UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore's remarks at Indiana University on “Access to Learning for the World’s Children: Reimagining Education for the Post-COVID World"

Checked against delivery

29 October 2020

NEW YORK, 23 October 2020  "Thank you to Indiana University, and President Michael McRobbie, for the opportunity to meet all of you — virtually — today.

"I had hoped to deliver this year’s O’Meara Lecture in person, at the gem of the Hoosier State’s university system — IU Bloomington.

"COVID-19 changed that — and much, much more, as I will outline in a moment.

"But it has not dimmed my commitment to talk to you about what UNICEF is doing to support children’s education. And how you, as IU students, can help make a difference in the world.

"This lecture’s namesake, Patrick O’Meara, is deservedly known as Indiana University’s ambassador to the world.

"His decades of experience and expertise in global affairs — particularly in Africa — have brought the world closer to the students and faculty of this University.

"And in turn, this University has prepared and sent generations of students out into the world. To make it a better, fairer, more equal place.

"That includes my former boss, Paul O’Neill. Almost 20 years ago, Paul swore me in as Director of the US Mint, and we worked side-by-side during his time as Secretary of the Treasury. I loved him as a boss, and I respected him.

"So it’s good to see Paul’s name on IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. The school’s unofficial motto — “Lead for the Greater Good” — is one that can certainly be applied to generations of IU students, who have lent their hands and hearts to making the world a better place.

"So no matter what you’re studying…no matter your future plans or what kind of career you intend to pursue…I hope you’ll consider ways in which you, too, can make a difference in the world around you.

"This vision of working to achieve a better future has guided UNICEF’s work from the very beginning.         

"The agency was established in 1946 — part of the ambitious undertaking of the post-war era.

"From the start, UNICEF has been driven by the belief that global co-operation is the best path forward for building peace and for investing in the better futures for children.

"Collaboration, not confrontation — dialogue, not division.

"Guided by this belief…strengthened by the passion and dedication of generations of our staff members…and nourished by the generosity of global donors…today you can find UNICEF’s team working in over 190 countries around the world.

"They’re working shoulder-to-shoulder with governments to deliver nutrition. Vaccinate children. Provide water, emergency health care, education and protection services to the displaced.

"Often at great risk to their own safety, UNICEF staff members and our many partners are working to give development a foothold in parts of the world where a vaccination…a bed net…a drink of clean water…a cup of nutritious food…a seat in a classroom…or a paved road…can seem a distant dream.

"Communities penned in by poverty. By exclusion. Violence and crime. Discrimination. Economic inequality. And conflicts.

"Even in hard-to-reach areas like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — what we often call North Korea — you can find UNICEF staff members working with authorities to access hard-to-reach areas in a difficult humanitarian environment.

"Or in Syria, which I visited earlier this year, now about to enter its tenth year of war. Or in Yemen, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. Places where UNICEF and our partners are strengthening community water systems… delivering antibiotics and supplies to hospitals…immunizing children against diseases…and providing education and protection services to children in need.

"Beyond our work in emergencies, we’re a trusted development organization, supporting governments as they construct schools, hospitals and resilient water and sanitation services. And helping them strengthen lasting community-based health systems. All of the ingredients needed to support healthy, educated and prosperous populations over the long-term.

"To support all of this work, we rely on the generosity of governments, donors and philanthropists from around the world.

"In fact, Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is now the home of the Global Philanthropy Environment Index, developed by the Hudson Institute and a colleague and friend of mine, Carol Adelman. It helps measure charitable giving within and between countries. UNICEF and IU are working closely on this, including to train UNICEF officers in this important area of work.

"But as we work with partners and donors to serve and save the lives of children around the world, our organization is also carefully attuned to the changing world around us, and its impacts on children.

"History is never static — as this year proved.

"And COVID-19 represents a true children’s crisis, in every sense of term.

"The pandemic is placing at risk all of the systems upon which children rely.

"Health systems. Immunization campaigns. Water, sanitation and hygiene systems to prevent infection. Protection systems to keep them safe while they’re in lockdown. Counselling and mental health systems. Economic safeguards for their families.

"And perhaps most immediate for children — education, which is what I’d like to focus on today. An issue that obviously goes to the core of the purpose of your life, your school, your teachers, and your University.

"I had hoped to deliver this lecture in Presidents Hall — in what was once the main reading room of the University’s library. I understand that, at one point, the library housed one-and-a-half million books.         

"While the building’s purpose has changed, I understand John Milton’s inspiring quote still greets each and every person who walks through these doors. “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit.” I have long admired his thesis of the common good.

"We can find a close echo of this in Malala Yousafzai’s now-famous words: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”

"But for millions of children around the world, books, pens, teachers and — sadly — knowledge, skills and opportunities are tragically out of reach.

"This comes at an obvious cost to children’s futures.

"But is also frustrates countries’ efforts to reduce poverty. To close gaps in equality. To spur economic growth.

"And even to prevent needless deaths and illness. For example, the dramatic increase in child survival rates in recent decades coincided with the rise in the rates of mothers completing secondary education.

