Despite our teachers going above and beyond the call of duty to keep the world’s children learning, the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the deep educational inequalities that exist across the world during 2020. According to UNESCO, more than 1.5 billion students have been affected by school and university closures this year – but the impact has been felt most severely in developing economies, where online learning is out of reach for many.
In fact, developing economies were in the midst of a learning crisis long before schools began to close due to lockdown restrictions. Before the pandemic, the World Bank reported that some 53 per cent of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read and understand a basic text. The current crisis will have done nothing to improve this situation – especially when, in 71 countries, more than half the population does not have access to the Internet.
Beyond basic questions of fairness, this is a big problem for two reasons. First, the failure to provide a good level of education to every child will have a devastating impact on jobs and life chances in poorer nations. It will result in an ever-widening global divide that will become entrenched for generations to come.
Second, if education systems are not reaching every section of society including those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds then a great deal of talent is going unnurtured. It is crucial this is turned around because if we are to face the next crisis better prepared, we will need a new generation of global leaders who can deliver above and beyond expectation in every sphere – leaders who understand the challenges facing the world’s poorest communities because they have experienced them. Unfortunately, it is at present far from clear that our leaders will be up to the challenge. A 2019 global study by Deloitte found that although 80 per cent of organisations think 21st-century leadership has new and unique requirements, only 41 per cent think their organisations are ready to meet these, and only 30 per cent say they are effectively developing leaders to meet evolving challenges. In government, NGOs and the private sector, we need to begin developing key decision takers who will be able to address the complex problems of the future – be they another global health pandemic, climate change, or the impact of AI and automation on a rapidly changing job market.
To make this happen, we also need to begin encouraging and developing leadership talent at every level of society. The world will need leaders who understand first-hand the socioeconomic challenges that hamper so many lives – and who can find new ways to alleviate them. Unfortunately, while talent is distributed uniformly across the globe, opportunities to make good on that talent are spread far too unevenly, so we need to create opportunities to find and develop it in the present. Only with the right expertise, resources and encouragement will today’s youthful promise grow to its full potential.
Today, the Lemann Foundation increasingly sees the development of young leaders as a fundamental part of our work. In recent years, we have driven improvements to Brazil’s leadership infrastructure by collaborating with a number of the world’s top universities to create scholarships and research fellowships for young, civic-minded Brazilians. So far, more than 500 Lemann Fellows from all backgrounds have graduated through these fellowships and are now working across Brazil’s public sector – using their skills and experience to bring about positive social change for the whole country. More broadly, we are also working with our partners to increase the attractiveness of a career in Brazil’s public sector – forging policies that will boost its professionalization and attract a critical mass of changemakers.
As children slowly return to classrooms across the world, we must not take this as a sign that we can take our foot off the gas. Our efforts to improve the quality and accessibility of education must continue – and it is only through nurturing talent and investing in potential that we can begin to recover. And if we want to begin addressing the complex threats that will face humanity this century, we must have the confidence to bet on people.
Denis Mizne is CEO of the Lemann Foundation.