Education is a strong pillar for the qualitative growth and improvement of human capital. In the Caribbean, which is home to 11 million young people between the ages of 15 to 29, investing in education is not just good for youth, it is good for the nations. It can help countries build more resilient, productive and peaceful societies.
In my visit to Guyana in August, I had a chance to step into a brand-new school. It was beautifully equipped with state-of-the-art technology, modern labs, and spacious classrooms. The school was a testament to the government’s commitment to invest in education and give the best opportunity to their young people. However, something was missing from the picture – the students.
That picture of empty schools is replicated throughout the Caribbean as governments grapple with the impact of the pandemic. According to UNICEF, over 114 million children are out of the classroom in Latin America and the Caribbean – the world’s largest number of children without face-to-face schooling. The government of Jamaica estimates that about 120 000 of its students are absent from school due to pandemic. There are some Caribbean countries that are beginning to welcome students – the school I visited in Guyana is now seeing its first students, but there are countries where students are still either attending online schools or not being educated at all.
The prolonged closures of schools that began with the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 have led to the most serious education crisis in the last 100 years. According to a recent World Bank report on the education sector in Latin America and the Caribbean, initial estimates of the effects of school closures in the region are staggering and could lead to about two out of every three students not being able to read or understand age-adequate texts. Moreover, school closures and harsh economic conditions are contributing to more students dropping out of school. According to International Labour Organization data from 2019 and 2020, due to limited education and employment opportunities, about three out of every ten young people in the Caribbean are not in school, employed, or being trained.
Limited access to the internet, books, proper spaces to work, and guidance from parents and teachers is likely to lead to children and youth not attaining their full human development potential.
Even before the pandemic, many Caribbean countries faced significant human capital deficits. On average, a child born in the Caribbean can expect to attain only 55 percent of their full productive potential, according to the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index.
The ongoing pandemic crisis will only exacerbate this problem.
The latest economic forecast from the World Bank projects that the Latin American and Caribbean region will grow only 2.8 percent in 2022. The outlook for the Caribbean is mixed, most countries will have modest growth, but some nations continue to fall behind. In 2022, GDP growth is expected to land at 4 percent in Jamaica and Guyana, 3.2 percent in Haiti, 1.8 percent in Suriname, 10.6 percent in Saint Lucia and 8.3 percent in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
While the scars of the COVID-19 pandemic on human capital and the future productivity of the region could become permanent, countries across the Caribbean have an opportunity to take the right actions to protect our children and build a brighter future for people in the region. These actions should focus on three priority areas:
Expanding post-secondary and preschool education opportunities
Providing better and more affordable options for secondary school students to build their technical and vocational skills will be critical for upskilling and reskilling the population. This could be done, for example, by increasing the number of certification programs offered at upper secondary and post-secondary levels. Additionally, it will be essential to expand the enrollment and improve the quality of preschool education to ensure that students entering basic education do so with adequate levels of academic and emotional readiness.
Channel efforts towards remediating learning losses
Some students, especially those from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds, will have fallen behind when schools reopen and will require remedial education and socio-emotional support. Actions like simplifying curricula, but preserving certain learning standards, modifying academic calendars, and canceling high-stakes examinations may be required to adapt teaching and learning to the new reality. At the same time, investments should be made in teacher training to reinforce teachers’ pedagogy, counseling, and digital skills.
Use Education Technology (EdTech) to improve service delivery
Many Caribbean countries have made necessary efforts towards providing students with access to computers and the internet. While these efforts need to be sustained and expanded, governments can capitalize from the existing infrastructure to utilize education technology to expand access to academic programs and student services such as counseling, remediation, and career services.
Some of our work at the World Bank is already helping to address the issue. For example, the Saint Lucia Human Capital and Resilience Project is helping to make post-secondary education more accessible and relevant to students by creating new technical programs in professions of high demand. The program is also helping to build stronger links with employers so that graduates have a smoother education to work transition. The school I visited in Guyana was built and resourced under the Secondary Education Improvement Project, also supported by the World Bank.
I have met with young people from across the Caribbean since I was appointed in July. Recently, I had a conversation with youth leaders in Saint Lucia who inspired me with their enthusiasm and desire to contribute to the growth of their region. One of the things that they told me is that people in the Caribbean see education as a way to escape poverty. I couldn’t agree with them more.
As we navigate these times of uncertainty, I believe the Caribbean countries are well-positioned to lay the foundation for a resilient recovery, with a renewed focus on our most precious asset – the people.