Financing our future: 3 ways to transform education spending in our response to COVID-19

A view of an empty classroom after the government issued an order to close all schools in the country until April 20th as its first coronavirus case was confirmed, in Colombo, Sri Lanka March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

It's vital we emphasise the importance of, and protect education, throughout our response to COVID-19. Image: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Alice Albright
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  • COVID-19 has caused school closures across the globe.
  • The economic impacts of the crisis will lead to greater learning disparities.
  • This is how to safeguard education budgets, build back better, and fill the gaps in education financing.

COVID-19 has closed the world’s schools. The economic and social costs are devastating; as are the potential costs in lost learning.

Developing country governments have mobilized quickly to mitigate the immediate impacts. They have launched and delivered remote learning initiatives on an unprecedented scale, delivering educational content through radio and television networks, training teachers, and providing guidance to parents.

Sustaining learning through the pandemic and – when the time comes – safely re-opening schools has a cost. The Global Partnership for Education has moved quickly to help our partner countries mitigate the immediate impacts of school closures, putting in place a COVID-19 emergency fund.

The demand for support is significant. In just 8 weeks since the fund was announced, GPE has received proposals from close to 50 countries, totaling more than US$500 million, and more are expected in the coming weeks. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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The real shock is still to come

Just as health experts are worried about second waves of infection, school closures are only the first wave of the education emergency ahead. The economic shockwave triggered by the pandemic is the second.

In optimistic scenarios, where economies recover quickly in 2021, education spending is expected to stagnate in most countries and fall in some. More pessimistic projections forecast that education budgets could shrink by as much as 10% as governments reprioritize funds towards health.

International aid for education, which has only recently come back to pre-2008-2009 financial crisis levels, is also likely to fall – and in any case will not make up the gap.

Household incomes will also decline, as families’ livelihoods are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and remittances plummet. This will make it difficult for many families to cover education costs, which make up a higher proportion of household budgets in low-income countries than in high-income ones.

The combined impacts will exacerbate existing inequalities. The poorest and most vulnerable students will be hardest hit.

Learning disparities will widen. Tens of millions of children will be deprived of the opportunity, safety and knowledge that a quality education provides. The 40-60 million more children who will be pushed by the pandemic into extreme poverty will swell the ranks of those who fall into learning poverty – or out of school entirely.

The intergenerational impacts of lost human capital could set us back decades in our fight to eliminate global poverty and achieve the SDGs.


What can be done to protect children’s education?

With children’s futures quite literally on the line, we need to work together to do three things: safeguard education budgets, build back better, and fill the gaps in education financing.

  • Safeguard education spending

Our immediate priority must be to safeguard education spending, which, in the face of a potentially severe liquidity crisis for developing countries, means freeing up resources.

For many developing countries this means confronting the issue of debt servicing. At least 30 GPE partner countries spend the equivalent of half or more of their annual education budgets servicing public sector debt. As budgets are impacted by the coming recession, many governments may have to borrow even more. Every dollar spent on debt servicing is one less dollar for learning, the engine of future recovery, resilience and growth.

The G20 has delayed debt servicing on bilateral loans for IDA-eligible countries, and the IMF has offset repayment costs for 25 vulnerable economies until December 2020. These measures are commendable, but they are not enough. Relieving, postponing and restructuring debt for low- and lower-middle income countries must be a part of the solution to create the fiscal space for countries to invest in education.

Donor countries, despite their own economic pressures, should also maintain their commitment to education – particularly for low-income countries, where development assistance makes up a higher percentage of education funding.

  • Transform education: increase efficiency, effectiveness and innovation

With growing needs and shrinking resources, it is even more critical that we support countries to make sure every dollar spent reaches the frontline of education systems; teachers and learning. This might mean tackling waste in procurement, making sure that teachers are paid transparently and on time, or negotiating more effectively for the hardware education systems run on, ranging from classrooms to textbooks.

The pandemic also offers us the opportunity of transformation. Remote learning solutions should be leveraged to reach the 258 million children who were out of school before the pandemic. Investing now in resilience to school closures should focus our efforts on designing learning so that no girl or boy is left behind.

  • Innovate to close the finance gap

Pre-pandemic, education spending was not on track to get all children in school and learning; the coronavirus pandemic presents a very real risk that we will fall even further off-track to meet SDG 4.

Creativity is key here, such as our own GPE Multiplier, an innovative finance instrument that helps to catalyze new external support from donors and others. The global community could build on the traction of instruments like the Multiplier by exploring new sources of support for education systems, ranging from debt restructuring that protects human capital investment to blended finance.

Financing our future: a drive for solutions

Your thoughts on the following questions:

  • How can countries protect education financing while simultaneously responding to the pandemic and facing economic crisis?
  • Where should investments be focused – on going back to basics, or on improving access to technology to enable distance learning?
  • How can we use this unprecedented moment in history to leapfrog over gaps within and between countries?

The ability of millions of children to return to safety and learning hinges on whether we can tackle these questions and accelerate progress to deliver inclusive, equitable and quality education for every girl and boy. The cost of our inaction would be far too high to bear.

About this blog post

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the biggest disruption to education that the world has ever seen. At its height, 9 out of 10 students in the world were out of school, and today 1.2 billion students are affected. More than 80% of them are in developing countries, where school closures are compounding an already urgent learning crisis.

These unprecedented disruptions will have immediate consequences for children’s learning and their wellbeing. The brunt of the impacts, as with most crises, will be borne by those who are already most in need of education. The longer schools remain closed, the greater the damage will be. And the worst may be yet to come.

The latest projections are that the pandemic will cause a global economic contraction of 3%. (By comparison, the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 resulted in a contraction of 0.1%.) This will have a significant impact on education spending, especially in developing countries. We were poised for a decade of delivery to accelerate our shared commitment to SDG 4.

If we don’t act now to safeguard financing for education, there is a very real risk that we will fall even further behind.

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