'Give us $5 billion and we will help educate the world for a post-pandemic recovery'

Alice Albright tells The National of the urgent need to help the poorest countries restore schools

Schoolchildren joke around and play at the Olympic Primary School in Kibera, one of the capital Nairobi's poorest areas, in Kenya Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. Kenya partially re-opened schools on Monday to allow those students due for examinations which had been postponed to prepare, following a total closure of all educational institutions enacted since March to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

An ambitious $5 billion funding drive to rebuild education networks across 87 hard-hit countries will launch next year as promoters hope to reverse the damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Global Partnership for Education (GPE) is seeking funds to assist countries to transform education for hundreds of millions of pupils in the face of an anticipated budgetary squeeze as a result of the predicted global recession.

Alice Albright, the chief executive of the GPE, told The National that a three-point plan could reverse not only the damage caused by the pandemic, but also the growing problem of hundreds of millions of children losing out on schooling.

"One is to help countries invest in distance learning, two is to help train more teachers and three is to help countries reopen schools safely," she said. "We are campaigning to get children back into school because one of the things that we worry about is that some children will never go back to school."

A report from Unesco in July warned that development aid assistance for education was vulnerable to cuts when the pandemic effect on national budgets was felt.

"Just as aid to education seemed to have recovered its lost momentum, the Covid-19 pandemic will likely slow it down again, if not entirely reverse the trend," it said. "Although the last great financial crisis did not reduce aid volumes, the looming financial crisis is expected to be more severe.

"As donor countries reallocate funds to deal with increased unemployment and enterprise bankruptcies, aid volumes will inevitably be reduced."

Ms Albright said the effects would harm the world's poorest most directly. "The pandemic will have long-term economic consequences,” she said. "The way that that impacts developing countries is it puts a squeeze on domestic resources and then that tends to result in governments having less money to invest in education and reach out to the neediest."

That is why hopes are now vested in a replenishment drive by the GPE. Britain and Kenya are to co-host a summit next year to raise funds for children's schooling in poorer countries, aware that the coronavirus pandemic risks depriving many millions of an education.

The summit is scheduled to take place in Britain in mid-2021 under the UK's presidency of the G7 club of developed nations, and will be co-chaired by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Mr Johnson said the goal was to raise at least $5bn for the GPE, which was launched in 2002 and counts the singer Rihanna as a global ambassador.

"I urge the global community to come together, dig deep and ensure we fund their vital work to give every child the chance at an education," Mr Johnson said.

He said that because of school closures during the pandemic, about 1.3 billion children, including 650 million girls, have lost out on months of education, and many may never return because of the economic havoc caused by Covid-19.

"It is a toll of wasted potential and missed opportunity that is a tragedy not just for those children, but for each and every one of us," Mr Johnson said.

Mr Kenyatta said the GPE had been a key partner in helping Kenya to invest in education, especially for girls.

"We must use the opportunity of GPE's financing conference to make ambitious pledges to invest in quality education so our children and young people have the skills and knowledge they need to seize the opportunities of the 21st century," he said.

With nearly $500 million dispensed by GPE since the onset of the lockdown in March, governments have gained support for efforts to maintain education services despite the school closures. Ms Albright cited the grants made by GPE to Kenya as an example of how to make a difference.

"Kenya has used their grant to invest in what they call their education-in-the-cloud capacity and now 15 million Kenyan students can use that capability all at once," she said.

Overall, British officials praised the GPE's efforts to raise access to education. So far the organisation has helped to get 160 million more children into school and doubled the enrolment of girls in the countries where it works.

If countries pledge another $5bn over five years, officials believe that would add 175 million extra children to school rolls in 87 lower-income countries.

That would in turn lift 18 million people out of poverty, and protect two million girls from early marriage. GPE works closely with governments in the Middle East to help frontline states maintain education services. The last round of funding drew pledges of $100m from the UAE.

"Now is the time to really dig deep and realise that we are at a crossroads," Ms Albright said. "We need to be as ambitious as we can with funding and get as many donors to help countries not only recover from the pandemic but really go much further in terms of what education delivery looks like."