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Two-Thirds of Poorer Countries Are Cutting Education Budgets Due to COVID-19

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Children in Côte d'Ivoire wear face masks as they return to school after temporary closures due to COVID-19. © UNICEF/Frank Dejongh

Education budgets are not adjusting proportionately to the challenges brought about by COVID-19, especially in poorer countries.  Despite additional funding needs, two-thirds of low- and lower-middle-income countries have, in fact, cut their public education budgets since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the new joint World Bank – UNESCO Education Finance Watch (EFW)

In comparison, only one-third of upper-middle and high-income countries have reduced their budgets.  These budget cuts have been relatively small thus far, but there is a danger that future cuts will be larger, as the pandemic continues to take its economic toll, and fiscal positions worsen.  These differing trends imply a significant widening of the already large spending disparities seen between low- and high-income countries.

According to the new report, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2018-19, high-income countries were spending annually the equivalent of US$8,501 for every child or youth’s education compared to US$48 in low-income countries. COVID-19 is only widening this huge per-capita education spending gap between rich and poor countries.

EFW stresses that the education finance challenge is not only about mobilizing resources, but also about improving the effectiveness of funding. Unfortunately, recent increases in public education spending have been associated with relatively small improvements in education outcomes. Although access to education has improved, the learning poverty rate – the proportion of 10-year-olds unable to read a short, age-appropriate text – was 53 percent in low- and middle-income countries prior to COVID-19, compared to only 9 percent for high-income countries.  COVID-19 related school closures are likely to increase this 53 percent share to as much as 63 percent.

“This is a critical moment where countries need to recover the learning losses the pandemic is generating, invest in remedial education, and use this window of opportunity to build more effective, equitable, and resilient systems,” said Mamta Murthi, World Bank Vice President for Human Development.  “The learning poverty crisis that existed before COVID-19 is becoming even more severe, and we are also concerned about how unequal the impact is.  Countries and the international development community must invest more and invest better in education systems and strengthen the link between spending and learning and other human capital outcomes.”

EFW notes that global spending on education has increased over the last 10 years, but the signs are that the pandemic may interrupt this upward trend. Funding for education has grown most rapidly in low- and lower-middle-income countries, where the gaps between the funding needed to achieve the SDGs and current allocations are the widest. The deterioration in government finances over the medium-term suggests that without concerted efforts to prioritize education, the outlook for mobilizing the domestic resources required for education will worsen.

Aid for education has increased by 21 percent over the last 10 years. Disbursements had increased rapidly in the 2000s and fell between 2010 and 2014 in the aftermath of the great financial crisis. However, since 2014, aid to education has increased by 30 percent, reaching its highest recorded level of US$ 15.9 billion in 2019. However, fiscal constraints, other sectoral needs, and changes in student mobility patterns, suggest that external aid for education might fall at a time when it is needed most.    

“External financing is key to support the education opportunities of the world’s poorest,” said Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General at UNESCO. “Yet donor countries are likely – and some have already begun – to shift their budget away from aid to domestic priorities. Health and other emergencies are also competing for funds.  We foresee a challenging environment for countries reliant on education aid. UNESCO estimates that it may fall by US$ 2 billion from its peak in 2020 and not return to 2018 levels for another six years.” 

The EFW is a collaborative effort between the World Bank and the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report team.  It will be produced annually following the main release of spending data by UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics.  The EFW aims to draw together the best data available on all sources of education funding and monitor efforts to improve information on the levels and use of education funding.  However, good quality and timely information on government, household, and aid spending in education is not readily available in all countries.  This hinders planning and monitoring at a time when countries cannot afford any missteps.

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Vaccine inequity posing ‘significant risk’ to global economic recovery

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London, UK, Covid-19 restrictions in place in Soho. IMF/Jeff Moore

Although the outlook for global growth has improved, the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as inadequate progress on vaccination in poorer countries, are putting recovery at risk, according to the latest UN economic forecast, published on Tuesday. 

The World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) mid-year report warned widening inequality is threatening global growth, projected at 5.4 per cent this year. 

Vaccine access critical 

“Vaccine inequity between countries and regions is posing a significant risk to an already uneven and fragile global recovery”, said UN Chief Economist Elliott Harris.  

