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Davos: Why isn’t education higher up on the agenda?

By Pauline Rose

This week business leaders are gathering in Davos to debate global priorities at the World Economic Forum. The forum declares itself to be “committed to improving the state of the world”. So why isn’t education higher up on the agenda?

On the face of it, there should be little need to make the business case for education. It is intrinsically tied to all positive development outcomes. Economic growth, health, nutrition and democracy are all boosted by quality schooling. If all children in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, poverty would fall by 12% — and that’s good for business. The private sector benefits directly from an educated, skilled workforce.

The private sector spends only $683 million a year to support education in developing countries, however, making up equivalent to just 5% of total education aid, as we found in the latest Education for All Global Monitoring Report. This is equivalent to less than 0.5% of the annual profits of the 10 biggest companies in the world. It is about the same as the amount Fifa gave to South Africa for the World Cup, the price of two Boeing 747s or the amount Americans spend on pizzas in just over a week.

By contrast, health usually features high on the agenda at Davos and is one of the top three global risks identified by the forum. Health, as each of us knows, is the foundation of well-being. From an education perspective, having visited classrooms around the world I know all too well that children cannot concentrate and benefit fully from school if they are ill or malnourished.

Why does health figure so much more prominently than education? One reason is that recent campaigns against malaria, polio, HIV and Aids and tuberculosis have been headed by Bill Gates or endorsed by the Gates Foundation. A vaccination summit held in 2011 and championed by the Gates Foundation raised $4.3 billion, enabling 250 million children to be vaccinated worldwide.

Such sums give pause for thought. There are still 61 million children out of school, and it would cost $16 billion a year to get them all into school — but universal primary education might truly be possible by 2015 if a leader like Bill Gates galvanised private companies and foundations to prioritise schooling.

The reality is that, without such a champion, education gets little attention from the private sector: 53% of US foundation grants are allocated to health and only 8% to education. And contributions that are made need to be set in context. ExxonMobil — the world’s second-biggest company — is one of the top five corporations giving to education. But its annual contribution of $24 million is equivalent to just 0.06% of its 2011 profits.

A Bill Gates for education may yet appear. We hope the quest for new targets to replace the millennium development goals will underline the considerable power of education to boost progress in every other development sector — and persuade the private sector to abandon its reluctance to fund education.

One thing is for certain, without new investments, education funding will continue to stagnate. As populations increase, we will start to see the number of children out of school going up rather than down, as is already the case in sub-Saharan Africa.

Our hope is that on the global stage at Davos, business leaders will find the motivation to step up alongside governments and donors to help fill the funding gap and reinvigorate progress towards education for all.

Pauline Rose is the director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, published by Unesco.

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    • The Naked Worker

      “Why does health figure so much more prominently than education?”

      Big pharma makes billions of dollars each year out of vaccines and pharmaceuticals but there is pittance to be made out of education. Capitalism goes for the short term quick buck, not long term social up-liftment.

    • The Creator

      Naked worker, you said it better and clearer than I could’ve. Gimme five, bru!

    • Lennon

      An educated population is more difficult to control.

    • Rich Brauer

      I’m sorry. Just to be clear here — you’re calling for Western corporations to take a greater, indeed a leading, role in shaping and moulding the minds of entire generations of young Africans?

      That should go over swimmingly.

    • Rich Brauer

      @The Naked Worker: “there is pittance to be made out of education”

      Apparently you have very little experience with for-profit education.

      If you think they don’t make an unbelievable amount of money, you are remarkably naive. Phoenix, in the US, Boston here, are expanding. Rapidly. Because they can make a whole lot of money.

    • Mr. Direct

      Yes – big business is evil…

      Big business should deliver perfect products, on time, to the right people, Save the world, and make profit at the same time.

      Really people? If government are not responsible for education, who the hell is?

      All the tax that is taken, yet we still depend on charity to deliver education. Shame on you all….

