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Pandemic Threatens to Push 72 Million More Children into Learning Poverty

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Photo: UNICEF

COVID-related school closures risk pushing an additional 72 million primary school aged children into learning poverty—meaning that they are unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10—according to two new World Bank reports released today. The reports outline a new vision for learning and the investments and policies, including on education technology, that countries can implement today to realize this vision. 

The pandemic is amplifying the global learning crisis that already existed:  it could increase the percentage of primary school-age children in low- and middle-income countries living in learning poverty to 63 percent from 53 percent, and it puts this generation of students at risk of losing about $10 trillion in future life-time earnings, an amount equivalent to almost 10 percent of global GDP. 

The new report, Realizing the Future of Learning: From Learning Poverty to Learning for Everyone, Everywhere, lays out a vision for the future of learning that can guide countries today in their investments and policy reforms, so that they can build more equitable, effective, and resilient education systems and ensure that all children learn with joy, rigor, and purpose in school and beyond the school walls. 

The accompanying report, Reimagining Human Connections: Technology & Innovation at the World Bank, presents the World Bank’s new approach to guide investments in education technology, so that technology can truly serve as a tool to make education systems more resilient to catastrophic shocks like COVID-19 and help in reimagining the way education is delivered. 

“Without urgent action, this generation of students may never achieve their full capabilities and earnings potential, and countries will lose essential human capital to sustain long-term economic growth,” said Mamta Murthi, World Bank Vice President for Human Development, in today’s launch event. “Having over half of children worldwide in learning poverty is unacceptable, and so we cannot continue with business as usual in education delivery.  Through visionary and bold action, policymakers and stakeholders around the globe can turn this crisis into a boon to transform education systems so that all children can truly achieve learning with joy, rigor, and purpose, everywhere.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought two massive shocks. School closures have left most students on the planet out of school—1.6 billion students at the peak in April 2020, and still almost 700 million students today. The negative impact of the unprecedented global economic contraction on family incomes has increased the risk of school dropouts.  Marginalized groups are likely to fall further behind.  Girls are facing increased risk of adolescent pregnancy and early marriage during the pandemic. And children with disabilities, ethnic minorities, refugees, and displaced populations are less likely to access suitable remote learning materials and to return to school post-crisis. 

In responding to the pandemic, education systems have been forced to rapidly implement innovations in remote learning at scale. To reach as many children and youth as possible, they have used multi-modal remote learning approaches that combine online resources with radio, TV, mobile, as well as printed materials for the most vulnerable. However, the huge digital divides – from connectivity to digital skills – and inequalities in the quality of parental support and home learning environments is amplifying learning inequality.

“Effective action today to mitigate large and mounting learning losses, recover, and rebuild stronger is needed more urgently than ever to accelerate the acquisition of foundational skills and, increasingly, 21st-century skills for every child,” said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education. “There is a window of opportunity to build on the lessons of the pandemic and to build back a system that is  equitable, where all schools and homes have the conditions and support for learning; that is effective, where teachers and schools are equipped to support each student at the level she needs; and that is resilient, with education services that are well-managed and ensure continuity in the learning process between the school and the home and community.”  

Countries can chart their own path with a political commitment to carry out investments and reforms in five pillars that ensure that: 

1. Learners are prepared and motivated to learn—with a stronger emphasis on whole-child development and support to learning continuity beyond the school, as well as better preparation through quality preschool, early stimulation, and nutrition.

2. Teachers are effective and valued—and ready to take on an increasingly complex role supported by technology that enables teaching students of diverse learning levels. This requires a meritocratic career path and continuing support through practical training that focuses on the quality of instruction.

3. Learning resources, including an effective curriculum and blended learning, supporting pedagogical practices that ensure that every student is taught at the level she needs.

4. Schools are safe and inclusive spaces—with a whole-and-beyond-the-school approach to prevent and address violence and leave no child behind.

