UNGA 76 Opens In New York: Liberia’s President Engages in An Agenda Expected to Have Education at Its Core

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Under the shadows of the COVID pandemic, the United Nations 76th General Assembly is set to open today in New York with Liberia’s President George Weah joining his counterparts on the world stage to discuss issues affecting the well-being of nations and people.

Unlike in 2020, when world leaders stayed away and delivered their pre-recorded speeches by video, this year, some leaders have opted to attend in person  taking into consideration social distancing while some will be joining virtually including President Weah.

COVID too is the dominant theme of debate at UNGA76. The session is titled: “Building resilience through hope”

The President of this year’s General Assembly, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, has made ‘building back better and building back stronger’ one of the pillars of his Presidency.

No aspect of life has escaped the disastrous effects of the pandemic. That includes education. The World Bank’s Education Director, Jaime Saavedra, recently called the prolonged closure of schools worldwide because of COVID  “the most serious education crisis in the last 100 years.”

For everyone of the 193 national governments represented at the General Assembly,  the challenge of meeting UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 – inclusive and equitable quality education for every child by 2030 – has been made all the harder.

Nowhere though is the slope that must be climbed more steep than in Africa. According to UNESCO, the UN’s education body, sub-Saharan Africa struggles more than any other region on virtually every education measure. It has the highest out of school rates, lowest literacy rates, lowest percentage of qualified teachers and biggest gap between the poorest and richest children completing primary education. 

Not all countries are fortunate to have multi year programs in place designed to improve teaching and learning. Unlike Liberia, many countries have found themselves in deepening crises with no partnerships or structures in place to support change..

All this has been made worse by the pandemic. More than 250 million African children found their schools closed last year because of COVID. Some – schools in Uganda for example – are closed again now because of fresh waves of infection. 

But if the terrible disruption to education in Africa has made things worse, it has also concentrated the focus of many African leaders on what must be done, and what can be done to bring about improvement swiftly, and at scale to education for all African children.

At the recent Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Summit, President Kenyatta of Kenya laid down a challenge to his fellow leaders, to support his Call to Action on Education.

The Kenyatta Memorandum asked for national commitments not just on domestic financing for education, but also to place greater emphasis on improving learning outcomes and new techniques and methodologies which have been proven to yield better results for students.    

It specifically endorsed the role of technology in improving learning outcomes and committed signatories to leveraging technology-supported learning to improve equity in access to education. 

President George Weah, in a recent nationwide statement, recommitted his Government’s support to the education system and called on Liberian students to take their education very seriously as the government does it part by making policies that will improve education. “I encourage all students to take their education very seriously, for it is the key to a better future. With certain major policy changes we have initiated, we are beginning to turn around the Liberian education system . As a leader who believes in the importance of education, I could not sit by and watch our students falling behind their counterparts in the region”.

Crucial to delivering on the commitments of the Kenyatta Memorandum, and building the resilience and recovery from Covid that UNGA76 is calling for into education systems, is a focus on outcomes driven by data. This is something partners such as Bridge Liberia in the Ministry of Education’s LEAP programme are already delivering. 

Learning is a science. It requires the gathering and processing of accurate data to deliver the best possible outcomes for children in schools, indeed to show that any progress is being made. Without data, there is limited measurement, little accountability and no improvement.

The use of the same scientific and data-driven approach has brought huge learning gains in Liberia, where Bridge Liberia  is the biggest supporter of the Liberian Government’s LEAP initiative in basic education. A three year study found that 81% of students who joined a Bridge Liberia-supported school in the first grade and spent 2½ years in class were proficient or basic readers; compared to only 33% of students in traditional public schools.

But there is still much work to be done in improving the gathering and use of data in education systems across Africa and the rest of the developing world. The recent Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Result Report 2021 made this clear. It showed that only one third of GPE’s partner countries report on at least 10 of 12 key education-related outcomes.   

To build back better after the pandemic, a vital first step will be the ability to gather the information needed to measure educational attainment and track its progress. Bridge Liberia shows not only that this can be done, quickly, efficiently and at scale, but that it is the basis for huge improvements in educational outcomes. Outcomes that have provided resilience in the face of national and global crisis.

As the General Assembly prepares to commit itself once again to achieving SDG4 and to recovery from COVID-19, there has never been a more urgent need to seize the opportunity of creating powerful technology-enabled public education systems; systems that will build exactly the resilience UNGA76 has picked as its title; Liberia’s leadership has valuable lessons to share.  

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