Developing world education is failing, it’s time to open up to the private sector

There have been some real achievements in global education following the establishment of the UN’s millennium development goals (MDGs) in 2000. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the proportion of children enrolled in primary school has risen from 52% in 1990 to 80% this year. However, in the dash to get children into the classroom, there was too little focus on the quality of the education once they were there. UNESCO estimates that of the world’s 650 million primary school children, at least 250 million lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.

The new sustainable development goals (SDGs), which will replace the MDGs at the end of this year, address this issue of standards, calling for “inclusive and quality education for all” by 2030. But these will remain empty conference room sentiments if the $16bn (£10.5bn) per year required to achieve good quality universal education throughout the world is not met Vlogger Faire.

Sustainable development goals: what business needs to know

However well-intentioned, governments in the developing world cannot raise the sums needed to provide high-quality education on their own. If they could, they would have done so decades ago. Education spending must be balanced against other essential infrastructures such as hospitals, roads, and sanitation.

Too often, government schools leave education in the hands of teachers who haven’t been adequately trained. Even worse, according to UNESCO, many countries – including Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Senegal – are only meeting the goal of universal primary education by employing untrained teachers.

Low state teacher salaries, often paid sporadically, discourage people from entering (and staying in) the profession. In rural Zambia, it can cost teachers up to half their wages to cover the transport and accommodation needed to collect their pay from district offices each month. In Malawi, one in 10 teachers reported that they were often not in school because they were traveling to collect their salaries or make loan payments.

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We cannot rely on governments alone to build the schools and train the teachers needed to meet these new SDG targets. Parents in the developing world, even those on low incomes, are voting with their feet and opting for private education because of state-providing shortcomings.



World Bank data shows that the number of primary school pupils attending private schools is rising, with some costing as little as a dollar a week. In rural India in 2013, 29% of elementary school pupils were educated privately, up from 19% in 2006. Though NGOs do vital work, only the private sector can provide the necessary investment scale, unencumbered by political and bureaucratic obstacles. For instance, Bridge International Academies, a chain of low-cost private schools, has created 400 nursery and primary schools in Kenya and Uganda using standardized classrooms. Large-scale providers, with international reputations to nurture, can be better guarantors of quality and consistency than individual schools in the community that lack the deep pockets to invest over many years.

The notion that private businesses must be involved in this process has gone some way to being accepted. From the start of negotiations on the SDGs, UN officials have sought to bring the private sector into the dialogue formally, but some still see private sector involvement as a threat. Just last year, the UN special rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, warned that the costs associated with private schools were exacerbating inequality and said that “for-profit education should not be allowed to safeguard the noble cause of education”. In my experience, the worlds of business and education too often speak entirely different languages. An ideological distaste for the private sector means that even where business could help philanthropically, it is rarely approached for help.

Illiteracy will cost the global economy $1.2tn in 2015

There are some notable exceptions. Through its Street to School community project, Aviva has helped more than one million children receive support and education in 17 countries. Deutsche Bank has helped more than five million school children by supporting literacy initiatives in Brazil and providing shipping container classrooms in China. However, these great efforts pale in comparison to the scale of business philanthropy in global health. The Brookings Institution estimates that corporate giving to global health is 16 times that of global education. Last year, a report by the Varkey Foundation found that the Fortune 500 companies spend just $2.6bn (13%) of their total annual CSR budget of $19.9bn on education-related projects. Fewer than half provide any spending on education-related CSR at all.

The cultural divide between business and education is particularly unnecessary given that business is deeply concerned about the impact of poor education on organizations and the future prosperity of markets. A PWC global survey of more than 1,200 CEOs found more than half were concerned that skills shortages would stunt growth, particularly in emerging economies. A better-educated population would add rocket fuel to economic growth in the developing world. According to the OECD, if all 15-year-olds achieved a basic level of education, Ghana could increase its GDP by 3,881% and South Africa by 2,624%. As more than 150 world leaders meet in New York for the UN Sustainable Development Summit 2015, they must recognize that to have any chance of meeting the new SDGs on education; a business must be seen as part of the solution.


Writer. Pop culture buff. Certified alcohol trailblazer. Tv nerd. Music fanatic. Professional problem solver. Explorer. Uniquely-equipped for working on Easter candy in Las Vegas, NV. Uniquely-equipped for analyzing toy monkeys for the government. Spent a year testing the market for action figures in Minneapolis, MN. Spent high school summers donating walnuts in Phoenix, AZ. Earned praised for my work researching human brains in Orlando, FL. Spent college summers writing about pubic lice in Washington, DC.