5. Education systems are well-managed—with school leaders who spur more effective pedagogy and a competent educational bureaucracy adept at managing using technology, data, and evidence.

What core principles should guide reform efforts, so that policies within each of these pillars offer the greatest value for money and are scalable and sustainable? While there is no single path toward the future of learning, high-performing systems share some common tenets:  pursue systemic reform, supported by political commitment and a whole-of-government approach, that focuses on learning for all children; focus relentlessly on equity and inclusion; act on the basis of evidence and focus on results; ensure the necessary financial commitment; and make smart investments in education technology.

Throughout the five pillars, countries can effectively harness the power of education technology—or “EdTech,” encompassing hardware, software, digital content, data, and information systems—to support and enrich teaching and learning and improve education management and delivery.  As noted in the Bank’s new Reimagining Human Connections: Technology & Innovation at the World Bank report, EdTech can create new connections between teachers, students, parents, and broader communities to create learning networks. The investments in EdTech can pay off if ministries of education ensure they are:

  • Embedded in broad, sustainable policies and programs that enable schools and education systems to provide blended in-person and multi-modal remote learning; 
  • Geared to support teachers being prepared to navigate distance learning and personalize instruction in and beyond the school; and 
  • Oriented toward assessing that learning is actually happening and using data to develop early warning mechanisms to identify and help children who are at risk of dropping out or falling behind. 

For its part, the World Bank’s Education Global Practice has rapidly ramped up its support to countries.  In all, the World Bank is supporting COVID-19 response investments in 62 countries, covering the entire cycle from early childhood to higher education. The Bank’s overall new commitments in education during the last fiscal year reached US$5.2 billion, the largest figure ever, and expects to add another US$6.3b this year. The World Bank is supporting the appropriate, cost-effective use of EdTech for expanding access and improving learning for all students. So far, WB efforts are reaching over 400 million students and 16 million teachers—about one-third of the student population and nearly a quarter of the teacher workforce in current client countries. 

Overall, the World Bank Group (WBG), one of the largest sources of funding and knowledge for developing countries, is taking broad, fast action to help developing countries strengthen their pandemic response. It is supporting public health interventions, working to ensure the flow of WBG supplies and equipment, and helping the private sector continue to operate and sustain jobs. The WBG is making available up to $160 billion over a 15-month period ending June 2021 to help more than 100 countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery. This includes $50 billion of new IDA resources through grants and highly concessional loans and $12 billion for developing countries to finance the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

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New Social Compact

Discerning the Human Element Amid the Pandemic

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“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

There is something about the Covid pandemic that will be remembered for decades and centuries to come. It is not even so much the economic costs or travel restrictions per se, but first and foremost the human element that came from many people across the planet in expressing support and solidarity as well as in making their contribution to fighting the crisis. The future will harshly judge the current nationalistic/individualistic excesses that persist despite the raging pandemic. It is at times like these that the global community needs to rediscover the values of the humanist legacy and humanitarian diplomacy.

A lasting sour impression from the Covid crisis is that countries most economically advanced lacked leadership and vision in the midst of the pandemic. There could have been greater cooperation between the world’s largest economies and a more emphatic reaction from global institutions/organizations as well as regional arrangements. The degree of bickering and conflict observed throughout the pandemic period suggests that the lessons of the past and the legacy of the humanist thinkers have yet to be internalized into the global community’s way of thinking.

At the same time, the world is set to change as a result of the Covid experience – a longer-term perspective on economic development, the importance of social bonds and support lines, the very existence of something that lies beyond the proverbial “old normal”. The rise of ESG (environment, social, governance) is one of the new trends taking hold on the back of the pandemic shock. Other themes include debt relief to least developed economies as well as provision of medical equipment and vaccines for the disadvantaged groups of countries.