“Timely and universal access to COVID-19 vaccinations will mean the difference between ending the pandemic promptly and placing the world economy on the trajectory of a resilient recovery, or losing many more years of growth, development and opportunities.” 

The mid-year forecast updates the WESP report published in January by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). 

It examines the performance of the world economy since the pandemic began, as well as the impact of global policy responses and post-crisis recovery scenarios. 

A mixed picture 

The 5.4 per cent in projected global growth this year follows a sharp contraction of 3.6 per cent in 2020, and reflects an upward revision from the original forecast. 

While the world’s two largest economies – China and the United States – are on the road to recovery, growth remains fragile and uncertain in several countries in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.  

Many countries will not see economic output return to pre-pandemic levels until 2022 or 2023. 

“For a vast majority of developing countries, economic output will remain below 2019 levels for most of 2021”, the authors said.  “Amid insufficient fiscal space to stimulate demand, many of these countries will face low and stagnant growth and the prospect of a lost decade.”  

Trade strong but uneven 

The report also details strong but uneven recovery in global trade, which has already surpassed pre-pandemic levels due to demand for electrical and electronic equipment, personal protective equipment, and other manufactured goods. 

Economies which depend on manufacturing have fared better, however countries which rely on tourism, or commodities, are unlikely to see a quick rebound.  

Tourism services in particular, will remain depressed due to slow lifting of restrictions on international travel, coupled with fears of new waves of COVID-19 infection. 

Women hit hardest 

The pandemic has pushed an estimated 114.4 million people into extreme poverty, with women accounting for around 58 million of that total. 

The report found that while women have been at the forefront of the crisis— 

representing most health workers, caregivers and essential service providers—they have also been the hardest hit in several ways. 

During the pandemic, labour force participation shrunk by two per cent worldwide, compared to only 0.2 per cent during the global financial crisis in 2007-8, but more women than men were forced to leave their jobs to meet family demands. Women-owned businesses have also fared disproportionately worse, according to the report. 

COVID-19 has also dealt sharp blows to services for women’s health, and reproductive health, and the disruption to education has helped undermine global progress towards gender equality.  There has also been a spike in gender-based violence, which UN Women has labelled a “shadow pandemic.” 

Ensure inclusive recovery 

As women are also underrepresented in decision-making surrounding the pandemic, and in economic policy responses, the report highlighted why recovery must be inclusive.  

“The pandemic has pushed nearly 58 million women and girls into extreme poverty, dealing a huge blow to poverty reduction efforts worldwide, and exacerbated gender gaps in income, wealth and education, impeding progress on gender equality”, said Hamid Rashid, Chief of the Global Economic Monitoring Branch at DESA, and the lead author of the report. 

“Fiscal and monetary measures to steer recovery must take into account the differentiated impact of the crisis on different population groups, including women, to ensure an economic recovery that is inclusive and resilient.”

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Conflict Affected Families in Armenia to Receive World Bank Support

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A Grant Agreement for the “Support to Conflict Affected Families” project was signed today by Sylvie Bossoutrot, World Bank Country Manager for Armenia, and Atom Janjughazyan, Acting Minister of Finance of Armenia. Funds for the project are provided by the multi-donor State and Peacebuilding Fund (SPF), through a one-year grant of $3.72 million.

The Government of Armenia has developed a broader social protection response package with support from development partners and non-governmental organizations. This project will be implemented by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of Armenia, through its subordinated agency — the Unified Social Service — and aims to improve the resilience of conflict affected people and reduce the financial burden of host families, with a particular focus on women and vulnerable members of the population.

“We are pleased to sign this timely Agreement supported by the State and Peacebuilding Fund Grant,” said Sylvie Bossoutrot, World Bank Country Manager for Armenia. “This project is of extreme importance and the assistance granted to displaced individuals and their host families will help to improve the resilience of families affected by the conflict.”

The proposed project will contribute to selected social protection and employment support programs, which are part of a larger support package targeting displaced people and their host families, from the Government of Armenia.

Specifically, the project aims to:

  • Reach around 11,530 displaced persons with a monthly cash benefit equal to the minimum wage (68,000 AMD) per adult/child for up to four months in Armenia.
  • Provide cash assistance/income support to 3,975 families in Armenia hosting displaced people to help meet basic consumption needs.
  • Temporarily subsidize an employment program for 936 displaced people who are looking to gain work experience in Armenia and facilitate their labor market participation and economic inclusion.
  • Support 115 displaced individuals through the public works program (cash-for-work).

