By Maren Elfert, University of British Columbia.
The run-up to the next round of Education for All (EFA) and development goals lends itself to a reflection about the political-economic underpinnings of the discussion about the future of EFA. The report of the high-level panel of eminent persons on the post-2015 development agenda emphasizes the role of the private sector. The document points out that “the massive investments that will be needed for infrastructure in developing countries [will require] …new ways of using aid and other public funds to mobilise private capital” (p. 3). It further stresses the role of “private philanthropists” and the importance of business “as an essential partner that can drive economic growth”, because “large firms have the money and expertise to build the infrastructure that will allow all people to connect to the modern economy” (p. 11). Also “social impact investors” are mentioned, whose “efforts can be sustainable over time”, “because they make money” (p. 11).
The Global Education First initiative (GEFI) launched by the UN’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012 as a five-year campaign “for the final push” towards the achievement of the second Millennium Development Goal, universal primary education, strongly builds on partnership with business and makes an effort to get the corporate sector on board by using a discourse it can understand, such as “education develops human capital required to create a skilled workforce, improve productivity and drive business growth” (p. 8).
UNESCO’s post-2015 position paper
In sharp contrast to the above discourse, the position paper on the post-2015 agenda put forward by UNESCO’s Executive Board at its 194th session touts the state as the “custodian of education as a public good” (p. 2). It is worth quoting the entire paragraph, which appears under “guiding principle”, sub-item “fundamental principles”:
Education is a public good. The state is the custodian of education as a public good. At the same time, the role of civil society, communities, parents and other stakeholders is crucial in the provision of quality education.
The word “private” does not appear in the list of the “other stakeholders”, neither does it appear elsewhere in the document. After review by the EFA Steering Committee and the Task Force for the post-2015 Education agenda, the above paragraph remains untouched in the revised document (p. 3), but the term “private” appears in a footnote (p. 7) and in a list of “a broad coalition of partners for education beyond 2015” towards the end of the document (p. 10). Both – the total absence of the term “private” in the Executive Board draft, and the rather marginal mention of the private sector in the revised document – are remarkable given that the role of the private sector in education is gaining ground in the debates on the post-2015 EFA agenda.
How is this position paper compatible with UNESCO’s alliances with the private sector, such as its partnerships with Nokia and the Business Backs Education campaign, which was launched in March 2014 at the Global Education and Skills Forum held in Dubai? This event assembled a strange mix of philanthropic foundations, businesses, international organizations and high-level former politicians and proponents of the “Third Way” such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. One item on the agenda in Dubai were “social innovation” projects such as social impact bonds, which are about to replace the traditional charity model. They allow governments to retreat from their social responsibilities, save money and leave it to businesses to set the agendas of what is considered “social innovation”.
The basic concept of a social impact bond is that a service provider, usually an NGO, will raise money from private investors in order to fund a social program. The private investors will be reimbursed by government if they can prove that the program has been effective. The problem with this model is obvious: it puts even more emphasis than we already have on measurable results, at the detriment of long-term sustainable programs.
What does UNESCO stand for?
This contradiction between UNESCO’s partnerships with the private sector and the post-EFA position paper points to larger problems. First, it is increasingly difficult to tell what UNESCO stands for. On the one hand, there are staff members such as those who drafted UNESCO’s post-2015 education position paper who are committed to UNESCO’s humanistic approach to education which is laid down in UNESCO’s constitution. On the other hand, UNESCO pursues “strategic partnerships” with private corporations in order to secure its survival at a time when it has to keep house with a budget reduced by the lack of United States’ membership dues. Another reason for UNESCO’s engagement with the private sector is the increasing difficulty to find aid money for basic education, which is one of UNESCO’s priority program areas. In a recent speech, UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova deplored an annual $26 billion underfunding of basic education (p. 5).
Although UNESCO’s interest in these new partnerships is understandable given the situation of the organization, these alliances are not as unproblematic as they are often presented. An organization such as UNESCO and a private corporation represent two very different paradigms. While the goal of a business is to maximize profits and therefore to appropriate material wealth to the exclusion of others, UNESCO’s mandate in education is based on principles of equality, sharing and participation. While for businesses education is a commodity, for UNESCO it is a human right. There is not much that these disparate ontologies have to say to each other.
Who shapes the global education agenda today?
Second, and more importantly − who shapes the global education agenda today? This is increasingly difficult to tell given the surge of “unauthorised actors” (Swyngedouw, 2014, p. 127, referring to Ulrich Beck) in the field. UNESCO’s constitutional partners are governments and NGOs. Relationships with the private sector are briefly mentioned in UNESCO’s constitution and are only foreseen if those institutions “pursue goals that are in conformity with UNESCO’s ideals” and “are entirely non-profit-making”. UNESCO aligns itself with new networks or “heterarchies” (Ball, 2012), including businesses, but doesn’t seem to have internalized this change in position.
UNESCO changes because its traditional partners change. Governments are reconfigured as one source of authority among many in a new global education network. UNESCO, with its rights-based approach, serves as “conscience” and gives legitimization to corporate actors. In turn, UNESCO’s identity will be affected, and the organization needs to get prepared for this. Ultimately, the new private actors in “global governance” may undermine even further the role of international organizations such as UNESCO.
Ball, S. (2012). Global Education Inc. New policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Swyngedouw, E. (2014). Where is the political? Insurgent mobilisations and the incipient “return of the political”. Space and Polity. 18(2), 122-136.
Maren Elfert is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include UNESCO’s education work, in particular the concept of education as a human right. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
 This paper has benefitted from a conversation I had with Alexandra Draxler.