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#07 Reactions to COVID-19 from international cooperation in education: Between continuities and unexpected changes

This article is based on the data available prior to publication. As the topic is highly evolving, we may need to update the article at a later date.

Since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic spread beyond China’s borders, many international cooperation institutions have mobilized to respond to this crisis. The closure of schools in more than 150 countries and the shift to distance learning in most countries where the epidemic is rampant was the trigger.

In this article, we will analyze the actions and orientations proposed by major organizations in the field. (Some blogs [ex. 1 or ex. 2] were only at the level of description.)

Many of the observations made in previous articles in this blog are still valid. However, a few changes, and we will see if they are pleasing, have appeared regarding this crisis.

Priority to the most fragile contexts

This crisis has highlighted the importance of acting even more in the most fragile contexts, where education systems were already experiencing difficulty before the crisis. From this point of view, there seems to be a consensus on the part of the international organizations studied, which are concerned about the difficulties of ensuring pedagogical continuity when everyone does not have the same access to quality teaching and educational resources outside school.

UN agencies, for instance, have emphasized the challenges for certain contexts or populations regarding access to these resources.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, recalled that “almost all students are now out of school. Some schools are offering distance learning, but this is not available to all. Children in countries with slow and expensive Internet services are severely disadvantaged.” Furthermore, UNESCO, the UN specialized agency in the field of education, relays the message of the parent agency.

Turning teaching materials into digital format at short notice has been a challenge as few teachers have strong digital and ICT skills. In many countries in South West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa only about 20% or often fewer households have internet connectivity at home, let alone personal computers.

Source : UNESCO

UNESCO has even launched a Global Education Coalition that brings together multilateral, private sector, and philanthropic partners to support distance education globally. Among the goals of this coalition is the need “to help countries assure the inclusive and equitable provision of distance education.”

This priority of reaching the most disadvantaged is also visible through the funds granted by cooperation institutions, which fear that this additional crisis will jeopardize their efforts. For this reason, existing or new resources will be mobilized to respond to it.

This is the case of the World Bank through funds previously allocated to countries that can be redirected in response to the education situation created by the health crisis. Among other things, the organization is funding impact evaluations to understand what the most effective solutions to promote learning for children and adults in low- and middle-income countries are and, thus, generate useful and rapidly mobilizable information. The World Bank has so far made $160 billion available to 25 countries in its first set of emergency support operations. Of the countries eligible to receive these funds, only Pakistan has indicated its intention to use them for education. This is not surprising. This corresponds to an observed trend in aid to education, as we noted in blog #01—namely, between 2000 and 2010, more than half of the funds allocated to education by the World Bank went to three countries (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) that are not among the poorest countries. It is, therefore, necessary to be vigilant in the granting of this aid, particularly for the populations most in need.

Other institutions, such as the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), and funds, such as Education Cannot Wait (ECW), are also mobilized in favor of vulnerable contexts where they usually act.

GPE has released $250 million to help developing countries mitigate the immediate and long-term effects of the pandemic on education: “The funds will help sustain learning for up to 355 million children, with a focus on ensuring that girls and poor children, who will be hit the hardest by school closures, can continue their education.”

ECW has activated a “First Emergency Response” funding stream to redirect existing funds as well as raise additional funds to support education. It has raised $23 million and is requesting an additional $50 million to address COVID-related education needs. Priorities include ensuring the continuity of distance learning and COVID awareness. Most of the funds are allocated to implementing partners, including UNICEF and the World Food Programme.

