Why Do We Keep Failing to Universalize Literacy? A rejoindre to Girin Beeharry and an invitation to the Gates Foundation

[This article was published by the Center for Global Development on May 19 as part of a forum responding to a recent publication in the International Journal of Educational Development by the Gates Foundation’s Girin Beeharry. It includes a mischievous call to action to the Gates Foundation itself.]

Recent studies point to a sorrowful reality: in many lower-income countries, children, even those accessing a full cycle of primary schooling, often enter young adulthood with limited literacy and numeracy. Yet for more than 30 years—even longer, if one considers the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the global community has rededicated its efforts every 10 years or so to a world in which illiteracy is eradicated and all children and youth have access to good quality, public education. This, in essence, is the call for “education for all.”

Girin Beeharry’s 2021 essay in the International Journal of Educational Development is a laudable effort to hold the global community to account for this failure. Building on Nicolas Burnett’s analysis of deficiencies in the global educational aid architecture, Girin highlights lack of leadership, prioritization, and accountability among global actors. He calls upon global actors to reorientate their work around the challenge of what he terms “foundational learning” and sets specific challenges for key actors, including UNESCO, the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, civil society, and policymakers in low-income countries.

While applauding and supporting Girin’s call for ambitious, scaled-up global focus on childhood literacy and numeracy, this rejoinder challenges some aspects of his analysis and the imputed theory of change that underpins it. It concludes, somewhat mischievously, with brief review and call to action addressed to the Gates’ Foundations itself.

Unpacking and questioning Girin’s imputed theory of change

Girin lays out the underlying failures in global governance and our puzzling lack of progress on childhood literacy with elegance and conviction.

As I read his piece, I found myself increasingly skeptical about whether the actors and actions he calls for are likely to contribute to universalizing childhood literacy. One way to unpack this is to examine the (imputed) theory of change that underpins Girin’s article. Propositionally, it looks something like this:

Flowchart showing a theory of change: donors prioritize FLN, its better measured, developing countries focus on it more, and children learn more

Why my skepticism? First, history suggests that international organizations are rarely first movers when it comes to changing values or mental models among governments. Though they can help consolidate and spread new policy movements, they are rarely the progenitors of major innovations or capacity within public systems, especially when it comes to programs that aim towards the redistribution of benefits.

As Girin shows, the toolkits of international organizations are modest, comprised of technical assistance, limited amounts of finance, aggregation and dissemination of knowledge and best practice, creation of metrics, and formalization of routines for intergovernmental monitoring and accountability.

Furthermore, Girin concludes that what international organizations produce, in terms of knowledge, is often not wanted or adopted by low-income country clients. Thus he notes that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is pulling back from this type of investment because “there is little [national level] demand for these global goods.” He gives equality poor ratings to international organizations in the areas of advocacy, financing, and accountability for their own performance.

Girin is without doubt an apt critic of the international architecture. But why then place so much emphasis on the potential of a coalition of global level, intergovernmental actors to play a catalytic role in strengthening national political will and action? Girin himself has noted that were he to rewrite his essay, he would start at the country level; and he has raised other concerns and insights in a lively podcast.

Creating a coalition for global change

Perhaps I am too cynical, but based on anecdotal observations, and reinforced in recent research on international norm dynamics, I suspect that a global governance regime that is primarily focused on production and dissemination of “best practices” and “what works” evidence, that emphasizes the use of global metrics and performance-based financing, is more likely to lead to greater gaming and externalization of education reform goals and agendas than to the construction of a broad-based coalition for childhood literacy and numeracy.

Yet we know from much research that broad-based coalitions play an essential role in changing global norms, and values—especially in areas, like education, where pre-existing interests create resistance. From the abolition of slavery and the spread of female suffrage, to more recent examples in the health sector (effective response to HIV/AIDS), and around climate justice, transnational advocacy movements that bring together country-level and international civil society actors are credited with spurring large-scale social change.

Here we face a conundrum. The strongest members of education’s transnational civil society—international bodies representing teachers, and some of the largest (but not all) international NGOs and several influential foundations—are profoundly uncomfortable with the framing of the literacy challenge as Girin and key global actors lay it out.

Education’s civil society sees the focus on metrics and accountability as remote from the everyday worlds of schools and classrooms. Worse: two decades of metric and incentive-heavy policy reform across OECD countries (including in the US, where the Gates Foundation played a pivotal role), has led education’s civil society to distrust such instruments and their mechanical use in school improvement. Foundational learning, from this perspective, is at best a truncated image of the vibrant, joyful, empowering, and equitable educational systems that education’s civil society feels are needed.

My hunch is that we won’t make terrific progress on childhood literacy—and learning equality—without forming common cause with education’s civil society, and especially the organizations representing educators themselves. These actors are essential carriers of the public mission of education, with a long history of pushing international and national policymakers towards an embrace of literacy as a right and a building block of empowered citizenship.

Poor policies or a failure of implementation?

External actors, whether through technical support or financial incentives, are generally pictured in Girin’s essay as helpful where governments are making poor policy choices (and assuming that international organizations agree to truly prioritize childhood literacy in their own portfolios).

Yet many would debate whether it is poor policy choices (lack of focus) or poor implementation that lies at the crux of the childhood literacy challenge faced in lower-income countries. If the problem is implementation—“the process of making something active or effective”—then our theory of change and the role of international actors needs to be very different from the one implicit in Girin’s article.

I am far from the first to call for the need to move away from what Aiyar and Bhattacharya (2016) call the “post office state”—where governmental officials are primarily used for transmitting orders downwards and data upwards. A key question for our time is how to support innovative and adaptive potential within existing education systemsunlocking the creativity and problem-solving agency of educators, policymakers, and the organizations that support them. My hunch is that we (the international community) needs to dig deeper to understand the role of what Honig calls mission-oriented behaviour in the public sector, while moving away from our focus on compliance-oriented mechanisms.

To do so, external actors will need to offer something that is very different from their current technical assistance and capacity-building activities. My personal observation of the behaviours of international organizations and their knowledge production and diffusion strategies points to an ongoing tendency towards externalizing knowledge, evidence and accountability. Data that is intended to support accountability is channelled away from the actors and systems we expect to solve challenges and implement change, towards global organizations who are rarely involved or accountability for actual implementation.

Unfortunately, I see too little in Girin’s argument and in the Gates Foundation’s present portfolio that addresses this fundamental challenge regarding the role of international organizations in achieving universal childhood literacy and numeracy.

The Gates Foundation as a global education policy actor

Readers of Girin’s article will likely have many questions about the current and future role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as a global education policy actor. Such questions are particularly pertinent because of the increasingly significant roles that foundations play in global governance (as discussed in my recent essay), where their legitimacy and influence as boundary spanners and norm entrepreneurs is both appreciated and frequently debated. (Full disclosure: in my position at the University of Toronto, I’ve been the recipient of a research grant from the Gates Foundation and have undertaken contracted research for the foundation.)

I know from conversations with Gates Foundation staff that the foundation is still “dipping its toes” into global education. The small size of its global education funding has in part led to a grant portfolio focused on investments in well-established global level evidence and policy aggregators, almost all based in the Western world—thus the World Bank, rich-country think tanks, and universities are among its largest grantees. The portfolio leans heavily on the development of global metrics, assessments, and evidence, though more recently, investments suggest a welcome shift of funding to organizations in the global South.

It is surprising to see that the foundation’s global education portfolio does not yet seem to have learned lessons from its US/domestic education portfolio, which has shifted from an unsuccessful focus on top-down policy levers to a more incremental, coalition-building approach anchored in support for localized school improvement networks with equity-focused missions. Nor has it incorporated grant-making for transnational civil society advocacy, long a hallmark of its global health portfolio.

An Invitation to the Gates Foundation

I have argued that we are facing two daunting global failures to address childhood literacy and numeracy: (1) a failure of policy framing and coalition building; and (2) a failure of finding the right way to support mission-oriented capability at national and regional levels among lower-income countries.

Inspired by recent work by Honig and Mazzucato, we must aspire to an approach that builds from country-level capability up, rather than from global norms, evidence, and knowledge down. An approach that starts from globally generated metrics, incentives, and diffusion of global goods is unlikely bring the important changes in universal childhood literacy and numeracy to which Beeharry aspires.

My invitation to the Gates Foundation is to take these ideas seriously; to think more deeply about how to use its reputation and resources to support a more broadly-based form of global collective action; and to explore how international organizations can better support capacity for mission-oriented public sectors in education in lower income countries. Too much in the foundation’s current playbook reinforces what we know are failing features of the global education architecture, and pays too little attention to coalition building, national ownership, and capacity – all important ingredients of any global solution for the crisis in childhood literacy and numeracy.

Learning Our Way out of the Pandemic: Beyond Back to Normal for Canadian Students

Karen Mundy and Kelly Gallagher Mackay – Register to join a May 19 discussion of article, previously published in the EDCAN Magazine, May 12.

LIKE SO MANY FAMILIES and children around the world, Canadians are looking with relief to a more open, carefree summer and normal return to school later this year. But after 18 months of profound disruption, will “normal” be good enough? Are we on track to set all children up for success in a world that often seems more uncertain – and unequal – than ever before?

This article begins by examining how Canadian schools have fared during COVID-19 compared to those in other jurisdictions. We then turn to evidence-based ways that educators can ensure a better, stronger, and more equitable start in September 2021.

Educational equity is COVID-19’s shadow crisis

While students are less likely to contract or die from COVID, around the world their lives have been deeply disrupted by the pandemic. At its peak, schools serving 1.6 billion students were closed. Today, UNESCO’s global tracker shows that, a year into the crisis, “partial opening” is the norm. Overall, North American schools were closed in whole or in part for online learning for longer durations than experienced in most other parts of the world.

A sobering reality of the COVID-19 schooling experience is that even the best-resourced and highest-performing education systems in the world have heightened their tendency to privilege better-off children (UN Secretary General, 2020; OECD, 2020). Students from households with greater levels of connectivity, higher levels of parental education, greater availability of parental time for engagement, and in-home availability of books and materials have much better ability to access and benefit from distance learning.

