Education needs a Bill Gates

Global education needs a strong philanthropist leader like Bill Gates to avoid stagnation and decline.

Bill And Melinda Gates Awarded Fulbright Prize For Int''l Understanding
Bill and Melinda Gates were awarded the Fulbright Prize for International Understanding in 2010 for their work and charitable contributions in improving the health and education opportunities of people around the globe [Getty]

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 percent – and that’s good for business. The private sector benefits directly from an educated, skilled workforce.

The private sector spends only $683 million per year to support education in developing countries, however, making up equivalent to just 5 percent of total education aid, as we found in the latest Education for All Global Monitoring Report. This is equivalent to less than 0.5 percent of the annual profits of the ten biggest companies in the world. It is about the same as 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.

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Bill and Melinda Gates: Changing the world

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 percent of US foundations’ grants are allocated to health and only 8 percent 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 percent 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 Global Monitoring Report on Education published by UNESCO.