Earlier this week former British prime minister Gordon Brown emerged from hibernation to lobby for a bold new plan to push education up the global agenda. The world has made progress in recent years but, Mr Brown reports, 68 million kids still get no education. Worse, he warns, cuts to aid budgets mean that we are now going backwards and the number of children out of school could rise to 72 million by 2015 without renewed investment.
The answer, Mr Brown argues, is a new Global Fund for Education to mobilise resources from private as well as public donors to plug the funding gap. (This idea has already won the backing of the British parliamentary select committee on international development, in their report on private foundations, to which we submitted evidence.) But is more money the answer? Mr Brown was a habitual spender when in government and is still locked into the idea that the more money thrown at a problem the better. If you only have a hammer, as the old saying goes, you see every problem as a nail. We fully agree with the argument that education really matters. The question is whether education is a nail that needs hammering with more money from Mr Brown’s proposed fund.
Mr Brown’s report is a remarkable testament to the way that philanthrocapitalism is changing how the world tackles problems. Ten years ago, inspired and influenced by Bill Gates, the world launched the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria as a unique partnership between public and private donors. Over the last decade, the Global Fund has disbursed $22 billion in 150 countries and innovated in the way that these diseases are fought. As a result, we are seeing real progress, against malaria in particular. Compare this to the Fast Track Initiative, which was launched by governmental aid agencies alone in the same year, with equally ambitious goals on education. Mr Brown’s report is an admission that Fast Track, which he says has been dogged by “systemic problems”, has not been as successful as the Global Fund.
Mr Brown’s analysis of the comparative performance of the Fast Track and the Global Fund makes fascinating reading. The Fast Track, which is managed by the World Bank, has been bureaucratic, has struggled to innovate and has failed to mobilise much public or political support. The Global Fund, on the other hand, was based on partnership with private actors from the outset and has its own governance structure that gives developing countries a much bigger say. Though denounced by some global health experts when it was created, as a classic piece of philanthrocapitalist partnering with government, the Global Fund has proven its worth.
So why not a Global Fund for Education? First of all, the Global Fund for Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria is but part of a wider mobilisation around these diseases. The Malaria No More campaign, in particular, has built up a grand coalition (what we call a posse) around ending this disease that has leveraged resources both to support the Global Fund and to work alongside it. Perhaps more importantly, the Global Fund is focused on ambitious but specific and doable goals. Indeed, one of the commonest criticisms of it is that it is a ‘vertical’ intervention to tackle specific diseases rather than develop the health systems of developing countries. What Mr Brown’s report shows is that, rather than a weakness, this may be its strength.
Ending malaria is a finite task that can be achieved even where governments are weak. It is also a problem that only needs to be solved once. Educating the children of the world will need sustained investment indefinitely, which relies on the will of developing country governments to invest in education over the long term. This is a point that Mr Brown’s review brushes over. One of the biggest laggards in providing education is Pakistan, where the literacy rate is a miserable 55.5%. This is not because Pakistan is poor per se, as other poorer countries such as Malawi do much better, but the result of a lack of political will. By framing the problem of global education as one of aid resources alone, Mr Brown is only telling half (if that) of the story.
Mr Brown also misses the point on the role that private sector could play. Yes, he wants businesses to be part of his Global Fund for Education, but only in a limited way: as providers of e-textbooks, as financiers and as advocates. None of these suggestions are bad ideas. But more radical thinking is needed. If developing country governments cannot or will not invest in education, then maybe the real potential of the private sector is to develop innovative alternative ways to deliver schooling. That suggestion is anathema to many development experts, who want to replicate the public service education models of the rich world and shudder at thought of the ‘privatisation’ of basic services like education. We understand why they worry in principle, but achieving real innovation may mean sacrificing such development holy cows.
The crisis in financing for development is, at last, getting the aid community to take philanthrocapitalism seriously. Yet Mr Brown and his peers still tend to see private donors and businesses simply as deep pockets that can be picked to make up for the increasing shortfall in government spending on aid. The much greater implication of philanthrocapitalism is that unleashing the creativity of the private sector, both for profit and philanthropic, will be crucial if humanity is to develop the full range of tools needed to tackle big global problems such as how to educate properly all the world’s children.