In Canada as elsewhere, responses to COVID-19 have led to a patchwork of educational offerings. While students in Atlantic Canada and British Columbia have largely enjoyed face-to-face instruction, in other parts of Canada, students continue to experience periods of full-time or blended online learning from home. “Virtual schools” – intended as an emergency response – are a new feature of the landscape in Ontario and Alberta. Across the country, sports and extracurricular activities that build engagement and keep kids active have been paused.

Connectivity has not saved us. Access to broadband is not considered an essential service in Canada; coverage is both expensive and sometimes unavailable, especially in rural areas. Schools in some jurisdictions are still struggling to deliver appropriate devices to students. Stories abound of Canadian children who, one year into the pandemic, have limited bandwidth, are using old technologies, and are functioning without microphones or earphones. It is common to hear of kids whose attendance has dropped, who are disengaged, or who are missing from school altogether.

A growing body of large-scale international evidence shows that educational disruptions today and during other periods have caused impacts both on students’ academic achievement, and on their social and emotional well-being. Virtually all large-scale studies in OECD countries during COVID-19 (including from Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and the U.S.), have shown that students’ learning has fallen behind where it would have been for their age and grade levels in previous years. Overall, math scores have declined more than scores in literacy-related assessments and the youngest learners seem to have lost the most ground (Bailey, 2021; Education Endowment Foundation, n.d.).

For example, one U.S. study of over 400,000 students showed that the proportion of students starting Grade 1 two years or more behind grade level had risen from 27 percent to 40 percent. “As a result, a hypothetical school that needed to offer intensive intervention to 100 students in the fall of 2019 is faced with making up for the lost instruction for 148 students in 2020.”(mClass/Amplify, 2020).

Other studies from past crises and disruptions are even more concerning. These show that learning gaps can continue to grow even after schools return to normal (Andrabi et al., 2020). Further, school disruptions can have harsh cumulative effects, lowering chances of secondary completion and reducing labour market earnings of affected children many years later (Jaume & Willlen, 2019).

Perhaps most importantly, COVID-19 will not impact students equally. Recent studies show larger average gaps for relatively disadvantaged students, such as those living in low-income households or where parents have less education, or additional language learners. In the U.S., which tracks measures of racial inequality, Black and Hispanic students are also, on average, further behind. When surveyed during COVID-19, these are the same populations of learners who report facing a larger number of barriers and disruptions to their learning; who have lower access to technology; and who report fewer opportunities to get support from an adult at home or in the school (Chu & Lake, 2021).

In Canada, we know that all our kids are under strain. But we have little empirical evidence, beyond immediate experience, to tell us how our kids are doing overall, much less to spotlight where equity gaps are most severe. For the most part, large-scale provincial assessments and high-quality comparable surveys of student well-being are not available. Small-scale studies – such as one conducted recently in Alberta, and a recent report from the Toronto District School Board – show significant year-on-year gaps in early reading proficiency (Johnson, 2021; Alphonso, 2021). Education budgets and plans for the 2021 school year are being settled now, before school boards and higher educational institutions have begun to release data on school attendance, graduation, and applications to post-secondary education. Already, we can see that this lack of data on equity and other vulnerabilities is leading to a limited focus on educational recovery in planning and budget processes for 2021/2022. In this sense, Canadian educational systems may be flying blind.

Yet even before COVID-19, we knew that Canadian students from households in the bottom income quintile across Canada achieved the equivalent of one year less of schooling than students from households in the top income quintile. A recent study suggests that in many Canadian jurisdictions, the average student from a low-income household does not leave compulsory school with the skills needed to proceed to post-secondary education (Haek & Lefebvre, 2020).

In summary: International evidence and recent trends in Canada suggest that harms from COVID-19 will almost certainly exacerbate educational inequality. COVID-19 has disrupted learning and wellbeing for most students in Canada – but its impacts are unlikely to be evenly distributed.

In other countries, efforts to redress inequity have already begun

Around the world, countries have responded to the educational needs created by COVID-19-related disruptions with programs and initiatives that aim to jump-start learning and support social and emotional well-being for those students most disadvantaged by the pandemic. For example:

  • As early as June 2020, the government of the Netherlands committed $278 million US for students who need extra academic support due to COVID-19 school disruptions.
  • In November 2020, Britain announced a £1-billion commitment to help students “catch up” after school closures, including £350 million for tutoring, targeted at the disadvantaged students who were most affected.
  • Most recently, the American stimulus package passed into law in March 2021 included a commitment of $129 billion for K–12 education. While most of those funds were to support safe re-opening, it also contained a commitment of $22 billion – equivalent to twenty days of extra schooling – to support learning recovery through tutoring, summer school, and extended hours programs alongside targeted support for students with disabilities and young people facing homelessness.

These examples suggest a strong focus internationally on academic catch-up programs. We know less about what governments are doing to ensure that schools adjust to meet the social and emotional needs of kids, an area that research suggests is of great importance after the widespread trauma of the past year (Hough & Witte, 2021).

Apart from a few small or failed initiatives, it appears that Canadian policymakers are just beginning to think about how to redress the impacts of COVID-19 on student learning and well-being. Quebec recently announced a program to hire online tutors to support struggling students; while B.C. has announced a $23-million supplement for vulnerable learners that could cover tutoring, mental health support, or additional staff hiring.

In many parts of the country, community organizations have stepped in with academic and other kinds of support. But a federal program that promised to provide funding for university-level volunteers, with enormous potential for serving the needs of disadvantaged students, fell apart in the shadow of scandal, leaving the energies of tens of thousands of registered volunteers untapped.

Canadian students will need more – and there is a wealth of evidence to guide us

It will take a whole-of-society effort to ensure Canadian students make a successful return to school in September 2021. We already know that the economic challenges faced by some households are intensifying, and that national and provincial budgets are likely to contract. Policymakers will need to focus on a few cost-effective ideas to guide their actions. Research points us in three main directions:

  1. Don’t act like it’s business as usual.
    Much recent research suggests that schools will need to start where kids are this fall. Slimming back the curriculum to ensure a balance between mastery of the essentials and in-depth opportunity for social and emotional learning is an approach that has been widely used during recovery from different types of crises around the world (Winthrop, 2020; Srivastava et al., 2020). Students’ connection to school – perhaps jeopardized through repeated interruptions – is reinforced with opportunities for creativity, play, and collective action.
  2. Engage parents and communities, early and often.
    COVID-19 has reminded many educators that education is a partnership between home and school (Winthrop, 2020). It also led to many experiments for improving the link between parents and schools – from SMS messaging to parents in Botswana, which improved student’s math learning; to parent hotlines and weekly meetings with school-based community liaisons. Partnerships between schools and community organizations were essential during COVID-19. A recent OECD study suggests that interactions between parents and schools were not very prominent in some Canadian jurisdictions prior to the pandemic (OECD, 2021). Postpandemic, we should be aiming for more – not less – community and parental engagement in schools, including through models that allow community organizations to provide wrap-around academic and non-academic supports to kids (Murray et al., 2021).
  3. Provide extra opportunities for kids to catch up.
    A strong body of evidence suggests two key ways to support a strong start to the 2021 school year for all kids, especially those most disadvantaged during the pandemic.

Summer learning programs – especially those that utilize trained teachers, structured pedagogy, enrichment experiences, and high levels of teacher-student engagement – have been shown to provide strong gains in learning (Alexander et al., 2016). Even modest efforts to promote learning over the summer months can be effective. For example, Harvard’s summer learning program mailed ten books to students over the summer, matched to students’ reading interests, with email/texts to parents. This simple program was shown to promote more than one month of gains in reading skills.

Tutoring – through one to one or small group instruction – is also highly effective, especially when based on sustained relationships between a tutor and student, and when using good-quality materials aligned to classroom instruction. Even programs offered by volunteers, peers, or family members, when trained, produce surprisingly strong outcomes for kids ranging from stronger academic performance to increased confidence and self-efficacy. Such programs need to be designed with equity in mind – but can also benefit from inclusion of all students in a grade level to reduce any negative stigma and ensure broader organizational commitment (Robinson et al., 2021).

Much more can be done to tilt our education systems toward greater equity post-COVID. We need our education leaders to plan beyond a return to the normal in September 2021. Promising strategies include: starting where kids are, rather than where they are supposed to be; leveraging the engagement of parents and communities; and providing new opportunities for kids to get up to grade level. Each of these holds a key to a successful return to school for Canadian students, regardless of social advantage.


Alexander, K., S. Pitcock and M, Boulay, eds. (2016) The Summer Slide: What We Know and Can Do About Summer Learning Loss, New York: Teachers College Press.

Andrabi, T., Daniels, B., Das, J. 2020. Human Capital Accumulation and Disasters: Evidence from the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005. RISE Working Paper Series. 20/039. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-WP_2020/039

Bailey, J. (2021). Is it safe to re-open schools? An extensive review of the research. CPRE.  www.crpe.org/publications/it-safe-reopen-schools

Chu,L.  and R. Lake. 2021. “The kids are really (not) alright: A Synthesis of COVID-19 Student Surveys.”https://www.crpe.org/sites/default/files/final_ep_student_survey_synthesis.pdf

Education Endowment Foundation. (n.d.) Best evidence on the impact of COVID on learning. 

Jaume, D and A. Willén. (2019) “The Long-Run Effects of Teacher Strikes: Evidence from Argentina,” Journal of Labor Economics 37, no. 4 (October 2019): 1097-1139

Haeck, C. and P. Lefebvre. (2020).   Trends in cognitive skill inequalities by socioeconomic status across Canada.  https://grch.esg.uqam.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/82/Haeck_Lefebvre_GRCH_WP20-04_1-1.pdf

Hough, H, and J. Witte (2021). Evidence-Based Practices for Assessing Students Social and Emotional Well-being. EdResearch for Recovery Brief No. 13. https://annenberg.brown.edu/sites/default/files/EdResearch_for_Recovery_Brief_13.pdf

Johnson,  L. (March 12, 2021.) “Alberta Education research aims to track learning loss during COVID-19.” Edmonton Journal. https://edmontonjournal.com/news/politics/alberta-education-research-aims-to-track-learning-loss-during-covid-19.

Murray, V. R. Jacobson, B. Gross (2021). Leveraging Community Partnerships for Integrated Student Support. Ed Research for Recovery Brief 14. Brown University Annenberg Center.

mClass/ Amplify. (2020). Instructional loss due to COVID-19 disruptions.Brooklyn, NY: Amplify Education Retrieved from: https://amplify.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/mCLASS_Flyer_CovidBrief-LearningLoss_v8.pdf, p. 3.