Even if massive commitments are observed, the arguments by international organizations to justify interventions in disadvantaged contexts have remained relatively the same. Moreover, some organizations have taken advantage of this exceptional situation to further legitimize their actions. Beyond the fact that institutions and funds such as ECW or Save the Children can boast of having already been active for several years in crisis contexts, it is interesting to note that for the World Bank, for example, the priority remains “preserving human capital,” a key concept for the organization. Similarly, if we analyze the expertise the Bank brings to the countries through documents that can be used by staff on the ground to guide national policies, we find the organization’s classic rhetoric: pedagogical continuity must be ensured insofar as school closures will have an impact on access to employment and, therefore, on economic growth—which is the organization’s leitmotif, given that several economies are informal in the countries of intervention of the organization. Also, prior to COVID-19, the World Bank was concerned about learning poverty (“the percentage of children unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10”) in developing countries. This recent concept developed by the World Bank is being exploited to its full potential as the pandemic adds another barrier to learning.

Finally, with regard to taking into account populations constrained by adversity, it should be noted that this crisis has particularly highlighted the crucial role played by teachers in ensuring pedagogical continuity. Teaching is a profession affected by precariousness in several contexts. For instance, UNESCO clearly assumes this role with the slogan “Protect, support and recognize teachers.” Another example is that the GPE allows its special funds to be used to protect teachers who are suffering the negative effects of this crisis.

Teachers may have been on other duties or forced to leave their jobs. Crisis and postcrisis education budgets will be under pressure but for rapid and effective recovery national systems must keep their teachers. It is essential to support them through the crisis, enable them to support continuity of learning and prepare them for recovery and reopening as well as addressing recruitment gaps if these emerge.

Source : Global Partnership for Education

Some novelties, sometimes surprising

Despite having relatively similar agendas before and during the COVID-19 crisis, we can point to some new developments—some encouraging but some worrisome.

This crisis has highlighted the importance of education (in particular, schooling) and, therefore, the need to protect it everywhere in the world, both in the Global North and in the Global South. Moreover, the World Bank, whose areas of intervention are usually located in “developing” countries, is interested in the contexts of the “developed” countries, as it was when it was created in 1945. We even find the idea of a “gigantic educational crisis,” which goes beyond the “learning crisis” that we have known until now, insofar as the influential states within the World Bank are themselves affected. Another interesting fact from this point of view is that even organizations working in normal times in crisis contexts (conflicts, natural disasters, etc.) find themselves supporting all education systems, being accustomed to acting in emergencies. This is the case with the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, which brings together a range of cooperation actors and offers technical support to governments, with UNICEF and Save the Children making a substantial contribution during the COVID-19 period. In any case, perhaps this crisis will make it possible to advance the sense of global citizenship and solidarity that had already taken shape with youth movements on climate challenges, even though we have witnessed the closure of borders for health reasons.

Another novelty in the discourse of cooperation—this time, less favorable if we believe in the principle of everyone’s right to quality education everywhere in the world—is the excessive promotion of private sector actors, especially by UNESCO, which is often seen as having a humanist vision. Indeed, the organization wants to find equitable solutions in this period of crisis, as mentioned above, and, at the same time, bring to the forefront, through its Global Education Coalition, private for-profit institutions, particularly from the field of new technologies. Several reasons, not exhaustive, should alert us to the growing involvement of these companies in the education sector:

• Their products may be available at high costs.
• They did not necessarily demonstrate a willingness to contextualize their products (through languages of instruction, contents etc.) before the COVID-19 crisis.
• They may contribute to a deterioration of the public system by placing their revenues in tax havens.
• The data they collect from consumers can be used for commercial purposes.

Partly aware of this concern, which was echoed by civil society, UNESCO removed certain institutions whose ethics were clearly incompatible with the organization’s declared values, such as Bridge International Academies, from the initial list of institutions. Another alarming implicit message: beyond the Global Education Coalition, UNESCO, in response to the crisis, is proposing a list of available tools that promotes here again private companies.

But where we see all the complexities of the discourse of international organizations, as we showed earlier in an article in this blog, other voices are being heard within UNESCO including the International Commission on the Futures of Education—a recent initiative of the organization that made the following statement, giving a little more hope).

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In the same spirit, UNESCO, through the Global Education Monitoring Report team, publishes texts that warn against the possible excesses of the COVID-19 crisis—such as the blog article by Francine Menashy, which highlights the commercial interests of private actors for education (particularly in crisis contexts).