"In other words — children tend to be healthier when their mothers are better educated.

"Recognizing these benefits, in recent decades, countries have focused on getting more children into school — and keeping them there. 

"But despite our progress, hundreds of millions of children are still being left behind.

"Before COVID, one-in-five school-aged children was out of school.

"An estimated 617 million children and adolescents around the world were unable to read or perform basic math — even though two-thirds of them are in school.

"In low and middle-income countries, more than half of all children were unable to read by the age of 10.

"And in sub-Saharan Africa, 87 per cent of children cannot read or understand a simple story by the end of primary school.

"In other words — the crisis of access to learning is colliding with a crisis of quality — children who are in school but not learning.

"One example is Niger. Niger was able to triple the share of children completing primary education, while facing the world highest fertility rate. Still, 99 per cent of 10-year olds in that country struggle to read a simple sentence.

"Now, under the pandemic, this learning crisis has grown far worse.

"COVID-19 has caused the largest mass disruption of education in history affecting a generation.

"At its peak in April 2020, more than 190 countries instituted country-wide closures, resulting in 1.6 billion learners being out-of-school. At great costs to their education and futures.

"The World Bank estimates a loss of US10 trillion in earnings over the lifetime of this current generation of children if we fail to address the global learning crisis.

"Of course, students in this country are not immune.

"A team of five education scholars recently calculated that American schoolchildren in 2020 learned 30 per cent less reading and 50 per cent less math than they would in a typical year due to disrupted learning.

"Analysts at McKinsey found that a typical American student will likely lose more than six months-worth of learning if classes don’t resume until January. For black students, that number rises to 10 months. And for the poorest more than a full year. Hundreds of thousands could drop out altogether, and never return.

"But within every crisis is an opportunity to learn from existing weaknesses and past failures — and build stronger systems.

"And from our vantage point at UNICEF, we’re seeing the acceleration of a positive, long-overdue trend — countries are developing and scaling-up alternative pathways to deliver education.

"More than 90 per cent of the world’s education ministries have adopted some kind of remote learning.

"From high-tech, online lectures — like ours today.

"To low-tech delivery methods — like radio and TV.

"To “no-tech” solutions — including delivering materials directly to children’s homes.

"To hybrid combinations of all three models.

"Of course, for schools that are able to open, UNICEF is working to make sure they can do so safely. This includes adopting flexible approaches, providing sufficient resources for teachers to be adequately protected and supported, and making sure that learning remains safe for all students.

"But our teams are also working closely with countries as they design and deploy solutions for distance learning.

"In Jordan, for example, we’re working with the government and other partners to provide learning materials for vulnerable children — including education packs, videos and home-based visits for children with disabilities.

"In Timor Leste, we designed and set up a number of channels to deliver education — from TV and radio, to SMS and online tools.

"In fact, worldwide, we’ve been able to help countries provide distance learning of some kind to over 227 million children and adolescents.

"But these programmes only reach a fraction of the children and young people we need to reach. At least 463 million — likely many more — are not being reached with any remote learning at all.

"This is especially tragic in low and middle-income countries — places where gaining an education is already an uphill struggle.

"And especially so in countries enduring conflict and instability.

"In all, nearly one in every four children in the world lives in conflict or disaster-stricken countries.

"That means that more than 75 million children and young people are currently in urgent need of educational support in 35 crisis-affected countries.

"Girls in conflict zones are especially at risk. They already face a range of challenges — including violence, abuse and psychological trauma. They’re also less likely than boys to return to school following lockdowns and the destruction of school infrastructure.

"The figures are also stark for refugees. Even before COVID only half of refugee children have access to primary education, compared with a global level of more than 90 percent.

"For adolescent refugees, the picture is bleaker still. Just over one-fifth of them were in lower-secondary school. And just one per cent of refugees attended university, compared to the global rate of 34 percent.

"In short — we are failing a generation of young learners in a variety of contexts. Denying them an opportunity to shape their minds and pursue opportunities — and to begin building a future for themselves.

"At UNICEF, we believe that as countries look to recover from this pandemic and pursue sustainable economic growth, they have an historic opportunity to close the gaps in educational equality once and for all, and re-imagine how a generation of children and young people learn and gain skills.

"And closing the digital divide is a critical step.

"As we speak, half of humanity is not connected to the internet — including 360 million children and young people.

"This puts millions of futures at a big disadvantage.

"They’re losing out on learning and education. They’re not gaining the skills they need to find employment.

"And in the broadest terms, it means perpetuating the inequalities that continue to divide communities — and the world. Between the haves and have nots. Between those who have access to opportunities and those who do not.

"At UNICEF, we want to change this, and place digital learning opportunities in the hands of every child and every young person in the world. We’ve set an ambitious target: to provide digital learning solutions to 3.5 billion children and young people by 2030.

"This is our big idea — our “moonshot.” And if we get it right, this has the potential to be one of history’s great equalizers.

