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Educational financing in Africa during COVID-19

August 24, 2022

“COVID-19 has caused the biggest disruption to education we have ever seen,” said Margarita Focas Licht, senior education specialist with the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). “The impacts have not been uniform across or even within countries. Alongside economic and health inequalities, the pandemic has deepened education inequalities.”  

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures left 1.6 billion children out of school globally.  Over half of these children were from lower-income countries. At a 2021 webinar hosted by the Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) Observatory on COVID-19 Responses in Educational Systems in Africa, Sarah Anyang Agbor, a commissioner at the African Union (AU), noted that: “In Africa by 6 April 2020, 53 AU Member States had shut down their institutions of learning, leaving 20 million learners out of school at pre-primary level, 100 million at primary, 56 million at secondary and 8 million at tertiary level with no access to teaching and learning.” 

Jane Egau Okou, commissioner for teacher education in Uganda, described the multiple pressures: “As schools scrambled to close quickly in March 2020, teachers were unprepared to continue instruction remotely without training for distance learning, materials and technological support. Parents weren’t prepared for children spending time at home without the means to continue and support their education. And children weren’t prepared to learn on their own.” The situation was confusing for everyone. 

Children from vulnerable groups, such as girls, refugees and those with disabilities, were affected the most. Africa’s education systems, already struggling with gaps and inequalities in education provision, were sorely tested. The pandemic challenged governments to explore “alternative ways of teaching without compromising quality,” said Agbor when she officially launched the KIX Observatory. 

The education crisis galvanized funding partners, governments and education experts on the continent to critically examine the scale and nature of funding to education. Specifically, they wanted to see “whether and how the money spent had supported good quality education outcomes especially for girls and boys, those living with disabilities and disadvantaged groups,” Agbor stated. 

As part of its mission to contribute to knowledge and scholarship on international education, KIX contributed to the fresh debate with the publication of its report Financing Education in Africa during the COVID-19 Pandemic. In April 2021, the KIX Observatory brought KIX stakeholders together in a webinar to discuss the report and its implications — a key function of knowledge exchange that is supported by KIX, which is a joint endeavour between GPE and IDRC. 

COVID-19 was a major shock on a fragile education system

Before the pandemic, “40 percent of children in Africa were considered to have a low-level of well-being, which means they have inadequate access to water, sanitation, nutrition and generally lack space for education,” noted Rita Bisoonauth, head of mission at the AU’s International Centre for the Education of Girls and Women in Africa (CIEFFA). “With COVID-19, the number of children affected has increased and gender inequalities widened, especially during school closures,” she added.

“In spite of significant gains recorded in education, education systems on the continent were already weak,” Bisoonauth stated. “When the crisis hit, development financing shifted to quickly respond to support and strengthen public health systems that were buckling under the pressure from COVID-19.” This shift further weakened already fragile education systems.

Across the world, teaching was taken online to reach children forced to stay at home. In Africa, distance learning that depends exclusively on technology has exacerbated and made visible existing inequalities.

“According to the ITU, 216 million learners in sub-Saharan Africa do not have a household computer and 26 million are not covered by a mobile network,” said Agbor. “In 25 Member States, over 75% lack internet access,” she added.

When schools closed, investments in most countries focused on the following main areas: distance learning, including training teachers how to use the technology needed for it; providing water, sanitation and hygiene materials in readiness for when schools opened; and supporting vulnerable populations, such as children with special needs, girls from marginalized areas and refugee populations.

Rwanda developed a COVID-19 education sector plan in response to the crisis. “We have invested in training of teachers in online teaching and assessment, provided schools with washing stations and building 122,000 new classrooms to decongest schools that are overcrowded,” said Gaspard Twagirayezu, Rwanda’s minister of state for primary and secondary education.

GPE, through its special funding window to support education initiatives in partner countries during the pandemic, mobilized USD500 million (CAD650 million). According to Focas Licht, nearly three quarters of those funds have been prioritized for psychosocial support, hygiene, nutrition, equity including support for re-opening of schools, and planning for resilience.  

The sums are large, but the need is greater

Competing priorities between public health and education spending is putting many governments under immense pressure. The majority of speakers at the KIX webinar agreed that most African countries lack capacity to fulfil the 20% global benchmark on support to education. And all this is happening in an environment “where education spending is likely to stagnate, the gap in annual financing needed to achieve SDG4 is estimated to increase from USD148 billion [CAD192 billion] to USD200 billion [CAD260 billion] and aid to education could fall by up to USD2 billion [CAD2.6 billion] by 2022,” noted Focas Licht.  

Students line up to have their temperature taken before entering their classroom
Tabassy Baro/GPE

How are governments tackling the problem? 

The pandemic placed the majority of families on the continent under economic pressure as they saw their mobility restricted, their jobs disappear and their national economies shrink. According to Agbor, many children, especially young girls, were forced into child labour and early marriages. Findings from KIX research revealed that governments responded to these issues in two ways: with policy instruments and with extra money.

The wave of teenage pregnancies has given impetus to policy revisions to support the readmission of pregnant girls and teenage mothers into school. Zimbabwe has allocated USD123 million (CAD160 million) to revise its Education Act. KIX’s research examined, through a gender lens, how financing is supporting children. ”Of the investments to education efforts in Africa, what went into supporting boys and girls,” asked Maria Mdachi, a gender specialist at CIEFFA.

Research shows that equality in enrolment for boys and girls is generally level at pre and primary school, but the gap widens at secondary and tertiary school levels. “Gender disaggregated data to explain why such changes happen is insufficient or missing altogether,” said Mdachi.  “Yet, better information will contribute to education planning and strategies that take into account barriers to gender equality.”

The AU intensified its efforts to support girls to return to class through ‘AfricaEducateHer,’ a campaign to raise awareness and mobilize resources to get girls back into schools as they reopened. “We were aware that many girls had no chance to return to school due to the pandemic, early marriages and teenage pregnancies,” said Mdachi.

CIEFFA has called for “gender intelligence” as a strategic approach to better address gender equality. The organization Gender Intelligence Group defines gender intelligence as a paradigm shift that focuses on “naturally occurring characteristics that distinguish men and women beyond the obvious biological and cultural, to include attitudinal and behavioral differences.”

“This understanding will contribute to better outcomes for girls through policies that prioritize gender equality and ensure that no one is left behind,” said Mdachi.   

What needs to be done?

To build resilience and quality in education, Africa needs sustained funding and an expansion of domestic revenue to support education initiatives, said Focas Licht. GPE has launched a campaign to mobilize USD5 billion (CAD6.5 billion) in five years to strengthen education systems and to protect gains made in education. The Global Education Summit held in the United Kingdom in 2021 brought together world leaders and the global community to pledge financing to support quality education for all children for the period 2021 to 2025. The summit was part of the ‘Raise Your Hand’ financing campaign launched in October 2020.

Experts at the KIX webinar called on African governments to innovate, tackle inefficiencies and make investments in those areas that matter most and where returns to investment are high, such as early childhood care and education.

Agbor exhorted governments, during the COVID-19 pandemic and in other emergencies, to invest in bridging the digital divide and in green energy. She also encouraged strategic partnerships between finance, energy and infrastructure to set up facilities to support innovations in education.