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Strategy sessions II.3 > Business Community
 
World Education Forum
Dakar, Senegal 26-28 April 2000
 
 Working with the business community to strengthen basic education
Issues Paper
 
Strategy Session II.3
 
Original : English
 
  Among the many challenges facing the education sector worldwide is its capacity to foster development, inspire new ideas and empower people, young and old, to live freely and fully. A key question within this challenge is how to adapt or redefine the processes that engage local education authorities, community associations, international organizations, NGOs, businesses and financial institutions in today's interdependent world. How to find ways to take advantage of the more positive aspects of globalization that may or may not fit well into the local community, its culture, languages, interests and concerns -- whose defenders are not always friendly to change.
 
Although education may appear to be a socio-political issue or no immediate concern to the business community, there is a strong correlation between an educated society and the establishment of democratic institutions and market-based economies. With some 130 million primary school-age children in developing countries out of school today, and 60% of them being girls, obviously this situation does not contribute to the conditions necessary for well-functioning government, business and civil society. What can a country's external partners (intergovernmental, bilateral and non-governmental organizations, as well as businesses) do to help turn this situation around by supporting and complementing its own efforts to expand and improve its education system?
 
This Strategy Session will explore three interdependent areas that should provide the background for answers to this question: 
 

(i) Educational content and materials. Who produces them? Who pays for them? Who can drive the cooperation among partners to produce and finance and deliver them?

(ii) Stimulation from the financial sector. What funding mechanisms work, and can work better with more creativity and commitment, to expand infrastructures, reduce the burdens on public coffers and provide the needed technical assistance?

(iii) Communication systems. How best to take advantage of information technology to underpin efforts towards educating and informing the public?

 
In all three of these areas, the players involved exhibit fierce rivalries for markets, innovation, expansion and rugged competition to hire and keep the best people. With new technologies and ways of providing and attracting monies being invented almost daily, and with the concomitant increase in global systemic pressures on local communities, education systems find it hard to meet the many changing demands and learning needs. External partners also find it difficult to keep up, to hit this moving target -- the "strengthening of basic education" - since they are also in a state of flux and businesses depend on profits to stay alive. 
 
1. Cooperation in basic education content and materials
 
What can be done in respect to the first of the above areas - basic education materials - which is so often prohibitively costly in the developing world? One possibility would be to marry change (inevitable) with sustainability (not inevitable) by sponsoring the creation and interchange of school-created materials that reflect the realities and concerns of local communities and that can also generate revenues.
 

This implies the design and implementation of local solutions to local problems. Rather than thinking in terms of transferring technology and skills between schools in the "north" and schools in the "south", this other approach would seek the efficient sharing of experiences and materials among schools in the same region, across borders, via "south to south" cooperation. In this manner the participating schools could reduce costs and avoid duplication of effort, but this would require cooperation among the education authorities, which could be actively supported by the various external partners.

 
Here, there would be a need for specific actors - "producers" or "project promoters" - to manage the setting of common goals, the overall production, the evaluation and promotional activities, thereby creating the working space necessary so that each partner can do what it does best, with a view to meeting basic learning needs more efficiently and productively.
 
An ideal "project promoter" would bring four skills to the table: (i)cross-cultural skills, including working proficiency in the language used among partners and schools; (ii) technical skills and expertise in publishing, multi-media productions, or Internet-based communications; (iii) promotional skills, working with communications or marketing departments in the public and private sectors, promoting mutual confidence and trust; and (iv) collaborative and reciprocal leadership skills, valuing diversity, inclusion and shared power.
 
The premise here is that the school should no longer be a mere receptor of educational contents; rather it should be a producer of new ideas and contents, getting support among a range of partners, who in turn can see the benefits of building education-based capacities. As such, the role of the project promoter is to construct and sustain this "community" of interested parties, creating a "cooperation platform" that delivers contents from the external world to the schools and channels each school's own contribution back to the external world.
 
In recent years there has been a range of innovative initiatives that illustrate kinds of cooperation possible between the business community, civil society and local education authorities. Some use new technologies and the Internet, such as the World Bank's "World Links for Development Program", the projects within the I*EARN framework and those created and carried out by non-profit organizations such as the Concord Consortium in Massachusetts, USA, which promotes science and math and literacy programs using a variety of software and communications technology.
Others are more decidedly geared towards the "low-tech" end of the spectrum, such as UNHCR's "home-based school for girls" in Pakistan, which focuses on developing education materials for a specific group of learners - in this case, girls unable to attend schools - with the support of Save the Children.
 
Using either high or low tech, one way to enable schools to work on themes of interest to their community is the creation of "local educative kits". Earth Action, an NGO, uses an advocacy approach to doing this, whereas the World Wide Fund for Nature, in partnership with the World Bank, works with governments, the private sector and civil society to produce materials for the education of students and teachers with a view to reducing the loss and degradation of all forest types world-wide.
 
The fact that educational materials are being produced and made available in this way - the fruit of the cooperation between NGOs, financial institutions, and public authorities -- points to the benefits that can be achieved when all parties recognize the pedagogical value, and the added value for the community, of creating such educational materials.
 
