The Future of an Entire Generation Hangs in the Balance

By Yasmine Sherif and Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly
Dec 17 2021 (IPS-Partners)

COVID-19 has upended our world, threatening our health, destroying economies and livelihoods, and deepening poverty and inequalities. It also created the single largest disruption to education systems that the world has ever seen.

Schools also play a critical role in ensuring the delivery of essential health services and nutritious meals, protection, and psycho-social support, which means that their closure has imperiled children’s overall wellbeing and development, not just their learning. At the same time, conflicts continue to rage and the disastrous effects of a changing climate threaten our very existence and are driving record levels of displacement.

Crisis upon crisis

128 million children and youth people whose education was already disrupted by conflict and crises have been doubly hit by COVID-19, with the pandemic creating a ‘crisis upon a crisis’. The length and extent of disruption to education systems around the world due to the pandemic has tested the very concept of education in the context of humanitarian crises.

What does it mean to be dedicated to ‘education in emergencies’ in a world in which 90% of schools were shut due to a global pandemic?

How do we support children get an education in countries affected by conflict and fragility when in peaceful and stable countries millions of children are at risk of never returning to school?

Will the push to deliver remedial education for the millions of children who have lost learning over the last two years stretch to helping the three million refugee children who were out of school before the pandemic?

Breakthrough or breakdown?

These questions underscore a stark and urgent choice. Do we push for an ambitious and inclusive breakthrough or accept that the pandemic has led to an irreversible breakdown in educational progress and will permanently deny millions of children the opportunity to go to school?

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe conflicts, forced displacement, famines, and climate-change-induced floods, fires, and extreme heat, together with COVID-19 have combined to form a fatal cocktail that is robbing children of their education.

Last week on a visit to Cameroon, Education Cannot Wait met some of the 700,000 children there who are impacted by school closures due to violence. If this alone were not bad enough, just a few days before the visit, four students and a teacher were killed in a targeted attack, and, in a separate heinous incident, a young girl had her fingers viciously chopped off just for trying to go to school.

Education is a priority for communities caught up in crises

The bravery and determination of the children of Cameroon is a testament to the priority that crisis-affected communities all across the world place on education. They know that education transforms lives, paving the way to better work, health, and livelihoods. They know that continuing education in a safe place provides a sense of normality, safety, and routine for children and young people whilst building the foundations for peace, recovery, and long-term development among future generations.

They tell us their education cannot wait. But delivering that quality education to these children remains a persistent challenge.


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The Global Assault on Human Rights

Young people take part in a pro-democracy demonstration in Myanmar. Credit: Unsplash/Pyae Sone Htun via United Nations

By Ben Phillips
ROME, Dec 17 2021 – Human rights are under global assault. In 2021, the escalation of the worldwide siege on human rights included clampdowns on civil society organisations, attacks on minorities, the undermining of democratic institutions, and violence against journalists.

Human rights came under attack not only from coups, from Myanmar to Sudan, but also from strong men in democracies, from Brazil to the Philippines. The January 6th attack on the Capitol in the US exemplified the fragility of human rights worldwide.

2021 saw the conservative think tank Freedom House raise the alarm about what it calls one of the biggest worldwide declines in democracy “we’ve ever recorded”. But to protect human rights, it is vital to understand why they are under threat.

Crucially, it is not a coincidence that humanity has been simultaneously hit by a crushing of human rights and ever-increasing inequality; they are mutually causal. There is no winning strategy to be found in the approach followed by institutions like Freedom House which cleaves civil and political rights from economic and social rights, and has no answer to the inequality crisis.

Organisations rooted in civil society organising have set out powerfully the interconnectedness of the human rights crisis and the inequality crisis.

Civicus’s 2021 State of Civil Society report notes how “economic inequality has become ever more marked, precarious employment is being normalized [and] big business is a key source of attacks on civic space and human rights violations.”

So too, Global Witness’s 2021 Last Line of Defence report notes that “unaccountable corporate power is the underlying force which has continued to perpetuate the killing of [land and environmental] defenders.”

As human rights scholars Radhika Balakrishnan and James Heintz have noted, “when the political power of the elites expands as the income and wealth distribution becomes more polarized, this compromises the entire range of human rights.” Civicus terms the assault on human rights as one of “ultra-capitalism’s impacts”.

The World Inequality Report records how “in 2021, after three decades of trade and financial globalization, global inequalities are about as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century.

The Covid pandemic exacerbated even more global inequalities. The top 1% took 38% of all additional wealth accumulated since the mid-1990s, with an acceleration since 2020.”

Societies that are more unequal are more violent. As collective institutions like trade unions are weakened, ordinary people become increasingly atomized. As social cohesiveness is pulled apart by inequality, tensions rise.

It is in such contexts that far right movements thrive, and whilst such movements claim to be anti-elite, they soon find common cause with plutocrats in directing anger away from those who have taken away the most and onto those who can be targetted for the difference in how they look, speak, pray or love.

Yet, as writer Michael Massing put it, “many members of the liberal establishment dismiss populism as a sort of exogenous disease to be cured by appeals to reason and facts rather than recognize it as a darkly symptomatic response to a system that has failed so spectacularly to meet the basic needs of so many.”

Human rights can only be protected in their fullness – civil, political, economic and social. As Lena Simet, Komala Ramachandra and Sarah Saadoun note in Human Rights Watch’s 2021 World Report: “A rights-based recovery means governments provide access to healthcare, [and] protect labor rights, gender equality, and everyone’s access to housing, water and sanitation.

It means investing in public services and social protection, and strengthening progressive fiscal policies to fund programs so everyone can fulfill their right to a decent standard of living. It means investing in neglected communities and avoiding harmful fiscal austerity, like cutting social protection programs.”

Only determined organising connecting the inseparable struggles for human rights and a more equal society will be powerful enough to win.

Ben Phillips is the author of How to Fight Inequality and an advisor to the UN, governments and civil society organisations.


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Meanwhile, more than 10 months since Myanmar’s military seized power, the country’s human rights situation is deepening on an unprecedented scale, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), warned December 10.