OECD. (2020). Lesson for Education from COVID-19. www.oecd.org/education/lessons-for-education-from-covid-19-0a530888-en.htm

OECD. (2021).  Canada Coronavirus Education Country Note.  http://www.oecd.org/education/Canada-coronavirus-education-country-note.pdf.

Robinson, C., M. Kraft, S. Loeb. (2021). Accelerating Student Learning with High-Dosage Tutoring. EdResearch for Recovery, Brown University Annenberg Center; Kraft, Matthew A., and Grace Falken

Srivastava, P., Cardini, A., Matovich, I., Moussy, H., Gagnon, A.A., Jenkins, R., Reuge, N., Moriarty, K., & Anderson, S. (2020). COVID-19 and the global education emergency: Planning systems for recovery and resilience. Policy brief, T20 Task Force 11, COVID-19 Multidisciplinary Approaches to Complex Problems. T20 Saudi Arabia 2020. November 2020. https://www.g20-insights.org/policy_briefs/covid-19-and-the-global-education-emergency-planning-systems-for-recovery-and-resilience/.

UN Secretary General. (2020). Policy Brief: Education During COVID-19 and Beyond. http://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/sg_policy_brief_covid-19_and_education_august_2020.pdf

Winthrop, R (2020). Can new forms of parent engagement be an education game changer post-COVID-19? https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/10/21/can-new-forms-of-parent-engagement-be-an-education-game-changer-post-covid-19/

Winthrop, R. March 31, 2020. COVID-19 and school closures: What can countries learn from past emergencies? https://www.brookings.edu/research/covid-19-and-school-closures-what-can-countries-learn-from-past-emergencies/.

Education Philanthropy and the Possibility of Public Good

First published by NORRAG, April 2020 – republished here in advance May 20, 2021, when I will be speaking to the International Education Funders Group, a consortium of education philanthropies.


Philanthropic giving for education and international development is having a “moment.” It is in the news regularly in North America, the subject of popular and academic books, news shows, and podcasts. Academic researchers and public intellectuals alike are raising important questions about the legitimacy of corporate philanthropies and their roles in remaking both domestic and global education futures. 

Yet philanthropy from the rich north to the global south has been a constant feature of international financing
for development for more than a century, predating the emergence of what today we might describe as the global development regime, with its architecture for educational aid and development. And within OECD countries (as well as in other regions), philanthropy for education has an equally long trajectory. Can it really be all that “new”? 

In this short piece, I argue that what most makes new philanthropy “new” in this present era is deeply linked to changes in world order. New philanthropy’s perceived threat derives at least in part from broader changes in three spheres – in the interstate system, the world economy, and shifts in the locus of political power within the nation state. 

If we think about the changes in these three spheres and the types of threats that these changes pose, I’m hopeful we can also begin to identify ways in which philanthropic giving to education can make redemptive contributions during the coming decades. Philanthropy – like all forms of human organization derived from economic or political power – can accelerate harm. Yet surely, once we have itemized these harms, it behooves us to also ask: under what conditions, in what ways, might philanthropies offer a unique opportunity to do good? (Reich, 2018). 

Philanthropy Meets a New World Disorder 

Scholars who study world order, whether from realist, liberal or more radical lenses, describe the global order as one of increasing precarity. The notion of world society anchored by a coalition of largely liberal states, with common liberal values, has been profoundly eroded by changes in the US – which increasingly sees its interests as separate and unique from other liberal democracies. Authoritarian political regimes are on the rise, often wielding unanticipated levels of economic power on the world stage. Nonstate actors and civil society – the boundary spanners and norm entrepreneurs responsible for advancing both domestic and international human rights during the 20th century – now struggle to build lasting alliances and coalitions within an increasingly fragmented world order. Illiberal nonstate actors are on the ascendance as norm entrepreneurs. 

Economic changes of the past half century have been at least as profound as these political shifts. Technological and scientific advances, along with economic globalization, have certainly contributed to improvements in rates of poverty worldwide. But they are no longer celebrated for creating an increasingly “flat”, networked and more open world. Instead, technology has fed new forms of economic and informational monopoly that threaten the very foundations of liberal democracy. Capabilities for collective action and self-government both within nation states and across them have been more constrained than empowered by our most recent decades of economic progress. As tragically illustrated by the current retreat from climate action, and by other areas of in critical need of global coordination (migration, peace, information privacy), we seem to be moving farther – not closer – to consensus (or capacity for consensus) about global public goods. 

This is the world of disorder that new philanthropy enters.

As so much recent literature argues, it is entering not as an innocent partner, since, like the wave of philanthropic enterprise last century’s guilded age, in large part this philanthropy is built on the private bounty of recent economic growth and technological advance. The new big corporate philanthropies, are deeply intertwined with the “winners take all” strategies of their corporate founders (Reich, 2018; Giridharadas 2019). Yet as I will argue below, philanthropy is not monolithic, and it may also enter world order as a player with unique capabilities. 

Partnering for Educational Development? 

When new philanthropies come calling to the world of international development in education, they no doubt are struck by a range of pathologies among the bilateral (donor) governments and multilateral agencies whose explicit goals are the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. For education, these pathologies can be summarized as follows: 

• Education receives a very small share of overall official development financing. 

• Education official development assistance (ODA) is skewed towards middle income countries – and is decreasing for Sub-Saharan Africa, where the world’s largest population of youth in 2050 are projected to face a set of seemingly insurmountable economic, environmental and political challenges. 

• Education ODA tends to favor higher levels of education including scholarships (especially among G7 countries); ODA flows have neglected in particular early childhood education, and the educational needs of refugees and migrants. 

• There is a lack of coordination among aid donors; and a tendency to offer aid in siloed, projectized formats that do not align around country needs or strengthen national technical and political capabilities. 

• A stubborn number of children remain out of school; and in many of the world’s poorest economies, large numbers of children attend school but learn little. 

Some – but not all – of the new philanthropies have seen these pathologies as evidence that the interstate order (and governments) is poor at delivering change. This has led them to focus on financing disruptive change from outside the state, including through financing private provision, competition among service providers, and technological fixes (for example through individualized instruction). Meanwhile, traditional philanthropies, including many of the new family foundation emerging in Asian and middle-income countries, continue to focus where philanthropies always have – providing scholarships and funding named chairs and institutions in tertiary education, and by doing so rarely reaching the poor or most marginalized. 

But many others, including some of the biggest players in international education, have taken a more collaborative
or “public goods” path. Some have aimed to focus on strengthening citizens and popular demand for education quality (see for example, the Hewlett Foundation); some focus on education rights and the use of education to support citizen voice, civil rights and citizenship education (Soros Foundation). Others have taken up thematic areas of focus (play-based learning and early childhood education; 21st century skills; education for girls, refugees and other marginalized populations). Another group seeks to support national capacity to achieve education for all, and invests in national systems (Aga Khan Foundation, Mastercard Foundation). 

Even these more collaborative, public goods players, suffer from common pathologies that reach back into the history of 20th philanthropy. They tend to see themselves as scientific evangelists – elevating the use of evidence and data as unique sources of universalized truth while at times neglecting the voices of the communities and citizens they aim to help. They are not transparent about their funding and decision-making processes; and often engage in programming that is not harmonized or aligned to country or local needs. And they tend to look for “like-minded” allies – by for example, forging primary alliances with international organizations that think about social change through the lens of the new managerialism – while neglecting the slower, harder work of supporting authentic national and regional coalitions for change. 

Yet at the same time, we need to look only to the work of sociologist and evaluation expert Carol Weiss, to understand how important organizational learning has been in the history and evolution of US based philanthropy (Weiss, 1995). In the 1980s and 1990s, efforts to collaborate, coordinate and learn from one another became the hallmark of North American philanthropic organizations, leading to new kinds of programs that centered not only on science, but on supporting the engagement of citizens in defining their own solutions. Such changes were accompanied by fresh commitments to monitoring and accountability of philanthropy – including through arms-length funding to watchdog organizations. 

I foresee a moment, in the not too distant future, when the new crop of late 20th and early 21st century of education philanthropies will also enter such a period of consolidation and organizational learning. They will do so because they realize that longer term challenges of world order threaten to undermine their shorter-term educational goals and objectives; and because they will understand that the through line from educational change to a more sustainable world order travels not through the supply of one size fits all solutions to human needs, but is rather at its core profoundly educative, empowering people and organizations with the skills, knowledge and collective capacity to puzzle out their own, novel solutions. 

Four Ways to Make Global Education Philanthropy Better. 

With this in mind, I want to end this intervention by pointing to four broad areas where I believe there is immediate opportunity for philanthropies to improve their engagement in international education development by taking a longer term, intergenerational approach to the investing in global education and related public goods. 

In doing so I draw heavily from Rob Reich’s recent book, “Just giving” (2018) in which he explores the legitimacy of
US based philanthropic giving. Reich argues that the tax incentives provided to corporate philanthropy in the US
is essentially a transfer of taxpayer dollars from public to private authority. He also presents empirical evidence (very much complimented by the OECD study of international philanthropy presented in this volume) that only a small share of philanthropic given is truly redistributive (eg, focused on the poorest people or countries). He therefore calls for greater regulation and public scrutiny of what are essentially public subsidies for private giving. 

At the same time, Reich argues that there are potentially two legitimate reasons for governments and citizens to support and subsidize private giving. He notes that the endowed, perpetual funded foundation is more likely than almost any other political or economic institution in the modern world to be able to think beyond the present political fray, towards longer term futures. Philanthropy thus may be a unique source of scarce “risk capital” for addressing longer term social problems – like climate change – that require sustained innovation and a focus on intergenerational collective needs.

Further, foundations can play a unique and important role in supporting the associations and structures of civil society, thereby helping to build intergenerational capacity for social democracy. In both ways, foundations can protect the heritage of future generations – especially if regulated and incentivized to focus in these domains by governments. 

Reich’s arguments are not framed in the context of changes in world order, or the problem of international development, but I believe they capture normative imperatives for philanthropy that are especially relevant when thinking about the erosion of global structures for coordination and the pathologies of the current education for international development regime. 

