African political leaders have their hands full: rising COVID-19 infections, fragile health systems, increasing food insecurity, and, in some areas, growing social unrest. And as government revenues dry up amid the continent’s sharpest economic contraction in decades, the resources available to address these challenges are dwindling.
Second, whereas inadequate relief to the most vulnerable segments of the population risks igniting protest and fueling civil unrest, education continuity can contribute to social stability. Already during the pandemic, young people and women in South Africa, Malawi, and Nigeria have taken to the streets to protest shortages of food and other basic necessities. But by doubling down on schools’ ability to disseminate social protection assistance, governments can deliver much-needed relief and thus ameliorate the grievances of low-income and food-insecure families.
Moreover, extensive research shows that unequal provision of education services increases the risk of social unrest and conflict. Without continued investment in education, the gap between the haves and have-nots will widen further as wealthy families purchase educational opportunities for their children that leave other students behind.
Third, paying teachers helps the economy. Our review of 33 African countries, which used data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the World Bank, found that salaries of teachers and education staff amounted to 3% of GDP on average, more than three times the average financial package announced by African governments to fight the pandemic. Teachers are one of the largest groups of civil servants in many African countries, and their daily work is not only intrinsically valuable, but also contributes greatly to the local and national economy. Furthermore, enabling teachers to continue teaching will make it easier for parents to return to work.
Finally, education continuity is essential for productivity and competitiveness. Prolonged breaks in education provision, or a deep deterioration in its quality, will hurt Africa’s long-term economic competitiveness. Many of the current estimates of learning loss from COVID-19 already present a worrying picture for young Africans. Our colleagues at the Brookings Institution and the World Bank estimate that, with just four months of lost schooling and little change in the quality of education, the lifetime earnings of today’s students in the United States will be greatly reduced, representing a loss of nearly 13% of US GDP over subsequent generations.
Africa already significantly lags behind other regions in human capital development, owing to shortfalls in health and education. According to the World Bank, Africa’s Human Capital Index is currently only 0.4 (on a scale of 0 to 1), meaning that GDP per worker will increase by 250% if the region achieves the highest health and education scores. Conversely, deteriorations in these areas will widen productivity gaps between workers in Africa and in other countries.
The extent to which Africa’s long-term productivity and competitiveness suffer as a result of learning loss will depend on how well governments can continue educational activities during the pandemic. Recent estimates show that only 25% of low-income countries are currently providing remote online and broadcast learning opportunities. But well-designed interactive radio instruction can be effective, and Malawi’s education ministry is working with civil-society organizations to deliver effective literacy and numeracy instruction via solar-powered offline tablets. This is just one of many “leapfrog” approaches that can result in new and more effective ways of giving young people a quality education during the pandemic and beyond.
COVID-19 has presented African policymakers with a barrage of difficult choices. But if governments continue to invest in education alongside health, social protection, and economic-recovery initiatives, they will bolster young people’s wellbeing and enhance the welfare of families, communities, and countries.
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