Azevedo Gomes is a healthy 98-year-old who lives in Bianga, a village of 500 people, in Guinea-Bissau, where he grows fruits and root vegetables on his farm. But with the economic crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, Gomes’s income quickly plummeted and, like many other farmers, his extended family saw their resources melt away like snow in the sun, to the point of jeopardising the family’s food security.
In Guinea-Bissau, as in the rest of the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the closure of schools. For Gomes’s great-grandchildren, and tens of millions of children in sub-Saharan Africa, not going to school is a double penalty: it deprives children of an education — and school meals. All the while, family meals are increasingly meagre. As a result, tens of millions of children are exposed to the largely irreversible damage of malnutrition.
For Gomes’s family, as for the vast majority of families in sub-Saharan Africa, school closures have dire consequences. If children around the world are slowly returning to school, thanks to strict hygiene measures, many of the most vulnerable are not so fortunate in sub-Saharan Africa.
Trends recorded by UN children’s agency Unicef indicate that up to 15% of children on the continent may never return to school. We need to better understand the forces at play so that policymakers and the international community can act quickly and avoid catastrophic losses in human capital and future economic growth.
Every time a school closes, the consequences for both children’s learning and socio-emotional development are immense. In sub-Saharan Africa, they are even worse. In 2020, nine of 10 students did not have sufficient internet access to enable them to make up for lost school time. In practice, learning has come to a complete standstill for far too many students in the region.
Due to the deleterious effects of the pandemic on household incomes, many children have had to work to help their families to make ends meet. Despite the reopening of schools, many of these children will remain in the informal labour market until their families find sufficient resources to meet their daily needs.
For girls, being deprived of school also means an increased risk of sexual exploitation or early marriage. According to some estimates, school closures during crises can lead to an increase in teenage pregnancies by as much as 65%.
These gloomy prospects are not, however, inevitable.
To help vulnerable households cope, Unicef, the World Food Program and the UN Development Programme have launched a programme of social and economic protection, through the transfer of money. In Guinea-Bissau, this programme shows that supporting a family with a small amount of mobile money frees up resources and, in particular, allows children to return to school.
The most vulnerable households, like that of Gomes, receive SIM cards with direct access to funds through a mobile-money system widely used on the continent. The cash transfer Gomes receives is equivalent to only two-thirds of the national minimum wage. However, “thanks to the cash transfer, I can improve our daily diet, buy fish, but also pay the school fees of my great-grandchildren,” he says.
If we are to avoid depriving countries of the productivity of their youth and give millions of young adults a chance to build their futures, urgent action is needed. We know what to do. We know how to do it: support families so that they can get their children back to school.
Yet in sub-Saharan Africa, money transfer programs reach less than 10% of families. It is vital to strengthen these support mechanisms: the pandemic is far from over and millions of children still have not returned to school. The value of mobile-cash transfers is that they allow families to invest in their most urgent needs — whether food, medicine, rent, school fees, shoes, uniforms or educational materials — so that children can return to, and stay in, school.
Children’s education cannot wait. And every day without school is a wasted day: for productivity, innovation, development and for the future. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa need the financial help of industrialised countries to ramp up their cash-transfer programmes to meet the scale of the problem. Do we have the means? Yes, without a doubt — if we choose to.
Since the start of the pandemic, Africans have received about $40 in aid per person, compared to $2 400 for nationals of G20 countries. This financial aid, negligible compared to what the richest countries spend on their own populations, can link subsidies to debt relief.
It can finance social protection programmes, and empower communities — and people like Gomes. We have a duty to invest in human capital. We have a duty to send financial resources to families as quickly as possible — and to do so equitably. This is the surest way out of the crisis, while building back better for the future.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, millions of children will regain their inalienable right to a quality education only if their governments and the international community work together to help families to overcome financial barriers — barriers that will otherwise build yet another glass ceiling for young people.