Alignment and harmonization around national systems and capacity: Perhaps one of the most noted pathologies
of international development agencies is their tendency to focus on building an externally driven supply of technical and scientific capacity – often at the expense of support for sustainable national capacity to plan, implement, evaluate, innovate and form the political consensus needed to foster educational reform. Foundations can do what more self- interested international actors cannot: focus on the problem of local capacity, rather than the supply of international solutions. There is a second, important way that foundations can help developing countries: work with them to develop the regulatory and tax policies that keep foundations in their areas of core competency – intergenerational justice and long-range societal challenges. 

Critical path investments: In educational development, there are several areas that cry out as either imperative
for intergenerational justice; or as arenas where corporate philanthropes can productively use their business intelligence to disrupt market monopolies in educational goods and services without threatening the public good. For example: 

  • – Investing in programs of early years literacy and early childhood education that pay attention to 
  • intergenerational (adult/mother) literacy and sound principles of play-based development. This is an area that has low salience for governments and official development donors – but enormous potential to break intergenerational educational marginalization.
  • – Addressing the needs of the rising numbers of migrants by creating open source learning platforms and innovations that aid transferable credentials; 
  • – Disrupting the monopolies and corruption that continue to limit the supply/procurement of quality educational materials in many developing countries; and addressing the need for open source digital platforms for management of educational systems. 

Linking citizens: Education is a co-production in which parents, kids, communities, governments and their partners all play a role. International actors have placed a spotlight on direct “short run” accountability mechanisms between schools and families (for example through parent councils, school management bodies, school report cards, and citizen- led assessments). We need to think beyond these forms of transactional citizenship. Foundations can provide the risk capital to enable new forms of collective action on education issues – action that over time can improve civic engagement and the “long run” loop of accountability between citizens and the state. 

Transparency, Accountability and Organizational Learning: 

Finally, foundations can, indeed must invest in systems that ensure they are accountable to the public they aim to serve. Global philanthropies should invest in arms-length monitoring and social accountability of their own practices and initiatives. Shared investments across philanthropies in joint evaluation, monitoring and learning from their activities are also important. 

In this regard, the fact that some globally development philanthropies now report their aid flows to the OECD Development Assistance Committee is a first good step in this direction. I also see hope in the emergence of a number of new international and regional philanthropic affinity groups– like the International Education Funders Group; the Center for Asian Philanthropy and Society, and such mechanisms for harmonized giving as the Co-Impact and the Giving Pledge. I see hope when billionaires like Warren Buffet ask for increases in wealth and corporate taxation. And I see promise in the way that the Bill and Melinda Gates have reframed their philanthropic approach to US education, based on a critical and contentious published evaluation of their work – moving from investments in one size fits all best practices and top down levers of reform, to a focus on supporting organizational learning across schools and districts (Gates 2020). 

But such affinity groups and single organization accountability structures need to go farther, opening opportunities for greater debate and discussion with the public about their roles and accountabilities. As noted above, Foundations can play an important role in supporting better national and international legislation and regulation of their activities. They can fund public scrutiny of and social learning about their roles and their work. They can use affinity groups to socialize norms and expectations that limit their private authority and ensure their work meets public preferences and builds public capacity. Such investments are a critical part of ensuring philanthropic commitment to a shared vision of the public good. 


Burnett, N. (2019). Invited Essay: It’s past time to fix
the broken international architecture for education. International Journal of Educational Development, 68(C), 15-19. 

Gates, Bill and Melinda. (2020). Annual Letter: Why we swing for the fences. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. https:// http://www.gatesfoundation.org/who-we-are/resources-and- media/annual-letters-list 

Giridharadas, A. (2019). Winners take all: The elite charade of changing the world. Vintage.

NORRAG. (April 2020). New Philanthropy and the Disruption of Global Education. https://resources.norrag.org/resource/592/new-philanthropy-and-the-disruption-of-global-education

OECD (2018). Private Philanthropy for Development. The Development Dimension, OECD Publishing. https://doi. org/10.1787/9789264085190-en. 

Reich, R. (2018). Just giving: Why philanthropy is failing democracy and how it can do better. Princeton University Press. 

Weiss, C.H. (1995). Nothing as practical as good theory: Exploring theory-based evaluation for comprehensive community initiatives for children and families. Aspen Institute. 

Equity-Focused Approaches to Learning Loss during COVID-19

By Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares.

With an estimated 91.3 percent or 1.57 billion students out of school worldwide, ministers of education are executing their plans for school during disruptions related to COVID-19. Under the banner of learning continuity, many countries have slowly begun to use existing platforms, tools, and technologies for some form of interim learning by distance.

But even in the best-resourced and highest-performing education systems, most COVID responses in education will end up by privileging better-off children. Students from households with greater levels of connectivity, higher levels of parental education, greater availability of parental time for engagement, and in-home availability of books and materials have much better ability to access and benefit from distance learning. These advantages are further reinforced by the fact that digital learning platforms are typically more developed for secondary and higher education than at the primary level. International organizations have also emphasized COVID education responses that rely on technology. In developing countries, where far fewer children have access to secondary education, and where learning opportunities are heavily defined by quality education in the early years, COVID presents an especially stark equity challenge.

In this blog, we draw from a wide range of evidence about interventions that hold promise as equity-focused approaches to learning continuity. Our main message is that emergency measures which rely solely on technology are unlikely to offer an adequate response for learning continuity for children who sit at what Wagner describes as “the bottom of the learning pyramid.” And no country can improve overall learning outcomes without tackling the “tail” of its learning distribution—the children who are most left behind by current policies.

Thus, while we discuss how ministries can “layer” an effective set of enabling responses for learning continuity during COVID school closures, emergency interventions are likely to make modest contributions to learning continuity—their primary role may be to keep children engaged in their education. We therefore urge ministries of education to start planning now to implement targeted measures to ensure children from the poorest households can catch up when schools reopen, using the mounting evidence on accelerated learning.

1. What do we know about equity challenges in learning continuity?

Evidence in recent years has highlighted how gaps in schooling lead to loss of learning, providing an important caution for educators. Estimates vary by context, but the impact of school closure is stark. For example, in the United States, where children enjoy summer breaks of 8-10 weeks, summer learning loss has been estimated at between 10-25 percent of yearly learning, with children from poorer households disproportionately affected. Studies in low-income settings show that gaps in schooling lead to drop outs at critical transitions between educational levels, and can lower the progression of the most disadvantaged children through the school system. Further, as research from Argentina and Rwanda has shown, school closures at primary level can have harsh cumulative effects, lowering chances of secondary completion and reducing labor market earnings of affected children many years later. A new analysis by the World Bank offers starkly different scenarious for learning loss during COVID.

Connectivity cannot be counted on to solve learning loss for children at the bottom of the pyramid. Many governments have turned to online learning as a handy and effective way to staunch learning loss. However, several sobering reviews show just how limited connectivity for students is around the world. For example, in their excellent planning resource on COVID-19, Harvard and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that while in many OECD countries children from advantaged schools have access to computers, in many other countries, including Turkey, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Peru, and Indonesia, 50 percent or fewer children from disadvantaged schools have a computer at home.

Access to the internet is even more severely limited in many developing countries—for example, Young Lives data show that in Ethiopia four of five rural children have never used the internet. Access to other forms of connectivity are also profoundly unequal, especially in South Asia and Africa. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, while three quarters of the population have a cell phone, most use pay as you go SIM cards and often change service providers and numbers. In some states in India, only half of all schools have working electricity, and there are stark differences in access to cell phones and the internet between girls and boys. Fewer than 40 percent of all households in low- and lower-middle-income countries own radios or televisions.

Perhaps for these reasons, education leaders surveyed in 75 countries report that availability of technological infrastructure is the most challenging issue in the implementation of their COVID response. Even among rich countries—like Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom—the absence of connectivity has slowed down the shift to distance learning during COVID-19 and continues to be a major challenge. In short: relying on connectivity for distance learning is not a panacea during school closures; indeed technologically mediated distance learning is likely to increase inequality in learning continuity.

2. Remote learning opportunities for children without connectivity

Given that inequality in connectivity is only going to heighten the gaps between rich and poor as we turn to distance learning, what can governments do? A wide range of options exist. Almost all require governments take a pro-poor approach that layers five reinforcing opportunities for learning:

I. Simplify curricula and modify learning goals

To reach children at the bottom of the pyramid, governments could start with simplified curricula targeting areas where learning loss will be most consequential for learning progression in the coming school year. Focused strategies that ensure continuity in early grade literacy and numeracy during the COVID crisis are urgently needed. For higher grades, governments could prioritize learning continuity for children most at risk of dropping out, such as cohorts transitioning from primary to lower secondary school, by including strategies to keep vulnerable populations engaged and excited about learning.

II. Make learning materials available

Even during a pandemic, school systems should be able to work with partners to safely deliver or allow families to pick up a basic package of learning materials, including books and writing materials (for example, from food distribution locations). The impact that learning materials can have on learning continuity during periods of school closure are well researched. For example, a US-based intervention that mailed 10 books to students over the summer matched to students reading interests, accompanied by email or text messages to parents, promoted more than one month of gains in reading skills.

Governments may be able to fund these materials using supplemental grants to schools and by drawing on resources and support from development partners to purchase materials for the poorest households. Governments could leverage other COVID-related social services—for example, emergency food distribution channels or health service programs—by using volunteers (with social distancing), or other means. Education can learn much from foodbanks and other health emergency distribution chains about how to safely ensure such deliveries.

III. Use radio, television, and SMS to amplify learning

There is evidence to suggest that across the learning continuum from kindergarten to secondary schooling, radio provides a low-tech and effective intervention that can mitigate learning loss when it is combined with outreach from teachers, provision of learning materials, and interactive content—including in emergency settings, such as Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. Many countries already have radio-based programs upon which to build. Where individual households lack radios, it may be possible to provide low-cost devices or to use speakers to broadcast short lessons in communities. A number of experimental programs suggest that SMS messaging or simple phone calls may also be used to provide simple learning activities and nudges to students to help maintain engagement in learning, though they can in no way replace a formal curricula.

Such low-tech solutions are likely to be most effectives when they are combined with the other interventions described in this blog: opportunities for interactive engagement (including with family members), outreach from teachers, and access to learning materials.

