Strategies to mitigate the long-term financial impact of COVID-19 on education systems in SSA countries

December 13, 2023

CONTRIBUTORS

Lucy Wakiaga

Associate Research Scientist

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 by Lucy Wakiaga

“In a time of destruction, create something.” ― Maxine Hong Kingston

Can Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA’s) education systems rise up again and thrive post-Covid? That is a question for serious thought especially with regards to resource availability and disaster preparedness.  Relieving the events of the years 2020 and 2021 is a hard pill to swallow.According to UNICEF the onset of COVID-19 and related school closures impacted over 250 million learners in SSA. A commentary by Parsitau and Jepkemei revealed that learners across several SSA countries, especially those with special needs and from marginalized communities, experienced protracted learning loss as well as varied forms of exclusion, nutritional deficiency, physical, mental and emotional violence and exploitation.

As several countries in SSA experienced a decline in economic performance during the pandemic, schools were starved of much needed financial and material resources to effectively address some of the aforementioned challenges. Three years later, it appears SSA’s education sector continues to grapple with these challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. A study conducted by ADEA and APHRC (2023) on education stakeholders’ perspectives on the long-term impacts of COVID-19 revealed three areas of attention: the learner, the teacher and the school system. Resource constraints were mentioned as a key concern under the school system category. The level of financing impacts the levels and types of resources available in schools. So how can education systems in SSA mitigate the long-term impacts of these financial challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic?

According to Dhruv Gandhi’s commentary titled Figures of the week: Public spending on education in Africa, SSA spends, on average, 5% of its GDP on education; second  highest of any region across the globe. It is notable that this proportion varies across countries in SSA. In 2020 for instance, Namibia had one of the highest spending proportions at 9.4%; Kenya at 5.1% and the Central African Republic at 2.2%. In comparison to the size of their economies, most African countries’ expenditures on education post-COVID flatlined or remained below pre-pandemic levels to about 4.2% of GDP in 2020, and about 4.1% of GDP during 2021-2022. With the shrinking of economies post-COVID, several countries in SSA turned their attention to health and social protection in spite of the increasing needs in the education and other sectors. For instance, some countries such as Ethiopia, Botswana and South Africa provided varied levels of health insurance, food assistance, and cash transfers to sections of their populations that were considered most vulnerable. The resultant financial gap if not effectively addressed may lead to a funding crisis in the education sector. Lack of adequate funding results in reduced teaching and learning resources, consequently impacting student learning outcomes. Experts are investigating possible short-term and long-term financial opportunities that can mitigate this looming funding crisis and enhance the capacities of SSA’s education sector post-COVID.

Mobilizing domestic resources

The ADEA and APHRC 2021 report suggests the need for reprogramming within existing networks as well as collaborating with local entrepreneurs in order to create sustainable financial avenues that can effectively respond to emergencies.

Increasing internal efficiency

Critics note that about one third of education spending is lost through inefficiencies. Examples of inefficiency include: student dropouts, teacher absenteeism, and prolonged school closures. During the pandemic, for example, school enrolment in Nigeria dropped from 90 percent in 2019 to 82 percent in 2020 when schools reopened after closure due to the COVID-19 outbreak. SSA governments and funders should examine their funding mechanisms to ensure that the resources reach the most vulnerable learners, especially those living with disabilities, girls in emergencies and young people in marginalized areas. According to the ADEA and APHRC 2021 report, greater demonstration is needed to show how emergency funding responses have promoted equity and inclusion in education.

SSA countries can critically examine their school network systems from basic to tertiary education and identify areas of wastage and seal them. One way is streamlining staffing across the education continuum by eliminating ghost workers- both teaching and non-teaching staff as done by Portugal. The country’s approach offers lessons in increasing internal efficiency through school consolidation. Through careful planning and preparation, including consultation with stakeholders and having a transparent, objective criteria, it closed down 3000 schools and reassigned students to new schools. Having such internal and technical efficiencies promote equity and equality.

Increasing the tax base 

Deliberate engagement of corporate companies in the funding of education systems in SSA countries can increase financial resources for schools. A study of the tax contributions of United Kingdom’s telecommunications company Vodafone,  across six African countries (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Tanzania) showed that they resulted in 858,054 children staying in school for an extra year due to access to clean water and sanitation. This was due to an increase in government revenue equivalent to tax contributions made by Vodafone.

External debt cancellation

While there is a call for more financial support for education in SSA, a key solution would be debt cancellation for the low developing countries, especially those that committed their financial resources to addressing the ravages of the pandemic, consequently impacting their public budgets.

Conclusion

Setbacks from the COVID-19, are just that: setbacks. With goodwill to re-prioritize domestic public and private resource structures, SSA countries can avail funds, through strategic decisions and policies, to their school systems, consequently mitigating the ravages of COVID-19.