    • http://Nill Olamide

      ‘If all children in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, poverty would fall by 12% — and that’s good for business…….’
      Food for thought, its amazing the number of calls i get from non-satisfied customers from the Northrn part of Nigeria. They do know how to make a call at least but not how to convey there deepest desire in plain english about a nagging, reoccuring service problem. Basic education will sure do help the business in helping his consumerbase.

    • The Naked Worker


      “An educated population is more difficult to control.”

      Not sure I agree, the protests in Europe or the protests in Sasolburg South Africa right now, which population is easier to control? Apartheid was overthrown not by a highly educated population.

      I think governments could not really care about education, no one is lining their pockets to get the population educated.

    • The Creator

      Rich, the article talks about basic reading skills and elementary arithmetic and the funding needed to provide such things. I don’t think anybody’s demanding that big business brainwash everybody. That’s done by the media and the schools already, anyway.

      As for your comment about for-profit education, that only works either a) with rich people (so it’s not what the article’s talking about) or b) the voucher system introduced under Bush. And still, it’s nothing like the profits to be made out of pharmaceuticals.

    • Lennon

      @ The Naked Worker: The Catholic Church in medieval Europe would disagree. 😉

    • Kalahari Doringboom

      Davos business

      Leaders of the global village
      cruise snow-flecked streets and dream of pillage.
      Presidents of nations and bosses of cartels
      build trust at the country’s plush hotels.
      The Swiss play host to guests with plenty
      nouveau riches and cognoscenti
      haute bourgeois, pop stars, fat cats
      UN-sorts that pimp in spats.
      They pamper them until they swell
      with Grisson beef and Emmental –
      as gnomic fingers on the purse
      loosen strings that self-disburse.

      The Nobel laureate, Forum Grandee
      pay homage (though they cannot see)
      to Switzerland’s neat and tidy hills
      municipal gardens and dentists’ drills.
      While in the boardrooms of the land
      from Winterthur to Bern and Gland
      money talks – and should you catch a sound
      you might hear stifled cries from underground.

    • george orwell

      The thing about Davos is that it is a meeting by the 1%, which largely excludes the real, nitty-gritty issues that affect the 99%.

      It is a bunch of elitists – corporate employees, corporate journalists, lobbyists, bankers and establishment politicians.

      Real education – education the underclass about extreme capitalism, the epic failure of the ‘trickle down’ effect promised at Davos conferences some years back – could actually threaten the very foundations of the Davos class.

    • Jack Sparrow

      I think your article is just for casual interest and misses the point completely. It should be understood that people elect a government that will act for their best interests. Government should not have a life of its own. All it should do is organise in a co operative way to give people what they want. The fact that many (most?) governments miss this objective completely and there is some reliance on donations, charity, hand outs etc is an illustration that government has failed or isn’t doing it’s job. Companies have totally different objectives.

    • Lennon

      @ Jack Sparrow: I would say that most, if not all, governments are merely extenstions of big business and not the civil servants that we believe them to be.

    • bernpm

      @The naked worker: “Big pharma makes billions of dollars each year out of vaccines and pharmaceuticals but there is pittance to be made out of education”
      You seem spot on, I do not have numbers to proof but …….the pharmaceutical industry worldwide is not only “very big” but also very influential (lobby in US).

      Millennium dev goals: ” reduce poverty, reduce Aids, reduce baby deaths, reduce mothers death at birth of babies……..Many of the last three are interrelated and seem more prominent in poverty stricken areas.

      The combined war on these phenomena is promising for the pharmaceutical industry. Education would not bring in a percentage of the potential turnover.

      If Bill Gates has his shares in the pharmaceutical industry, his largesse towards health issues could at least be suspect while promoting his MS in the process. Win win. He seems a good business man.

      Private education as a good business proposition? Yes, in affluent areas,
      SA does not have enough of those areas to beat the pharmaceutical business in income nor profit potential on a national basis.

      I do hope that -one day- Africa will stand up, not asking for hand-outs, but presenting business plans to enrich their mineral wealth themselves, to produce products which are in demand worldwide, stop exporting raw materials and slowly reduce giving mineral rights to foreign (direct or under disguise) companies.

      Moving education from fake matric diplomas to demanding tech and…