IV. Make use of family engagement, an under-utilized resource

Parental and sibling support during COVID-19 are an especially important layer in efforts to bridge gaps in learning continuity within poor households during emergencies. Yet the importance of family engagement in enhancing learning is an area often overlooked in mainstream planning of education systems—where the role for parents and communities is also limited to raising resources or participating in governance and accountability.

A growing body of research shows significant effects of parents and siblings on childhood learning, by supplementing and reinforcing the traditional 2–4 hours of focused learning within schools. Furthermore, evidence from recently evaluated programs, such as Save the Children’s Literacy Boost and other family-based literacy interventions, show that even in the poorest households and households with limited literacy, parental and sibling engagement and support can add significantly to learning outcomes using very simple methods. Those methods can take the form of creating dedicated time for children to learn, teaching parents to engage children in talk and answering questions, or creating simple counting and language activities as part of daily household routines. “Child-to-child” approaches, and peer and collaborative learning—where older siblings or cousins support learning for younger students—can be safe and effective reinforcing skills. While a lack of parental education may further disadvantage poorer children, parental engagement programs in developing countries have shown that even parents with limited literacy can do much to enhance learning. COVID responses should build on these existing programs.

V. Encourage outreach and support from teachers, school leaders, and districts

The final layer in an integrated strategy for bridging learning loss for students from poorer households during COVID-19 involves structured support from teachers, school leaders, community leaders, and school districts. As we learned in the health sector during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, enabling local problem-solving and supporting context-specific solutions is especially important during health emergencies.

These actors know much about the individualized needs of children in their care. They can do much to ensure that families and students understand available learning opportunities and maintain motivation and engagement in learning. While many countries are already using social and other media as platforms to communicate their broad plans for learning under COVID, disadvantaged children will benefit disproportionately from more personalized outreach from teachers and school leaders.

Leaders at the district level should have a fair understanding of the disadvantages and barriers to participation for children within their catchments, including from tools developed through the UIS/UNESCO Out of School Children initiative. During COVID closures, they have an important role to play in supporting teachers and leaders to find context-specific solutions, which may range from “drive-by loudspeaker announcements” to SMS messages, phone calls, or even household visits (respecting social distance).

3. Recovery: planning for learning recovery when schools reopen

The options suggested above focus primarily on actions governments can take during periods of school closures. However, even in well-resourced education systems, it is unlikely that this combination of interventions will be able to fully mitigate against learning loss, especially for the most disadvantaged households. For this reason, governments should be planning interventions now that ensure that disadvantaged children can return to school and catch up with their peers when schools reopen.

Strong evidence from around the world suggests that summer and afterschool learning programs, including those that utilize trained teachers or volunteers, structured pedagogy, enrichment experiences, ability grouping. and high levels of teacher-student engagement, can generate significant learning gains for disadvantaged populations. Accelerated learning programs and other kinds of intensive “learning camps” targeted to the most disadvantaged children have been shown to be effective in many developing country contexts, both for bridging periods of learning loss and pathways for successful re-entry of out of school children. Other interventions, such as afterschool tutoring and peer-to-peer coaching, also hold promise.

Now is the time to plan for these programs, so that teachers, school leaders and volunteers can be prepared and outreach to parents can be launched before schools are abruptly reopened. Teachers and community volunteers, who are more likely to have online access, can be trained and coached virtually on accelerated learning. Relevant curricula and materials for accelerated learning can be designed. District and school leaders can identify disadvantaged groups and tailor approaches to specific contexts; and parents can be informed and engaged. Priority should be given to the most vulnerable in two age groups: children at primary level, where learning loss can most limit educational progress; and adolescents transitioning from primary to secondary education, where the poorest are most at risk of dropping out.

Karen Mundy was the primary author of this post. This blog was originally published by the Center for Global Development on April 16 2020. It has benefited from inputs from Kerrie Proulx, Amy Jo Dowd, Ben Piper, Scott Davies, Janice Aurini, Sheena Bell, Laura Moscoviz, Minahil Asim, and staff at Room To Read.

References (by Section)


Williamson, B. April 1, 2020.  “New Pandemic Edtech Powernetworks” Blog, https://codeactsineducation.wordpress.com/2020/04/01/new-pandemic-edtech-power-networks/

Crouch, L., & Rolleston, C. (2017). Raising the Floor on Learning Levels: Equitable Improvement Starts with the Tail. RISE Insights. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5b55bd6340f0b6338b116d85/RISE_Equity_Insight_UPDATE.pdf

Wagner, D. A., Wolf, S., & Boruch, R. F. eds. (2018). Learning at the bottom of the pyramid.  http://www.iiep.unesco.org/en/learning-bottom-pyramid-4608

Equity Challenges in Learning Continuity

Iqbal, S., Azevedo, J.P., Hasan, A. H. Patrinos. April 13, 2020. We should avoid flattening the curve in education – Possible scenarios for learning loss during the school lockdowns.  World Bank Blog: https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/we-should-avoid-flattening-curve-education-possible-scenarios-learning-loss-during-school

Cooper, Harris, Barbara Nye, Kelly Charlton, James Lindsay, and Scott Greathouse. “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative and Meta-Analytic Review.” Review of Educational Research 66, no. 3 (September 1, 1996): 227–68. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543066003227

Polikoff, David M. Quinn and Morgan. “Summer Learning Loss: What Is It, and What Can We Do about It?” Brookings (blog), September 14, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/research/summer-learning-loss-what-is-it-and-what-can-we-do-about-it/; Quinn,.

David M., North Cooc, Joe McIntyre, and Celia J. Gomez. “Seasonal Dynamics of Academic Achievement Inequality by Socioeconomic Status and Race/Ethnicity: Updating and Extending Past Research With New National Data.” Educational Researcher, November 9, 2016. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X16677965

Stephanie L. Slates, Karl L. Alexander, Doris R. Entwisle & Linda S. Olson (2012) Counteracting Summer Slide: Social Capital Resources Within Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Families, Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 17:3, 165-185, DOI: 10.1080/10824669.2012.688171.

Kim, James S., and David M. Quinn. “The Effects of Summer Reading on Low-Income Children’s Literacy Achievement From Kindergarten to Grade 8: A Meta-Analysis of Classroom and Home Interventions.” Review of Educational Research, September 1, 2013. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654313483906;

Slade, Timothy S, Benjamin Piper, Zikani Kaunda, Simon King, and Hibatalla Ibrahim. “Is ‘Summer’ Reading Loss Universal? Using Ongoing Literacy Assessment in Malawi to Estimate the Loss from Grade-Transition Breaks.” Research in Comparative and International Education 12, no. 4 (December 1, 2017): 461–85. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745499917740657.

Giulia La Mattina 2018. How persistent is the effect of conflict on primary education? Long-run evidence from the Rwandan genocide, Economics Letters,Volume 163: 32-35, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165176517304482

David Jaume and Alexander Willén, “The Long-Run Effects of Teacher Strikes: Evidence from Argentina,” Journal of Labor Economics 37, no. 4 (October 2019): 1097-1139.

S. Weale, March 31 2020.  Children must not become the unseen victims of coronavirus. The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/31/children-must-not-become-unseen-victims-of-coronavirus-says-thinktank

Reimers, F.  and Schleicher, A. March 2020. A framework to guide an education response to the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020.  Harvard Graduate School of Education and OECD.

EdTech Hub, “Five things to think about for out of school learning during the coronavirus outbreak,”  https://edtechhub.org/2020/03/24/five-things-out-of-school-learning-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak/

Education Policy Institute of Bihar. https://www.biharedpolcenter.org/post/covid-19-learning-in-times-of-pandemics

Carvalho, S. and L. Crawford. March 25, 20202. “Schools out, now what” Center for Global Development.   https://www.cgdev.org/blog/schools-out-now-what

Remote Learning Opportunities for Children without Connectivity

UNICEF. 2017. Improving Education Participation.

https://www.unicef.org/eca/media/2971/file/Improving_education_participation_report.pdf; K. Lewin. 2007. Improving Access, Equity and Transitions.  CREATE, University of Sussex.

Ho and Thukrai. 2009. Tuned in to Student Success: Assessing the Impact of Interactive Radio Instruction. Education Develoment Center, http://idd.edc.org/resources/publications/tuned-student-success-assessing-impact-iri;

Matafwili, B. 2017.  Evaluation of Interactive Radio Instruction Pilot Program in Early Childhood Education in the Eastern Province of Zambia.  Zambia Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Education and Early Learning.

Barnett Sarah, van Dijk Jetske, Swaray Abdulai, Amara Tamba, Young Patricia. Redesigning an education project for child friendly radio: a multisectoral collaboration to promote children’s health, education, and human rights after a humanitarian crisis in Sierra Leone BMJ 2018; https://www.bmj.com/content/363/bmj.k4667

Sarmah, Bhaskar & Lama, Sukmaya. (2017). Radio as an Educational Tool in Developing Countries: Its Evolution and Current Usages, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322355675_Radio_as_an_Educational_Tool_in_Developing_Countries_Its_Evolution_and_Current_Usages.

USAID. 2018. Impact Evaluation of the Makhalidwe Project (Zambia), https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00SZJS.pdf.

M. Touassand and L. Stannard. 2018. EdTech for Learning in Emergencies and Displaced Settings: A rigorous review and narrative synthesis, Save the Children. 

M. Trucano.   2013.   10 Principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments. World Bank, https://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/10-principles-consider-when-introducing-icts-remote-low-income-educational-environments

Winthrop, R.  March 31.  COVID-19 and school closures: What can countries learn from past emergencies? https://www.brookings.edu/research/covid-19-and-school-closures-what-can-countries-learn-from-past-emergencies/

Henderson, A. T., & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Annual Synthesis, 2002. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED474521.pdf

Amy Jo Dowd, Lauren Pisani, Caroline Dusabe, Holly-Jane Howell (2016)

Leveraging the enthusiasm of parents and caregivers for lifewide learning

USAID (2014). Out of School Parental and Community Involvement Interventions: Literature Review. https://globalreadingnetwork.net/sites/default/files/resource_files/Parent%20and%20community%20involvemnt%20%28002%29.pdf

Friedlander, E., Dowd, A. J., Guajardo, J., & Pisani, L. (2017). Education for All or Literacy for All? Evaluating Student Outcomes from Save the Children’s Literacy Boost Program in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Handbook of Applied Developmental Science in Sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 347-369). Springer, New York, NY. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321150433_Education_for_All_or_Literacy_for_All_Evaluating_Student_Outcomes_from_Save_the_Children’s_Literacy_Boost_Program_in_Sub-Saharan_Africa

Borisova, I., Pisani, L., Dowd, A.J. & Hsiao-Chen, L., Effective interventions to strengthen early language and literacy skills in low-income countries: comparison of a family-focused approach and a pre-primary programme in Ethiopia, Early Child Development and Care Volume 187, Issue 3-4: Research in Young Children’s Literacy and Language Development, 2017.

