Worlds of Education

Philanthropy and education — A wolf in sheep’s clothing

published 3 March 2019 updated 3 March 2019

By Antonio Olmedo, University of Bristol  & Carolina Junemann, UCL Institute of Education, London

In our latest report entitled In sheep’s clothing: Philanthropy and the privatisation of the ‘democratic’ state, we seek to advance our existing knowledge on the shape and new roles of philanthropic actors at different levels of the policy-making cycle in the field of education.

After mapping and examining a number of key philanthropic organisations that are currently active in the field of education across the globe, we attempt to create a typology of philanthropic involvement and participation. We focus on the way in which they interact with and modify the roles of other traditional actors involved in education policy development (i.e. governments, unions, professional organisations, training institutions, etc.).

Notwithstanding that this is a work in progress, as this is a policy area in constant and rapid transformation, we have identified four overarching categories or roles:


DIY (do-it-yourself) philanthropy

entails areas of activity where philanthropic organisations take control of the direct development of services - education provision, curriculum development and teacher training, for instance.


eco-system building

, which includes the activities of foundations and charities in promoting and advocating for specific policy ideas (ie. PPPs) as well as creating the conditions for such political programmes to thrive - this is what we call network building.



reflects on the multiple instances in which philanthropic organisations are involved or leading on processes of policy design and enactment, working either alongside governments or, in some cases, being the main agent responsible for them. There are multiple examples of philanthropic involvement in the development and implementation of accountability regimes, quality assurance and the design of partnerships.



highlights the instances where the focus of funding and philanthropic efforts is directed to the creation of repositories of data either by commissioning external reports or conducting their own evaluations themselves.

The combined exercise of these roles is having real effects in terms of education policy and practice in diverse locations, turning philanthropic organisations into a significant force in the re-working of education as a non-state activity.

Reflecting upon the work carried out so far, and looking at new areas of enquiry that we would like to focus on in future research efforts, we could summarise our thinking in the following points:

Network relationships: practice and discourse

Philanthropies operate in complex relationships with national and sub-national levels of government as funders, providers, lobbyists, advisers and evidence producers, at times partnering with and at times supplementing the state.

These organisations act and interact in spaces across and within nations, bringing considerable financial and ‘political’ influence to bear, re-working and re-populating the international education policy community. They connect the interests and activities of enterprises, governments, philanthropies, and non-governmental agencies in new ways.

They also constitute both networks of practice through which they act on education systems—delivering and/or funding education services, as well as discourse communities, ideologically converging around educational liberalisation and promoting market-based solutions and dynamics of privatisation of education.

Through them and within these interactions, new voices are given space. In addition, new narratives that determine what counts as a policy ‘solution’ and a ‘good’ policy are articulated and validated. Together, they are bringing school management, leadership, accountability, curriculum and teacher training within a single discursive logic of practice.

Evidentology: the slippery relationship between evidence and ideology

Philanthropic organisations are not only concerned with the immediate impact of the programmes in which they become involved. They also share a more ambitious aspiration to use these experiences as evidence or ‘demonstration work’ to effect larger change across education systems. The organisations studied emphasise the need to overcome ideological perspectives and base arguments and practices on ‘evidence’.

There is, however, a thin and contested evidence base to many of the market-reform mechanisms and programmes for which they advocate or implement. Furthermore, in our report, there are examples of important programmes that did not achieve expected outcomes yet similar programmes continue to be promoted. Questions need to be asked as to whether the reliance on limited sources of evidence, particularly those which emerge from randomised control trials, is preventing contextual and less easily quantifiable and observable factors from being considered in debates, and with what implications and consequences.

Policy mobility: ‘Hot’ policies?

Philanthropic organisations are involved in the international mobility of policy models presented as successful in specific settings. An obvious issue relates to whether the specificities of the local factors and context that might have contributed to the policy success in the places of origin, over and against local factors and political and socio-economic contexts of recipient places, are properly considered.

There are also related issues around what Tikly (2004) understands as forms of new imperialism in the ‘export’ of Western education policies to low income countries.

Secondly, a specific issue that emerges is the uncritical approach to some of the policy initiatives and programmes that are being presented as ‘models’ to be ‘exported’, without adequate recognition of the controversies raised in the very contexts that are taken as examples. It is crucial for organisations involved in policy travel to openly engage with the criticisms they generate ‘at home’ before embarking on moving them abroad.

This include critiques around the pitfalls of managerial models of teacher and leadership training; around evaluation and accountability frameworks based on narrow test results; de-contextualised measures of added-value; social selection and inequalities created or perpetuated by systems of choice, competition and school autonomy.

Reform: agents and beneficiaries

Questions should be raised about a potential conflict of interest born out of the dual role played by these new philanthropic organisations within the education markets they operate in and promote.

They are deliverers of education services in public-private partnership arrangements or through PPP negotiation, facilitation or support and as advisors for and advocates of market-oriented system reforms. At the same time, they are, in different ways, beneficiaries of the reforms they promote, gaining increasing sections in the markets of provision they help to create. In the process, they are also gaining an amplified and increasingly recognised voice in the global policy debate.

Last, but certainly not least, one of the key areas of contention is:

Democratic deficit: policymaking through the back door

Far from the mirage proclaimed by its advocates of a more democratic space where policy actors operate through horizontal and balanced power-relations, philanthropic governance creates a ‘democratic deficit’. Fundamental questions have been raised about the future role of government and other traditional political agents and, more importantly, about democracy and democratic accountability.

Either by promoting their own ideas on how to achieve social and political change, or by supporting particular existing initiatives, a growing number of philanthropic organisations are self-assuming responsibilities and duties, bypassing the scrutiny and accountability governments and elected officials are subjected to.

Their connections and alliances, agendas and methods, cross-border movements, and local implementation of programmes analysed throughout this report, constitute new sites of policy within what Peck and Tickell (2003) call emergent geographies of neoliberalisation in a world of ‘fast policy’.

Finally we conclude the report with a

personal note

to ourselves:

This work represents a real challenge not only for us as policy researchers - it is not unusual to wake up in the morning to simply realise that the website that one is analysing has drastically changed or has been suddenly taken down, for instance- but, most importantly, this could be a real problem for us as democratic citizens -  teachers, students and parents - unable to follow events at the current blistering rhythm, could subsequently develop a sense of detachment and dispassion. It is our personal commitment to this ‘public’, that makes the headaches caused by the endless search for sets of labyrinthic connections, the lengthy lists of names of individuals and organisations, the ever-expanding catalogues of programmes and activities etc, worth it.

The research In sheep’s clothing: Philanthropy and the privatisation of the ‘democratic’ state by Olmedo, A. & Junemann, C. (2019) can be downloaded here.

The executive summary can be downloaded here.

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