolescent to reach their potential, we can contribute to human rights, peace and security, and economic prosperity for all.
Of the 222 million children currently affected by crises and emergencies, 78.2 million are out of school. And nearly 120 million are in school but not achieving minimum proficiency in math or reading.
Yes, these children need classrooms, teachers, books, pencils, and more. But, to benefit from the kind of learning that has the power to transform societies, they also need a broad spectrum of additional educational supports.
For example, according to the UN, only 56% of schools in least-developed countries have access to safe drinking water, and 350 million children worldwide are hungry. How can a child who rarely eats a nourishing meal be expected to learn algebra?
School Meals Coalition
Through the School Meals Coalition and other broad partnerships, we can ensure that children in places like Haiti and Somalia are able to eat at least one nutritious school meal a day. That can make all the difference.
So can protecting children from violence. The recent deadly shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, was a tragic reminder of the need to keep schools safe. The challenge is particularly daunting for children who face the prospect of living their entire life in a war zone.
According to the recent Education Under Attack 2022 report, attacks on education and the use of schools by military forces increased by one-third from 2019 to 2020. The war in Ukraine, in which over 1,800 educational institutions have so far been damaged and 170 completely destroyed, has made the situation even worse. Upholding international humanitarian law and the Safe Schools Declaration is another investment countries must make.
Additional supporting measures will help to achieve quality learning outcomes. These include counselling and other psychosocial services, which are vital to ensuring continuity of education for young people.
Donors should also follow the lead of organisations like The LEGO Foundation by investing in early childhood education. Teaching girls science, technology, engineering, and math should be a high priority. And we must provide the specialised education services that children with disabilities and other severely marginalised groups need.
Without education, no other Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved. To avoid inefficiencies and further disruptions to efforts to deliver on the SDGs, we need to focus on achieving universal and equitable education (SDG4).
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That is a distant dream for the 84% of the crisis-affected out-of-school children who are living in areas with protracted crises. The vast majority are in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen. The war in Ukraine is exacerbating the problem, with recent estimates indicating that the conflict is threatening the lives and well-being of 5.7 million school-aged children.
There is hope. For example, the Ecuadorean government has recently responded to the crisis in Venezuela by allowing refugees to access public education. In Uganda, which hosts the largest refugee population in Africa, the government is implementing an Education Response Plan to provide safe learning environments for refugee children. In Ethiopia, accelerated school programs are helping refugee girls to make up for years of lost learning.
Responding to the urgent educational needs of children affected by crises is not the job only of national governments or the UN. By making a global commitment to help every child and adolescent — including those enduring wars, forced displacement, and climate-induced disasters — to reach their potential, we can contribute to human rights, peace and security, and economic prosperity for all. First, we have 222 million dreams to save.
— Project Syndicate
Yasmine Sherif is Director of Education Cannot Wait, the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises.