Leadership Dialogue Series of the
Brookings Center for Universal Education and the World Bank
Education during the COVID-19 pandemic


21 September 2020

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Statement by Michelle Bachelet,
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
21 September 2020

Greetings. It is a pleasure to join you in this timely and crucial discussion. Education of quality, adequately financed and accessible by all, is key to sustainable development and the realisation of all human rights.

The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, often speaks of his experiences as a teacher in the poorer neighbourhoods of Lisbon, in Portugal. He personally witnessed the transformational force of education in driving the eradication of poverty, and the transmission of skills that proved vital for individuals, their families, communities and all of society.

As Mr. Guterres has pointed out, "Investing in education is the most cost-effective way to drive economic development, improve skills and opportunities for young women and men, to unlock progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals and to prevent conflict and sustain peace".

Over the past decade, major progress has been made towards universal realisation of the right to education, with increasing school enrollment rates at all levels – particularly for girls. In 2019, UNICEF reported that more than 90 per cent of primary school-age children had been enrolled in school. Unfortunately, this progress was imperfect. Enrollment in school varied widely by region; the increase in enrollment was slowing; and not every school provided education of quality – in 2019, 617 million youth worldwide lacked basic math and literacy skills.  Still, there were many precious, hard-won gains.

Then came COVID-19, the largest disruption of education systems in modern history. The pandemic has affected nearly 1.6 billion learners worldwide. Schools were closed in 160 countries, impacting 94% of the world's student population. Hundreds of millions of learners were sent home, to attempt to follow improvised remote learning systems – often with inadequate access to digital tools.

This could be the making of an educational, economic and social catastrophe. UNICEF reported last month that at least 463 million – over 30 per cent – of schoolchildren worldwide cannot be reached by digital and broadcast schooling.  

To take one example, in sub-Saharan Africa, only 64 per cent of primary teachers, and 50 per cent of secondary teachers, have received even minimum teacher training, and most often, this does not include basic digital skills. Even in developed economies, where there is largely adequate infrastructure and con¬nectivity, many educators lack the basic digital skills – a shaky basis for facilitating quality distance learn¬ing.

It will be vital to address the digital divides and connectivity gaps that this crisis has brought to our attention. And the urgent work of resolving these issues and other issues is a key argument for increasing, or at least ring-fencing, education budgets.

Because what happens to a child who is no longer attending school? We at the UN receive daily reports about the heightened risk of child rights violations linked to the pandemic. They include forced labour, child marriage and trafficking, including for sexual exploitation. They include increased reports of domestic violence against children, follow-on impact on child nutrition, and some reports of increased recruitment in armed groups. 

Writing in the LancetUNICEFFAOWFP and WHO have emphasised the disastrous impact of the pandemic on nutrition, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. One recent study suggested that, without timely action, the global prevalence of child wasting could rise by almost 15 per cent. This would translate to an additional 6.7 million children under the age of five with wasting.

From Afghanistan to Alaska, children are facing not only fewer hours in school, but the probability of less attentive and individualised education, higher risk of severe child rights violations, and the long-term impact on their future of all those trends.

Furthermore, their families – mostly their mothers and older sisters – are having to pick up the responsibility for keeping these children safe and occupied, impacting their own ability to hold down decent jobs. The International Labour Organization has warned COVID-19 could wipe out “the modest progress” made on gender equality at work in recent decades.

The importance of protecting the right to education could not be clearer. It makes every kind of economic and strategic sense for countries to invest in quality education, so that children and young people can fulfil their development potential, raise their voices to participate in decisions, and contribute to the economy and their society. Universal access to education of quality is the best investment we can make for a better world and a better future for humanity. It is the key to lifting communities and individuals out of poverty and engage them in sustainable and peaceful development.

We cannot allow COVID-19 to become the breaking point at which our imperfect but very valuable advances begin falling away.

Yes, even before the pandemic, the challenge of education financing was already daunting. In early 2020, it was estimated that the financing gap to reach Sustainable Development Goal 4, on quality education, in low and lower-middle-income countries was US$148 billion per year. The COVID recession could create even greater disruption.

To safeguard education – and the future of our children and societies – Governments will need to take hard budgetary decisions. I cannot claim this will be easy. But we need to make the case that they should do so, and we need to help civil society make those governmental decisions visible, and politically important. Measures to ensure continuity of learning, and education for all, – such as flexible teaching modalities; distance learning through low- or no-tech means; and food vouchers – should be viewed as a core part of national COVID-19 stimulus packages, alongside initiatives to boost health, social protections, businesses and jobs.

I would like to make one last point. States need to be accountable in upholding the right to education. But they also need to be helped.

We cannot accept that the post-COVID era will be one of heightened nationalism. When countries decide to go it alone – whether in terms of vaccines or human development – they are not helping to end any crisis. They are perpetuating crisis.

If COVID-19 has taught us one lesson, it is the tremendous value of measures that uphold human rights universally.

We have witnessed the ways in which deeply entrenched inequalities and human rights gaps fuel this virus – magnifying contagion and vastly accelerating its threat. What we need to see today is action to repair those gaps and heal those deep wounds, both in and between our societies.

Poverty harms the poor – but it also harms the rich. The misery and injustice of inadequate schooling does not only harm the children sitting on rickety benches. It harms us all.

So national authorities should certainly protect education financing, by strengthening revenue mobilisation, addressing inefficiencies, and – where possible – boosting spending.

But the international community also needs to act to protect education financing worldwide, by strengthening international coordination to address debt crises, and by protecting official development assistance for education.

Strengthening the resilience of education systems will be key to our recovery, and to our capacity to build on the lessons of this pandemic to build greener, smarter, more resilient and inclusive economies – in a world that is safer, and more fair, for us all. 

Thank you for standing up for the human right to education.