COVID-19 has tested the resilience of our societies like few events in living memory.

While no country has been left unaffected, it has caused particular suffering in those parts of the world already affected by fragility, crisis and insecurity.

Alongside the mounting death toll, the pandemic has damaged the lives and livelihoods of marginalised communities in places where public services were already struggling to cope.

As a result, the conditions for instability: growing inequalities, mass unemployment, social divisions and the curtailing of human rights – are likely to rise in many countries, but especially in places already at the greatest risk of slipping into conflict and civil unrest. 

Taking the opportunity to ‘build back better’

However, worsening violence and conflict is by no means inevitable: the crisis also creates an opportunity to ‘build back better’ so that communities are better equipped to weather future crises.

Improving health systems, strengthening social protection schemes and providing financial support to people and businesses in distress are immediate priorities. But they should not be the only ones.

Research conducted by international agencies such as the UK’s DFID and the World Bank indicates that those societies with more open and inclusive systems are the ones that have been most successful at promoting growth and stable development over the long term.

Recovery efforts in the wake of COVID-19 therefore need to look not only at the immediate public health and economic crises, but also at how education and culture can help develop the kind of human and social capital that makes countries more adaptable and resilient. 

While the UK has been dealing with its own pandemic-related challenges at home, it has already taken a lead in international efforts to fight the disease, hosting the Global Vaccine Summit in June (which raised almost US$9 billion for immunising children) and strengthening the capacity of health systems worldwide.

The UK is also making significant contributions to the recovery by drawing on its strengths in education, language teaching and the arts.

Education for all

Ensuring access to quality education for children (including informal education programmes) is the most immediate priority for helping build more inclusive societies post-COVID-19. 

The situation for refugees and girls living in the most vulnerable communities is particularly acute: half of refugees of school age were already out of education pre-COVID-19, according to the UNHCR, and half of secondary school age girls may not return to the classroom after this crisis. 

The UK government has recently announced £5.3 million of new funding to support teachers’ salaries in some of the poorest refugee-hosting countries. 

In these conditions, reintegrating children into the classroom is challenging. Education agencies will need to work closely with local communities if they are to succeed.

Pre-COVID-19, thousands of students had been encouraged back into the classroom in places like north-east Nigeria and Pakistan and in Syrian refugee communities in the Middle East through British Council-backed initiatives such as community-led information campaigns and the addressing of gender-norms.

Restoring access to education is vital for young people to grow and thrive, and ultimately gain the skills that will create the future scientists, engineers, medics, policy makers and teachers who will help their communities to respond and recover from future crises.

Embracing diversity, building trust

Formal and informal education can also strengthen the social capital required to build resilient, inclusive societies.

In a crisis, cooperation is the key to an effective response, and high levels of social capital – the relationships, shared values and understandings that bind a group together – are the basis of collective action.

Yet this can be particularly difficult to build in societies where individuals or groups have had negative experiences of each other.

Education is so powerful because it should reach almost everyone in society at the most formative stage in their lives, often establishing models of behaviour, values, beliefs and attitudes that can enable positive interactions with society for a lifetime.

It can instil the values that underpin open and inclusive societies such as democracy, justice, tolerance and freedom of expression for a generation.

In the Middle East, British Council-backed community leadership training, youth-led media projects, and debating clubs have helped give a voice to some of the most marginalised young people. They have helped them build the skills, networks and connections which can enable them to play an active role in improving their communities.

By providing a platform for cooperation and exchange with those from diverse backgrounds and communities, our programmes have also helped build trust and widened young people’s opportunities and perspectives.

Building a bridge to more open societies

At times of crisis, the values that underpin free, pluralist societies can be lost as communities face restrictions and seek to prioritise their security in the face of threat.

International cultural engagement can provide a window through which young people can observe, experience and understand how different societies like the UK work.

In a University of Edinburgh report the soft power expert JP Singh argues that international cultural activity ‘exemplifies the values of freedom of expression, creativity and innovation associated with open societies’. 

In certain cases, it can even help catalyse positive transformation.

As Ukraine’s experience shows, it is possible for a vibrant cultural sector that fosters creativity and enterprise to emerge from crisis.

Following Ukraine's 2014 Euromaidan revolution, institutional reformers and civil society activists, supported by the UK and EU, enabled a new independent grassroots cultural sector to flourish where previously state-controlled institutions dominated.

At a time when the reform process still hangs in the balance and conflict continues in the east, the growth in independent cultural activity has contributed to a new climate of entrepreneurship and innovation and has helped strengthen Ukraine’s national identity.

As the UK emerges from its own COVID-19 crisis, there is lots more that it can do with its significant educational and cultural assets to share the global burden of supporting peace and prosperity elsewhere.