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26 Jun 2019
Aleesha Taylor

Innovative Financing for Education in Africa: Exploring Models, Connecting Actors and Fostering Conversations for Impact

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, Aleesha Taylor, founder and principal of Herald Advisors, reflects on her keynote speech delivered at the “Philanthropy in Africa: Diverse Perspectives on Innovative Financing” conference on April 9, 2019 in New York City, USA. The author illustrates impacts, challenges and gaps of different innovative financing mechanisms she came across during her work in education initiatives in Liberia. Aleesha Taylor highlights the need to work across siloes and with non-traditional partners across sectors to reach the global goals on education.

The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the comprehensive education targets contained in Sustainable Development Goal 4 present daunting challenges. UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics provides us with some alarming realities: 133 million primary and lower secondary-aged students are either not in school or are likely to drop out. 142 million upper secondary-aged youth are out of school. 484 million students are in school and not receiving a quality education. This does not include the 750 million adults unable to read or write. It also provides the estimates that 85 percent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa are in school but not learning the minimum, and that 88 percent will not be able to read proficiently by the time they complete lower secondary school (which is the equivalent of 9th or 10th grade). The annual funding gap to ensure that countries are able to provide SDG 4.1 – free quality primary and secondary education – is estimated at $39 billion per year.

Despite these figures, aid to education has stagnated and the challenges to the sector are increasing. When I joined Open Society Foundations (OSF), the central component of my initial portfolio was the management of OSF’s education initiatives in Liberia. This was 2007, following international commitments to millennium development goals and declarations that “no countries seriously committed to education for all will be thwarted in their achievement of this goal by a lack of resources.” Shortly after President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election, the Government of Liberia (GoL) requested $40 million to reinvigorate its system after years of conflict and was promptly denied by the Education For All – Fast Track Initiative (EFA-FTI).

The rejection of Liberia’s request exposed the traditional aid mechanism’s weakness and inability to respond to one of the most high profile and vulnerable countries at the time simply because the Government of Liberia could not meet the rigid application requirements. Instead, an innovative arrangement was established between the Government of the Netherlands, UNICEF and OSF, which created the Liberia Education Pooled Fund (EPF). The EPF has been highlighted as an innovative public-private partnership in which a foundation pooled its funding and efforts with those of a multilateral and bilateral organization in support of a national education program. The funding modality eventually disbursed over $20 million through government structures (thereby strengthening governance mechanisms) and OSF partnered with the Ministry of Education (MOE) to provide technical assistance, as well as establish and support a Sector Coordination Unit within the MOE’s Department of Planning.

Partnership Paradox documents the success, challenges, conflicts and divergent perspectives that emerged during this endeavor. I think the most interesting thing about this book, which was truly a labor of love, is that it does not attempt to present a sanitary or unified story. Instead, it allows the voices of those who lived and worked through it to be heard, with all of its realistic messiness. The contributors include Liberian planning and technical experts, consultants who were placed in the Ministry, and staff from UNICEF’s global headquarters and the Liberia country office. While we weren’t really talking about “innovative financing for education” at the time, the EPF is a salient example of why it’s needed in the field and what is necessary to ensure its success: timely access to financing, partnerships, capacity building, as well as local ownership of plans and narratives.

Since 2010, the definition of “innovative financing for education” has shifted a bit, depending on who is defining it, and generally refers to the application of a non-traditional financing mechanism to the education sector. However, the consistent aspects include three features outlined by the Leading Group on Innovative Financing: innovative financing should 1) be linked to global public goods (such as health and education); 2) be complementary and additional to traditional aid; and 3) be more stable and predictable than traditional aid to allow governments to make long-term plans.

The EFA-FTI has since become the Global Partnership for Education, with an expanded governance structure and a commitment to ensure fragile and conflict-affected states can access funding. Towards this end, they created a board seat for the private sector and private foundations. The process of figuring out how to manage this diversity of perspectives is an interesting compilation of contested stories and interests.

Innovative financing for education requires us to break out of our traditional siloes and foster collaboration across sectors. While at OSF, one specific endeavor has led to lasting results. In 2012, I created a seminar at Central European University, “Innovative Financing for Education: Arguments, Options and Opportunities.” This course ran for five years and brought together over 150 education and finance specialists, civil society activists, government officials and private sector actors. There was a heavy emphasis on “the arguments” portion of the title. Faculty were drawn from academia, philanthropy, civil society and the private sector. They were given the opportunity to workshop ideas and models under development and to sharpen their own critiques. The participants have gone on to either lead or engage in innovative financing initiatives and partnerships at NORRAG, the GPE, World Bank, African Development Bank and in ministries of education and planning in several countries across Africa and Asia.

This course emphasized that the sector needs more education specialists who are committed to social equity, as well as conversant and at the table with the development and finance specialists who continue to have an outsized influence on the sector. Additionally, education specialists and civil society activists need to develop more nuanced approaches when dealing with other sectors that do not speak the same language. Furthermore, we cannot underestimate the significant shifts that have and are taking place in philanthropy and the diversity of actors in the philanthropic space as we forge new partnerships and arrangements to increase funding and improve quality in the sector.

We also cannot assume that the philanthropic space is uncontested, with foundations having a broad range of motivations and priorities. This diversity is a great thing. However, coordinating priorities and funding has been somewhat of a challenge for the GPE, especially when some members may be more amenable to funding private providers and initiatives even though the GPE’s mandate is to strengthen public systems and delivery mechanisms.

We saw these tensions arise among philanthropies (especially the newer ones) and some traditional donors and organizations more recently in Liberia, with the launch of the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) initiative in 2015, which was a public-private partnership the GoL used to outsource the delivery of education to eight private providers. Because of the presumed availability of flexible philanthropic capital and private sector partnerships, PSL took shape very quickly – in a matter of months. The government was actually masterful in its ability to play the “traditional funders” (including the GPE and UNICEF, which were responsible for the lion’s share of quality inputs into the system each year) and the “disruptors,” or new funders, against each other.

A tepid consensus was reached after some time, but this led to significant fragmentation within the donor and philanthropic community, as well as within the MOE itself. The promise of additional funding and improved outcomes actually stalled existing initiatives and decreased the potential for the program’s success. It’s still functioning but struggling. This public-private partnership also highlighted the critical role that civil society plays in monitoring both learning outcomes and equity outcomes that result from investments in the sector. For example, when PSL’s early results of significantly improved learning outcomes in some schools were communicated, civil society highlighted that this outcome was the result of the most vulnerable children being excluded. To cut costs in some schools, PSL simply decided to not provide meals. The lack of school feeding decreased attendance of the most vulnerable children, who were also presumed to have relatively fewer resources and support in their homes and therefore lower learning outcomes.

While an emphasis on improved learning outcomes is critical, we cannot underestimate its costs to increased equity outcomes. We also cannot underestimate the costs to governments. It is estimated that collecting the necessary data to track progress towards SDG 4, including developing new assessments to measure learning and skills outcomes, will cost $280 million globally (and this entails $128 million in new funding). This is also an area that philanthropies should pay attention to and provide funding for in the quest to enable governments and the education sector to attract and disburse the level of funding necessary to close the gaps and achieve the goals we promote.

The urgency and momentum for progress towards the global goals has led to promising partnerships and shifts in practice in the philanthropic sector. Success will hinge on our ability to work across siloes and with non-traditional partners who may have different approaches yet similar goals.

About the Author: Aleesha Taylor, Ed.D, is founder and principal of Herald Advisors, a strategic advisory firm that works with foundations, bilateral and multilateral organizations, and ministries of education. Twitter: @heraldadvisors


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