We would all agree that education is a fundamental pillar of sustainable development and underpins enduring prosperity and economic growth. Indeed, it is one of the central pillars of the Millennium Development Goals. So why, despite much effort, does the achievement of quality ‘Education for All’ remain a major global challenge?
One approach to scaling up and accelerating real progress commensurate with the challenge, is to harness the power of business as a way of improving the quality of education provision. The Partnering Initiative has carried out research in this area, working with UNICEF, the World Bank and BG Group to better understand the potential role and the drivers for business engagement. One key conclusion is that this is a truly global issue which deserves continued engagement by all sectors.
More and more businesses are investing in education and skills. There are different motivations and levels of involvement, depending on specific company drivers, the nature of business activity, and the wider context of education in the countries where they operate. “Social Investment” is at one end of the spectrum. Taking a philanthropic approach, businesses may use their corporate social responsibility programmes and make a positive impact on the regions in which they are working; they may offer employee community engagement opportunities, or build strategic social investment partnerships in challenging regions, and engage by donating funds, employee time or core expertise to assist or enhance existing education initiatives.
At the other end of the spectrum, corporations that have a direct interest in a quality education system may bring much more to education initiatives than simply funding. Technical expertise, an understanding of the skills young people need in the workplace, innovative approaches to educational provision, brand and logistical reach, a market approach to delivering quality, affordable education – all these are elements that can play a vital part in ensuring the relevance and success of education programmes.
All this is very positive. The problem is though, as our research highlighted, businesses understandably tend to support their own, often isolated projects. Education sits within a wider national and regional context, and attempts to tackle it as a self-contained issue are likely to have limited impact. Many company initiatives, such as HCL Technologies, have found that their programmes need to tackle broader social and life-skills issues before the young people and wider society can gain full benefit from educational interventions.
So could collective approaches involving partnerships, lead to more effective, transformational delivery of education? Business engagement which links to other education initiatives and works with education authorities, can help to meet the company’s immediate needs while at the also ensuring the wider relevance and longer-term sustainability of the programme.
However, collaborative initiatives can bring their own challenges. A common theme to several of the partnerships we explored in our research, particularly in low-income countries, is the government’s lack of experience and capacity. The PRODEGE initiative in Equatorial Guinea, for example, is succeeding because the company has used its expertise in working with civil society to help build capacity in the government and compensate for its lack of experience of cross-sector working. An unsupportive government, or changes in policy or personnel, can also cause problems. This links to the challenge of conflicting partner aims, something that the Zululand Chamber of Business Foundation and the Paryavaran Mitra initiatives have both had to find ways of resolving.
To continue and scale up engagement in this important debate, The Partnering Initiative held a breakfast event on Wednesday 5th June at 8.30am. Our research will provide the context for an exploration of how collective action can maximise the impact of business investments in education and skills, and how such collaborative approaches be encouraged and supported. For more information email info@thepartneringinitiative.