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The Roles of Private Actors in the Global Partnership for Education

published 13 June 2016 updated 13 June 2016
written by:

The Global Partnership for Education(GPE) is one of the most prominent multi-stakeholder agencies in the education sector. Dedicated to increasing access to quality education worldwide, the organization mobilizes funds to support over 60 low-income countries. The GPE’s constituency-based Board of Directors consists of donor and recipient country governments, multilateral agencies, and civil society. The Board also includes a single seat for the private sector and foundations, a constituency representing over 20 companies and philanthropies, such as Microsoft, Pearson Education, the Open Society Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation.

My research, which can be read in the Journal of Education Policy and the World Yearbook of Education, has examined the participation of private actors within the GPE. Although the private sector is undeniably occupying an increasingly prominent position in the global education arena, questions remain concerning how companies and foundations collaborate, and the degree to which they hold a new form of legitimate, ‘private authority’ within education—traditionally a public sector responsibility. I interviewed GPE Board members and Secretariat staff to discuss private participation in the partnership, and found a surprising lack of engagement, an absence of clarity of purpose, and conflict.

A Lack of Clarity and Engagement

The role of the private actors within the GPE has persistently lacked clarity. At the root of this ambiguity may be a misalignment of motivations between the private actors and the GPE Secretariat, which has viewed the companies and foundations as potentially significant funders. As a representative from a company told me: ‘They don't know what to talk to us about necessarily. They instinctively so often ask for money.’ It appears the GPE has aspired to emulate health sector multi-stakeholder partnerships, which receive large contributions from private actors.

Although two foundations have made a funding commitment to the GPE, respondents indicated an improbability that it will ever receive substantial contributions from the private sector, especially the companies: ‘Nobody is about to cut the cheque.’ A mismatch is evident between the aspirations and the reality concerning private fiscal contributions to the GPE.

Interviewees also suggested that private actors have been disengaged: ‘I think that the private sector has not seen the benefit of engaging the GPE, why would they do that, what’s in it for them?’ As a Secretariat staff member explained: ‘the GPE still struggles so much to get the private sector as fully engaged as it would like.’

Internal Conflict

The sharing of a Board seat between private foundations and companies is seen by many as problematic. Described as ‘strange bedfellows,’ respondents contrasted the mandates of business and philanthropy, where corporate actors see ‘profit as bottom-line, versus [foundations] where giving away is the bottom line.’ As a result of these different motivations, I was told that the constituency is not a consolidated group, and there has been some mistrust and tension.

This internal conflict may have led to limited achievements as a constituency. As I was told by a private foundation representative: ‘We hadn’t really made an impact as a joint constituency because we were so busy looking at each other and being suspicious… not really being as engaged and energized and mobilized as a constituency to really make an impact on the GPE.’

Private Authority… or Ambiguity?

This study has highlighted a case in which private participation cannot be necessarily equated with private authority. The role of the private partners within the GPE’s governance appears to have been poorly clarified. This is partly due to aspirational assumptions that the private actors would serve a financing function to the GPE, based largely on inaccurate parallels made between the health and education sectors. The ambiguous role of the constituency has led to a relatively disengaged membership. Problematic as well has been the internal conflict between foundations and companies, who see themselves as distinct actors who aim to serve different purposes in the global education arena. In the absence of a common ground, the private actors have made minimal impact on the GPE.

The GPE Secretariat, however, is actively working to clarify the role of the private sector. For instance, just last month the GPE released its Corporate Engagement Principles, touching on both governance and country-level business engagement. If and how these newly defined principles alter the degree to which private authority is enacted within the GPE remains to be seen.

Of course, some would argue that a lack of private authority may in fact be positive. As a civil society representative expressed, the private actors ‘haven't necessarily mobilized a huge amount of support for education to this day… It's not a bad thing that they have a more modest representation.’

References can be found in:

Menashy, F. (2016) Understanding the roles of non-state actors in global governance: Evidence from the Global Partnership for Education. The Journal of Education Policy. 31(1), 98-118. DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2015.1093176

Menashy, F. (2016) Private authority or ambiguity? The evolving role of corporations and foundations in the Global Partnership for Education. In A.Verger, C. Lubienski, G. Steiner-Khamsi (Eds.), World Yearbook of Education: The Global Education Industry. Abingdon: Routledge.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.