Education Cannot Wait Interviews Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-general of the United Nations
Ms. Amina J. Mohammed is the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and Chair of the United Nations Sustainable Development Group. Prior to her appointment, Ms. Mohammed served as Minister of Environment of the Federal Republic of Nigeria where she steered the country’s efforts on climate action and efforts to protect the natural environment. Ms. Mohammed first joined the United Nations in 2012 as Special Adviser to former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with the responsibility for post-2015 development planning. She led the process that resulted in global agreement around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Ms. Mohammed began her career working on the design of schools and clinics in Nigeria. She served as an advocate focused on increasing access to education and other social services, before moving into the public sector, where she rose to the position of adviser to three successive Presidents on poverty, public sector reform, and sustainable development. Ms. Mohammed has been conferred several honorary doctorates and has served as an adjunct professor, lecturing on international development. The recipient of various global awards, Ms Mohammed has served on numerous international advisory boards and panels. She is the mother of six children and has one grandchild.
ECW. As an inspirational global women leader who has dedicated your life to service, how do you see the progress and challenges we face in advancing gender equality and empowering the next generation of women leaders through girls and adolescent girls’ right to a quality education?
Amina J. Mohammed. I am inspired by the upcoming generation of women leaders who in the face of disasters, conflicts, and health emergencies prioritize their education and use their platforms to advocate for the right of all girls and young women to a quality education. Advancing gender equality and amplifying the voices of these young women needs to be at the center of all our work.
The great progress we have made globally to advance gender equality cannot be underscored enough – more girls are going to and staying in school than ever before and the number of out-of-school girls has dropped by 79 million in the last two decades. Yet, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 132 million girls were still out of school.
Girls – particularly adolescent girls – face significant barriers to a quality education in many contexts. There are risks of sexual harassment, exploitation, abuse and violence – both on the way to and at school. Many girls have competing demands on their time due to care and household responsibilities. Many families face the difficult choice of which of their children will get an education due to financial constraints – and many times, boys are chosen over girls. Girls’ education is particularly under threat in emergencies and for children on the move and we need to continue to empower this next generation of women leaders through a quality education.
All these issues have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Lockdowns and the socio-economic crisis have brought dramatic increases in domestic violence, including for girls and adolescent girls. Furthermore, rates of child marriages have increased, and it is not clear what effects that would have if schools remain closed for a long period.
To tackle the challenges exacerbated by the current pandemic, we need strengthened efforts to not only ensure gender equality dimensions are prioritized in all our work, but also apply targeted measures to ensure girls, and the most vulnerable, do not bear the heaviest burden and are protected.
ECW. There is a global education crisis in the world, and it is increasingly clear that education, or Sustainable Development Goal 4, is foundational to realising the full spectrum of the Sustainable Development Goals. How do you see the interrelation and why is it so important to connect those dots in advancing all of the Sustainable Development Goals?
Amina J. Mohammed. Education is a human right and is central for building sustainable and resilient societies, as well as for achieving personal aspirations and all the other Sustainable Development Goals. There is no doubt that equipping children and youth with relevant knowledge and skills has a catalytic impact on eradicating poverty, reducing inequalities, improving health, driving economic growth and achieving gender equality.
Without investing in youth to create an enabling environment for them to learn and acquire skills for decent work, sustainability, climate change awareness and global citizenship, we will not deliver on our promise for the future we want.
Without ensuring quality and inclusive education for all, we will not be able to advance our efforts for more peaceful and inclusive societies and for promoting respect for human rights. Yet, we have seen warning signs that on current trends, the world is not on track to achieve the SDG4 goal and targets.
Before COVID-19, more than 260 million children, adolescents and youth were out of school. while more than 617 million were not learning, achieving only minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Now COVID-19 has exacerbated the global education crisis with more than 1.5 billion children who face disrupted education while too many children are still at risk of not returning to school, especially those most marginalized – including girls, children with disabilities, and children on the move. Violence against children is increasing. COVID-19 is not just a health crisis – it is a human crisis and an education crisis.
