Global education community clashes over GPE private sector strategy specifics

A teacher assists a student at a private school in Nalma, Nepal. Photo by: Mokhamad Edliadi / CIFOR / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — Civil society actors are calling on the Global Partnership for Education’s board to adopt stronger language around what constitutes a “for-profit” education provider in its proposed private sector strategy in order to ensure no GPE funds get diverted to commercial actors.

After nearly two years of fierce debate, GPE — the only global multilateral funding platform dedicated to education — is poised to agree on a private sector strategy. If approved by the board when it meets in mid-June, the strategy will clearly state that GPE funds cannot be used to support for-profit providers of core education services.

The draft strategy, which is meant to guide and support increased engagement between GPE and the private sector, states that GPE has a policy position “that its funds cannot be used to support for-profit provision of core education services,” according to a copy seen by Devex.

“The strategy started out as a way to get more funding and engagement from other funds into GPE … but it has ended up being more about how the private sector could benefit from GPE.”

— Katie Malouf Boos, policy adviser, Oxfam

The ban on funding for-profits has been heralded as a win for civil society groups who have long been campaigning against aid money being directed to private sector schools.

However, some are concerned that the definition of a “for-profit” provider in the strategy is too vague and leaves the door open for commercial actors to seek funding, for example, by setting up a nonprofit arm. Under the draft strategy, an organization is judged to be for-profit or not-for-profit based on its legal identity as well as its practice — whether it charges fees, for example.

"It’s a positive signal from GPE that they're considering aligning with human rights law … and not funding for-profit schools … but unless GPE is willing to be clear about what they mean by ‘for-profit,’ there is a risk that many organizations which are for-profit might be able to hide their status and apply for funding,” Sylvain Aubry, research and legal adviser at the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and a member of GPE’s civil society stakeholder group, told Devex.

Too vague vs. too restrictive

Aubry and others are pushing GPE to adopt a clearer statement about what is meant by ‘for-profit,’ and also have the board, and not the secretariat, make decisions around eligibility.

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“It would be much better to be clear and say they will not fund "commercial schools" ... [and be] unambiguous that it's not only about the formal registration status, but about the actual structure, intentions, and operations of the operator,” Aubry explained, before adding, “there should be a transparent process with oversight of the board ... it cannot be the secretariat alone.”

However, Aashti Zaidi Hai, director at the Global Schools Forum, a network of nonstate schools operating in low- and middle-income countries, said the proposed strategy could be restrictive and hinder attempts to better engage the private sector in improving education in LMICs.

The strategy’s strong position on for-profit actors is contrary to GPE’s own model, which involves working closely with country governments to develop and implement credible plans for their education sectors, she said.

“Given that GPE’s own strategy advocates supporting nationally identified priorities and country ownership, and its own analysis ... shows that two thirds of their client governments support private schooling, why would GPE act against its own principles [and] the policies and practice of sovereign governments making their own choices?” she told Devex.

The GSF director said that relying on legal status to judge the work of a private provider was too blunt, explaining that in some countries education actors opt to set up as for-profit entities because it is easier than registering as a non-profit.

“The non-profit/for-profit distinction is not helpful … don’t focus on the model but the behaviors you want to encourage,” Zaidi Hai said.

The full GPE board is set to vote on the strategy in Sweden in mid-June, but it is not certain whether it will be approved. Oxfam senior policy adviser Katie Malouf Bous told Devex she has heard concerns from some NGOs that “some of GPE’s more conservative donors might insist on changing that language” within the strategy to make it easier for commercial school chains to seek funding.

A spokesperson for the GPE secretariat said they were unable to comment as it is a nonpublic board document currently under deliberation.

The strategy, first mooted by the secretariat in 2015 but taken up in earnest in 2017, was originally intended as a way of helping GPE attract additional financing from companies and private organizations as is commonly seen in the health sector, Malouf Bous said. Last year, GPE missed its fundraising targets for the period 2018-2020, securing $2.3 billion in pledges from donor countries, short of the $3.1 billion hoped for.

However, the strategy has since taken a different turn and talks about GPE having a “clear shared bottom line” with the private sector, Malouf Bous said.

“The strategy started out as a way to get more funding and engagement from other funds into GPE … but it has ended up being more about how the private sector could benefit from GPE, which is flipped from where the CSOs had hoped it was going,” she said.

A broader global education debate

The issue of whether or not GPE funds should support private schools has been the subject of fierce debate among members of the board’s strategy and impact committee — made up of representatives from GPE donor and also client countries, multilateral agencies, and civil society groups — tasked with developing the strategy, according to sources close to the process.

These tensions are part of a broader debate within global education circles over the role of the private sector — one in which CSOs and teachers unions opposed to the “commercializing education” are at odds with supporters of low-cost private school chains. Some of the world’s biggest education donors — the U.K., the U.S., and the World Bank — argue that public education systems in low-income countries are largely failing and that fresh approaches, including from the private sector, are desperately needed.

The anti-privatization lobby has become increasingly active in recent years. Earlier this year, advocates published a set of 10 Abidjan principles calling on governments to provide free, inclusive education through the public school system and to regulate private schools. Last year, under pressure from the state-only lobby, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on the European Commission and European Union member states to avoid funding “private, commercial educational establishments.”

Oxfam International, meanwhile, has been campaigning against public financing for market-oriented private education, and in particular the World Bank’s support for education public-private partnerships. This is worrying for GPE, according to Malouf Boos, since the fund is a World Bank trust fund and the bank also implements approximately 75% of GPE’s grants on the ground.

The World Bank's influence over the education funding platform makes it "especially important that GPE has a strong private sector strategy in place," Malouf Bous said, adding that the strategy's language must safeguard equity and quality.

Update, April 22, 2019: This story has been updated to clarify that Oxfam International has been campaigning against public financing for market-oriented private education.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.