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‘Global learning crisis’ continues says Guterres; millions still hit

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Students at a primary school in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on the second day after their school reopened. The students, teachers and school administrators wear masks while at the school and maintain physical distancing. UNICEF/Seyha Lychheang

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures continue to disrupt the lives of over 31 million students, exacerbating what the United Nations’ Secretary General called “a global learning crisis.”

“Unless we take action, the share of children leaving school in developing countries who are unable to read could increase from 53 to 70 per cent”, António Guterres warned in a video message marking the International Day of Education, on Monday.

The UN chief remembered the “chaos” that COVID-19 caused in education worldwide, noting that, at the pandemic’s peak, some 1.6 billion school and college students had their studies interrupted.

Despite the improvement, he believes the crisis is “not over yet”, and the turmoil goes beyond questions of access and inequality.

World changing

The theme for the day this year, is “Changing course, transforming education”. 

For Mr. Guterres, the world is “changing at a dizzying pace, with technological innovation, unprecedented changes in the world of work, the onset of the climate emergency, and a widespread loss of trust between people and institutions.”

In this scenario, he believes conventional education systems are “struggling” to deliver the knowledge, skills and values needed to create a greener, better and safer future for all.

Because of these challenges, he is convening a Summit on Transforming Education in September. 

“The time has come to reignite our collective commitment to education”, he said. 

For him, that means “putting education at the heart of broader recovery efforts, aimed at transforming economies and societies and accelerating progress on sustainable development.”

It also means financial solidarity with developing countries and understanding how national education systems can be reformed, between now and 2030.

Mr. Guterres noted the Summit will be the first time that world leaders, young people and all education stakeholders come together to consider these fundamental questions.

Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, also stressed the need to reflect on the impact of two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Highlighting the challenges created for the empowerment of children and youth, Mr. Shahid mentioned a UN joint publication showing that students worldwide could lose a total of $17 trillion in lifetime earnings as a result of these constraints.

For him, this number is a call to close the digital divide, to empower girls and boys, in particular those in rural and isolated areas, and to strengthen support for persons living with disabilities, as well as other vulnerable groups.

In a world of increasing complexity, uncertainty, and precarity, knowledge, education and learning need to be reimagined”, he argued. 

Mr. Shahid also believes the world needs “an education system that could leverage humanity’s collective intelligence.”

“A system that advances, rather than subverts, our aspirations for inclusive education based on the principles of justice, equity and respect for human rights”, he concluded. 

Lessons learned

According to new data released by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on Monday, schools are currently open in 135 countries, and in 25 nations, it has been temporarily suspended by extending the end-of-year break.

Only a dozen countries have opted to close schools and pivot to fully remote rather than in-person learning since the outbreak of the Omicron variant.

This is in stark contrast with the same period last year when most schools were closed, and learning was fully remote in 40 countries.

For the UN agency, this shows that a large majority of countries are using lessons from the past two years to keep classrooms accessible, with reinforced health and safety protocols.

“Education continues to be deeply disrupted by the pandemic, but all countries are now keenly aware of the dramatic costs of keeping schools closed as UNESCO said for the past two years”, said the agency’s Director-General, Audrey Azoulay.

Changes

A dozen countries surveyed – including Brazil, France, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Palestine and Ukraine – now use traffic light monitoring systems that trigger different measures according to levels of infection: mask wearing, hand washing, ventilation, but also indoor and outdoor distancing, and class closures on a case-by-case basis to avoid impacting all students.

Other countries, including Canada, France, United Kingdom and Italy, are also using mass rapid test-to-stay policies.

Once again, UNESCO called for more efforts to vaccinate educators, noting teachers were not included in any priority group in up to a third of countries.

Students underperforming

For the UNESCO chief, more action is needed to bring back to school all the children who have moved away from it and to recover learning losses.

“Without remedial action and focus on the most vulnerable students, the COVID-19 pandemic will carry dramatic long-term consequences”, Ms. Azoulay warned.

In fact, more than 50 per cent of teachers state that students had not progressed to the levels expected, according to a large-scale survey conducted by UNESCO and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

In the study, conducted in 11 countries, most teachers agreed that it was difficult to provide necessary support for vulnerable students. And over 50 per cent of students said they were anxious about the changes taking place.

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New Initiative to Strengthen Cross-Border Investment in the Digital Economy

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A pioneering effort to facilitate cross-border investment in the digital economy was launched this week at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022.

The new initiative on digital foreign direct investment, the Digital FDI initiative, will implement projects in several countries to help grow Digital FDI, as the reforms to attract such investment must take place at a country level. The first digital FDI project will take place in Nigeria.

Over the past few years, the Forum has worked to find the right partners to guide the work, develop principles published in the white paper launched in 2020 and share the potential for cooperation at the G20 and other platforms of corporation.

Attracting Digital FDI requires creating digital-friendly investment climates through targeted and country-specific policies, regulations and measures. These investments involve new business models, often based on data and technology, and platform economies, as well as using non-traditional assets. The Digital FDI initiative will aim to identify and implement enabling reforms through public-private projects in emerging markets and developing countries.

“Global FDI is rebounding, following the COVID-19 pandemic, and investment in the digital economy could not come at a better time. These country projects will help grow FDI into the digital economy, which is key for long-term growth, competitiveness and sustainable development”, said Børge Brende, President, World Economic Forum.

