The Varkey Foundation and its growing influence in Latin America
This Blog post is contributed by Tomás Esper & Iván Matovich, as part of the NORRAG Blog Series on Philanthropy in Education (PiE) which aims to foster dialogue between key stakeholders on critical issues relating to the global and regional role of Philanthropy in Education.In this article Esper and Matovich consider the growing role of philanthropic foundations, documenting the arrival of the Varkey Foundation in the education sector in Argentina. The authors show how the Foundation, in a few years time, succeeded in becoming a key player influencing policy reforms at the local level, and how the growing influence of new philanthropy in education raises more questions than answers about their interests and agendas .
During the last decades, philanthropic foundations have expanded their activities and found new ways of involvement at the global, national, and subnational scales. The larger and innovative ways in which philanthropists engage in education has not been indifferent to scholars (Ball et al., 2017; Reckhow & Snyder, 2014; Srivastava & Oh, 2010). In fact, some scholars have ‘renamed’ philanthropic involvement as philanthrocapitalism (Bishop & Green, 2008; McGoey, 2014), philanthropy 2.0, or ‘new’ philanthropy (Ball, 2008), as foundations have adopted business-like methods and mentality, where donations are seen as investments, and the pressure for achieving results has become the equivalent of returns (Ball & Junemann, 2012). International organizations have also posited attention to this phenomenon. For example, the Organization for Economic and Cooperation Development (OECD) has driven institutional initiatives like the development of datasets on global philanthropy for cooperation (OECD, 2022a), the Network of Foundations Working for Development (netFWD) (OECD, 2022b), and reports oriented to the education sector (OECDa, 2019, 2020). Similarly, the growing role of philanthropy in education has been also signaled by UNESCO’s background reports about ‘Non-state actors in education’ (UNESCO 2021).
New philanthropy encompasses a larger transformation of education governance, in which non-state actors have gained terrain through school management, service delivery, or program implementations (Brent Edwards et al., 2021; Srivastava & Baur, 2016). This has raised questions about the risks of having private actors with profit-making interests uptaking state responsibilities, historically accountable for children’s rights and society’s welfare (UNESCO 2021). At the same time, new philanthropy can have a dual nature, supporting socially relevant causes that ‘pink wash’ the image of a corporation that may tolerate abuses of workers and children’s rights. For instance, Ridge and Kipples (2019) have shown how the Transforming Education in Cocoa Communities (TRECC), a multi-stakeholder initiative of corporations from the cocoa sector, has served to pinkwash the image of the businesses facing legal action for exploiting children in cocoa plantations.
As part of the newer developments of philanthropy in education, foundations have developed arrangements under public-private partnerships or other contracting schemes, through which they have ‘embedded’ themselves into the state apparatus. By providing school improvement services (McGoey, 2021) or via program implementation, philanthropic actors can spread their conceptions, values, and ideas about education and policy-making into the public sector. Hence, a pressing question is how these organizations manage to gain terrain within the public sphere. The answers point to the role of policy networks and the capacity of philanthropists to use them in their favor. Through heterogeneous policy networks state and non-state actors –corporate men (mostly), international organizations consultants, foundation members, etc– are linked together as they share similar organizational affiliations, attend similar events, or have worked together in the past (Ball et al., 2017; Adhikary, 2019). This is what caught our attention when discovering that the Varkey Foundation, an organization based in the United Kingdom and with no prior linkages to Latin America, managed to establish a millionaire PPP agreement with Argentina’s government to implement a teachers and headteachers training program in the country.
The Varkey Foundation: landing, expansion, and consolidation in Latin America
The Varkey Foundation, which organizes the Global Teachers Prize and the Education and Skills Forum, has become a global leader in the field of teacher policies. Founded in 2011 and registered as a charity in the United Kingdom (Ridge et al., 2016), the Varkey Foundation “partners with governments, policymakers, and local experts to provide teachers with the skills they need to improve educational standards” (Varkey Foundation, 2022) for programs and initiatives in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Europe. The foundation is one of many organizations of the Varkey Group Ltd., registered in the British Virgin Islands, formed by an interconnected web of organizations that provides a wide range of services, especially in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In particular, GEMS MENASA Ltd., registered in Cayman and the most important organization in the group, runs one of the most profitable private-school chains in the world: the GEMS Education schools (Ridge et al, 2016). According to its latest publicly available financial statement, GEMS MENASA Ltd. revenue was $602.6.1 million in 2018 compared to $550.4 in 2017 million (Ernst & Young, 2019 in Matovich & Cardini, 2019).
In the context of the organizational global expansion, and without clear prior linkages to the country, the Varkey Foundation arrived in Argentina in 2017 to implement the Leadership and Innovation in Education Programme. We explored the following issues 1. What rationale underpinned and what tactics were used by local and global policy actors for the arrival of the Varkey Foundation in Argentina? 2. How has the Varkey Foundation expanded and consolidated as a legitimate education policy actor at a national and regional scale? 3. How has Varkey Foundation expanded its policy networks across Latin America after its landing in Argentina? (Matovich & Esper, in press). Thus, here, we would like to highlight some of the most salient findings from our research.
