The Business of Education


Smiling across the table, billionaire and philanthropist George Soros leans forwards and tells us, ‘I am a great believer in this field of Public Private Partnerships.’ Not the sort of PPP that saw Soros make billions on currency speculation, but the kind that sees governments, civil society and the private sector together at the table, working on solutions to key global challenges.

Disillusioned by decades of hollow promises from politicians who are strong on rhetoric and weak on delivery, social justice campaigners are engaging private sector actors like Soros to help them achieve real outcomes.

Globally, we’ve seen the Bono-led brand (RED) contribute millions to fighting HIV/AIDS, Bill Gates invest more than US$1.5 billion to drive down the price of anti-retroviral drugs, and the Clinton Global Initiative secure billions for good causes in 2006 alone.

In Australia, it’s a trend best exemplified by the emergent partnership between business and civil society on climate change. The Australian Conservation Foundation teamed up with corporations like Westpac to create the influential Business Roundtable on Climate Change, while the WWF partnered with Fairfax and the City of Sydney on Earth Hour in March.

Last week, we saw the first steps in a similar revolution on basic education for the world’s children. At a donor conference last Wednesday, George Soros committed US$5 million to support Liberia’s education plan on the condition that government donors, like Australia’s AusAID, contribute the remaining money.

Later that day, the World Economic Forum (WEF) announced a Partnership for Education to support poor country education plans a scheme backed by multinational companies Cisco, Intel, Microsoft and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). For the WEF, it’s the next stage in an ongoing process that has already seen them work on education with three governments in the Middle East.

Alex Wong of the WEF explained that business’s interest in these issues goes beyond tokenism or getting a toehold in new markets. ‘The CEOs of the big companies think globally, and they want to act globally,’ he said, noting that they are driven by a desire to see real outcomes and results from their investments. For the private sector, commitment means matching top-down rhetoric and funding with bottom-up accountability and country-by-country plans.

As someone from the NGO sector, this private sector interest comes as a welcome and vital addition. Despite sizable increases in foreign aid since 2005 and the international MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY campaign, aid to education stands at just a third of what was promised to ensure education for all by 2015. As poor country governments keep their end of the bargain by increasing their investment in and commitment to education, they’re rightly asking us in the rich world why we haven’t kept our promises.

Designed as a shakedown of rich country donors, last Wednesday’s conference Keeping Our Promises on Education was an abject failure. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz looked tired and embattled, while donor governments gleefully re-announced already committed aid.

Australian invitee Alexander Downer didn’t show at the meeting, the Australian Government unwilling to make any premature announcements on what is expected to be a tripling of aid to education in this week’s Federal Budget.

Perhaps the only news of interest to come from the meeting was private sector engagement event organisers seeing the attendance of Soros and the WEF as a coup. It was seen as a possible turning point in the debate over funding for basic education, the result of months of work behind the scenes.

Image thanks to Lukas.

Back in January, I attended the WEF’s Annual Meeting in Davos. At this meeting of the rich-and-powerful, the rich-and-famous, and the plain rich, private sector engagement with social issues topped the agenda. Talk of climate change saturated the event, issues such as HIV/AIDS and education bubbling beneath the surface.

Speaking on a panel entitled the Wisdom of Youth, the British Council-sponsored group I was with proposed a new idea. We called on leaders to bring together governments, businesses, foundations and the public in a powerful coalition for delivering quality education for all, by transforming the current donor co-ordination mechanism the Fast Track Initiative into a Global Fund for Education that would be able to bring together financial resources and muster political will.

Responding to our presentation, UK Treasurer Gordon Brown said that, ‘There is no secret about how to build a school or train teachers. It can be done. What we’re missing is political will. And not just political will from politicians, but from citizens too.’ Talking after the panel, he invited us to the donor conference, enthusiastic about the opportunity for greater private sector involvement in education. Little did we know he’d been pushing the same agenda, joining our session straight from a meeting with the four corporations who were to become involved in last week’s announcement.

Meeting with the private sector in Brussels and London over the past week, the change in mood is clear. Partnership between government and civil society to achieve education for all has progressed from conceptual discussion to concrete proposals about implementation. There’s broad agreement: only by working through State education systems will we have the reach to get all children into schools, and only by working through the private sector and civil society can we hope to catalyse the resources needed to do so.

On the part of donor governments, civil society and the World Bank, much remains to be done. For one thing, the donor co-ordination mechanism the Education for All Fast Track Initiative (most of whose money goes into the equally inspiringly named Catalytic Development Fund) urgently needs to be rebranded and redeveloped to become a vehicle that can inspire and engage people all over the world.

If I had $10 million to give today, I would want to know what my money would deliver. What country is my money going to? How many children will get to go to school? And how many teachers are being trained?

In the age of one-click purchases and personalised news, we can and should be making direct links between the monetary inputs and the outcomes of aid funding. Existing mechanisms and plans have the ability to do this it is simply a matter of translating data from dust-collecting reports onto well-presented websites, working with the media to tell the story of success i
n education, and providing a clear and simple mechanism for making financial contributions.

The example set by one bank I spoke with in Belgium is telling. Their head of corporate social responsibility quickly and simply explained their targets for global support of education their program started in 2005, and by the end of this year, their aim is to directly support 120,000 children in three countries to have access to education through UNICEF programs, an investment of just ‚¬30 each. That’s the equivalent of one child for each of their employees globally. The opportunity is huge. A few dozen companies of this size involved at a global level would provide the resources to support millions of children to access education.

Looking to the future, the need remains for greater resources for education. The bulk of the work must be done by governments, in both the South and North. But, just as civil society seeks to hold government to account for their promises, so can the private sector hold us all to our promises through a focus on results and financial input. And together, we can deliver quality education for all.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.