Since we are on the discourse contradictions, or at least on fuzzy positions amplified by the global crisis, we are also observing a shift at the level of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which provides support in terms of expertise by disclosing good practices. In particular, the institution has coproduced a report with HundrEd, a nonprofit organization that seeks and shares inspiring innovations for primary and secondary education “for free.” The report contains some unusual rhetoric by the OECD: for once, economics (which is the organization’s Trojan horse, as its name suggests) is not at the heart of the discourse.

But in the meantime, the OECD, making explicit its concern to note the effects of the crisis on, in particular, the “diminished economic supply and demand, severely impacting businesses and jobs,” has produced A Framework to Guide an Education Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 written by Fernando Reimers, a professor at Harvard and a member of UNESCO’s Futures of Education Commission, and Andreas Schleicher, head of the education sector at the OECD. Using the responses to an online questionnaire and PISA data for its analysis, this report highlights the challenges faced by different education systems in dealing with the reliance on e-learning as an alternative modality. The guidelines are general: the report is concerned, in particular, with the development of public–private partnerships or consideration of the most vulnerable populations but without specifying the exact modalities. This leaves the door open to any kind of strategy, as the authors did not particularly position themselves on principles related to the right to education.

Finally, still on surprising developments, the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation has pledged to freeze investments in private for-profit preprimary, primary, and secondary (also called “K-12”) schools. Although the request was made by several civil society organizations for months, the COVID-19 crisis accelerated this decision. The decision is in response to concerns about the effects of segregation and exclusion, the insufficient quality of education, noncompliance with standards and regulations, working conditions, and profit seeking commercial schools. Such actions, accompanied by statements such as “we expect a lot from our education systems, but tend to underestimate the complexity of the task and do not always provide the resources that the sector would need to meet our expectations” suggest an almost 180° turnaround by the World Bank, if we bear in mind the structural adjustment programs and their devastating effects on education systems in fragile countries.

IN CONCLUSION, WE CAN OBSERVE THAT INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION IN EDUCATION IS TAKING SERIOUSLY THE CHALLENGES THE COVID-19 CRISIS IS CREATING FOR EDUCATION SYSTEMS WORLDWIDE, ESPECIALLY IN DISADVANTAGED CONTEXTS. ALTHOUGH SEVERAL ACTIONS ARE IN LINE WITH WHAT INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS WERE DOING BEFORE, WE HAVE SHOWN THAT SOME NEW DEVELOPMENTS, ENCOURAGING OR WORRYING, HAVE APPEARED RECENTLY—WHICH ONLY INCREASES THE FEELING OF CONTRADICTIONS, EVEN THOUGH IT WOULD BE MORE USEFUL THAN EVER TO HAVE A CLEAR DISCOURSE TO PROVIDE A GLIMPSE OF A MORE RADIANT FUTURE. FROM THIS POINT OF VIEW, WE AGREE WITH ELIN MARTINEZ OF HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH, WHO IN HER ARTICLE WROTE THAT “ALL GOVERNMENTS SHOULD LEARN FROM THIS EXPERIENCE, AND STRENGTHEN THEIR EDUCATION SYSTEMS TO WITHSTAND FUTURE CRISES, WHETHER FROM DISEASE, ARMED CONFLICT, OR CLIMATE CHANGE.” SOLUTIONS SUCH AS HAVING A FAIRER TAXATION SYSTEM HAVE ALREADY BEEN HIGHLIGHTED BY ORGANIZATIONS SUCH AS ACTIONAID. FURTHERMORE, RESEARCH MUST BE ABLE TO ANALYZE, IN DEPTH, THE CURRENT AND FUTURE ACTIONS OF INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS CRISIS AND, IN PARTICULAR, WHAT IS HAPPENING ON THE FIELD BEYOND THE DECLARATIONS.

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