Indeed, what will be remembered is the human element in international diplomacy – the sending of medical equipment, vaccines, doctors and specialists. At times, such feats were performed not by the purported leaders of the world, but by small economies with scant resources of their own. The Cuban experience in this respect is particularly telling amid the Covid pandemic – not only did Cuba provide doctors and equipment to developing countries, it also created a vaccine of its own that it furnished to its regional neighbors. It is not only the strength and the advances of the national health care system but even more importantly the ability to share these advancements with the global community that counts the most during such fateful times.

And then there is also the humanitarian diplomacy and the legacy of humanism accumulated by humanity in facing dire adversities in the past. The legacy of the humanists of the past centuries such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Erasmus, Thomas More, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Vladimir Vernadskiy. Perhaps one of the best ways to summarize this legacy from the vantage point of today’s crisis is to refer to Vernadskiy’s words: “Humanity has a bright future ahead if it comes to realize this and does not employ its mind and efforts to destroy itself”.

What does the world community need to undertake to address the weak response to the pandemic? Nearly every major crisis faced by the world in the past was followed by a reconfiguration of global architecture, with new coordination mechanisms and new international organizations being created. Perhaps this time it is not so much about the creation of new organizations, but rather the greater responsibility that is to be taken by the major powers represented in the UN Security Council.

In particular, there may be a case for a code of conduct during global pandemics and crises to be adopted by the countries endowed with a permanent UN Security Council status. Such a code of conduct may include commitment not to resort to trade and other restrictions pertaining to humanitarian assistance or trade in medical equipment, not to resort to sanctions, as well as not to engage in military conflicts. The list of such commitments may be refined of course on the basis of the experience of the world community during the current pandemic and previous episodes of global economic crises.

In terms of academic experiences during the pandemic one of the most gratifying was the T20 meetings and discussions about how to design anti-crisis measures and support the world economy. In the context of one of the working groups Valdai partnered with the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) from Saudi Arabia to come up with the proposal for the G20 (that was included into the T20 communique) to create a platform for the sovereign wealth funds of the G20 nations to coordinate among other measures anti-crisis stimuli for the benefit of the global economic recovery.

In the course of the pandemic I received multiple letters of support and solidarity from friends and colleagues from various think-tanks across the globe – from Italy, from China, Argentina, US, UK, and many other countries. Often these were expressions of solidarity not only with my colleagues from Valdai, but more broadly with Russia and its people.

Whatever the grand ideas and writings coming from the many think tanks around the world, it is the simple words of support and solidarity that rang most deeply in the many exchanges throughout the past year.

I have also come to know volunteers working nightshifts in Moscow city hospitals to fight the Covid pandemic during whatever time they have left from their main (and rather intensive) work. Not surprisingly, these people exhibiting self-sacrifice during the height of the pandemic also express the longing for an inter-connected world, with greater solidarity and people-to-people contacts across the globe.

It is that kind of human solidarity that generates the energy to make further strides ahead whether as an individual or as a country or a global community. The energy and the will to persevere amid adversity, to stand above the “vaccine nationalisms”, protectionism, sanctions and war-mongering, to look into what is ahead and discern a better world for future generations. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “the future is more beautiful than all the pasts”.

From our partner RIAC

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Feminist perspective of the War,Peace and Politics in International Relations

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India is a land where Mahatma Gandhi and his ideas of non-violence were born, but it is also the land where Mahatma Gandhi was assassin by Godse for preaching ‘Feminine’ ‘non-violent’ politics and for making Indian men less ‘manly’ by promoting peace. Masculinity is a social definition given to men and boys in society, it is associated with strong, powerful, brave, and macho characteristics. The understanding of security is limited for many years in International relations(IR) and hence the understanding of a secured state is associated with a leader who has masculine characteristics capable of handling security.

Politics across the world is understood in the terms of power and strength of the leader and other masculine characteristics associated with being ‘manly’ enough to control a state. While feminine characteristics are associated with weak, soft, and gentle behavior, even when women are elected as leaders, they are expected to hold strong manly characters to stay in politics. Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India, prefer being addressed herself as ‘sir’ and her policies did not include a gender perspective.

