Education is crucial to Africa’s COVID-19 response

A pupil, wearing a protective mask, writes on a classroom chalkboard at the Merlan school of Paillet during the reopening of schools, as the lockdown due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is eased, in Abidjan, Ivory Coast May 25, 2020. REUTERS/Luc Gnago
Editor's note:

This op-ed was originally published by Project Syndicate.

African political leaders have their hands full: rising COVID-19 infections, fragile health systems, increasing food insecurity, and, in some areas, growing social unrest. And as government revenues dry up amid the continent’s sharpest economic contraction in decades, the resources available to address these challenges are dwindling.

For now, cash-strapped governments and their international development partners are rightly putting public health, social protection, and economic stimulus first. But they appear to be forgetting one of their most important tools: education.

Recent analyses indicate that some African governments are cutting education budgets in response to the pandemic—and if the 2008 global financial crisis is any guide, donors will do so, too. And whereas governments were able to maintain education budgets during the 2008 crisis by issuing debt, the continent’s current public-debt burdens are already heavy, and borrowing conditions are unfavorable.

But education is one of the largest and most consequential government activities in Africa, and policymakers and aid agencies ignore it at the continent’s peril. Indeed, by continuing to support education during the pandemic, governments can strengthen their countries’ immediate COVID-19 response and long-term recovery in four key ways.

First, COVID-19 is hitting Africa’s most vulnerable people the hardest: Food insecurity has increased alarmingly, and the economic recession is likely to push an additional 23 million people into extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. But once schools reopen, they will be powerful vehicles for delivering social protection to families that need it most, which will encourage attendance. For example, school programs that provide take-home food rations and cash transfer support incentivize families with minimal resources to send their children to school while providing them with much-needed nutritional and economic support.

Similarly, the education sector plays an important role in supporting the health sector’s pandemic response. For example, life-saving COVID-19 health messages—from proper handwashing techniques to wearing face masks—can form part of national distance-learning programs. This strategy of empowering children with knowledge in order to change their families’ behavior has proven effective in past public-health campaigns, and countries such as Tanzania, Ghana, and Uganda have already adopted it for COVID-19. In addition, schools have also regularly served as important front-line sites for public-health interventions such as vaccination campaigns.

Second, whereas inadequate relief to the most vulnerable segments of the population risks igniting protest and fueling civil unrest, education continuity can contribute to social stability. Already during the pandemic, young people and women in South AfricaMalawi, and Nigeria have taken to the streets to protest shortages of food and other basic necessities. But by doubling down on schools’ ability to disseminate social protection assistance, governments can deliver much-needed relief and thus ameliorate the grievances of low-income and food-insecure families.

Moreover, extensive research shows that unequal provision of education services increases the risk of social unrest and conflict. Without continued investment in education, the gap between the haves and have-nots will widen further as wealthy families purchase educational opportunities for their children that leave other students behind.

Third, paying teachers helps the economy. Our review of 33 African countries, which used data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the World Bank, found that salaries of teachers and education staff amounted to 3 percent of GDP on average, more than three times the average financial package announced by African governments to fight the pandemic. Teachers are one of the largest groups of civil servants in many African countries, and their daily work is not only intrinsically valuable, but also contributes greatly to the local and national economy. Furthermore, enabling teachers to continue teaching will make it easier for parents to return to work.

Finally, education continuity is essential for productivity and competitiveness. Prolonged breaks in education provision, or a deep deterioration in its quality, will hurt Africa’s long-term economic competitiveness. Many of the current estimates of learning loss from COVID-19 already present a worrying picture for young Africans. Our colleagues at the Brookings Institution and the World Bank estimate that, with just four months of lost schooling and little change in the quality of education, the lifetime earnings of today’s students in the United States will be greatly reduced, representing a loss of nearly 13 percent of U.S. GDP over subsequent generations.

Africa already significantly lags behind other regions in human capital development, owing to shortfalls in health and education. According to the World Bank, Africa’s Human Capital Index is currently only 0.4 (on a scale of 0 to 1), meaning that GDP per worker will increase by 250 percent if the region achieves the highest health and education scores. Conversely, deteriorations in these areas will widen productivity gaps between workers in Africa and in other countries.

The extent to which Africa’s long-term productivity and competitiveness suffer as a result of learning loss will depend on how well governments can continue educational activities during the pandemic. Recent estimates show that only 25 percent of low-income countries are currently providing remote online and broadcast learning opportunities. But well-designed interactive radio instruction can be effective, and Malawi’s education ministry is working with civil-society organizations to deliver effective literacy and numeracy instruction via solar-powered offline tablets. This is just one of many “leapfrog” approaches that can result in new and more effective ways of giving young people a quality education during the pandemic and beyond.

COVID-19 has presented African policymakers with a barrage of difficult choices. But if governments continue to invest in education alongside health, social protection, and economic-recovery initiatives, they will bolster young people’s well-being and enhance the welfare of families, communities, and countries.