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Source: Save The Children

Aisha*, 15 is one of many other children in her village to have stopped going to school due to the Coronavirus pandemic. She is missing the school meals that, for most children in the village, is often the only and most reliable daily meal.

We sign petitions, meet with decision-makers, attend the demonstrations, confident that by joining together with of thousands and sometimes millions of others, we will achieve change. And, most of the time, we do. 

20 years ago, millions campaigned as part of the Jubilee 2000 movement, calling on the world’s richest governments to cancel the debt so that some of the world’s poorest countries can spend that money on health and education as opposed to paying off crippling debt repayments. 

And across the world, as a result of that campaign, thousands of schools were built, teachers employed and children able to access an education. 

It meant that countries like Ethiopia were able to increase spending on health and education by 10%, while Malawi was saving an estimated US$110 million each year which could then be spent on improving education for the next generation.  

Fast forward to 2020 and we have a new crisis in Coronavirus. With the world’s economy looking likely to shrink by 4.9%1 due to the impact of the pandemic, it is time to talk about debt again.  

Right now, the world’s poorest countries are facing an impossible choice: pay off their debts to profiting companies and rich governments or invest in vital health and education services to protect children and families from the devastating aftershocks of COVID-19.  

They cannot do both.   

Over the last decade, there has been a rapid build-up of sovereign debt – debt that governments owe to other lenders – which has put many countries at a financially vulnerable starting point as they respond to COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, almost half of low-income countries were in debt distress or at high risk of debt distress.   

For instance, low-income countries are scheduled to make over $40 billion in debt payments in 2020 and, according to Jubilee Debt Campaign, 64 countries spent more on debt payments than on health services in 2019.   

Since the start of the Coronavirus crisis, 1.5 billion children have missed out on school and, as we revealed in our Save Our Education report, 10 million of the most vulnerable may never return, especially girls who now risk being forced into marriage. Without school, the most vulnerable children are exposed to hunger, violence and abuse.   

Children like Aisha who can’t wait to get back to normal in Ethiopia. Aisha loves to learn and just wants to go school, she says “When coronavirus is over and when everything returns to normal, the first thing I would like to do is to go back to school as I used to.” 

Without urgent debt relief, a whole generation’s future hangs in the balance. Children will carry the burden of COVID-19 for the rest of their lives if governments are forced to spend precious money on repaying debts over essential health and education services.   

World leaders, government representatives, and big business influencers will be convening at the annual World Bank meetings this month. We’re calling on private lenders and rich governments to agree $48 billion debt relief, and cancellation where possible, for the world’s poorest countries.  

They must work together to find a fair, coordinated and global solution to debt, and prevent the current situation where poorer countries have to take action individually, or face the risk of having their credit rating ‘downgraded’ – issues that must be solved if we want to achieve long-term change.   

We know this is possible. In March this year, after pressure from people all around the world, some governments temporarily postponed debt repayments from the poorest countries in the world.  

But private lenders didn’t agree to do the same, and are continuing to pocket profits from huge interest payments. That needs to change, and quickly, for the sake of millions of children.  

Another chance for the world to invest in the future of the next generation will come next week at the Global Education Meeting – a critical moment for countries like the UK, Norway, Germany and leaders at the World Bank and IMF to come together and provide that global leadership, through investments and policies that will make a difference.  

We will be watching this week and next, as will the world, for decisions at these crucial events. Instead of struggling to make debt repayments, countries should be able to spend this money investing in children. Instead of forcing the most vulnerable to struggle for their future, they should put in place what is needed for them to thrive and succeed at life – and right now, the emphasis must be on helping children to learn, at a distance, or in school when it is safe to do so.  

This is the dream of children like Aisha, and we need governments, institutions and private creditors to make that dream become a reality.