I found two Lego blocks trampled in the dust that I still keep on my desk — in part because they remind me of our stolen childhoods, but also because a Lego is famously hard to destroy. The resilience of this small toy has for me become a symbol of the determination of Lebanon’s next generation.
I was just 11 years old when the MV Rhosus, the ship that brought the explosive cargo to Beirut, arrived at our port in 2013 with its ownership hidden behind a network of shell companies. Over the next seven years, the ship slowly rotted while I grew up in a society still traumatized by memories of its own civil war and battered by a wave of regional crises.
Our economy has struggled ever since our country’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 until 1990. Even before the pandemic, the World Bank predicted in 2019 that the poverty rate in Lebanon would rise from 30% to 50% — with some analysts believing the situation could be even worse. Amid rampant corruption and the failure of successive governments, young people took to the streets that year in 2019’s October Revolution. We’d had enough. We also believed that things couldn’t get worse.
We were wrong. Day after day, Lebanon pushes toward a new rock bottom. The pandemic. Then the explosion. And all the while, a vicious financial and political crisis is unfolding.
Nothing can prepare you for what it is like when a currency collapses. We are experiencing one of the worst depressions to hit a modern society. Our money is almost worthless. The United Nations estimates that 82% of the country lives in “multidimensional poverty” — meaning aside from income they’re also deprived of health care, education, employment, housing, power, and/or other services needed to support minimum levels of well-being. Even in Beirut, I have no electricity for 16 hours a day, and we cannot find fuel for transport. In the middle of a deadly pandemic, our hospitals are running out of medicines and can barely keep the lights on.
The impact on our education system has been catastrophic. Lebanese children are estimated to have received no more than 11 weeks of schooling last year, and Syrian children did much worse. As their salaries collapsed, many teachers left the profession — and even the country.
The ongoing fuel crisis means that students and teachers must wait in long queues for multiple hours to fill their tanks, sometimes parking at gas stations overnight to secure their spot in the line for the next day. Private schools have raised their fees, just when parents cannot afford to pay them, leaving thousands of children trying to find places in the small public sector system. The cost of books, stationery and uniforms make education an increasingly unaffordable luxury.
The most bitter pill? It is the young who will pay for this lost learning. The World Bank believes that the global lockdown generation will lose more than $10 trillion in earnings over their lifetimes. The damage will inevitably be concentrated in countries like mine. How can students use distance learning to keep up when the internet is yet another victim of our energy crisis?
The world has condemned the failures of our political class, saying that we are suffering a deliberate depression. Young people in Lebanon are also furious at the behavior of our political leaders. But their failures do not provide the rest of the world with an excuse to abandon us. As Save the Children has warned, our education system is passing the point of no return. We need help not out of charity, but because the world has failed to keep promises to help Lebanon’s next generation.
Lebanon is a bellwether for a global learning crisis that will only worsen as countries cut education budgets and do little to help students regain education that was lost during the pandemic. As a Next Generation Fellow, I was asked by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres to help shape Our Common Agenda — a plan for how the world can recover from Covid-19. We asked him to back an emergency program to catch up on the learning that has been missed during the pandemic and reach children who are furthest behind.
As a minimum, we believe all governments should provide a 10% booster fund over the next two years to fund education recovery from Covid-19. Countries like Lebanon will need external support to finance this new investment.
The Secretary-General has also promised to host a Transforming Education Summit next year, where he will aim to draw an end to the education emergency. At the invitation of the Secretary-General, Our Future Agenda proposes a blueprint to transform education systems. We hope the summit will start a drive to make sure every young person can read and write, while changing the way we learn so that we have what we need to thrive in a world that is changing at breakneck speed.
I think about these ambitions when I look at the Lego blocks that I rescued from a ruined street. This is why I have submitted them to a digital time capsule created by youth activists around the world. We need to search for the building blocks of renewal during a period of unprecedented crisis. The first step is to reset our education systems and to invest in the future of a generation that has suffered so much.