The Global Partnership for Education's second replenishment pledging conference hosted by the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. From left to right: Young Voices campaigner Leroy Phillips, Burkina Faso Education Minister Koumba Boly Barry, Democratic Republic of the Congo Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo, European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Photo by: Chantal Rigaud / GPE / CC BY-NC-ND

Two private foundations pledged money to the Global Partnership for Education at its second replenishment conference in Brussels.

On Wednesday, U.K. charity Children's Investment Fund Foundation announced $22 million in contributions, while Dubai Cares, which works to provide children quality primary education in 31 developing countries, pledged $1 million to the fund.

While these are welcome contributions to the fund, the fact still remains: GPE has failed yet again to convince businesses to pledge money to the fund.

The secretariat has been trying to boost its engagement with the private sector over the years. Over the past few months, the secretariat has been expanding its staff to help deepen its engagement with the private sector. Prior to that, it opened up a space for the private sector in the GPE board in 2010 to "represent the interests and added value of the business community and foundations in improving education and learning outcomes."

Those measures have certainly not gone unnoticed by the business community, but whether businesses find that as sufficient reason to channel money through the partnership is an entirely different issue.

Businesses, according to Amanda Gardiner, director of partnerships at Pearson, want to be part of the conversation, from working out strategies on country implementation to having dialogues with governments, implementing agencies and supervising entities. But while there may have been a lot of "talk" in engaging businesses in these discussions, she says "there are not a lot of mechanisms for that to happen right now."

The problem is twofold, she noticed. First, businesses are still seen as driven primarily by profit. While this is true, and Gardiner said there's no reason to be ashamed of that, "we also care about outcomes and we want to invest smartly and in partnerships that are going to make a difference."

For instance, she said, Pearson itself has publicly committed to demonstrate how its products and services are leading to better learning outcomes for children — "a difficult correlation to make, but we'd like to be part of the journey of figuring out how to do it," she added.

And then there's the GPE model, which Gardiner sees as structured in a way that doesn't really give much room for the private sector to be involved, other than for them to hand out checks.

"I don't think the current model really allows for a lot of innovative thinking in terms of beyond the this entity gives money to a supervising entity who talks to the government who figures out a plan on who does this on the ground. I don't see the inroad for the conversation with the private sector in that. And I think that's keeping a lot of people — companies — away from GPE," she argued.

Hope in a new model

While no business firm pledged to contribute money to the GPE, that doesn't mean companies are not giving out money for education purposes at all. The Ubuntu Education Fund, a grassroots organization supporting children's education in South Africa, for instance, receives numerous grants from companies’ corporate social responsibility departments.

And these funds are not just for initiatives that are purely academic. Some of Ubuntu's donors are increasingly funding — although still not enough — the organization's early childhood development program, which ensures that children have enough food to eat and have a decent home to live in, factors that CEO Jacob Lief said have an impact on a child's ability to complete schooling.

Lief linked this success in securing grants from companies to the organization's ability to show investment returns, but also to their approach of getting companies more involved in what they do.

"When funders come to visit, we give them an extensive tour of our center, allowing them to see our programs at work. We take them into our children's homes, we introduce them to our students and our staff — all in an attempt to show them just what it takes to provide lasting, cradle-to-career support for these young people [among other things]," he told Devex. "By presenting tangible facts, figures and examples through these multiple conduits, we are able to prove the impact of our approach. So although these businesses may not be seeing the 'immediate' impact of their money, we show them that investing in a child’s daily life is much more sustainable that simply giving them a cup of soup or a textbook."

Could this be the missing piece in GPE's current structure?

The partnership hopes to attract more investments from donors, private sector and partner governments under its new results-based model, meaning initial disbursements will be based on certain commitments. The remaining money won't be disbursed until certain performance benchmarks have been met.

James Bernard of Microsoft thinks the secretariat is on the right track. But he said the model still has to prove it can work first for more companies to get more engaged with the partnership.

He argued that a handful of businesses are interested in engaging with the GPE, especially since their next billion customers and staff are likely going to be from developing countries currently accessing financing from the partnership.

But there is still a lot of effort needed from the secretariat to turn this theory to practice, especially if it aims to secure financial contributions from the private sector, something they don't seem to be so optimistic to do at the moment and that may be compounded by recent reports that raise questions on the partnership’s impact and accountability.

"I say at almost every board meeting ... we're not gonna write a check," Gardiner said. She's the only private sector representative at the GPE board.

"I think we've got a handful of committed companies, a few others that are watching with interest, and others saying I don't really get what's the incentive for us to be part of this, other than we get to meet the players around the table and engage with them, which is a huge incentive, but a lot are saying what does this mean for my company," Gardiner said.

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About the authors

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.
  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.