Global perspective Human stories

Human development backslides, education at global levels ‘not seen since the 1980s’

UNDP Uruguay/Pablo La Rosa
Young girl in Uruguay uses her laptop to study at home.
UNDP Uruguay/Pablo La Rosa

Human development backslides, education at global levels ‘not seen since the 1980s’

Economic Development

School closures, to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, have left some 60 per cent of the world’s children without an education, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said in its new report, launched on Wednesday.

Human Development Perspectives COVID-19: Assessing the impact, envisioning the recovery, estimates the percentage of primary school-age children who are not getting any schooling, adjusted to reflect those without Internet access, is now at “global levels not seen since the 1980s”.

With classrooms shuttered and stark divides in access to online learning, UNDP assessments show that 86 per cent of children in primary education are now effectively out-of-school in countries with low human development, compared with just 20 per cent in countries with very high levels of development. 

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However, hope is within reach for countries to close the yawning education gap, by providing more equitable Internet access.

Risk of decline

Education is just one of the measurements used to assess global human development, combined with health and living standards.
UNDP pointed out that for the first time since the concept was introduced in 1990, the world teeters on the verge of going backwards, during the course of this year.

Noting that “the world has seen many crises over the past 30 years, including the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09”, UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner, stated that “each has hit human development hard but, overall, development gains accrued globally year-on-year”.

COVID-19 – with its triple hit to health, education, and income – may change this trend”, he warned.

Declines in fundamental areas of human development are being felt across most countries, rich and poor, in every region. 

The global death toll of the coronavirus has exceeded 300,000, while the global per capita income this year is expected to fall by around four per cent.

The combined impact of these shocks could signify the largest reversal in human development on record.

Moreover, this does not include other significant effects, such as progress towards gender equality, where negative impacts on women and girls span economic, reproductive health, unpaid care work and gender-based violence. 

Magnifying inequalities

The coronavirus crisis not only magnifies inequalities in education. 

The drop in human development is expected to be much higher in developing countries that are less able to cope with the pandemic’s social and economic fallout than richer nations. 

“This crisis shows that if we fail to bring equity into the policy toolkit, many will fall further behind”, said Pedro Conceição, UNDP Director of the Human Development Report Office. 

“This is particularly important for the ‘new necessities’ of the 21st century, such as access to the Internet, which is helping us to benefit from tele-education, tele-medicine, and to work from home”.

Hope for the future

Implementing equity-focused approaches, is possible and affordable, the report says, flagging that it would cost just one per cent of the extraordinary COVID-19 fiscal support packages, which countries have already committed to, in order to close the Internet gap for low and middle-income countries.

Priority steps to tackle the complexity of the crisis

-    Protect health systems and services
-    Ramp up social protection
-    Protect jobs, small- and medium-sized businesses and informal sector workers
-    Make macroeconomic policies work for all
-    Promote peace, good governance and trust to build social cohesion 

The UN framework for the immediate socio-economic response to COVID-19 crisis emphasizes the importance of a green, gender-equal, good governance baseline, from which to build a ‘new normal”.

UNDP calls on the international community to rapidly invest in the ability of developing countries to tackle the complexities of the COVID-29 crisis.

Young mother and her son in Costa Rica.
UNFPA Costa Rica
Young mother and her son in Costa Rica.