The main explanation behind the Varkey Foundation’s arrival in Argentina was the role of a central actor, Esteban Bullrich, at that time national Ministry of Education. Prior to 2017, Bullrich himself participated in the Education and Skills Forum, expressing his intention to partner with Varkey to work in the country. In 2016, a new administration took office, and Bullrich was appointed the head of education in the country. As mentioned, in 2017 the foundation started implementing a teacher training program and it did so in four different provinces: Salta, Mendoza, Jujuy, and Corrientes. In this initiative, funding was coming from national and provincial sources, in the form of a multi-scalar cooperation agreement with Varkey (Matovich & Cardini, 2019). Yet the involvement of these four provinces was the result of Bullrich’s mobilization of his personal political network, as they were part of the ruling national coalition in the country: Cambiemos. In a similar fashion, Varkey appointed their national director, Agustin Porres, because of his close ties with Bullrich: they had worked together when Bullrich was the Ministry of Education in the city of Buenos Aires.
Once the foundation initiated its teacher training program in the country, it rapidly started expanding its portfolio and local influence. Here, Agustín Porres emerges as the key figure, who managed to position himself as an educational expert in the realm of teachers’ policy, with frequent media appearances and participating in different local and regional events. In 2019, the foundation took a crucial step in the foundation consolidation in the country. After Cambiemos’s defeat in the national elections, the Ministry’s support for Varkey was at stake. Therefore, the Foundation established new agreements directly with the provinces, as a clear sign of endorsement of Varkey’s work and of the very development of its local policy network.
The foundation consolidation in Argentina occurred at hand with its regional expansion. Varkey landed in Ecuador in January 2020 through a partnership with Ecuador’s Ministry of Education, the Universidad Internacional de La Rioja from Spain, and Fundación Cofuturo from Colombia to implement the Educational Leadership and Innovation Academic Upgrade Program (Varkey Foundation, 2020). Similarly, it delivered an innovation and management program for school principals and teachers in Fray Bentos city, Uruguay, based on a partnership with Fundación UPM, a local foundation related to the forest-industry sector (Fundación UPM, 2021). In addition, the foundation has increased its operations and national and regional influence beyond program delivery by creating professional-oriented networks and strengthening its advocacy strategy both locally and globally. In April 2020, it launched Comunidad Atenea online platform amid regional school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This initiative aims to offer a virtual space for meeting and sharing ‘best practices’ among Latin American teachers’ (Comunidad Atenea, 2021). Its network expansion is also reflected in regional partnerships oriented to policy advocacy. In February 2019, the Latin American Coalition for Teachers Excellence was established (Varkey Foundation, 2020). This is a new partnership with The Inter-American Dialogue, Inicia Educación (Dominican Republic), and the Organization of Ibero-American States to build a shared reform agenda for teacher policies and to engage the key public and private actors for the implementation of this agenda. This aim is reinforced by VF’s partnership with the Latin American Leadership Program of Georgetown University to deliver the ‘Leading Education’ program for regional ‘young leaders’ who are offered several modules conducted by international agencies representatives, former ministers, and ‘experts’ from civil society organizations, edu-businesses and regional foundations (Georgetown University, 2021). Finally, Varkey also incurred knowledge mobilization through a new research stream. Its first work was a report on education responses to school closures due to COVID-19, in partnership with the British Council (British Council & Varkey Foundation Argentina, 2021).
In just about five years’ time, the Varkey Foundation went from launching a pilot project in Argentina to consolidating its operations in the country and becoming a key player in the push toward teachers’ policy reforms at a regional level. The foundation not only managed to create strong local ties with domestic actors in Argentina, evidenced by the continuation of PLIE in spite of political shifts but also deployed a toolkit of resources including knowledge production and mobilization and advocacy through coalition partnerships to position itself as a referent in the regional education scene. At the present, Varkey promotes an education reform agenda for teacher policies across Latin America, supported by several organizations and former Ministers of Education (via the Atlantis Group), while continuing to expand its network by participating in global events, such as the G20. The success or not of their reform ambitions remains uncertain, yet it raises more questions than answers about the growing influence of new philanthropy in education and the underlying interests of their very agendas.
Tomás Esper is a Ph.D. student in International and Comparative Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Tomas scholary interest lie in the crossroads of education privatization and governance reforms, including the role of new philanthropy in education. Tomás is member of the Special Interest Group on Philanthropy and Education from the Comparative and International Education Society. Email: email@example.com
Iván Matovich is PhD in Education student at Monash University (Australia) and Associate Researcher at the Centre for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth, (Argentina). His research focuses on the implications of globalization and non-state actors in education policies. Since 2018, he has been a researcher at the Think20, the G20 engagement group that brings together think tanks and research centers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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