Education is a fundamental human right.1 However, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic affected young people more than adults because of the disruption of their education and training, and they bore disproportionately higher economic and social costs. Yet even before the pandemic, a huge number of young generations in developing countries were in “learning poverty”,2 unable to read a basic text by the age of 10 and have now been set back even further compared to their peers in higher income countries.
As the pandemic continues, forced suspension of schooling and training will further affect the “lockdown” generation’s prospects for future employment opportunities and incomes. To make things worse, the acceleration of the digital transformation of work and the workplace due to COVID-19 will also have unequal impacts on job opportunities.
To address the unequal negative impacts of the global health crisis on youth, governments and the international community urgently need to organize a large-scale response with a special focus on the poor and vulnerable youth groups in developing countries. In addition, with the widening job polarization between the traditional informal sector and the new economy, this response needs to take into account the urgent need to mitigate the impact of the post-crisis structural changes with investments in digital readiness and skills upgrading for digital literacy.
Every Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) requires education to empower people with the knowledge, skills, and values. According to the World Bank, “to succeed in the 21st century labor market, one needs a comprehensive skill set” composed of cognitive skills, socio-emotional skills, technical skills and digital skills, “all of which can contribute to structural transformation and economic growth by enhancing employability and labor productivity and helping countries to become more competitive.”3
The best time to train children in cognitive and socio-emotional skills is at the earliest age of education cycle since events before five years old can have large long-term impacts on adult outcomes. This will also help children establish a solid foundation for knowledge absorption and other skills development in their later stages. The integration of ICT in early childhood education can also help narrow the digital divide and enhance digital literacy.
On the other hand, technical skills are normally obtained at the end of the education cycle when people focus on obtaining and exercising job-relevant skills to secure a job in the market. Again, this is where low-income countries with poor or weak digital infrastructure are at a disadvantage. The lack of a skilled workforce can be a major bottleneck for job markets in many of these countries. With the arrival of the new economy, it will continue to be challenging for workers to adapt to information and digital technologies and acquire the necessary mix of skills to enable them to compete in the market. This will only change if they too can benefit from investments in basic education, health care, new technologies and infrastructure.
In many developing Asian countries, compulsory basic education is well established and primary enrollment rates before the pandemic had been improving in the last few decades.4 One of the challenges is raising the quality of education, including teacher quality, and the upgradation of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum. For this, there should be more and better investment in education and supporting infrastructure. However, this requires major funding to bridge the financing gap, defined as the difference between what a country needs to invest vs what it actually invests. Low-income countries need concerted global efforts to help them address this funding gap.
The latest global commitment to education financing was achieved during the November 2021 Global Education Meeting (GEM), in the form of the Paris Declaration: A Global Call for Investing in The Futures of Education. This document reiterates the political promises made previously at the World Education Forum in Incheon in 2015 and the GEMs in 2018 and 2020. These commitments aim to allocate at least 4-6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and/or at least 15-20 percent of total public expenditure to education, and to invest in key policy priorities for recovery and accelerated progress toward Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 (Quality Education), such as inclusive and equitable quality care and education from the earliest age, teachers’ training and professional development, youth employability skills and digital transformation of the education sector.
As an important financing source, multilateral development banks (MDBs) are committed partners in efforts to achieve the SDGs,5 including education. Among all MDBs, the World Bank Group is the largest financier of the education sector, which gets about eight percent of its total lending. Its focus areas are broad and covers the entire learning cycle from preschool to primary, secondary education, and beyond, to university and other tertiary education, including technical and vocational education. Recently, the World Bank is pursuing systemic reform to achieve Learning for All.
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) invests in private education entities including universities and vocational schools, early childhood services, and education technology and infrastructure (however, its investment in K-12 education is currently suspended). The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is scaling up its education investments beyond primary and secondary levels to post-secondary education, including vocational and higher education, as well as in social protection measures that help girls and disadvantaged students to attend school. In the context of COVID-19 and other possible pandemics, ADB is also exploring education technology solutions to ensure continuity of learning and enhancing quality and equity.
As for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), one of our investments will be in school infrastructure, such as classrooms equipped for learning and safe and green school facilities, where green means the use of durable, energy saving and environment-friendly construction materials to the extent possible. As a 21st century MDB, we will align with the other MDBs in their focus areas in the education sector, while ensuring that our own thematic priorities of technology-enabled and green infrastructure are integrated in the project design. In investing in education infrastructure, we follow the following principles: (i) focus on infrastructure that does not require recurring cost-financing, (ii) promotion of new technology, especially information technology for students at all levels, and (iii) integration of green and disaster-resilient features in the design of school facilities.
We will also explore opportunities at the start and end points of the learning cycle, namely, early childhood development, tertiary education and technical and vocational education and training (TVET), as these stages are critical in terms of acquiring skills for the new economy. Early childhood is an optimal phase to acquire foundational cognitive skills, whereas tertiary education and TVET will provide people with opportunities to consolidate their basic knowledge and competencies, and equip them with technical or vocational skills that promote employment and entrepreneurship.
To improve the delivery of education outcomes and enhance the learning experience in the post-pandemic era, AIIB will promote the use of digital technology as a supplementary tool to ensure accessibility and effectiveness, and to connectivity. The pandemic has resulted in a huge interest in distance learning and solutions using education technology, which combine technology and digital innovations to improve teaching and learning.
Recently, AIIB approved financing for its first education project. The India: Gujarat Education Infrastructure and Technology Modernization Program will upgrade school infrastructure in Gujarat and help create an international standard learning environment based on green and disaster resilient architectural designs. A project with the World Bank, it will upgrade the physical learning environment as well as digital infrastructure of the participating schools. The financing will also cover investments STEM labs, computer and internet facilities, and technological innovations such as the creation and hosting of digital learning content, smart classrooms, and remote learning. These investments will also help Gujarat enhance preparedness for unexpected school closures in the post-COVID-19 pandemic era.
Education has been long considered a medium to reduce poverty and boosting prosperity in low-income countries and has been credited for the economic transformation of many of them. AIIB expects to continue to play a crucial role in helping its members through its investments in social infrastructure.
1 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26.
2 According to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, as of 2016, 263 million children, adolescents and youth were out of school, representing nearly one-fifth of the global population of this age group. http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs48-one-five-children-adolescents-youth-out-school-2018-en.pdf.
3 The World Bank. Skills Development.
4 See The World Bank Open Data.
5 World Bank. 2015. From Billions to Trillions: MDB Contributions to Financing for Development..