The fundamental issue here is helping the local community to take more control of and responsibility for its schools and the quality of education. This entails finding ways for the local community to contribute to providing and paying for its own education services and materials.
 
The national EFA assessments that preceded the World Education Forum show the need for closer cooperation between the public and private sectors in order to move more rapidly towards EFA goals.
 
2. Funding for education
Despite the clear connection between the level of financial support to basic education and performance outcomes, the possibilities for increased public spending on education are limited and fluctuate according to economic conditions. Nevertheless, there are opportunities for governments and development agencies and financial institutions to devise plans and practices to cushion investments in social development, such as education, against the fluctuations in markets and volatile national economies. There can also be some creative uses of finances that add value to the private sector in operations with the public sector in the area of education
 
The possibility exists of organizing national capital markets to serve the long-term finance of education services, or of issuing of municipal bonds to attract private sector money for education projects. The key shift in finance will take place as cities, states and national governments issue bonds for dedicated purposes, including education. Though this is an ideal way in many economies to raise funds for capital expansion of school systems and public universities, there are caveats.
One is the degree to which the processes of due diligence -- by which borrowers organize themselves for scrutiny of the financial markets -- will force the financial community and the public authorities to ensure that sound plans and management practices are in place. Another relates to foreign debt: the G-7 Cologne agreement (1999) opens the door even more to debt reduction linked to added domestic finance for education, but debt reduction on these terms could be accompanied by conditionalities.
What, then, are the implications for national education authorities and for their external partners? While public authorities need to view the private financial community as a potential ally and to anticipate a growing market for privately financed and even privately run education, external partners need to work with the domestic partners to set a common agenda that ensures that external investments make a positive contribution to the development of education.
At present, the pace of interest and activity among leading donors in the fostering of national debt markets is unacceptably low. The World Bank ought to place as much priority on fostering ways for private finance to help the public sector in developing countries as it has placed on encouraging private finance to help the relatively better off private sector. Although the first aim of the donor community is to work on poverty reduction, education is clearly the most important factor we know of that can help reduce poverty and increase well being.
 
Multilateral development banks could help provide collateralized bond obligations (CBOs) for social development, including education, in part by leveraging their own substantial reserves. Also, an aid agency, or a consortium of aid agencies, could provide the equity, e.g., the seed capital, to 'collateralize' it and to cushion against cash flow uncertainties on loan repayment. In other words, debt can be issued in the market backed by future inflows of the projects financed by it and by equity.
All in all, a more aggressive view could and should be taken to expand resources for education systems, with financial engineers crafting ways for education to move ahead within the whole of social development. And in keeping with this view, bold business inputs from the information sectors are required, as access to knowledge and the ability to make informed decisions based on that knowledge are the cornerstone of healthy democracies and market economies.
 
3. Using the new information technologies
 
Fortunately, for the most part it is true that businesses and their philanthropic foundations are becoming more environmentally and socially responsible for their actions. For many different reasons they see the need for sharing their values with their workers, clients and the local community; for exploring new ways to communicate their messages to create favorable public opinion, and for transmitting their pluri -dimensional commitment to the society in which they work. The telecommunications industry is no exception, creating networks for teaching and learning and the platforms for building educational content and delivering it to schools and universities.
 
However, beyond the delivery of educational content, a key question is how can telecommunications companies and their foundations provide efficient, non-discriminatory access to learning opportunities without alienating the public education system? How can they complement public efforts to improve the quality of education? Some of the more common options are distance learning programmes backed by public authorities, training in information technologies, fostering of cross-sectoral partnerships, adopting or sponsoring schools, providing scholarships, and contributing to the professional development of teachers.
 
4. New ideas and new approaches
 
Arguably, there needs to be more forward-looking thinking, more attention to the interactions between diverse business cultures in setting standards and measuring the social returns for business' investments and activities in education. Perhaps there is still too much reliance on traditional Anglo-Saxon approaches and solutions, whereas efforts could be made to enhance the communication capacities and problem-solving styles in the Latin American countries, the Arab States, the Pacific Rim countries, Eastern and Central European countries, and in Asian and African countries.
 

The point here is that other models need to be encouraged, which requires not only a better understanding between commercial and education interests, but a more forward-looking approach regarding the funding and initiative that developing countries will need.

 
To help effect this kind of change, countries' external partners can serve as catalysts for ideas and actions, working with a wide range of local public and private actors, universities, "think tanks", NGOs and development agencies, to carry out impartial research and facilitate much-needed and healthy debate on change and what it entails.
 
Foundations should be at the forefront in stimulating this kind of reflection and action. For example, through their sponsorship, greater interaction between the communications industry and the education system could take place, which could tackle issues ranging from laws on intellectual property to tax laws to encourage philanthropy. Through their support for such cross-pollination of ideas and practices between the business and education communities, some of the financial and intellectual burden on governments could be reduced.
Clearly, government has the primary responsibility for funding basic education, but other actors in each country need to become more involved, both in providing additional financial resources and also in bringing diverse approaches, experience and innovation to improve and strengthen the provision of basic education.
 
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