Education International
Education International

Pauline Rose: Business leaders at the World Economic Forum must boost finance for education

published 23 January 2013 updated 25 January 2013

As political and business leaders gather in Davos for another year’s World Economic Forum, the Education for All Global Monitoring Report has released a new policy paper showing that contributions from corporations and private foundations combined total only $683 million a year, equivalent to just 5% that aid donors spend on education. And while aid donors are increasingly backing government-led education plans, private sector contributions often reflect business interests rather than the education needs of the poorest countries.

To put the private sector contributions to education in perspective, $683 million is equivalent to just 0.1% of the two world’s biggest oil companies; it is equal to the cost of just two Airbus A380s, or, alternatively, the same amount people in the USA spend on pizza in just over a week. It is also a tiny amount compared with the $16 billion needed annually to ensure every child is in primary school.

Why does the private sector not give more to education since it is the first to benefit from a skilled workforce? Some argue it is because they aren’t interested in giving to social sectors. But this is not true. They fund health far more than education. Around 53% of US foundations’ grants are allocated to health, compared with only 8% to education.

Others suggest that the private sector, in particular pharmaceutical companies, has far more reason to be interested in health. But this cannot be the only reason. Health has benefited from the support of global business champions such as Bill Gates giving visibility to the vital importance of ensuring every child is vaccinated, for example. But there are not any business leaders of the same stature giving visibility to the need to educate 61 million children out of school.

Not only is $683 million a small amount of money, but a small number of companies contribute most of it. There is clearly room for more companies to join in. Only five corporations give more than $10 million a year each – Banco Santander, Cisco, Intel, Coca Cola and Exxon. These five provide more than half the total amount given by private foundations and corporations together.

Private foundations are more likely to allocate funds in a way that is more closely aligned with aid donors supporting national governments. Yet their contributions comprise just one-fifth of overall private sector contributions. Among foundations reporting their funding, only five provide more than US$5 million a year – Open Society, MasterCard, William and Flora Hewlett, Ford and Carnegie Corporation of New York. Their contributions are important but small. They are comparable to the amount of aid to education from some of the smallest government donors, such as Luxembourg and New Zealand.

There are some reasons for optimism. Less than six months ago, the Global Education First Initiative was launched by the UN Secretary-General, Ban ki-Moon, at the UN General Assembly. The platform of the Initiative included high profile personalities and politicians such as Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, H.M. Queen Rania Al Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Prime Minister of Denmark, Mr Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, amongst others. This, combined with the stark reality of EFA Global Monitoring Report statistics released for the launch showing 250 million children are not learning the basics, was enough to encourage the private sector to stand up for education. Over $1.5 billion in pledges were made from corporations and foundations. Western Union alone pledged $1 billion for education globally, equivalent to US$10,000 per day in grants for 1 million days of school.

Davos is a hotbed of influential business leaders who have the potential to accelerate progress towards making Education for All a reality by 2015. I truly hope that the messages from our policy paper will make their way to them via the platforms and side events they will be attending. With their support, education has the potential to break the cycle of poverty of millions of households around the world. There are strong possibilities for it to happen this year. Three passionate supporters for education are likely to be in Davos: Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and H.M. Queen Rania Al Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Their presence will hopefully help to galvanise support amongst world business leaders to step up their commitments to education. With their help we might soon see an end in sight for all children currently denied the opportunity to be in school and learning.

Click here to download the EFA Policy Paper: Private sector should boost finance for education.

This blog post by Pauline Rose first appeared on the EFA report blog.