In Gender, Justice and the Wars in Iraq (2006), Laura Sjoberg demonstrates that women’s presumed status as innocent civilians make wars harder, not easier, for them, by defining them as protected without regard for their actual safety . On Iraq’s economic sanctions, feminist insights from the study of economic sanctions as the war in international relations are not only valuable for their contribution to IR’s theories of sanctions, but also for their generalizability to IR’s crucial questions, such as what constitutes foreign policy, what counts as war, and how war affects people

Feminists see that war and military are often threats to women’s and other vulnerable groups’ security as they are competitors for scarce resources during and after a war on which women may depend more than men, instead of seeing military power as part of a state’s defense against security threats from other states, it should be seen as a product of patriarchy. The large defense spending on soldiers and military weapons rather than creating a safe society for women at home or spending on climate action that could create safer lives for women is an example of a masculine approach to war.

The feminist approach in IR demonstrates how the security of individuals is related to national and international politics and how international politics impacts the security of individuals even at the local level. IR feminist theories focus on social relations through gendered lens,rather than power relations or anarchy, they see an international system constituted by socially constructed and gender hierarchies that contribute to gender subordination rather than traditional understanding of security.

In 2019 In the Lok Sabha elections of India, Narendra Modi, and his party used his 56-inch chest in the election campaign to associate his capability of handling the security of India with ‘manly’ characteristics. While more than 3 lakhs of children die due to starvation in India every year, the Indian prime minister wins elections by boasting about his 56-inch chest capable of defeating terrorists. Feminists believe that the social construction of masculine characteristics is reflected in politics especially in IR because political theory and practice are both dominated by men. The understanding of war and violence is also associated with men, it praises soldiers, diplomats, and leaders that promote protection from war.

Modern Enlightenment science has incorporated a belief system that equates objectivity with masculinity and a set of cultural values that simultaneously elevates what is defined as scientific and what is defined as masculine. The western liberal and realist understanding of masculinity and politics are limited and discriminatory towards women. While the world is facing nationalism wave in politics, leaders like Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and Putin promote a masculine idea of Security in the world to protect their national interest and secure nation through military expansion.

The understanding of security, war, and politics are interlinked in creating the foreign policy of a country. In a country like India, the United States, or Russia where leaders promote masculine characters through their election campaigns, where the state controls the reproductive decisions of women, or in a country like India where weapons are worshiped, the foreign policy and politics of the state are influenced by masculine characters and are valued for national security.

Rape, domestic violence, harassment against women in their own country is not subjected to war but a traditional understanding of the war in IR as feminists have pointed out is as if women require protection during war and soldiers are fighting to protect the honor of women, in reality, it is often women’s protectors (men) who provide the greatest threat in everyday life. Rape, domestic violence, harassment against women in their own country is not subjected to war but a traditional understanding of the war in IR as feminists have pointed out is as if women require protection during war and soldiers are fighting to protect the honor of women, in reality, it is often women’s protectors (men) who provide the greatest threat in everyday life.

For feminist scholars, a security that is global and multidimensional with political, economic, and ecological facets that are as important as its military dimensions. The security of individuals and their natural environment is considered as much as the security of the state.  National security needs to be inclusive of security of all from security threats such as domestic violence, rape, poverty, gender subordination, and ecological destruction as well as war. For example, Sweden has a feminist foreign policy, which means the understanding of security is through a gendered lens, feminist foreign policy not only broadens what security means but also who is guaranteed security in the world.

While feminism is a new approach of though in IR, the case study of Sweden explains the importance of feminist foreign policy that believes in gender equality in decision making, promoting peace and does not promote masculine characteristics associated with war and use of force in foreign policy and makes secure, happier nations. While the discourse of security is dominated by masculine characteristics in IR, states can be secured with wider perspective of human security associated with gendered lens.