"To get there, we want to combine universal internet connectivity with tools like digital technology, artificial intelligence, and increasingly “smart” devices. All loaded with world-class content and curriculum in children’s native language — and linked to teachers and education professionals worldwide.

"UNICEF and the International Telecommunications Union have joined forces to launch GIGA, an ambitious global initiative to connect every school and its surrounding community to the Internet.

"And partners are rapidly joining our work.

"More than 30 Members States are now mapping-out school connectivity. They’re also working through GIGA to create investment opportunities for blended public and private sector money to build the infrastructure needed to provide universal access to the internet.

"Ericsson has joined GIGA with a multi-year, multi-million-dollar commitment. 

"The European Investment Bank is now supporting our work to create financing solutions — like connectivity bonds for internet access in vulnerable countries.

"The World Bank has provided our hosts, Niger, with $100 million to connect schools and villages — an exciting opportunity that UNICEF is proud to support.

"UNICEF is also working with UNHCR to increase school connectivity in communities hosting refugees — while also designing and activating the tools that young refugees need to continue their education. This includes online learning tools, like the Learning Passport — a distance-learning platform we developed with Microsoft and Cambridge University, where a national education curriculum can be downloaded. We developed it for refugees, but it is spreading fast to other countries as a hybrid solution.

"We’re working with mobile phone companies to provide “zero rating” solutions to provide access to online learning tools — as we’ve done in Africa and Latin America — so a student, teacher or parent can download educational materials for free.

"And we’ve joined forces with companies to provide students with new learning devices that are preloaded with relevant, topical and accessible curriculum.

"Our ultimate vision is about taking all of these tools — this software that serves public needs — and combining it with safe, universal connectivity.

"So imagine being a young person and connecting to the internet for the first time. Imagine finding at your fingertips all the tools you need to learn, build skills, find employment, and communicate globally. All for free, as globally available, open-source digital public goods.

"In an increasingly unequal world, this represents a radical, once-in-a-generation opportunity to reach tens of millions of children who have either never had an education, or who contended with poor-quality instruction.

"At the same time, we see a great opportunity to use these platforms to deliver the skills that young people need to prepare for the changing world of work.

"Sixty-five per cent of primary school children will be doing jobs that do not exist today.

"They need modern skills like green technology. Digital skills. Sustainable agriculture. The trades. Tools to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  

"And especially, entrepreneurship.

"America has always relied on the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of its citizens. With the ever-changing job market, the US is going to need more young people starting businesses of their own.

"But this even more important in low and middle-income countries, where we believe that eight out of 10 young people will need to be entrepreneurs and require the skills to do so. They will need to make their own jobs.

"Earlier this year, I visited Sudan, India and Nepal. South Asia as a whole is home to close to a billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24 — the largest youth labour force in the world. And Africa is estimated to have the largest youth population in the world by 2050.

"I had the chance to meet young Sudanese, Indian and Nepalese entrepreneurs, students and innovators. They’re ready and eager to change the world.

"Sadly, I also met many whose ambitions are still out of reach because of poverty. A lack of good education. And because they’re not getting the training and modern skills they need for today’s workforce.

"It’s truly a global challenge — calling for a global solution.

"Two years ago, UNICEF launched a new global partnership, called Generation Unlimited, or Gen-U. Its goal is ambitious, but we think, achievable — to get every young person in school, learning, training or employment by 2030.

"Through Gen-U, public and private partners are coming together to identify solutions that can help young people prepare for the changing world of work.

"We believe that a modern education and skills-development approach should build and accredit basic skills, like reading, writing and math.

"But it should also nourish and build the skills in problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking that young people need for work, to start a business and to engage productively in their communities.

"Above all, it should include a laser focus on building digital skills — the tools needed to succeed under the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by technology and artificial intelligence.

"By combining connectivity with learning tools, imagine what we could do for a generation of young people to help them gain skills and opportunities.

"And so UNICEF has been calling on governments to safeguard their budgets, and reallocate precious funds for education training, skills and digital learning to reach the most marginalized.

"And we’re calling on the G7 and G20 to act urgently and invest financial and political resources to make learning, skilling and universal internet connectivity a reality for every child and young person.

"But tomorrow’s students and young people are also counting on today’s students — all of you — to help make this vision a reality.

"I’m sure that many of you will answer the call to public and global service. Perhaps you’ll go on to work in agencies and organizations dedicated to the education and economic empowerment of young people. Or become development professionals. Diplomats. Policy professionals. NGO and civil society workers. Innovators. Teachers. And you will all be leaders.

"In that spirit, I’d like to hear from you. We need you on this journey with us.

"So please, let us know your thoughts. Contribute any research or ideas you might have on solutions or technologies that might better serve children and young people. Consider doing a report on the issues affecting their lives and futures.         

"The late Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, reminded us that: “To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”

"As you continue with your careers, I know all of you will choose well. And find a way to bring to life your passion for public service, and for making our world a better, more peaceful place in the years to come.

"Thank you. I look forward to our discussion."



Media contacts

Kurtis Cooper
Tel: +1 917 476 1435


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

Follow UNICEF on Twitter and Facebook