March 4, 2024

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Currently in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is estimated that four out of five sixth grade boys and girls will not be able to read this article, according to a joint report by the World Bank and UNICEF. The pandemic has exacerbated the most severe and invisible education crisis the region has ever faced, and it will have enormous and long-lasting repercussions for all of society.

Yes, it is true that after prolonged school closures due to covid-19, most students are physically back in the classroom. However, they are learning very little. In the first two years of the pandemic, the learning loss was so severe that it is now nearly impossible for many to follow the class. Currently, in the most vulnerable families, especially in indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, every day many more are at risk of dropping out of school.

Beyond individual learning loss, the fact that millions of boys and girls in our region are not acquiring basic reading and math skills has an impact on all of us. In a matter of a decade, these young people who cannot read will try to find jobs or enter universities. But due to their lack of skills, they are likely to increase the numbers of unskilled labor, unemployment, poverty, crime, and forced and irregular migration in search of better opportunities.

The entire region could find itself trapped in a spiral of poverty, social instability, loss of human capital, and low competitiveness. Is this the region that our boys and girls deserve? As a Caribbean father of two daughters, I am concerned that, according to the World Bank, a child born today in our region reaches only 60% of the productive potential that he would have had if he had had access to good health services and access to education of quality. These predictions rise to over 80% for a child born in Singapore, Hong Kong, or Japan.

Although the reopening of schools and the return to face-to-face education were necessary, they are not enough to solve the educational crisis that deepened during the pandemic.

In 2022, twenty countries in Latin America and the Caribbean participated in the Summit for the Transformation of Education convened by the Secretary General of the United Nations and unanimously recognized the need to train teachers as well as the challenges of education systems in the face of socioeconomic crises.

However, few countries have taken firm action beyond these declarations of commitment. Many recovery programs have been run on a temporary, small-scale basis. The size of the challenge requires more investment, longer range and more speed.

I am convinced that this region has the resources, the talents, the institutions and the partners to do better. By prioritizing the education of boys and girls, Latin America and the Caribbean can return to the path of development, prosperity with equity, stability and competitiveness.

And where to start? You have to go back to basics. Fundamental learning in reading and mathematics must be recovered and improved. It is necessary to promote a massive and long-term plan for basic education, probably the most ambitious in the history of the region, which includes acceleration programs, tutorials, extension of school hours, continuous training of teachers and more innovative pedagogical methods, among others.

This massive investment in education is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do because the cost of inaction has consequences for everyone. And we must start with those who are invisible today. Indigenous and Afro-descendant boys and girls, those living with disabilities and the smallest. If we focus the response on them, a lasting impact and greater economic and social return on this financial effort will be achieved.

To start, I am in Bogotá to participate in the event A commitment to action on basic learning and its recovery in which I hope that many more countries in the region agree to implement urgent, concrete and scale actions to guarantee the acquisition of basic learning. The children of the region need it. Our economies so demand it.

If the governments of the region do not take urgent measures to recover what was lost and ensure the basic foundations of learning, millions of children and adolescents will have lasting consequences throughout their lives.

Leaving most of their childhood without knowing how to read or write is a social and economic cost that Latin America and the Caribbean cannot and should not afford. The future of this crisis is now, we cannot wait any longer to act.

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