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Building New Bonds for Social Impact in Education by Beth Yu

This post is part of the NORRAG Debates stream on Philanthropy in Education which contributes to the ongoing dialogue to help unpack the questions, issues, and arguments concerning philanthropy in the education sector. In this post, Beth Yu, Executive Secretary-General of Jack Ma Foundation, discusses the role of social impact bonds in education that are based on mutually- empowering partnership.

Recently, on a panel at the WISE conference in Doha, I was asked by a member of the audience about our foundation’s future plan to issue social impact bonds in Nigeria to fund educational initiatives. By social impact bonds, she was referring to a new class of financial instrument that in recent years have become very popular in developing economies, where it has been common that resources for boosting social and educational improvements are scant. These pay-for-result debt-structured securities offer a financially viable solution by leveraging public and market resources to fund social development projects and have attracted a large following since their initial debut in 2011. In the UK alone, it is estimated that the market for social impact bonds is at least £1 billion and is projected to continue its growth further in 2020. While we envy this spectacular growth and attention, to be clear, as a foundation we are not ready to commit ourselves to moving in this direction. Instead, since our founding we have envisioned a slightly different education “bond” (n., a uniting or binding element) for social impact, one that is based on mutually-empowering partnership.

At Jack Ma Foundation, we have spent the past five years exploring effective approaches to bring about meaningful social impact. While we firmly believe that achieving greater societal good requires leveraging public and market resource, we feel that the emphasis should move beyond exclusively fiscal talk. In particular, we eye on mobilizing local knowledge, professional expertise and innovative thinking, all of which are critical elements in ensuring results delivery at the program-level. For instance, we recently teamed up with four regional partners, Naillab in East Africa, RiseUp in North Africa, 22OnSlone in South Africa and NIINE in West Africa, in organizing our annual flagship program Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative (ANPI). This program aims at helping the next generation of entrepreneurs build a more sustainable and inclusive economy for the future. Each of our regional partners bring with them rich grassroots outreach experience and expertise to help us design and take ANPI to different corners of Africa, as well as discover and spotlight promising entrepreneurs from across the continent. While technically, this is not a social impact bond in the financial sense, these tight working partnerships helped us take our programming impact to new heights this year.

As an organisation, it is our core value to increase public visibility in social and education development and motivate broad engagement in such endeavors. However, we acknowledge that social innovation is no easy task, because departure from business-as-usual comes with a great deal of uncertainty. As much as we can, we try to identify entry-points where traditional stakeholders may otherwise be risk-averse or resource-constrained, and leverage our comparative advantage to develop and nurture sustainable partnerships by encouraging socially innovative and impactful projects.

To achieve this, our approach is to undertake risk co-sharing and program co-financing, discover effective program models, and attract public sector actors to move in when and where scaling-up would become societally beneficial. In this process, we work closely with our public sector partners to create possibilities for innovative social change. For instance, in 2017, we began working with local government partners in Guizhou Province, China to develop a boarding school upgrade program that focused on improving living and learning conditions for students in rural areas. We pooled together knowledge on local needs, technical capacity and administrative support, financial and policy resources. In only a year’s time, with key local support partners, we expanded this boarding school program to four additional provinces in Jiangxi, Hebei, Zhejiang, and Yunnan, where students have, as I write, already begun enjoying brand new facilities, clean showers, and state-of-the-art cafeteria. As with many of our other program-level success stories, we are increasingly hearing more from our public sector partners’ about interests to put these to scale, which would become far more impactful in the medium-to-long term.

Nonetheless, we clearly see the boundaries and limits of our capacity, and therefore actively collaborate with our knowledge partners – universities and research institutions – to minimize any apparent risks and costs. In our rural education talents program, each year we provide much-needed professional development opportunities to 20 rural principals, 100 veteran and 100 entrant teachers. Our objective is to support a vibrant force of highly-qualified educators that will become the cornerstone of rural education development in China. In implementing this important work, we partnered with Shaanxi Normal University, Hangzhou Normal University, Sichuan Normal University, just to name a few, at both the curriculum design, service-delivery, monitoring and evaluation levels. The rich institutional capacity and professional expertise of these technical and knowledge partners well complement our strengths, and helps us ensure the quality and results of these ongoing projects. With their technical experts, we are able to greatly reduce the uncertainty of multi-tasking program design, rollout, and monitoring, all while still remaining budget-responsible.

As we approach our foundation’s fifth-year anniversary, we feel confident that we have discovered a promising way forward, that is building local-, knowledge-, institutional-partnerships for social impact in education. Just like financial bonds, we focus on leveraging public resources that would have otherwise been dormant. However, we differ substantively in practice as we place our emphasis on bringing together various stakeholders through an active risk-, cost-, capacity-sharing strategy to promote social and education development. This promising path ahead warrants further exploration, and I sincerely hope we bring on more partners aboard for this important journey ahead.

 

About the author:

Beth Yu is the Executive Secretary-General of Jack Ma Foundation, which was established in 2014 by Jack Ma, founder and former Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group. Beth was previously Secretary-General of Bright China Foundation and has extensive experience in international business management, nonprofit organization management and operation.

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