Indeed, a quality education and lifelong learning is foundational to all other aspects of human development and sustainable development. The foundations for learning start in the womb – maternal health and nutrition is vital for brain development. We know that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are critical and set the stage for learning throughout the lifecycle. We know that children who experience stunting also experience difficulties with learning. When children do not have access to clean water and sanitation or life-saving vaccines for preventable diseases, their lives are at risk. Without access to quality and relevant education, young people cannot build the skills needed to succeed in life and work, and consequently they and their communities suffer.
We need to make sure that all children and youth have an equal chance – girls and boys, children and youth with disabilities, children and youth from marginalized communities. In order to achieve real progress on any of the SDGs, our approaches need to put education at the center.
ECW. The UN General Assembly President recently stressed the need to continue to invest in education during the current COVID-19 crisis and pointed out that many governments in the South do not have the infrastructure to provide adequate remote learning through technology, and this risks deepening the already existing global education divide. How do we translate global cooperation into a concrete bridge that reduces the divides, starting with financing, economic cooperation, and socio-economic development and equity?
Amina J. Mohammed. The COVID-19 crisis in combination with the existing global digital divide has posed considerable challenges for addressing the learning crisis. The pandemic has presented an additional risk of deepening the global education divide and losing the gains that have been made so far. With nearly three quarters of learners being affected by the school closures globally, many countries are facing unprecedented economic challenges including how they can ensure the equity and inclusion of their education systems. Reliance on new technologies for the provision of education during the crisis has highlighted the importance of investing more into making all education systems more resilient, open, inclusive and flexible.
The lack of access to technological readiness and connectivity in some developing countries, but also the overall level of their preparedness to adapt the curricula, prepare learners, educators and families, as well ensure efficient assessment and certification processes, would need to be addressed at scale if we are to learn from the COVID-19 crisis.
To address this complex situation, we all need to work together in partnership to ensure that all children and youth continue to learn, maintaining a focus on the those most in need.
The technology to reach everyone everywhere is available. It’s up to all of us to make sure that at all levels we can scale up these solutions empowering teachers to meet every child and young person’s learning needs in every context. Of course, this should be complemented with improving education systems’ preparedness to face global challenges while advancing on the achievement of the sustainable development for all.
ECW. The UN Secretary-General’s Reform places strong emphasis on ‘The New Way of Working,’ the ‘humanitarian-development coherence’ and the principles of ‘less bureaucracy and more accountability.’ These approaches and principles are also embedded in the strategy and work of Education Cannot Wait (ECW), which is hosted by the UN (UNICEF). Having followed ECW’s work closely since its inception, how do you see ECW contributing to UN reform and the SDGs, especially as we accelerate during the Decade of Action, through concrete measures and results.
Amina J. Mohammed. Despite progress on education provision in crisis-affected situations, the persisting barriers to education have worsened due to the pandemic. ECW’s response during COVID-19 has exemplified the ways in which it implements the new way of working with humanitarian speed and development depth. During the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic, ECW and partners mobilized to provide education support at record speed. The quick release and flexibility of funding allowed UN country teams to respond quickly and to implement education interventions in the ways most appropriate for each context.
At the onset of COVID-19, utilizing the in-country education coordination mechanisms, a total of US$23 million was rapidly disbursed to 55 grantees across 26 countries within a period of 9 days between the receipt of initial applications and the first disbursements of funds. This collaborative approach ensures transparency, and promotes coordinated response and efficiency and effectiveness within the sector.
As an example, in Cameroon, the COVID-19 education response was developed in alignment with the national COVID-19 response strategy in education in multi-stakeholder collaboration with five Ministries of Education. UNESCO and UNICEF received the ECW first emergency response funds for an innovative distance learning platform and the safe protocol for both formal and non-formal education settings. The US$1.5 million allocation in Cameroon for the COVID-19 response will ensure access and continuity of children’s learning, reaching 3.9 million children, of whom 2.2 million are girls, as well as 8,600 teachers, 60 per cent of whom are women.
