‘Spending Money on Education is Investing in Humanity’

Abigail Van Neely
Inter Press Service

As the 2030 deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) looms, Education Cannot Wait’s director Yasmine Sherif warned, “We are failing the promises we made on everything in the sustainable development goals, but especially on education because, without education, we cannot achieve any of the other sustainable development goals.”

Sherif was speaking at the “Ensuring Education Continuity: The Roles of Education in Emergencies, Protracted Crises and Building Peace” conference at the United Nations headquarters – where speaker after speaker called for an immediate increase in funding for education in crisis zones.

The conference was co-organized by the Permanent Missions of Japan, Italy, and Switzerland, UNICEF,  ECW, Global Partnership for Education (GPE), UNESCO, Save the Children, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Japan NGO Network for Education. The event was created with the goal of addressing the “crucial role of education as a life-saving and life-sustaining intervention in an emergency.” It took place as a side event during this week’s High-Level Political Forum.

This discussion came at a critical time. Earlier this week, the 2023 Sustainable Development Goals Report painted a grave picture of progress towards achieving the quality education goal proposed for 2030. Four out of every five countries studied experienced learning losses following the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the end of 2022, there were 34.6 million refugees, the highest global number ever recorded, of which 41%  were children. According to ECW, 224 million crisis-affected children need education. Over half of these children – 127 million – are not achieving the minimum proficiencies in literacy or numeracy.

“It is critically important during this [High-Level Political Forum] that we emphasize that education is a fundamental human right,” Ambassador Kimihiro Ishikane, Permanent Representative of Japan to the UN, said.

Noting that seven years remain before the SDG deadline, Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, urged Member States to commit to the Safe Schools Declaration, an inter-governmental agreement to protect education in times of armed conflict.

Speakers emphasized the importance of consistent education even during times of crisis.

During protracted emergencies in areas that have been disrupted by man-made conflicts or natural disasters, education continuity provides children and communities with a “sense of normalcy”,  Awut Deng Acuil, Minister of Education in South Sudan, remarked. “[This] fosters social and emotional wellbeing of learners affected by crises.”

Two weeks ago, ECW launched a program in South Sudan to support the young nation’s vulnerable girls and boys, including children fleeing the conflict in neighboring Sudan. Acuil highlighted that education is more than just knowledge gained in the classroom. She explained that it involves essential social-emotional learning, supports country development, builds resilience, promotes conflict resolution, and can even assist with economic recovery.

“Continuity of education for millions of children affected by crises remains at stake. Though we all know that one, education is a fundamental right for all children, and education continuation in high emergency situations remains a high priority for many communities,” Acuil said.

“Education is more than service delivery. It is a means of socialization and identity development through the transmission of knowledge, skills, values and attitudes across generations. It is, therefore, an important tool for the sustenance of peace, for without education, we cannot have peace,” said Asaju Bola, Minister from the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the UN.

Somaya Faruqi, ECW’s global champion and an engineering student and captain of the Afghan Girls Robotic Team, spoke about the power of academic achievement as a means to inspire gender equity. After her robotics team’s success in international competitions, more Afghan girls were given permission to join.

“The key to all these processes was education. Accessible education for girls and for boys equally,” Faruqi said.

Now, following the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, Faruqi describes her home country as “a prison for girls” she had to flee.

The event showcased the measures that UN agencies have been taking to ensure education continuity. The UNESCO Qualifications Passport initiative provides refugees with a means for their qualifications to be certified and recognized in their host countries. UNESCO and UNICEF jointly launched the Gateways to Public Digital Learning, a global initiative for schools, learners, and teachers to have access to quality digital learning tools.

Digital learning and alternate forms of education provision were noted as significant tools to invest in, especially for students located in remote areas or in those communities who are unable to attend traditional public schooling. Ultimately, as Frank van Cappelle, Senior Advisor of Education, UNICEF, noted, “a holistic approach is needed; a flexible approach is needed… The human element is key.”

However, despite some gains, funding remains a barrier to the success of these programs. According to Charles North, the CEO of the Global Partnership for Education, the number of children impacted by crises is rising, but funding is not.

Rotimy Djossaya, Executive Director for Policy, Advocacy, and Campaigns at Save the Children, called for “timely debt relief for countries whose debt burdens are threatening their ability to invest in education.” He cited statistics that four out of fourteen low and middle-income countries spent more on servicing external debt than they did on education in 2020.

The event showcased a continuous, pressing need for education to be made a priority on the national and global levels. As Sherif noted, education is the foundation of a “more prosperous world.”

“Spend money on education, invest in humanity.”