“When I was first appointed as the 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education system was managing complex and long-lasting obstacles, including a highly decentralized education sector, outdated infrastructure and declining student numbers.
These obstacles contributed to educational challenges across the country. For example, in 2018, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that 15-year-old students from Bosnia and Herzegovina are well below the reading, math and science proficiency of the (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) OECD average, also although there is relatively high expenditure per student in relation to the country’s gross domestic product.
From crisis to opportunity
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the learning process of more than 400,000 students in Bosnia and Herzegovina, exposing these challenges. But it also gave the UN a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support authorities with education reforms across the country.
As the pandemic unfolded in 2020, United Nations agencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina came together to prioritize education as a focus of our COVID-19 recovery efforts. A rapid needs assessment in March-April 2020 by the United Nations Agency for Children (UNICEF) and the United Nations Agency for Education, Culture and Science (UNESCO) formed the basis for the drafting of a United Nations Educational Recovery Program.
The cornerstone, a joint project, was launched under the leadership of UNICEF and UNESCO, in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (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 worldwide to receive support from the United Nations Secretary-General’s COVID-19 Recovery Fund, and the only one targeting the education sector. More importantly, this project was a catalyst for strengthening United Nations support to authorities to strengthen cooperation between 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 the ILO trained 2,498 teachers on digital learning and teaching, while also providing 664 digital devices (laptops and assistive technology) to 110 schools (26 percent of the total number of schools).
Towards shared educational obligations
As the emergency phase of COVID receded, it became clear that the United Nations’ teaching resources, training and equipment had helped improve cooperation between the country’s numerous ministries of education and other stakeholders.
Building on this sense of synergy and cooperation, the United Nations has held a series of three pre-summit meetings in Bosnia with nearly 1,500 participants from governmental and non-governmental sectors, schools, academia, youth and the private sector.
More than half of the participants (845) involved in the consultation were under the age of 30. After a summer of inclusive dialogue and discussion, the education authorities submitted a report and a statement of commitment to the secretariat of the Transformation Education Summit in New York.
This declaration was adopted by the 16 ministers responsible for education matters at the different levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It represents the first national policy position on education in twenty years.
As we move forward, UNESCO and UNICEF are working in support of the relevant education authorities to develop an action plan aimed at implementing the commitments outlined in the Declaration.
The value of our joint efforts to transform and unify the education agenda in Bosnia and Herzegovina is also recognized by partners. As part of the European Union’s comprehensive support to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU is considering a stronger commitment to supporting education over the next decade, with UNESCO and UNICEF actively supporting the identification of education-related priorities.
The road to long-term transformation
As we prepare for an exciting week of dialogue, discussion and commitment at the Transforming Education Summit in New York, I am proud of the steps we have taken to support the authorities in reforming the education sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to a more inclusive, high-quality and relevant learning experience for all.
While Bosnia and Herzegovina still faces many challenges towards the quality of education, I have learned over the past two years that, with clear global leadership, supported by catalytic pooled funding and a genuine partnership between the United Nations with the authorities, are now in a unique position in Bosnia and Herzegovina to deliver these once in a generation transformative educational changes.”