ECW. With COVID-19, we have all had to adjust and reassess how we operate in the current environment to continue to deliver on the SDGs and will also need to look ahead as this crisis will stay with us for some time. What do you see as the priorities, both in terms of development sectors and strategic approach in mitigating the impact of the global COVID-19 crisis and the people we serve, especially those left furthest behind, such as low-income countries affected by conflict and refugee-hosting countries?
Amina J. Mohammed. Our first and foremost priority really is to address the human face of this global crisis and do it with a global response, which really does need solidarity. Therefore, in the UN, we see the emergency response as threefold. The health response in suppressing transmission of the virus. The Humanitarian response which we have to keep fueling to ensure people are safe in this crisis situation; and an urgent socio-economic response to stem the impact of the pandemic, by helping Governments and people act in a way that builds a better and greener future.
A UN socio-economic response framework was developed to protect the needs and rights of people living under the duress of the pandemic, with particular focus on the most vulnerable countries, groups, and people who risk being left behind.
The five streams of work that constitute this framework include: 1. ensuring that essential health services are still available and protecting health systems; 2. helping people cope with adversity, through social protection and basic services; 3. protecting jobs, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, and informal sector workers through economic response and recovery programmes; 4. guiding the necessary surge in fiscal and financial stimulus to make macroeconomic policies work for the most vulnerable and strengthening multilateral and regional responses; and 5. promoting social cohesion and investing in community-led resilience and response systems. These five streams are connected by a strong environmental sustainability and gender equality imperative to build back better.
The UN´s response in the field of social protection and basic services includes supporting governments to adapt, extend and scale-up services to secure sustained learning for all children, and adolescents, preferably in schools. As such, the UN is working with national education authorities and private sector education service providers to support preschools and schools that can safely remain open, while assisting governments to scale up digital and other forms of remote learning. All efforts need to be put in place to make sure all children and youth remain engaged in remote learning if available and return to school once these reopen. The UN is also supporting teachers through professional training programmes on alternative learning methods.
The UN recognizes a multilateral response like none ever before is required. One that needs the courage to flip the current orthodoxies because we need new tools, new measures and we need to lift the policy barriers that we often find as an excuse as to why we can’t do things at the speed that it needs to be done.
We are presented with a once in a generation opportunity to reach all children and deliver on the SDGs. To do so, we need to work together and leverage partnerships. Our priority is to ensure that all children are learning – whether that’s returning to school, accessing education for the first time, utilizing digital technologies or sitting in a classroom. We need to reach those that are furthest behind, we need to innovate how we do business, and we need to provide real-time response. Children in emergencies and children on the move are in greatest need of support and must be included in any approach.
ECW. In the face of the global COVID-19 crisis unprecedented to our generation, it is also a time for reflection and a real resolve to building back better. Considering that an inclusive quality education for every child and adolescent is one essential part of the solution, how can all of the UN’s constituencies pro-actively and concretely provide unwavering support to realize the values and commitments made 75 years ago?
Amina J. Mohammed. COVID-19 presents us with an opportunity for countries to build back better with equity and inclusion at the center, anchored in the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change. We have an opportunity to reimagine the overall purpose, content and delivery of education in the long term and importantly how the UN system could best support countries in making their education systems more resilient with current and future crises. It is important that we utilize the comparative advantages of each UN entity and other partners for a strengthened, efficient, and comprehensive global response. With UNICEF’s global field presence and education programming in 145 countries, and UNESCO’s network of specialized institutes and mandate to lead the global coordination of the achievement of the education related targets, the UN can utilize inter-sectoral approaches and tap into collective experience and practices from our expertise around the world.