COVID-19 Will Leave Millions Without Education. America Can Change That | Opinion

The United States of America's reputation as a shining light for the international community has been dimmed in recent years. The world has watched as our country repeatedly withdrew from positions of global leadership and turned inward. The world watched our nation become more polarized and our democracy put to the test, most vividly through the recent violent takeover of the Capitol. People across the world felt despair and frustration as our domestic handling and response to the COVID-19 pandemic became tangled in politics.

As a new administration takes charge, the global community is confronting multiple challenges. More than ever, a strong, engaged and contributing America is deeply needed to help overcome them. President Joe Biden is promising a reassertion of global leadership, a renormalization of diplomacy and alliances and the promotion of human rights abroad. This will be a welcome focus for our foreign policy.

January 24 marked International Day of Education. It's timely to reflect upon one of the most important yet underreported challenges the world is facing—the education deficit.

As head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, an international aid and development organization, we have witnessed first hand the devastation that COVID-19 is having on vulnerable communities worldwide. One of the most significant and lasting impacts of the pandemic will be the enormous disruption to education that it has engendered. Nearly 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries, across every continent, have been affected. The closure of schools and other learning spaces has impacted 94 percent of the world's student population—and up to 99 percent in low- and middle-income countries.

If not dealt with urgently, the impact will be felt by future generations and stands to reverse decades of hard-earned progress. The most vulnerable will be the hardest hit. Almost 24 million students are at risk of dropping out of school or not having access to education this year, due to the pandemic's economic impacts.

At a community level, this represents a loss of skills, a significant drag to economic growth and more instability. For children around the world, it means potential that will go unfulfilled, lower wages, unemployment and dealing with social issues that come from living in poverty.

Education in Africa
An empty classroom in a now abandoned school on May 12, 2019, in Cameroon. Giles Clarke/UNOCHA via Getty Images

The world has seen tremendous progress in recent decades: a 75 percent reduction of extreme poverty, a 58 percent reduction in child mortality and significant increases to life expectancy are among the highlights since 1990. So much of this progress has been propelled by better access to quality education. The world can and must take action to stop these gains being lost—and with the largest economy in the world, we have an opportunity to lead the way.

In 2015, leaders from 193 countries came together and set a global goal to have children receive quality primary and secondary education by 2030, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. The most significant barrier in seeing this goal achieved is finance. UNESCO estimated that prior to the pandemic, even after lower- and middle-income countries double their education finance, there would remain a $39.5 billion per year financial gap that would need to be filled by donors. Since COVID-19, the need has expanded but donor aid and domestic finance for education is set to contract.

Our country has a reasonable record of promoting education, and in terms of volume, we are the largest aid donors in the world. But when it comes to aid generosity (the primary way countries are benchmarked, measured as a percentage of total income) we rank near the bottom—23 out of the 29 official aid donors.

One of the most profound ways the U.S. can reassert its global leadership is through taking a lead on the unfolding education crisis, and in doing so setting the world on a course where every child, everywhere, receives a quality education as a step toward reaching the fullness of their potential.

The pre-pandemic education finance gap, $39.5 billion annually, is triple what the world currently gives in education aid. Closing the gap may seem like a tall order. But consider this, that amount represents just over one one-thousandth of the $3.5 trillion that our federal government has spent on the COVID-19 stimulus to date.

Such an amount is vanishingly small, compared to the good that could be achieved. The new administration could demonstrate to the world that the United States remains a beacon of hope and a reliable partner for the entire world.

Michael Kruger is the president of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.