“When I was first appointed as United Nations Resident Coordinator two and a half years ago, it was clear to many that beyond the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the education system was managing complex and longstanding obstacles, including a highly decentralised education sector, outdated infrastructure, and decreasing numbers of students.
These obstacles were contributing to educational challenges across the country. For example, in 2018, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessment found that 15-year-old students from Bosnia and Herzegovina were well below the reading, mathematics, and science proficiency of the (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) OECD average, even though there is relatively high spending per student relative to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
UNICEF BiH/Adnan Bubalo
From crisis to opportunity
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the learning of more than 400,000 students across Bosnia and Herzegovina which brought these challenges to light. Yet, it also gave the UN a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support the authorities with educational reform across the country.
As the pandemic unfolded in 2020, the United Nations agencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina came together to prioritize education as a focus of our COVID-19 recovery efforts. A quick needs assessment in March-April 2020 by the UN children’s agency (UNICEF) and the UN education, culture, and science agency (UNESCO) was the basis for framing a United Nations education recovery programme.
The cornerstone, a joint project, was launched under the leadership of UNICEF and UNESCO, in partnership with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UN Volunteers (UNV), called ‘Reimagine Education for Marginalized Boys and Girls during and post COVID-19’.
The project was one of only 18 projects globally to receive support from the United Nations Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Recovery Fund, and the only one that focused on the education sector. More importantly, this project was a catalyst for reinforcing United Nations support to the authorities to strengthen cooperation among government ministries, improve teaching capacities, modernize ICT equipment, and develop new digital learning platforms.
The immediate impact was clear. Between February 2021 and March 2022, UNICEF, UNESCO, and ILO provided 2,498 teachers with training on digital learning and teaching, whilst also providing 664 digital devices (laptops and assistive technology) to 110 schools (26 per cent of overall number of schools).
Towards shared education commitments
As the emergency phase of COVID retreated, it became clear that the learning resources, training and equipment provided by the United Nations had helped enhance the collaboration between the country’s numerous education ministries and other stakeholders.
Building on this sense of synergy and cooperation, in the lead up to the Transforming Education Summit, under the coordination leadership of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and in excellent cooperation with Entities, Cantons and Brcko district, the United Nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina convened a series of three pre-Summit consultations with almost 1500 participants from governmental and non-governmental sectors, schools, academia, youth and the private sector.
More than half of the participants (845) involved in the consultations were under the age of 30. After a summer of inclusive dialogue and discussion, the education authorities submitted a Report and Declaration of Commitment to the Transformation Education Summit Secretariat in New York.
This declaration was adopted by the 16 Ministers responsible for education affairs at the various governing levels in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It represents the first country-wide policy position on education endorsed in twenty years.
As we move forward, UNESCO and UNICEF are working in support of the relevant education authorities to develop an action plan focused on implementing the commitments outlined in the Declaration.
The value of our joint efforts to transform and unite the education agenda across Bosnia and Herzegovina has been also recognized by partners. As part of the European Union’s extensive support to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU is considering a stronger engagement to support education over the next 10 years, with UNESCO and UNICEF actively supporting the identification of education-related priorities.
The path to long-lasting transformation
As we prepare for an exciting week of dialogue, discussion, and commitments during the Transforming Education Summit in New York, I feel proud of the steps we have taken to support the authorities with reform of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s education sector and to build a more inclusive, high-quality and relevant learning experience for all.
Whilst Bosnia and Herzegovina still faces many challenges in its path towards quality of education, I’ve learnt over the last two years that, with clear global leadership, backed by catalytic pooled funding, and genuine partnership across the United Nations with the authorities, we are now uniquely placed in Bosnia and Herzegovina to deliver on these once-in-a generation transformative educational changes.”