The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At U.N. meeting, world leaders asked to focus on education crisis

Malala Yousafzai and other activists raise awareness at the United Nations of how much students have fallen behind during the pandemic.

Activist Malala Yousafzai speaks during the Transforming Education Summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Monday. She urged world leaders to make education a priority. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

Activists at an education summit in New York City implored world leaders Monday to prioritize school systems and restore educational budgets cut when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The summit, held at the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly before the annual leaders’ meeting, called on the world’s nations to ensure that children everywhere don’t fall too far behind.

“Seven years ago, I stood on this platform hoping that the voice of a teenage girl who took a bullet in standing up for her education would be heard,” said Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, a U.N. messenger of peace. “On that day, countries, corporates, civil society, all of us committed to work together to see every child in schools by 2030. It is heartbreaking that halfway through that target date, we are facing an education emergency.”

Nigerian youth activist Karimot Odebode was more pointed. “We demand you take responsibility,” Odebode told the General Assembly. “We will not stop until every person in every village and every highland has access to an education.”

The percentage of 10-year-old children in poor and middle-income countries who cannot read a simple story increased to an estimated 70 percent — up 13 percentage points since before the pandemic shut down in-person schools, according to a report from two U.N. agencies and the World Bank.

Helping their youngest citizens learn to read and gain the other skills will require addressing problems that existed before the pandemic, dignitaries and students say. Countries will need to increase spending, change policies to increase access for girls and disabled students, and modernize instruction to stress critical thinking rather than memorization.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to radically transform education,” U.N. Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed told reporters before the education summit at U.N. headquarters in New York.

A closing statement from the United Nations after the meeting said 130 countries had committed to “rebooting their education systems” and taking action to end the learning crisis. It was unclear how they would do this. Countries were asked to devote at least 20 percent of their national budgets to education.

When the pandemic closed schools around the world in spring 2020, many children stopped learning — some for months, others for longer. More than 800 million young people around the world lacked internet access at home, according to a study by the U.N. education agency and the International Telecommunication Union in December 2020.

The estimated learning delays on average ranged from over 12 months of school for students in South Asia to less than four for students in Europe and Central Asia, according to an analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

In many places, money is the key ingredient for ending the crisis. On average, wealthy countries spend $8,000 a year per student, compared to upper-middle-income countries, such as some in Latin America, that invest $1,000 per year, according to a report from UNESCO, a U.N. agency that studies education, and Global Education Monitoring. Lower-income countries allot roughly $300 a year and some poor countries, just $50 a year per student.

As top dignitaries at the meeting urged individual countries to prioritize their youngest citizens, some of the youngest attendees voiced doubts about lasting changes. After all, the U.N. lacks authority to force countries to spend more on schooling.

Yousafzai urged countries to devote 20 percent of their budgets toward education. “Most of you know what exactly needs to be done,” she said. “You must not make small, stingy and short-term pledges.”

— Associated Press