Mundy et. al, 2014.  Evaluation on the early learning child-to-child program in Ethiopia. UNICEF, https://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/reports/evaluation-study-early-learning-child-child-programme; see also other evaluations of the child-to-child approach, http://www.childtochild.org.uk/stories_categories/evaluations/.

Education Endowment Funds Review of 10 metanalysis of peer-based learning: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/generate/?u=https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/pdf/toolkit/?id=155&t=Teaching%20and%20Learning%20Toolkit&e=155&s=

UNICEF-UIS. 2016. Monitoring Education Participation: Monitoring Framework for Children and adolescents out of school and at risk of dropping out (2016):

UNICEF. 2018. Early Warning System Brief

M. Andrews. 2020. Public Leadership Through Crisis 9: Pursue Flat, Fast and Flexible Organizing Structures. Building State Capability Blog, Harvard University. https://buildingstatecapability.com/2020/03/23/public-leadership-through-crisis-9-pursue-flat-fast-and-flexible-organizing-structures/

Planning for Learning Recovery When Schools Reopen

Karl Alexander, Sarah Pitcock and Matthew Boulay, eds. 2016 The Summer Slide: What We Know and Can Do About Summer Learning Loss, New York: Teachers College Press; B. Mclaughlin and S. Pitcock. 2009. Building Quality in Summer Learning Programs: Approaches and Recommendations.  Wallace Foundation White Paper.

Banerjee, Abhijit, Rukmini Banerji, James Berry, Esther Duflo, Harini Kannan, Shobhini Mukherji, Marc Shotland, and Michael Walton. “Mainstreaming an effective intervention: Evidence from randomized evaluations of “Teaching at the Right Level” in India.” No. w22746. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016. 

K. Langdon. 2013. Accelerated learning programmes: what can we learn from them about curriculum reform? Paris: UNESCO https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000225950.

 “Speedschool” program in Ethiopia, http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/79134/1/__its-home.uscs.susx.ac.uk_home_dm50_Desktop_Longittudinal%20Study%20of%20Speed%20School%20Students%20in%20Public%20Schools_Sept2018.pdf

Managing Education Systems During COVID-19: An Open Letter to A Minister of Education

Karen Mundy and Susannah Hares, originally published by the Center for Global Development March 23, 2020

Dear Minister,

As of March 23, more than 124 countries have closed their education systems either in full or in specific regions, and closures now affect more than 1.25 billion learners worldwide. As Fernando Reimers and his collaborators note in their book Letters to A New Minister of Education, your job as an education minister is now to “make sense of the mess”—to turn a series of interrelated challenges into a series of organized and prioritized problems and then into a strategy for action.

The COVID-19 “mess” for education is a unique one. We have limited information about the likely path of the pandemic. Ministers, educators, communities, families, and learners will all have to make decisions in a context of “radical uncertainty.” To assist decision-making during the pandemic, we highlight six things that you as a minister of education should consider as you plan.

1. Prepare for the situation to last for weeks and months

In countries at the European epicenter, and in many developing countries where the virus is only starting to spread or where public health systems are weak, schools and higher education institutions are likely to be closed for a considerable period. Although many school systems announced initial closures of 2-4 weeks, recent announcements in the United States and in Canada, for example, suggest closures may last upwards of three months.

And because transmission of the virus is both new and global, its pathway is hard to predict. Education ministers are going to have to plan not only for an indefinite period of school closure, but also for the potential that either some or all schools may have to close again in a second wave of the virus.

2. Adapt your plan, but stick to your key goals and principles

The Building State Capability program at Harvard highlights common characteristics of successful leadership in contexts of crisis.

First, and foremost: even though you cannot stick to your existing plans, it would be wise to keep a steady focus on your mission, goals, and principles. Your government has a mandate both to protect children and to ensure that they learn. You have principles, goals, and targets for your education system. These have not changed, even if they need to be modified.

Second: focus on things that are within your control, and make sure education has space within the government’s crisis planning. While you won’t be able to deliver your planned policies and interventions in the coming period, senior education leaders during past crises suggest that you need to ask carefully: What you can do, now, in this context, with your resources, to keep your country moving towards these goals? Who can help you to do this? How can you unlock the capacity of your staff, communities, and partners to keep education moving?

Remember that while ministries of education have many fixed costs during school and university closures, there may be staff, equipment, and materials that can be redeployed; and myriad donors, partners, and stakeholders that can be called on to help fill gaps.

3. Protect your people

A first principle in crisis management is to protect your people, especially the most vulnerable. COVID-19 presents a number of new challenges compared to other kinds of emergencies. Most importantly, because it is highly contagious, COVID-19 requires “social distancing,” which prohibits traditional forms of face-to-face coordination and service delivery. However, while there are new challenges, many of the issues you should consider have been well described in many different guidelines related to education in emergencies provided by INEE, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, and condensed into this simplified guidance by Harvard. You will also have learned lessons from past crises. For now, just a few points to keep in mind:

Address the needs of the most vulnerable children and youth. As seen in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, school closures mean the loss of protection for those most vulnerable, including girls. Children with special needs often receive specialist care in school settings. Even in the richer countries, schools provide social services that are difficult to replace—in Los Angeles for example, a majority of children rely on school meal programs; in New York, homeless children rely on schools for bathing and laundry.

Replace essential services. You can start by thinking about how you might replace these essential protective services—for example, can you switch from school meals to take-home rations, or cash transfers? Can schools remain open for specific services, as is the case in recent UK guidance? Can they be used as crisis hubs for the community? Think now about seeding plans for bringing those most likely to drop out back into school. For girls in particular, what kind of communication and protection can be provided?

District leaders, school heads, and teachers often have detailed information about the needs of children and families in their communities—you may be able to call on them for advice to ensure that the most vulnerable children are protected and return to school. Consider asking them to staff phone lines, text community members, or engage local media to support the psycho-social needs of children.

Duty of care to your employees. Ministries of education are typically among the largest employers in their countries’ public sector or even entire economy. What will you do to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of your staff during the crisis? How will you protect the welfare of contract teachers and others in the education workforce? UNICEF has issued guidance that provides a checklist with detailed information about how to preserve the safety of teachers and school leaders when calling them into active service.

The tricky question of exams. Many education systems are organized around high-stakes examinations and credentialing. Such exams heighten stress among learners, and are risky during COVID-19 because they rely on face-to-face proctoring. Exams across West Africa were cancelled last week in response to the pandemic. This is an anxious time for students, who have been required to vacate schools and do not know when or if they might return to earn their leaving credentials. A protective response is to allow for automatic promotion (in K-12 education) while ensuring earmarked places and remediation for disadvantaged populations in future admissions processes.

4. Keep learning going

How to keep children learning is a challenge facing education leaders globally. Even in high-resource systems, the use of online technological platforms for teaching is in its infancy. We will see many experiments in coming months. No doubt some will be successful, but there will likely be many failures.

Minister, you may want to be wary of the rapid, aggressive upswing in marketing of educational software by commercial vendors—as is presently happening in the United States. What’s important is to focus on what you already have that can support structured distance learning in your context. It will be important to remember that technological solutions often exacerbate existing inequalities. And even the best solutions require careful attention to the crucial interface between technology, teacher, and child.

Low-tech solutions are often more viable in low-resource contexts. One option is to send reading and writing materials home with children, combined with supporting daily reading practice through radio broadcasts. Modules offered by radio broadcast have been used effectively in many countries (see Kenya for an early example of a program responding to COVID-19). Teachers and upper-level students can be called on to act as virtual tutors using simple SMS platforms to enhance the effectiveness of online and broadcast programs. Parents and siblings can also support simple learning exercises (for example UNICEF’s “child-to-child” programs). However, research suggests that relying on parents will not be enough; getting your teachers and school heads involved in (virtual) delivery will be essential.

5. Communicate, motivate, and engage

For learners, educators, their families, and communities, the loss of schooling erodes the social glue that holds together everyday life. They will want and need information. Scott Cowen, a university president in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, argues, “the importance of actively creating a sense of community beyond living and learning in close proximity cannot be overstated.”

The literature on crisis leadership emphasizes the importance of explaining your situation, plans, hopes, and concerns, openly and often. Harvard’s Matt Andrews suggests a few simple guidelines: be calm, clear, factual, and frank. Explain what you do know—and what you do not. Be human.

Crucially, the public, your staff, and your partners also need to know about your continued commitment to key educational principles and goals. They need to know that you are planning forward, even if there are uncertainties and the specifics are not in view.

Crisis leadership also means listening carefully to your people, to their concerns, and to their ideas and solutions, however small. You could consider setting up channels for listening within your ministry—even to things you may not wish to hear. Everyone from ministerial staff down to district leaders and school heads, teachers, children, and parents has something to contribute, and together they will provide crucial insights to help you plan your response. Appointing a body within your ministry to coordinate these inputs can help.

Published announcements like this circular issued by a Canadian school board or these guidelines released by the Ministry of Education in Kenya are a good start. But frequent, personalized communication is better, especially where a situation is evolving and complex. Many African ministries have extensive WhatsApp groups through which they communicate to school heads and staff. Public broadcasting and social media can help amplify your messages.

Engaging directly with children is an emerging innovation in crisis communications. These dedicated COVID-19 briefings for children recently held by the prime minister of Norway and the prime minister of New Zealand helped show students that their governments care about the effect this pandemic is having on their education.