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Debunking Magical realism through Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”

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There are few names in the Latin American literature, which it comes to famous novels and short stories, Columbian writer Gabriel Gracia Marquez is one of them. Throughout Latin America, he is popular with the name Gabo and was one of the intellectual literary writers of the 20th century. For his tremendous work, he received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1972 and Nobel Peace Prize for literature in 1982. During his literary journey, he has written numerous acclaimed novels such as One Hundred years of Solitude published in 1962 and Love in the Time of Cholera, which was published in 1985. His popular writing style is often known as magical realism, which later emerged as a major literary movement in Latin American literature. He has also written numerous famous short stories, and among them “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is very popular in Latin American. The American Review published it in 1995 in the Spanish language. The title of the story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” tells the story of a shadowy old man, who one day appears in the family courtyard. The old man was not an ordinary person, because he was having some strange characteristics such as an enormous pair of wings, which was a new thing for the people, who were living in town. Hence, with the magical depiction of old man character, the author explains the conflict the ordinary people encounters concerning their cultural belief. Moreover, the whole story is written from the context of third-person narrator.

On the other hand, the presence of an old man character with huge wings represents the Magical realism of the author. Throughout the story one of the most interesting thing about the old man character is that after his appearance in the family court people began viewing him as a normal human being. But for some, he was different from the normal man because he got the huge wings that make him look like an angel, who is dressed like a rag-picker. The major character in the story is Pelayo and Elisenda in whose yard, the mysterious old man first appears. In the story, the author describes the strangeness of this old man in these words “His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar”. This clearly shows, though initially Pelayo and Elisenda found him a strange creature but, after the closer contact, they began viewing as a normal human being just like them. Nonetheless, the old man with mysterious wings was still a strange creature for the other people in town.

When Pelayo and Elisenda brought the old man to the physician in the town, the physician took the advantage to examine the physical uniqueness of this old man. For the physician, the old man was a new thing for him, because throughout, his carrier, the doctor has encountered something like him. As the author writes about the physician; “What surprised him most, however, was the logic of his wings. They seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too”. Similarly, when Pelayo and Elisenda informed their neighbor about the mysterious old man, the neighbor tells them that he is an angel. This scene in the story explains how an individual thinks and feels when he/she encounters something different, mysterious, and strange. Moreover, this also explains the limitation of the human mind and the lack of knowledge about different things. This happens, at one moment the couple decides to get rid of the old man and even planned to kill him because they thought he might be a curse. Later, they change their plan and decides to imprison him and in prison, the mysterious old man suffers severe abuse and mistreatment.

Soon after the imprisonment of the old man, the people began whispering stories about the old man. Some villagers began perceiving him as an angel, while the other considered him as evil, who is God’s curse on the village. In this respect, the story The very old man with enormous wings Marquez is a mixture of compassion and sadness. Because the couple Pelayo and Elisenda wanted to get rid of him but the old man refuses to leave them until their life is transformed. As it is written in the bible “Do not be forgetful to entertain a stranger, you could be entertaining an angel”. The real reason, why the old man was a stranger to the couple and villagers because he was unattractive and he was having huge wings that embarrassed them. Throughout the story, the people in the town curse him and makes fun of him, but the old man never fights back because he is compassionate and he understands the fact that he cannot speak their language. Overall the whole story demonstrates the context of bad and good human nature because seeing the beauty is one thing while ignoring a person based on the fact that he is ugly is weary.

In contrast, the central theme of Gracia Marquez’s “The very old man with enormous wings Marquez” is the Coexistence of compassion and cruelty, which explains the feeble response of selfish and greedy humans towards those,  who are different, strange, ugly, and weak. For instance, the major characters in the novel the couple Pelayo and Elisenda imprison the old man and abuse him, and even they planned to kill him because he was ugly and weak. But once they thought, they could benefit from the old man by showcasing him in the village, they decide to keep him to accomplish their appetite for money. In a nutshell, the moral of the story was religious has always been a shallow set of beliefs, which ignore the principles of morality. Hence, the treatment of the old man in the town after his appearance in the family yard clearly shows that people in the story are faithless having inconsistent faith.

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