The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the inconsistencies in setting priorities for most of the globe and provides a lesson about the importance of respecting research to inform decision-making. At the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development (SFSD), we think carefully before making any funding decisions. As we mentioned in a recent blog titled “Why philanthropies should maximize impact: Sawiris Foundation’s journey towards effective altruism”, we at SFSD follow the Effective Altruism philosophy and we usually start with the “Why question” for any decision or action we are planning to take. In thinking through the most pressing issues in the field of education in Egypt, we started by asking “Why should we invest in education?” More specifically, “Why should we invest in education more than ever, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic and its repercussions?” In this blog, we will share our thoughts regarding this question and we will be thrilled and eager to hear your thoughts as well.
Since 2001, SFSD has allocated more than approximately 514 million EGP - equivalent to approximately 33 million USD - to educational and scholarship programs. In 2021, the Foundation spent 105 million EGP and is planning to increase spending to 130 million EGP in 2022.
Without a doubt, in alignment with the Egyptian constitution, we at SFSD believe that education is a human right, and that every student deserves high-quality learning opportunities. However, resources at the Foundation are limited and decisions regarding which development programs to support must be made. Although SFSD is the biggest philanthropic organization in Egypt, the Foundation is considered medium-size, with grants totaling 300-400 million EGP every year. The Learning & Strategy and Education teams reviewed most of the available evidence within the field of education and found very interesting results that we would like to shed the light on. In a study conducted by the Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo, sshe estimates that the impact of education on wages generates a 7-11% in economic returns on educational investments.. This means that each Egyptian Pound invested in education may be a secured investment with a very clear return for individuals and their communities. In addition to that, several papers have shown a strong correlation between education and wellbeing indicators such as health. These studies show that if the Foundation is looking to reduce multidimensional poverty and improve social mobility among Egypt’s most vulnerable populations it should continue to focus on investment in education.
Over the past two years, we have all witnessed how the Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era for formal education, whereby classes went online and direct interactions between teachers and students and students among themselves decreased. Students who were enrolled in public schools under the circumstances brought about by the pandemic faced a significant shift away from conventional learning methods to online learning modes that they were not prepared for, in terms of both accessibility and know-how. Students were left to study on their own, which required a great deal of self-motivation, whereas younger kids were left without any form of education in many cases since many parents could not provide the needed domestic support. In addition to the psychological impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children, we found that children were forced to start using a new education system that includes using technology and other forms of learning without any prior preparation at best scenarios.
According to a report published by the World Bank in 2019, the MENA region has already been facing several challenges, most pressing challenges related to the quality of education. According to the same report, there are four tensions holding education back in the region: (1) credentials and skills, (2) discipline and inquiry, (3) control and autonomy, and (4) tradition and modernity. To give a concrete example, six students out of each 10 are unable to read or understand a simple age-appropriate text at the age of 10. Half of those children who are in school do not master the basic skills for reading, writing, and mathematics. Since the pandemic, this the figure was estimated to have increased from 50 to 70% in low and middle-income countries.
These challenges are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and hence the challenges must be identified and methods are introduced in the education sector to cope with challenges that are inclusive and accessible. Another report published by UNICEF highlighted that more than 100 million children faced interruption in their education as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown. UNESCO estimates that 24 million from primary to tertiary level learners faced the risk of dropping out of schools as a result of the pandemic. This number represents 5.2 million girls and 5.7 million boys at both levels, the primary and secondary. To put it in returns on investment terms, impacted children are at risk of losing USD 17 trillion of their lifetime savings.
There has been a focus on increasing the ability of schools, teachers, and learners to adopt and adapt to new techniques as this flexibility and adaptation helps to overcome challenges during such a crisis. However, these new education policies could lead to an increase in educational inequality. We know that public schools are poorly equipped with technological infrastructure. In some countries such as Egypt, public schools cater to disadvantaged groups. This leads to students who are enrolled in public schools to be less capable of using computers and interacting with technology. In addition to several other reasons, we can see that poorer students are less likely to be able to access distance learning opportunities. Students’ limited ability to go to school on a daily basis will have a disproportionately adverse effect on children in high need, despite the efforts exerted by the Ministry of Education and Technical Education in Egypt. The Ministry of Education has offered alternative learning modalities, including populating the Egyptian Knowledge Bank portal with learning materials and airing revisions for high school students on radio and accessible TV channels. These solutions, while attempting to address equity, may not result in improved learning outcomes.
Given the mentioned global challenges, we urge everyone to support education and to help education development projects now more than ever. We have to build educational interventions based on rigorous scientific evidence aiming to efficiently utilize the available financial resources and maximize the impact on our community if we want to accelerate closing the learning gaps and inequalities by 2030.
Abdelrahman Nagy is the Director of Learning and Strategy at Sawiris Foundation for Social Development. As part of his role, he is responsible for setting up the SFSD strategic plan, sectors’ strategies, and work plans. In addition, he manages the learning within the SFSD, including evaluation, capacity building, research, policy, and innovation. He also supports JPAL work across the MENA region as part of his role as a Senior Advisor. Abdelrahman is an activist for RCTs, evidence-based programs, and effective altruism. He believed in maximizing the impact of development programs using science. From his perspective, the only way to alleviate poverty, use financial resources efficiently, be unbiased, and fight poverty is to use rigorous scientific evidence.
Before joining SFSD, Abdelrahman was the director of the J-PAL initiative for Egypt and the J-PAL MENA associate director for research. He established partnerships and disseminated evidence from J-PAL evaluations to support international and local organizations in enhancing their program designs based on the research outcomes. Simultaneously, he managed J-PAL research projects in Egypt. Abdelrahman worked closely with J-PAL partners, policymakers in Egypt, and J-PAL affiliated professors in finding new solutions to alleviate poverty.
Mays Abou holds the position of Programs Director at Sawiris Foundation for Social Development. Ms. Abou has 16 years of experience working in International and national non-profit organizations in Egypt. Mays has joined the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development (SFSD) in June 2018 in the capacity of Education and Scholarships Sector Director where she oversees a wide portfolio of education and scholarships projects and sets the strategic direction of the sectors’ future funding priorities.
Since 2010, she has been focusing on Governance and Social Accountability thematic interventions as an entry to alleviating root causes of poverty. Building internal and external governance capacitates of local and national institutions has been her main mission. Before joining SFSD, Mays was managing the Governance Department at CARE International in Egypt and was also the Acting Director of the Education Program.