When world leaders launched Education Cannot Wait, the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, 75-million children and youth globally were being denied their right to an education as a result of conflict, displacement, and natural disaster.
As Covid-19 continues to ravage the world’s least-developed countries, and with other crises on the rise, the number of children who are out of school has increased to 128-million. This is a rough estimate that will likely increase as the world’s multiplying crises deepen. Two in three students globally are still affected by school closures. Many, particularly girls, may never return to full-time education, risking a surge in child marriage and child labour.
Education is the foundation for peace, stability, economic prosperity, and social progress. With the pandemic, climate change and geopolitical shifts placing the world at an inflection point that will define the trajectory of human development for generations, we must move urgently to make education a top priority.
At this year’s UN high-level political forum on sustainable development, UN secretary general António Guterres asked leaders to rethink how we allocate resources and respond to global challenges as we race to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals by 2030. It is hard to imagine a better investment than education.
Investing in education for all — including crisis-affected children — could contribute significantly to long-term economic growth. Studies indicate that each additional year of learning can raise incomes by 8-10%. Likewise, the World Bank estimates that enabling every girl to complete 12 years of education could generate an additional $15-30-trillion in lifetime productivity and earnings.
Research also shows that violent conflict drops by up to 37% when girls and boys have equal access to education. And closing gender gaps in education can contribute to curbing climate change and hunger and to fostering respect for human rights.
A generation of women professionals and leaders could be empowered to break cycles of poverty, violence, displacement and hunger. In fact, the economic gains from expanding girls’ education alone could far outweigh the financial costs of the investments.
For businesses, this promises to create new markets, promote stability in chaotic regions and strengthen the long-term viability of investments. Entrepreneurs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America will gain pathways to establish a new generation of enterprises.
For governments, faster economic growth means more revenue. More resources will enable policy-makers to respond more strongly to the climate crisis, bolster environmental protection, build roads and infrastructure and provide healthcare, education, and social services.
But children caught in conflict zones and on the brink of starvation will reap the greatest benefits. For them, education means spaces to learn, mental-health services, school-based nutrition programmes and access to water and sanitation. Just $220 annually can provide a child living in a crisis setting with a holistic quality education, whereas internal displacement costs the global economy over $20-billion a year, or about $390 per displaced person.
While some progress has been made, more needs to be done now. At a recent meeting between the UK, Canada, the UN Refugee Agency, and Education Cannot Wait, the UN special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, said World Bank estimates indicated meeting the educational needs of refugee children alone will cost $4.8-billion a year.
We must catalyse the investments needed to fill this gap. Public donors, the private sector and stakeholders such as philanthropic foundations, high-net-worth individuals and governments must urgently mobilise hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding for Education Cannot Wait.
We must take bold action now. For the millions of children whose future is threatened by today’s crises, education cannot wait.
Yasmine Sherif is the director of Education Cannot Wait