6. Stay on top of the evidence and learn

Minister, you have a challenging but vital job during this crisis: to protect, plan, motivate, and continue to deliver on your mandate. Learning from what has worked and is working in other jurisdictions will be important, as this will through necessity be a time of great experimentation (see this new UNESCO platform which will bring together education ministers to share experiences). As you learn from the experience of others, also consider how you are learning from this crisis: What evidence can you collect that will help others now and in the future? And, as this recent overview on leadership during the Ebola crisis suggests, listen to, mobilize, and unlock the agency of your own people—they are critical to your success.

This blog was originally published by the Center for Global Development, Susannah Hares is co-author. It has benefited enormously from a recent series by Harvard’s Matt Andrews, in the Building State Capability blog. Generous inputs were also provided by Luis Crouch, Barbara Bruns, Ben Piper, staff at Room to Read, and Professors Scott Davies and Janice Aurini.

Cited References (Hyperlinked within the blog)

UNESCO (18 March 2020).  “Half of world’s student population not attending school: UNESCO launches global coalition to accelerate deployment of remote learning solutions. https://en.unesco.org/news/half-worlds-student-population-not-attending-school-unesco-launches-global-coalition-accelerate

Reimers, F. (2019). Letters to a New Minister of Education. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Fernando_Reimers/publication/331501036_Letters_to_a_New_Minister_of_Education_With_contributions_from/links/5c7d62b2458515831f83c82f/Letters-to-a-New-Minister-of-Education-With-contributions-from.pdf

M. King. (March 12, 2020). Can forecasters keep up in the era of Coronavirus?  The Economist Asks (Podcast). https://www.economist.com/podcasts/2020/03/12/can-forecasters-keep-up-in-the-era-of-coronavirus

Kay, J. A., & King, M. A. (2020). Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making Beyond the Numbers. WW Norton. https://www.amazon.com/Radical-Uncertainty-Decision-Making-Beyond-Numbers/dp/1324004770

Section 1:  (this wont be over soon)

CNN. (March 19, 2020).Lessons from China (Coronavirus Fact or Fiction Podcast with Sanjay Gupta). https://www.cnn.com/audio/podcasts/corona-virus

Cauchemez, S., Ferguson, N. M., Wachtel, C., Tegnell, A., Saour, G., Duncan, B., & Nicoll, A. (2009). Closure of schools during an influenza pandemic. The Lancet infectious diseases, 9(8), 473-481. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

E. Christakis and N. Christakis. (March 16, 2020).  “Ideas: Closing Schools is Not the Only Option” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-closing-schools-not-only-option/608056/

Grant Hindsely.  (March 18, 2020).  “As schools look for guidance, educators are left asking”.  New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/us/politics/education-schools-coronavirus.html

K. Allen. (March 18, 2020).  “Months of school closures, social distancing needed to fight pandemic:  U ofT Research.”  https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/03/18/months-of-school-closures-social-distancing-needed-to-fight-pandemic-u-of-t-research.html?li_source=LI&li_medium=star_web_ymbii

Government of the United Kingdom. (March 20, 2020).  “Coronavirus (COVID-19): scientific evidence supporting the UK government response.” https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-covid-19-scientific-evidence-supporting-the-uk-government-response

Section 2: Leadership

Matt Andrews (March 15, 2020).  “Public Leadership through Crisis 1:  Can Public Leaders Manage through High Waves in Little Boats?  Building State Capacity Blog. https://buildingstatecapability.com/2020/03/15/public-leadership-through-crisis-1-can-public-leaders-navigate-high-winds-and-big-waves-in-little-boats/

Section 3: Protect your people

INEE.   Minimum Standards for Education In Emergencies. https://www.unicef.org/violencestudy/pdf/min_standards_education_emergencies.pdf

E. Boudrea. (March 10, 2020). Providing Stability in a time of Crisis: What Leaders Can do To Calm Their Communities and Keep Children Ready to Learn. Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/20/03/providing-stability-time-crisis


R. Jenkins. (March 13, 2020).  “Op-Ed: LAUSD just closed schools. Ebola taught us why that may be extreme.” https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2020-03-13/op-ed-lausd-just-closed-schools-ebola-taught-us-why-that-may-be-extreme

A. North. (March 19, 2020). “The pros and cons of coronavirus school closures explained”  Vox.com. https://www.vox.com/2020/3/16/21180629/coronavirus-new-york-city-public-schools-closed

K. Azzi-Huck, T. Shmis. (March 2018).  “Managing the impact of Covid-19 on education systems around the world.”World Bank Educatio Blog.  https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/managing-impact-covid-19-education-systems-around-world-how-countries-are-preparing

UNICEF.  (March 2020) Key messages and actions for COVID-19 prevention and control in schools. https://www.unicef.org/media/65716/file/Key%20Messages%20and%20Actions%20for%20COVID-19%20Prevention%20and%20Control%20in%20Schools_March%202020.pdf

Section 5: Learning Continuity

R.Hess. (March 16). Five thoughts on the Coronavirus and Schools. Education Week Blog. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2020/03/five_thoughts_on_the_coronavirus_and_schools.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=rickhessstraightup&print=1

L. Darling-Hammond.  (March 19, 2020). Learning in the Time of Covid. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lindadarlinghammond/2020/03/19/learning-in-the-time-of-covid-19/?utm_source=LPI+Master+List&utm_campaign=5efefb01f7-LPIMC_COVID-19-Resources_20200319&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_7e60dfa1d8-5efefb01f7-42297087#7b7998797203L.

M. Tuason and L. Stannard (2018). Edtech for learning in emergencies and displaced settings: A rigorous review. Save the Children.


C. McCabe. (2015)  Three Education Programs Using Radio to Amplify their Impact. https://educationinnovations.org/blog/world-radio-day-3-education-programs-using-radio-amplify-their-impact

Section 3: (Communicate, Motivate, Engage)

J. Van Fleet.   (March 16, 2020).  “Opinion: Education in A Time of COVID.” Devex.  https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-education-in-the-time-of-covid-19-96765

Matt Andrews.  “Public Leadership through crisis 5:  Good communication ideas you might consider.” Building State Capacity Blog. https://buildingstatecapability.com/2020/03/17/public-leadership-through-crisis-5-good-communication-ideas/

Jon Cohen and Kai Kupferschmidt. (March 18, 2020). Mass testing, school closings, lockdowns: Countries pick tactics in ‘war’ against coronavirus. Science. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/mass-testing-school-closings-lockdowns-countries-pick-tactics-war-against-coronavirus

Toronto District School Board. (n.d.) “Information on coronavirus”. https://www.tdsb.on.ca/Elementary-School/Supporting-You/Health-Active-Living/Coronavirus

Republic of Kenya, Ministry of Education. (March 18, 2020). Media Release “https://twitter.com/EduMinKenya/status/1240221103794069504?s=20

J. Elliot. (March 19, 2020)   “Its ok to be scared Norway PM says and kids coronavirus briefing” Global News: https://globalnews.ca/news/6701272/coronavirus-norway-kids-press-conference/

E. Ainge.  (March 19, 2020).  “Jacinda Arden holds special press conference for children” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/19/jacinda-ardern-holds-special-coronavirus-press-conference-for-children

Mundy et. al. (2014). Evaluation of the Early Learning Child to Child Program. https://www.unicef.org/ethiopia/reports/evaluation-study-early-learning-child-child-programme

Furstenberg, Frank. 2011. “The challenges of finding causal links between family educational practices and schooling outcomes.” pp. 465–482 In Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances. New York: Russel Sage.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312593282_The_challenges_of_finding_causal_links_between_family_educational_practices_and_schooling_outcomes

Section 6: Evidence and Learning

P. Harrington. (March 20, 2020).  Seeing Pandemics as Complex Adaptive Problems. https://buildingstatecapability.com/

Investing in advocacy for learning equity

After being involved in years of design work, it’s satisfying to post a blog today with my former colleague, Sarah Beardmore, about GPE’s new “Education Out Loud” call for proposals. This blog is also a “downpayment” on a forthcoming book entitled ” Civil Society and Education Change in Developing Countries: What Policy Makers and Planners Need to Know,” commissioned by the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), that I’m current finishing. Among all the projects I’ve worked on – understanding the potential for collective action to drive education change is still top of my list.

This week the Global Partnership for Education launches the second call for proposals under its new fund for civil society – Education Out Loud, which is managed by Oxfam IBIS.  Education Out Loud aims to support civil society engagement in education sector planning, dialogue and monitoring; strengthen transparency and accountability in education; and create a stronger enabling environment for civil society advocacy at global and national levels.

This new call for proposals is open from December 9th to January 31st for applications to support transnational advocacy.

Education Out Loud’s funding for transnational advocacy promises to open the pathway for better, more effective education advocacy, accountability and engagement by bringing together country-level and global-level actors.

The success of this new fund tops our wish list for the New Year:  it has the potential to spark a 21st century campaign for learning equity – a campaign that re-establishes government and intergovernmental accountability for the right to education; and that inspires citizens, everywhere, to realize their right to learn.

Why should we care about advocacy?

GPE has a long history of engaging with civil society in the effort to strengthen national educational systems, to ensure that they are properly financed, and focused on learning equity and on the needs of the most marginal and vulnerable populations (Mundy 2012). Representatives from civil society – north and south, NGOs and teacher organizations – play an important role in GPE’s Board and governance at the global level, and in GPE-supported sector planning, joint sector reviews and dialogue at the national level.

Between 2009 and 2018, GPE became a leader in financing civil society education coalitions in over 60 countries, under the Civil Society Education Fund, a program managed by the Global Campaign for Education. It has also funded new approaches for engaging civil society, through a pilot initiative with Education International and UNESCO on engaging teacher organizations in sector dialogue; and through novel initiatives on out-of-school children and school report cards called Data Must Speak  co-funded by UNICEF and Hewlett Foundation.

Citizen voices must be heard

Despite the strong engagement with civil society by GPE and other international actors, there is so much more to be done. As organizations like Civicus and Afrobarometer highlight, civic space in many parts of the world is closing, with governments narrowing basic freedoms of speech and association.

Information technologies – which can support rapid, wide engagement of citizens in monitoring and accountability – also can be easily hijacked leading to the distortion of citizen voice in national politics.  With limited outlets for citizen voice, and ever larger global challenges, it is no surprise to see a rising wave of civic unrest and citizen protest around the world.

