Getting global education back on track


Denis Mizne


Collaboration across sectors has the power to transform philanthropy into a more valuable instrument for social welfare. This has never been more important than in the aftermath of Covid.

The impact of Covid on education continues to be significant in most of the world. During the pandemic, 1.6 billion children were out of school according to the World Economic Forum, and, according to the same source, many children in lower-income countries did not return to formal education when schools reopened after lockdown. The World Bank has warned that learning poverty has increased by one-third in low- and middle-income countries, with 70 per cent of 10-year-olds unable to understand a simple written text. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of providing universal primary and secondary education worldwide by 2030 is now in serious jeopardy.

Given the other pressing issues that governments are currently dealing with – including the war in Ukraine, mounting geopolitical tensions and a global economic downturn – the educational repercussions of the Covid pandemic have unfortunately not always been top of politicians’ in-trays. The effects of this will instead be felt in a decade’s time, when countries are dealing with the consequences of not investing in their human capital: undereducated populations, skills shortages and lower economic growth. If this happens, it will be a scar on the conscience of the world – with the pain suffered mainly by developing economies. But how can it be avoided? And what role could philanthropic organisations play in mitigating these problems?

The role of philanthropy in cross-sector partnerships

To reverse this decline, solutions are needed that will bring about systemic change and help fix literacy deficits, boost digital skills, and help prevent a lost learning generation. To find these, however, they need to know what interventions work best for the communities they serve. Crucially, governments cannot solve these challenges alone: cross-sectoral collaboration, bringing together policymakers, philanthropy and business, is vital for success.

Over the last twenty years, we at the Lemann Foundation have been deepening our understanding of how to best cooperate with the public sector and with other philanthropic organisations. Here are some of the lessons we have learned along the way.

First, better results can be achieved when philanthropic organisations focus on the problem to be solved, rather than only on the scale and nature of their particular contribution. This approach makes it abundantly clear that tangible, lasting results can only be achieved through partnerships. Philanthropic organisations cannot solve complex issues on their own. A range of expertise, finance and operational capacity is often needed, requiring collaboration among a variety of actors – including universities, private sector companies, and NGOs with practical experience.

The Brazil Collaborative Literacy Partnership

One of the most encouraging examples of this approach is the Brazil Collaborative Literacy Partnership, which we created with two other Brazilian philanthropic organisations: Natura Institute and Associação Bem Comum. It aims to build on a pioneering programme to ensure children can read by the time they are seven. The initiative is inspired by policies implemented by the government in the state of Ceará, where literacy rates jumped from 39 per cent to 92 per cent during the decade to 2019 – lifting hundreds of thousands out of learning poverty, boosting life chances and reducing racial inequalities. Together, our three organisations have studied the Ceará case, identified its success factors and created a model to implement similar programmes in other territories, identifying strategic partners that can join efforts in eradicating illiteracy in the country. Academic organisations, philanthropies, authorities, and public opinion have been fundamental in bringing this project to reality. The programme has already been implemented in 12 of Brazil’s 26 states and was recently awarded a Foundational Grant by Co-Impact, which will allow us to expand the project and boost literacy rates from 31 per cent to 75 per cent within five years.

The importance of involving government

The programme also is an example of a second lesson: working with governments – both local and national – is essential to provide legitimacy to the programme and to create results at scale. Governments have unparalleled influence and access to resources, and although the private sector and civil society can accomplish a lot, they can achieve impact on a much bigger scale if they coordinate with government programmes. In addition, the solution to many humanitarian and educational problems must ultimately come in the form of improvements to public systems, which can only be effected with government support. For that reason, a Harvard Business Review analysis of 15 of the most successful social change initiatives globally found that 80 per cent needed government action or policy changes to work.

Brazil Collaborative Literacy Partnership cooperates with states to provide technical support for their own local literacy programmes. Associação Bem Comum, which has a profound knowledge of the Ceará case, works closely with civil servants in education departments to assist them in creating policies to foster collaboration between states and municipalities and to assure their sustainability and success. This collaboration also continuously allows the organisations and states to generate learning opportunities and evidence to inform decision-making and collaboration across states and at national level.

On a municipal level, other partner organisations have been developing programmes to improve learning results in the first years of school. Our collaborative work with Instituto Gesto, through the Formar programme, has helped many school districts do exactly that. Praised by the World Bank, Formar now operates in 28 education departments, 23 municipalities and five states, and impacts more than 400,000 children every year. In four years, it has led the partner school districts to advance their results twice as fast as other regions that are not participating in the programme. The same strategy is now being implemented in municipalities of the Amazonian region through the Plantar programme, which aims to accelerate learning and strengthen the connection between communities and the forest – also created in cooperation with the Climate and Land Use Alliance.

The proper focus for philanthropy

The final lesson concerns the proper focus for philanthropy. Many philanthropic efforts are limited by a belief that non-profit organisations can only create impact through initiatives of a small scale, over which they have absolute control. However, both the demands of the real world and examples like the ones mentioned above show that it is possible to have an even more strategic role in building systemic and lasting impact through collaboration.

The lessons we learned through our efforts to make literacy universal in Brazil can also be applied to a number of topics. Collaboration is at the heart of all the strategies and programmes developed by the Lemann Foundation to boost Brazilian investment in its human capital, from literacy to recovering learning losses caused by the pandemic, and even in our mission to foster leadership in the public sector. If philanthropic organisations, governments, businesses, and academia can work together over the long term, there is no reason why significant progress cannot be made – and millions of lives changed for the better.

Denis Mizne is CEO of the Lemann Foundation

Tagged in: Transformation on the agenda

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