PRINCETON, New Jersey — In October 2019, the World Bank introduced the concept of learning poverty as a crisis children and adults face worldwide. Learning poverty happens when a child cannot read and understand a simple story text by age 10. In low and middle-income countries, about 53% of children are considered to be in learning poverty. In the most poverty-stricken countries, that number rises to about 80%. This high incidence of learning poverty puts the full realization of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals at risk, specifically those relating to education, economic development and gender equality. Even if nations reduce learning poverty at the fastest rates seen this century, it will still not end by 2030. The current projection for improvement puts the rate of learning poverty worldwide at about 43% in 2030.
COVID-19 and Learning Poverty
COVID-19 has disrupted learning efforts everywhere. At the peak of the pandemic, roughly 1.6 billion children worldwide were out of school. Even with vaccination efforts leading to reopenings, almost 700 million children are still out of school around the globe.
According to the World Bank, these closures risk pushing an additional 72 million primary school-age children into learning poverty. This is an increase of 10 percentage points, putting 63% of children in learning poverty in low and middle-income countries. Learning poverty puts this generation of students at risk of losing about $10 trillion in future earnings, which equates to roughly 10% of the global GDP. This is because their opportunities will be limited by their reduced knowledge.
Even online learning, which many saw as a solution to school closures, cannot bridge this gap. Those in poverty are often unable to afford the necessary technology. At the peak of the pandemic, UNESCO estimated that half of the children out of school worldwide, about 830 million, did not have access to a home computer. Additionally, more than 40% did not have internet access at home.
In low-income regions, the situation is even worse. In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 90% of students lack access to home computers and 82% do not have internet access. About 56 million students, half of whom are in sub-Saharan Africa, are located in areas with no connection to mobile networks, which makes it even more difficult to transition to online learning.
The World Bank’s Plan
“Without urgent action, this generation of students may never achieve their full capabilities and earnings potential and countries will lose essential human capital to sustain long-term economic growth,” said Mamta Murthi, the World Bank vice president for human development. She states further that it is unacceptable to have more than half of children worldwide in learning poverty, therefore, urgent action is required in education delivery.
The World Bank plans to combat learning poverty with a sustained investment in education technology (EdTech). EdTech can enhance education management and delivery, if used appropriately. The World Bank is supporting countries in expanding their EdTech programs to all levels of education to reach all students. The hope is that EdTech can make education systems more resilient to future shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic and help to reform education delivery.
Bridging the Digital Divide
The biggest stumbling block is bridging the digital divide between wealthy areas and low-income areas. There is rampant inequality in access to technology, which presents a challenge to remote learners worldwide. For example, less than 1% of low-income households of primary-aged students in Africa own a computer. In wealthier households, the rate is still not high as only 25% of high-income households own a computer. Internet access is also a problem that needs to be addressed as only 0.3% of low-income households have internet access.
Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) is an NGO working to solve this problem along with the World Bank. It focuses on developing emergency response technologies in 70 countries. TSF considers school and education technologies essential in combatting digital isolation so it works to develop Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) community centers to promote sustainable digital development.
Advancing Global Development
Eliminating learning poverty is important to advancing global development. So far, the efforts of the World Bank are reaching more than 400 million students and 16 million teachers. This equates to one-third of the student population and nearly a quarter of the teacher workforce. Programs like those of the World Bank and TSF need to be expanded to reach all students worldwide so that no child is disadvantaged by this solvable problem.
– Brooklyn Quallen