“The project is designed to especially benefit women affected by the conflict,” said Maddalena Honorati, World Bank Task Team Leader. “According to a rapid multi-sector needs assessment conducted last December, women represent 70 percent of the adult displaced population. The cash transfers will help them meet their basic needs on a day-to-day basis. More importantly, the project will improve the resilience of the displaced families and promote social cohesion in their host communities.”

The State and Peacebuilding Fund is a global fund administered by the World Bank to finance critical development operations and analysis in situations of fragility, conflict, and violence (FCV). The SPF is kindly supported by Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, The United Kingdom, as well as the World Bank.

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Circular solution to Mosul’s conflict debris launched

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Photo credit: Gashtiyar Fathullah , IOM / 04 May 2021

Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city – suffered massive devastation during the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). An estimated 7-8 million tonnes of debris was created by the fighting, mainly in the Old City on the banks of the Tigris River. To deal with this huge debris challenge, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are joining forces with Mosul Municipality – with the support of Japan – to establish the city’s first debris recycling center.

In the conflict’s immediate aftermath, clean-up campaigns cleared hundreds of thousands of tons of debris blocking streets to allow residents access to their homes and businesses, and enable rehabilitation of critical infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and water treatment plants.

The cleared debris, however, was often dumped in an uncontrolled manner in open spaces, gullies and strewn along roadsides for lack of designated disposal sites, creating problems in this city where land is a premium. Furthermore, much of the debris remains locked in damaged buildings which will require complex explosive hazard clearance and demolition and will take many years to release.

“By processing the rubble to produce quality materials that can be used in reconstruction efforts, creating much needed job opportunities for returnees and cleaning-up the urban environment, this initiative practically illustrates how humanitarian needs and sustainable development goals can be addressed in a joint manner,” said Dr. Jassim Humadi, Iraq’s Deputy Environment Minister.  “We are very grateful to the Government of Japan for their support in helping turn the debris problem in Mosul into a means of positive change.”  

The project builds upon lessons learned and best practices gathered under debris recycling pilots implemented jointly by IOM and UNEP in Mosul and Kirkuk. Where conventional practice had been to clear and dump the debris, this new initiative will concentrate on reusing the recycled aggregate for reconstruction.

“Material testing results confirming that the recycled aggregate complies with Iraq’s standards for road construction should also help pave the way for embedding circular economy principles in dealing with routine construction and demolition waste, thereby promoting a ‘building back better’ approach to crisis recovery,” said Gary Lewis, Director of UNEP’s Disasters and Conflicts Branch.

In the destroyed village of Buwaiter, where the pilot debris recycling project in Kirkuk was implemented, “unemployed youth with no work opportunities benefited immensely,” said Salal Othman, who guards the recycling site and used the crushed gravel to pave the area in front of his house, which is typically impassable during the rains.

“Young people in our village view debris recycling as a golden chance in terms of job creation, which additionally, by clearing the rubble, is allowing us to return and rebuild our homes,” added Mijbel Mar’i, a 24-year-old day labourer.

Remarking on the debris recycling in Buwaiter, Hassan Al-Jubouri, the head of Multaqa sub-district, described it as “an excellent step to dispose of huge volumes of debris while simultaneously employing people,” adding that “with this project, in addition to removing the debris we now have the possibility to reuse it. And given that many rural roads in our sub-district need surfacing, the crushed materials are ideal for this end.”

“Japan has provided over USD 500 million as humanitarian assistance to the people affected by the crisis since 2014. Additionally, Japan decided this year to provide a new assistance package to Iraq, amounting to USD 50 million, including this project by UNEP,” said Japan’s Ambassador to Iraq, His Excellency Mr. Kotaro Suzuki. “I commend UNEP’s initiative together with IOM on recycling debris which cleans up the urban environment and produces materials for road construction as well as creating job opportunities for unemployed youth.”

“In Japan, after the earthquakes, people mourned their loss and started to clean up the debris which was all that was left of their homes and memories of loved ones. Our fathers’ generation did the same in scorched cities after the war, to rebuild towns for their people, for their future children,” he added. “We want to assist people in Mosul and Kirkuk in their efforts to revive their towns, rebuild their lives once again.”

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