Worlds of Education

Philanthropy, business and the changing roles of government

published 4 January 2016 updated 4 January 2016

By Antonio Olmedo,  Roehampton University

Since Bill Gates’ speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos back in 2008, there have been a myriad of academic papers, newspaper articles, social media entries, open letters from professional bodies, and even parliamentary debates and political programs, celebrating and developing further the ideas expressed by the, at the time, third richest man in the world.  

Gates’ creative capitalism advocates for new forms of political and economic coordination that would redefine the apparent incompatibility between anarchic (market-based) and hierarchic (state-centred) forms of co-ordination. The resulting model is conformed by more flexible structures (heterarchies), where relationships, responsibilities and processes of decision-making are shared at different instances by old and new policy actors.

The network emerges as the dominant mode of governance, formed by a hybrid mix of actors-individuals, companies, foundations, NGOs, governments, etc. embedded in a system of national, sub-national, supra-national, intergovernmental and transnational relations.

However, far from the mirage proclaimed by some scholars of a more democratic space where actors operate through horizontal and balanced power-relations, alongside the introduction of new actors and organisations, “the shift to polycentrism also involves the displacement of some others, like trade unions and professional associations” [1].

It could be suggested that network governance creates a ‘democratic deficit’ as the processes of policy and governance become more dispersed and less transparent. It could be stated that policy networks are intentionally blurring the line between business, enterprise, development, and the public good, and pose fundamental questions about the methods and future role of government and other traditional political agents. Therefore, states around the world could be ceding the ability to design and steer their education systems.

The unaccountable 'Parastate'

As a result of this, we see the emergence of a ‘parapolitical sphere’ within which new philanthropists would be operating and developing their own policy agendas. The direct involvement of these new players in the political sphere implies changes in the steering of democratic societies, and, most importantly, in terms of social accountability and control.

As Frumkin [2] suggests, “unlike government, which has elections to set policy directions, and unlike corporations, which have shareholders to whom they must be responsive, philanthropy is able to operate across the boundaries of public and private and to do so with little or no accountability to its many stakeholders”.

This reconfiguration rests upon a double moral shift in the conception of the relationship between charity, policy and profit. On the one hand, corporate and family foundations and philanthropic individuals are beginning to assume socio-moral duties. On the other, these new philanthropists do not completely renounce the possibility of profit, indeed in their own words it is possible to ‘do good and have their profit, too’.

Such programmes, initiatives, enterprises and schemes are also examples of policy flows and policy advocacy within and beyond the state reach. Their connections and alliances, agendas and methods, cross-border movements and local implementations, constitute new sites of policy within what Peck and Tickle [3] call “emergent geographies of neoliberalisation”.

What we are dealing with here are new ways of ‘neoliberalism in action’, that is a set of practices and processes, structures and relationships, which constitute what could be understood as ‘doing neoliberalism’ [4].

At the same time, the work of the philanthropists and foundations sketched here also represent a different spatial dimension that challenges the principles and theoretical scaffolding in which contemporary education policy research is framed. Therefore, there is the need for a “second generation of governance research” [5] which will bring “clarity and rigour” to what is currently “a somewhat eclectic and confusing theoretical landscape” [6].

Antonio Olmedo’s full paper linked to this blog entry is available here:

Something old, something new,something borrowed: philanthropy, business and the changing roles of government in global policy education networks

[1] Junemann & Ball, 2013, p. 425

[2] 2006, pp. 26-27

[3] 2003, p. 22

[4] Ball & Olmedo, 2012

[5] Sørensen & Torfing, 2007, p. 14

[6] Ibid, p. 7

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