In the early years of this millennium, I was puzzled by the lack of foundation activity in support of global basic education. Other development actors – bilaterals, the UN, national governments and households – were heavily investing in helping school systems succeed, and believed strongly in the importance of this work for individual and societal well-being. There had been significant work on the early years by the Bernard van Leer Foundation and the Aga Khan Foundation, and in tertiary education by the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa (Ford, Carnegie, Macarthur, Hewlett and others). But at the key levels of primary and secondary education, foundations were mostly absent.
Today, however, there is a lot of very promising activity by foundations in global basic education.
An important turning point was a Quality Education in Developing Countries Initiative, launched by the Hewlett Foundation with co-funding from the Gates Foundation. The initiative has made substantial grants to improve reading, maths and critical thinking skills among primary school students in India and sub-Saharan Africa.
Hewlett also began the work of introducing foundations to the international development agencies working on education, and of building a platform of foundations working on global education. Both of these efforts appear to be gathering momentum. A group of 20 foundations, for example, now share a constituency seat on the board of the Global Partnership for Education, which annually provides hundreds of millions of dollars of funding and technical assistance to 46 developing country ministries of education. Within the Global Partnership, foundations are in active dialogue with more than 30 bilateral, regional and international agencies, development banks, the private sector, teachers, and local and global civil society groups.
The new International Education Funders Group (IEFG) now has 45 foundation members, ranging from some of the largest global foundations to smaller, very specialized organizations. The IEFG serves as a space for information exchange and co-learning on key topics such as how best to improve learning outcomes, and as a platform for the informal alignment of its members’ strategies. Initial meetings have identified learning improvement, girls’ schooling, education in conflict situations and early childhood as priority topic areas.
In my view, foundations are very important actors in the ‘ecology’ of funding and improving education systems. While our funding is small compared to that contributed by governments, aid agencies and households, it has the potential for creative thinking and timely action in a sector where most funding is both lumbering and bureaucratized. Foundations, unlike other actors, can also commit to funding over the decade or more that it may take to bring lasting change to education systems.
Foundations should help schooling systems think well outside their normal boxes. Fifty years ago, as African countries gained their independence, national governments made a noble promise – that they would work towards providing a quality education linked to a livelihood to all children. They are still straining to make good on this promise, but current efforts and finance will not even deliver the 1950s school to all African children, let alone a 21st-century education that will allow future African generations to participate fully in the global economy and in global governance. Fulfilling the promise of education for all will require significant change, in financing, curriculum, delivery systems, use of technology and information. Foundations can be very significant thought partners to government and civil society in this process.
In this spirit, I would encourage foundations with an interest in global basic education to contact the International Education Funders Group, either through me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through the group’s coordinator, Suzanne Grant Lewis (email@example.com). There is much useful and creative work to be done.
Peter Laugharn is the executive director of the Firelight Foundation, which serves as treasurer of the International Education Funders Group.