The UN and the profit motive in education

In 2003 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) set up the Commission on the Private Sector and Development which was tasked with examining how the private sector and entrepreneurship can best be unleashed in developing countries. The Commission’s report, Unleashing Entrepreneurship: Making Business Work for the Poor (2004), found that while the private sector was already meeting the needs of the poor in difficult to reach and remote places, it was also clear that entrepreneurs in developing countries often faced significant regulatory and licensing hurdles.

Building on the success of this report, the UNDP launched its Growing Inclusive Markets initiative in 2006 to help demonstrate how doing business with the poor can be mutually beneficial. Its first report, Creating Value for All: Strategies for Doing Business with the Poor (UNDP, 2008), identified 50 successful businesses across the developing world that generated a profit while also achieving a positive social impact. In its second global report, The MDG’s: Everyone’s Business (2010), the importance of for-profit companies is again reinforced.

Quoting research published by Tooley and Dixon (2005), the report confirms that private education has expanded dramatically over the last two decades and that in some low income areas in India and Africa, the majority of school-children are now enrolled in private schools. Private companies are therefore encouraged to ‘[p]rovide affordable, high-quality education by running schools in slums and rural areas’, which will allow them to utilise their specific processes to promote innovation and therefore act as a ‘conveyor belt for innovative solutions’ (p. 24). Furthermore, the report suggests that increasing private sector involvement in the delivery of education will mean that successful approaches can be replicated in different countries, instead of being confined to one geographical area. This is an important aspect of private sector involvement in education which is rarely discussed in the literature.

A common theme which links all of these different initiates together is the concept of the ‘inclusive’ business, which acknowledges the ability of for-profit companies to successfully serve low income communities and still generate a financial return – a genuine win-win situation.

These policy developments within the UN represent a significant change in direction for an international agency that has traditionally looked to national governments to finance and deliver basic services, including education, to low income communities across the developing world. The world of business was either largely ignored or seen as part of the problem.

For those frustrated by the lack of progress in developing an open and diverse education sector in the UK, these developments in the UN may provide some hope. First, they show that bold changes in education policy are possible within a relatively short period of time. Second, these developments also show that the UK government is now lagging behind the UN in terms of its willingness to make the necessary reforms which are required to help create an open and diverse education sector fit for the 21st century.

Finally, perhaps the most significant aspect of the UN’s change in policy concerns the terminology used to a) help ensure that it received widespread support and b) make it much more difficult for the sceptics to argue against. The use of the word ‘inclusive’ is central to this strategy and is used to describe a particular business model used by companies operating in BOP markets. It can also be used to describe the education sector as a whole, where a more inclusive education sector refers to one which does not discriminate against or exclude schools simply because of their legal and organisational structure. Education sectors are also increasingly being referred to as ‘open’ (as opposed to closed) and ‘diverse’ (as opposed to uniform), which again critics often find difficult to argue against. A UK government looking to follow the UN’s lead could therefore campaign under the banner ‘Towards a more open, inclusive and diverse education sector’.