In a part of Sub-Saharan Africa where life is far from easy for most people, the Ebola epidemic is the most devastating event in a generation. With per capita incomes ranging between $400 and $700 a year, people living in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone can ill afford Ebola’s terrible toll on survival, health, and livelihoods. World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim was in West Africa last week to pledge our ongoing support to these countries to help them reach the goal of zero Ebola cases.
More than 5 million children are out of school indefinitely due to the crisis, and the number is even larger if university-age students are taken into account. But the crisis is not just the downtime for these millions of students of all ages affected by school and university closures. Its full magnitude is revealed in the loss of learning and the opportunities for progress that are forgone with each passing day.
With recent histories of conflict and civil war, education gains have been hard-won in these countries where literacy is still very low. In recent years, more children have had access to school, with fewer of them dropping out, and more of them, especially girls, moving on to secondary school. But these important gains are quickly diminishing.
In a recent call to action on the Ebola emergency, the Global Business Coalition for Education notes that girls become more vulnerable when they are out of school, as out-of-school children are often at greater risk of violence, rape, child marriage, child labor, child soldiering, and prostitution. This situation may be worsened with projections of declining economic growth in the three countries, as reported in our latest economic update on Ebola, and also with more orphaned or highly vulnerable children who have lost one or both their parents during the Ebola crisis.
As school closures are extended, the risk of dropout also grows. A World Bank Group analysis has shown that in Sierra Leone, an additional year of education could mean a 23 percent increase in a person’s income in some industries. But young people are now at serious risk of missing such opportunities that could lead them out of poverty. Further, as private sector activities have been disrupted, employment opportunities and prospects remain bleak even for recent graduates.
Working with partner organizations internationally and on the ground, the World Bank Group is helping the three countries respond to Ebola in the education sector as they move from the emergency response phase to recovery and then preparedness of education systems to address future outbreaks.
As part of the additional resources we have recently made available for the Ebola emergency response, a fund has been set up that governments can use to provide or resume essential public services, including education. The Ministry of Education in Liberia has proposed to tap this fund to construct and repair much-needed hand washing stations and latrines in schools, enabling a safer environment once students return.
In Sierra Leone, we are helping redirect funds under our supervision—from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and the UK’s DfID—toward Ebola. These funds are helping keep radio distance learning programs on the air till the closure is lifted, disinfect over 8,100 schools (including current/past holding centers), and provide washing stations and information on good washing practices in all schools. Teachers are also being trained in the use of non-contact thermometers to identify sick children early.
While addressing the immediate impact of Ebola on education is challenging, rebuilding resilient systems to deal with future crises is even more so. For example, school administrators will need support to better monitor the physical and emotional health of students, and connect families with health services. Governments will also have to ensure that orphaned children can continue to go to school.
We are now working with partners and governments on this front. In Guinea, we are helping strengthen institutional capacity for crisis preparedness through our new Stepping up Skills Project. Within this, a “youth observatory” will be developed with a database of youth profiles and locations. This will pave the way for a better tracking and monitoring system to locate people more easily during future outbreaks.
Under the same project, Guinea is using a competitive fund to introduce new technical programs that are aligned with the country’s needs. As the country urgently needs health workers with expertise in epidemiology, who can monitor and prevent future Ebola outbreaks and find ways of treating the disease on the ground, institutions will be encouraged to submit proposals that will help prevent the spread of Ebola and train future health workers accordingly.
As the affected countries and international partners work together to get to zero Ebola cases, let’s be sure to apply the lessons from this crisis to build stronger, more flexible, and more resilient education systems. And let’s ensure that children and youth in these countries have not just survived the epidemic, but can get back to full-time learning and pursuing their dreams.
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