The world's governments are gearing up for their own big education moment. At the United Nations Transforming Education Summit during Sept 16-19, they have a chance to tackle a global learning crisis that has been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic and rising levels of child poverty and malnutrition.
They should start by mobilising behind an old cause with an urgent new resonance: the provision of free school meals to children who would otherwise be left too hungry to learn.
Pandemic school closures deprived hundreds of millions of children of learning opportunities. Poorer countries closed their classrooms for longer than richer countries, with 1-2 entire school years lost across much of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. And in rich and poor countries alike, opportunities for remote learning were heavily skewed toward children in wealthier households.
With schools reopening, the scale of the learning losses triggered by school closures is coming fully to light, along with evidence of widening inequalities. Data from poorer countries point to devastating declines from already-abysmal levels. The World Bank estimates that the share of ten-year-olds who are unable to read a simple story has risen from a pre-pandemic level of 57% to over 70%. One recent study in Malawi found that seven months of school closure led to a loss of more than two years' worth of foundational learning, with children forgetting concepts mastered before lockdown.
Millions of children are now returning to school carrying the triple burden of lost learning, increased poverty, and malnutrition. Hunger was rising even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine added another inflationary twist to the global food crisis. Applying the Food and Agriculture Organization's regional estimates to Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia suggests that 179 million school-age children were living with hunger in 2021 -- an increase of 35 million from 2020. In Africa's case, almost one-quarter of school-age children were suffering undernutrition.
Nor is this crisis restricted to the Global South. In the US, the number of children living in households struggling to put food on the table has increased dramatically over pre-pandemic levels, from 12 million to 18 million. The proportion of children living in food-insecure homes in the UK rose from 12% to 17% in the first quarter of 2022 alone, according to Food Foundation surveys. As heating bills and food costs rise, the UK is now facing an autumn child hunger crisis.
There is an antidote, though. Well-designed and properly financed free school-meal programmes can protect children against hunger, unlocking the benefits of education. There is overwhelming evidence that school feeding can increase attendance, reduce dropout rates, and improve learning outcomes, especially for the poorest children. An evaluation of Ghana's programme found that it increased average learning across the board, with children living in extreme poverty making the greatest gains -- the equivalent of nine months of schooling.
The benefits of effective school-meal programmes extend beyond education and across generations. India's Midday Meal scheme -- the world's largest school-feeding programme -- has raised learning levels, partly by creating incentives to keep girls in education. Recent evidence has shown that girls covered by the MDM also married and had children later and made greater use of health services.
Before the pandemic, many developing countries were expanding school-meal programmes, albeit from a low base. In Africa, where around one-quarter of children were covered by such programmes, governments had adopted ambitious plans for expanding access. Unfortunately, many of these plans have now been shelved, as unsustainable debt, slower growth, and reduced revenues have shrunk governments' fiscal space.
Richer countries were able to use their school-meal programmes to protect vulnerable children during the pandemic. For the first time in its 75-year history, the National School Lunch Program in the US was made available to all children without means testing. And in the UK, the soccer player Marcus Rashford cajoled a reluctant government into providing meal support during school holidays. Sadly, these concessions are now being diluted or withdrawn even as hunger increases.
What's needed now is a global movement for school meals. At this month's Transforming Education Summit, governments should commit themselves to the goal of universal provision of free school meals.
For the poorest countries, reaching that goal will require international support. The School Meals Coalition estimates that $5.8 billion (213 billion baht) per year will be needed to restore programmes disrupted by Covid-19 and to expand provision to an additional 73 million children. The summit provides an opportunity for governments, aid donors, the World Bank, and other multilateral development banks to specify how they will fill the financing gaps.
But this summit must also be for schoolchildren vulnerable to hunger in rich countries. The Children's Defense Fund has called on US President Joe Biden's administration to follow California's example and introduce universal free school meals -- an opportunity that it squandered in the new Inflation Reduction Act. In the UK, neither of the candidates to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister has mentioned child hunger as a priority. That's despite the fact that one-in-three British school-age children living in poverty also lack access to free school meals.
Governments and NGOs attending the Transforming Education Summit have been encouraged to "reimagine education". In the absence of clear goals, a viable strategy, and a sense of collective purpose, that looks like an invitation to another talking shop.
Attendees can "reimagine" all they want. What children need and have a right to expect is bold practical action and adequate financing to alleviate hunger and make learning possible. Delivering anything less would be a travesty. ©2022 Project Syndicate
Kevin Watkins, a former CEO of Save the Children UK, is a visiting professor at the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa at the London School of Economics.