Governance

Two-thirds of poor countries slashed education budget due to COVID-19: World Bank, UNESCO

Cuts can last for a long time as the pandemic continues to cause economic losses and make fiscal positions worse, warns report  

 
By Madhumita Paul
Published: Thursday 25 February 2021
Two-thirds of low- and lower-middle-income countries have cut their public education budgets since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: The World Economic Forum

Two-thirds of low- and lower-middle-income countries cut public education budgets since the onset of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, a recent United Nations report flagged.

Among upper-middle and high-income countries, only a third did so, according to Education Finance Watch (EFW) 2021, released February 19, 2021. 

Education budgets have not adjusted proportionately to the challenges brought about by COVID-19, especially in poorer countries, the report by World Health Organization and UNESCO said.

Only one-third of upper-middle and high-income countries reduced their budgets, it added.

In 2018-19, high-income countries spent on average $8,501 per every child, way more than $48 in low-income countries. The pandemic has only widened this spending gap between rich and poor countries, the report added.

It warned that the cuts could last for a long time as the pandemic continues to cause economic losses and make fiscal positions worse.

It observed that the challenge was also about improving the effectiveness of funding. It found that despite increases in public education spending before the pandemic, the funding has only resulted in relatively small improvements in educational outcomes.

Although access to education has improved in low and middle-income countries, the learning poverty rate — the proportion of 10-year-olds unable to read a short, age-appropriate text — was at around  53 per cent compared to only nine per cent for high-income countries in pre-COVID-19 times.

COVID-19-related school closures are likely to increase this 53 per cent share to as much as 63 per cent in poorer countries, the report cautioned.

Global spending on education increased 21 per cent over the last 10 years, it said. From 2010-14, global spending on educational aid took a hit in the aftermath of the recession; but since 2014, aid to education increased 30 per cent, reaching its highest recorded level of $15.9 billion in 2019. 

Funding for education grew most rapidly in low- and lower-middle-income countries, where the gaps between the funding needed to achieve the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals and current allocations are the widest.

The pandemic also highlighted the critical importance of monitoring the patterns and trends in funding of education.

“External financing is the key to support education opportunities of the world’s poorest,” said Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general, UNESCO.

“Yet donor countries are likely — and some have already begun — to shift their budget away from aid to domestic priorities. Health and other emergencies are also competing for funds. We foresee a challenging environment for countries reliant on education aid. UNESCO estimates that it may fall by $2 billion from its peak in 2020 and not return to 2018 levels for another six years.”

Tackling the global learning crisis and monitoring the impacts of the pandemic will require better information on how well education systems are functioning. This includes better information on the levels and sources of funding and how these funds are used to ensure that education is available to all.

The report has shown that more can be done with existing data sources to sharpen the picture of education financing. But efforts to build capacity and systems to collect and track education spending are also needed to improve both the quality and coverage of existing sources.

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