The first two decades of the 21st century have shown humankind’s need for a paradigm shift. Evidence for our societies’ most pressing issues, such as global inequality and climate change, have been on leaders’ tables for a long time. Science and social movements have ‘red flagged’ many of these topics for decades and many of them constitute the very core of the 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). However, the global crisistriggered by COVID-19 has accelerated urgent demands for cooperation and the implementation of clear policies in order to move from evidence and key messages to policy actions. The current crisis has laid bare the central role of the ‘political factor’ and international cooperation among world leaders to address these challenges.
Social responses have become critical as the pandemic implies severe detriment for life opportunities and development. After decades of poverty reduction, the World Bank estimates that between 88 million and 115 million additional people will be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020 as an effect of the COVID-19 crisis. These social costs have been concentrated in Global South regions. In fact, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have become the epicenter of the pandemic; though their population represents 8% of the world’s population, it accounts for 25% of the total death tolls. Similarly, between March 2020 and February 2021, schools in LAC countries remained closed for 158 days on average,compared to Western Europe’s 52 days.
These challenges up the stakes for international fora as key spaces to drive political attention and allocate resources aimed at moving from first emergency responses to long-term recovery for current and upcoming generations. In this regard, the G20 holds a key position by gathering leading countries, most of them DAC donors, and Global South members, totally accounting for more than 80% of global GDP and 60% ofthe planet’s population. Beyond its country members’ representativeness, the G20’s potential lies in its Engagement Groups, such as the Think20, Youth20, and Civil20, to enrich leaders’ discussions and widen participation through expert stakeholders.
‘People’ at the centre of policy discussions
The pandemic crisis has put ‘People’ in the spotlight of policy discussions. While COVID-19 stressed short and long-term individual and societal effects with severe impacts for the upcoming decade, governments’ have implemented responses focused on stimulus packages and several policies oriented to social protection. Nonetheless, these measures have remained insufficient as inequalities have widened within and among countries with severe consequences for vulnerable groups, particularly those with compounded inequalities related to socioeconomic, gender, ethnic, and conflict variables. This scenario requires stronger domestic and international efforts to mitigate this impact and to ensure the accomplishment of SDG targets by 2030.
In this regard, G20 Engagement groups have acknowledged a vision that interrelates sustainable development with welfare. Particularly, the Think20, the Engagement Group that gathers think tanks and research centers to deliver policy recommendations to G20 leaders, has worked for many years by envisioning and strengthening comprehensive approaches towards global challenges throughout its editions: “Recoupling of economic, social, political and environmental prosperity”, “adopting changes for the welfare of humankind”, “seeking sustainable, inclusive and resilient societies”, are some of the key messages that have guided experts to produce policy recommendations for this forum. Italy’s G20/T20 presidency has reinforced this vision by setting ‘People’ as one of the three pillars with ‘Planet’ and ‘Prosperity’.
The ‘People’ pillar has enabled new insights amid this unprecedent context to acknowledge what is at stake for G20 leaders in this 2021 Summit. As remarked in the T20 Communique handed to country leaders, addressing emergency and mitigating effects for the most vulnerable are only the first steps of a longer process that requires recovery planning and reimagining a more inclusive future. As regards these first responses, there has been vast consensus among experts that global health is the most urgent short-term priority as it represents the cornerstone to rebuild societies and economic systems. This requires a “one health” approach to deliver a comprehensive worldwide prevention of future pandemic outbreaks based on prepared and resilient health systems as well as equitable and universal access to healthcare. Yet, it remains clear that delivering change towards a better and brighter future for society as a whole implies commitments beyond health planning.
The long-sought after achievement of SDG by 2030 requires G20 leaders’ commitment with long-term challenges to reduce poverty and inequality among and within countries, as well as to support those who have suffered compounded inequalities. Even though addressing many of these issues means guaranteeing universal rights, which implies inherent motivations to seek their accomplishment, research has provided enough evidence that accounts for positive impacts of social cohesion on employment, gender equity, financial inclusion, social mobility, early childhood development, and educational outcomes. Amid the budget constraints caused by the economic crisis due to COVID-19, G20 leaders could enhance these policies by protecting Official Development Assistance (ODA) and commitments established at the Addis Ababa Action Agenda financing development.
The future relies on the young and on future generations’ education
In this uncertain and rapidly changing context, SDG act as clear and common horizon that drives governments and stakeholders’ priorities. In that pursuit, youth and future generations must be conceived not only as target-subjects of policy priorities, but also as headlights. The ‘Greta Thunberg generation’ not only questions the way in which we conceive our subjectivities and forms of living, but it also demands policy decisions addressing how we build critical and inclusive forms of living for our societies’ future. If peace is built on men and women’s minds as established by UNESCO’s preamble, it could be certainly claimed that children and youth hold a renewed opportunity to foster the pandemic recovery and sustainable development. Global fora like the G20 can contribute to this by framing and upholding political commitments and global actions aimed at children and young people’s education and inclusion.
Quality education stands amid this ‘political crossroads’ for governments and international cooperation. The G20 Education Working Group was first included during Argentina’s presidency in 2018. Throughout the years, Engagement Groups like the T20 have produced recommendations on early childhood development, digital access and usability, STEM disciplines, and girls’ education, among others, but this field has gained even more significance since 2020. Equitable policies for children and youth, especially educational ones, can play a substantive role in ensuring that new generations can access opportunities that allow them to actively participate in this recoupling process. This represents a challenging enterprise: the pandemic crisis caused a mass education disruption with severe effects at individual and institutional levels. Experts of the T20 ‘Social cohesion and the Future of Welfare Systems’ Task Force have warned that COVID-19 losses arrived on top of severe pre-existing learning gaps between groups of students and across country groups. Estimates show that 53% of children were either out of school or in school but not learning; an additional 10% of the total children may be added due to the pandemic. In addition, recent studies alert that COVID-19 school closures could mean global earning losses of USD 15.3 trillion.
Amid this global crisis, ensuring equitable access to education could contribute not only to mitigating new vulnerabilities, but also to a long-term perspective in which future generations are more prepared to deal with our societies’ challenges. G20 leaders could play a central role by mobilising equity-oriented financing strategies to apply a ‘twin-track’ approach that earmarks general funding for all and targeted funding for the most vulnerable, cross-sectoral, multi-sectoral, and decentralised financing strategies. Surely, these will need strong commitments by OECD DAC donors to protect funding and institutionalize financing mechanisms. By ensuring such humanitarian and development aid to education, G20 and DAC donor countries would be strengthening the so-needed ‘People’ pillar to achievethe 2030 Agenda’s goals.
The COVID-19 crisis has set higher stakes on global leaders to drive cooperation and policy responses to improve life opportunities and collective recovery towards the 2030 Agenda. Ensuring resources and political support on policies oriented to children and youth, particularly education, embrace a key cornerstone to build the ambitious future conceived by SDG. The scientific community, experts, and social movements, among others, have contributed to this common aspiration with enough evidence and research-based recommendations over the last decades. This turning point set by the pandemic requires G20 leaders’ endorsements of these commitments and guidance of our societies down a recovery path with ‘People’ as the main priority.
Alejandra Cardini is Director of the Education Programme at CIPPEC and Co-Chair of the T20 TF6 on Social Cohesion and the Future of Welfare Systems.