The Digital FDI initiative will be delivered as a joint effort between the World Economic Forum and the Digital Cooperation Organization (DCO), a new international organization that seeks to enable digital prosperity for all.

“As the first and only global multilateral focused on enabling digital prosperity for all, the DCO is partnering with the Forum on a Digital Foreign Direct Investment initiative to help countries develop digital FDI-friendly investment climates. We invite digital innovators with a commitment to economic development and inclusion to join us,” said Deemah Al Yahya, Secretary-General, DCO.

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Post-COVID, Latin American Leaders Say their Countries Are Open for Business

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Rising food and energy prices and a migration crisis are posing significant economic and social challenges in Latin America, according to several leaders from the region speaking on a presidential panel at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022. However, they remain confident that investing in their economies will remain attractive.

“We cannot be indifferent in front of this humanitarian tragedy,” said Colombian President Ivan Duque, referring to challenges linked to Venezuelan migration to his country, which has seen close to 2 million cross the border over the past several years after fleeing economic hardship. Duque announced that Colombia would issue over 1 million temporary status cards to Venezuelan migrants.

Rising food and energy prices also pose threats to Latin American populations. President Luis Rodolfo Abinader Corona of the Dominican Republic noted that his government would soon authorize subsidies for corn to offset rising food prices and the increasing cost of poultry. The nation has already implemented fertilizer subsidies and support for wheat prices would likely follow.

While the region has experienced economic growth in recent years, the combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain and price shocks linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have raised questions about future growth for a range of countries. Despite the challenges, many Latin American countries continue to tout their economies and to encourage foreign business for investment and “near-shoring”.

“Not red tape, but red carpet,” said President Rodrigo Chaves Robles of Costa Rica, on his nation’s readiness to welcome foreign investors. “Costa Rica is open for business. I will break all bottlenecks…. I will open all doors.”

Likewise, Dina Ercilia Boluarte, Peru’s Vice-President and Minister of Development and Social Inclusion, stressed the nation’s readiness for outside investors. “We will welcome you with a stable economy and legal guarantees.”

The focus of many Latin American nations is now on climate and environmental sustainability. In tourism-intensive nations, such as the Dominican Republic, the sector constitutes an essential part of GDP and employs 20% of the population. Diversifying beyond “sun-and-beach” tourism could ensure the sector remains resilient even in the face of intensifying climate change.

In addition, the region can accelerate investments in climate mitigation and renewable energy. Chaves said: “We’re improving our electricity grid to more renewables even though we have over-invested in the power generation with fossil fuels.” Transitioning energy sources in a time of rising prices poses serious challenges, he added, so the nation will need to proceed with its reforms in a way that balances current growth with sustainability goals.

Educational reform is another way Latin American leaders are preparing for digital and green energy transformations. Colombia recently completed training for 100,000 programmers, and Costa Rica is working to improve the efficiency of its education spending. Currently, the country spends twice as much as Viet Nam to educate students. While Viet Nam ranks eighth in students’ math scores, Costa Rica ranks near the bottom in terms of students’ maths performance.

Peru is promoting social inclusion by transforming how the state delivers social services to rural communities. One programme involves putting state services – such as vaccines, health supplies and training materials to reduce violence against women – on boats so officials can reach hard-to-access communities in dense Peruvian forests and remote villages. “We are bringing services of the state to our brothers and sisters to improve their quality of life,” Boluarte said.

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Outlook Is Grim for Global Recession

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As the war rages on in Ukraine with no end in sight, central bankers and economists are increasingly fearful that the world may be headed for recession. Supply chains remain choked as many of China’s factories are still shuttered over COVID, markets are panicky, with technology stocks in particular distress, and inflation is running high across much of the developed world.

“We are not in a recession yet, but the signs are not good,” said David Rubenstein, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Carlyle. “The war is not likely to end tomorrow and it will be a precipitative factor.”

“We have downgraded projections for growth for 143 countries, accounting for 86% of GDP,” said François Villeroy de Galhau, Governor of the Central Bank of France. “The horizon has darkened.” In addition to China’s COVID lockdowns, he cited the appreciation of the dollar and commodity price shocks in fuel resulting from the Russo-Ukrainian war.

But fuel isn’t the only commodity experiencing precipitous price increases – food may prove to be even more critical. “We can shrink use of petrol,” he said, “but we have to eat every day.” He added that with inflation running at 7.45% in Europe and rising, “We will have to mobilize monetary policy. There is an increase in consensus about this. In the short run, our priority is fighting inflation.”

He was speaking on The Global Economic Outlook session. His comments come as the World Economic Forum’s Community of Chief Economists warned of “dire human consequences” from the fragmentation of the global economy.

Jane Fraser, CEO of Citi, also emphasized the significance of food. While acknowledging some bright spots – including a Middle East that, she said, is stronger coming out of lockdown and exudes optimism – she warned: “Food is, I think, the big worry because that could be the wild card, when people are hungry around the world, and there’s going to be one-and-a-half-billion hungry people without the means or the access to food, particularly in Africa.”

The grim outlook was highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s quarterly Chief Economists Outlook, published today. Its key findings include declining real wages in both high- and low-income countries; political divisions creating geo-economic and supply chain fault lines; and persistent inflation in the United States, Europe and Latin America.

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