GPE’s charter and strategy express the ideal of “mutual accountability”; and civil society participation in national education policy dialogue forms a core element of GPE’s operational model. Yet GPE’s recent country evaluations and results reports tell us that although members of civil society are increasingly engaged in national education sector planning and joint sector review processes, sector dialogue and monitoring are too often ineffective. Education plans are not being translated into reality; and governments are often not held accountable for ensuring that all children realize their right to learn.  

The result is that almost 75 years since the first United Nations commitment to universal education, many children are schooled but not learning; and the numbers of adults without foundational literacy remain stubbornly high.

That is why Education Out Loud’s support for transnational advocacy is so important.  Innovative national social accountability experiments such as the People’s Action for Learning network, are supporting citizens to monitor education outcomes nationally. What makes Education Out Loud stand out is that it seeks to ensure that not only are governments more accountable to their citizens, but that global and regional policy agendas are also more effectively addressing the challenges and realities of people at the community level.

What will Education Out Loud do?

Recent research suggests areas where a transnational approach can be most effective – for example, it can play a critical role in ensuring that civil society is able to mount legal challenges when education rights of the poor and marginalized are abrogated  (Norrag 2018; Rosser and Joshi 2018); it can support better access to/use of information for accountability (Devarajan and Khemani 2016); it can build political pressure that reinforces national efforts by civil society to assess early literacy (R4D 2014); and help galvanize political reformers and allies at the “top” to form alliances with civil society actors mobilizing from below (Fox 2015UNESCO 2018).

Education Out Loud will invest in efforts to leverage national civil society expertise to inform and influence international and cross-national policy agendas; and support international civil society to help hold open national space for citizen-led advocacy and accountability.

This formula – what political scientists call a “boomerang” approach – has effectively contributed to such historical changes as female suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and advances in global efforts to address HIV/AIDs (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998; Mundy and Murphy 2001Keck and Sikkink 2014). 

At its crux, Education Out Loud aims to support civil society accountability alliances that connect local, sub-national, national and international actors together to catalyze the delivery of stronger education outcomes for all children and youth.  

And because we still have much to learn about how to do this well, Education Out Loud emphasizes the importance of capacity development, experimentation, knowledge, and the use of evidence in the proposals it will fund.

This new funding window complements two other Education Out Loud grant streams – for national coalitions and social accountability initiatives – with the aim of investing in a renewed multi-level civil society accountability eco-system capable of driving the vision of universal quality education for all children.

For more information on Education Out Loud and the current call for proposals, please visit GPE’s Education Out Loud webpage


Fox, J. A. (2015). Social accountability: what does the evidence really say?. World Development72, 346-361. 

Devarajan, Shantayanan; Khemani, Stuti. 2016. If politics is the problem, how can external actors be part of the solution ? (English). Policy Research working paper; no. WPS 7761. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. 

Finnemore, M., & Sikkink, K. (1998). International norm dynamics and political change. International organization, 52(4), 887-917. 

Keck, M. E., & Sikkink, K. (2014). Activists beyond borders: Advocacy networks in international politics. Cornell University Press. 

Mundy, K. (2008).  Civil Society and its Role in the Achievement and Governance of Education for All.  Background paper for the Education For All Global Monitoring Report, 2009. Paris: UNESCO. 

Mundy, K. (2012). The global campaign for education and the realization of “Education for All”. In Campaigning for”” Education for all”” (pp. 17-30). Brill Sense.

Mundy, K. and L. Murphy. 2001. Transnational Advocacy/Global Civil Society? Emerging Evidence from the Field of Education. Comparative Education Review 45(1).

NORRAG. 2018. NORRAG_special-issue-01_Right to education movements and policies_EN_2018.pdf

R4D. 2015.  Bringing Learning to Light: The Role of Citizen-led Assessments in Shifting the Education Agenda.  Washington DC: Results for Development. 

Rosser, Andrew; Joshi, Anuradha. 2018. Using courts to realize education rights : reflections from India and Indonesia (English). Policy Research working paper; no. WPS 8448. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. 

Serhan, Y. November 19,2019.  The Common Element Uniting Worldwide Protests. The Atlantic. 

UNESCO. 2018. Global Education Monitoring Report:  Accountability in Education – Meeting our committments.  Paris: UNESCO. 

Making Evaluations Work for Equity and Inclusion in Education

I’m reposting this blog (originally published by UNESCO) on the our synthesis of evaluations on education equality and inclusion. The report will be presented next week in Rome and Oslo.

International organizations typically have well-developed evaluation units, generating large volumes of evidence about their policies, programs and practices. Yet, while synthesis of evidence on international education development has evolved considerably in recent years, synthesis of evidence from the independent evaluations undertaken by international organizations has not.


A new ‘evidence synthesis’ released this week from UNESCO’s IOS Evaluation Office and a group of international partners partly fills this gap. The study reviews 147 independent evaluations commissioned by 13 international organizations, all with a focus on measuring and assessing some aspect of education equality or gender equity. Using a rigorous search process, systematic coding and narrative analysis, the study gives a bird’s eye view of the types of interventions being evaluated by international organizations and synthesizes evaluation findings. It also proposes important recommendations to help improve evaluations commissioned by international organizations and ensure that these evaluations support country progress in achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.5.

What are the main findings from the study?

The volume of evidence is impressive: in an open search of the evaluation databases of 16 international organizations, we found that 147 of a total of 156 evaluations of education published between 2015 and 2019 included objectives or outcomes related to gender parity, equality and inclusion.  Approximately 30 to 40 education evaluations were published each year.

There are strengths and gaps in these evaluations. Their predominant focus is on interventions to support access and participation. Very few include learning as a measured area of impact. Furthermore, while the issue of girls’ education is well covered in these evaluations, the impact of programs on other aspects of equity, related to inclusion for those with disabilities, and disadvantage related to ethnicity and language, were less commonly studied. Geographically, the largest number of evaluations in the dataset are based in Africa – signaling an important new body of evidence on education in the continent.

Only 28 of the evaluations used rigorous quantitative methods with a counterfactual. The strongest evidence appears in evaluations of cash transfer and school feeding programs. Very few of the evaluations look at the equity impact of interventions that directly target improvements in service delivery, with a notable lack of strong evidence on what works to improve teaching practices for more equitable learning outcomes.

With a few exceptions, evaluations in this dataset are unable to show a convincing link between large-scale system-wide reform programs and improvements in learning equity and alleviation of other forms of educational inequality, in part because rigorous and consistent use of theory-based evaluation design is rare.

Furthermore, as noted in an earlier study (and also noted in a podcast), there is little attempt to compare and learn from system reform programs by looking across countries, or across the different organizational forms of support provided in a single country. Yet complex and multi-pronged ‘system-wide’ programs form an increasingly large share of donor-funded interventions in education. Tantalizing but incomplete findings from evaluations of system reform programs include the fact that decentralization and school-based management may have negative impacts on equity and inclusion; and that results-based financing has mixed impact on implementation.

Thaneshwar Gautam

In conclusion, this new report calls for international organizations to strengthen their evaluation of SDG 4.5 in four specific ways.

First, address evidence gaps by improving evaluation of the equity impact of interventions focused on changing frontline service delivery (improving classrooms, teachers and schools), including by incorporating stronger measures of learning equity.

Second, use the evaluation enterprise to contribute to stronger, country-owned generation and use of data.

Third, strengthen evaluation methodologies. 

Finally, based on validation workshops in five countries, the report calls on international organizations to make evaluation evidence more usable and useful to national stakeholders, by ensuring they are involved in the selection and timing of evaluative studies, and by preparing evidence syntheses to support ongoing learning.

In addition to the full report, a methodological note and list of the evaluations will be available on the UNESCO IOS website in due course.

The New Learning Targets – Redux

The past year or so has seen a rash of new initiatives and exchanges among the global education literati about “global learning targets.” Lets take a look at what all the fuss is about, and why it is worth asking a few further questions.  [And a “heads up”:  in coming weeks I’ll be comparing the strategies of two international organizations – UNICEF and the World Bank-  for tackling the learning crisis.]

What’s all the fuss about?  Over the course of the year, it has become increasingly clear that the global community has not moved quickly towards selecting realistic measures for some of the most important SDG 4 goals.  Specifically, almost 30 years after the Jomtien Declaration, and more than 50 years since the first UN led efforts to “eradicate illiteracy,” education still has no comparable measure to those that have elevated global health diplomacy – no guiding metric, no single data-point, that can focus attention on learning (instead of schooling).

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics has been valiantly aiming to develop such a metric, specifically for SDG 4.1. Based on low levels of enthusiasm among both developing country members and civil society for a single global test that measures literacy, it’s strategy so far has been to design a “bridge” that can allow us to equate and compare learning outcomes from national and regional learning assessments. UIS however is in crisis: its modest funding is in no way adequate to meet its global role; furthermore, it faces an underlying problem: too few countries have national learning metrics to start with (though those that do is growing). In August, a big twitter fire erupted when a UN meeting on indicators for SDG 4.1 saw a recommendation to stop pursuing a learning target for SDG 4.1 at primary level and instead replace it with the more traditional adult literacy indicator proposed for use with 4.6.1. 

Enter stage left the World Bank.  For at least the last decade, the Bank has endorsed and advanced the idea that education system quality can be measured by learning outcomes. Yet it never quite got its act together to ensure that all its operations and loans included funding for a learning outcome measure or used learning outcomes as a metric for its own project performance.   Earlier this year the Bank signed a cooperative agreement with UIS that draws on UIS expertise to help it create a single learning metric that it says it will use as the centrepiece for all its education sector work going forward. Now we have a new, new indicator: the Learning Poverty target.   Last week at its fall meetings, the World Bank also announced that it will (support countries to) “halve” the number of children aged 10 who cannot read at a basic level of proficiency (do I hear echos of the last USAID strategy?). The Bank estimates that over 50% of children in low and middle income countries cannot read and understand a simple text. It also launched a new learning policy package to get all children reading by age 10.  

Why hasn’t more happened already?  Lets back up a bit and ask why education as been so slow in developing relevant global metrics.  The problem can be traced to several issues, but the common root may be fragmentation in the institutional architecture, as captured in a recent article by Nick Burnett.  Lets face it:  in the past 20 years the international community could at any time have provided steady and predictable investment in a process that engaged groups of countries in designing their own rigorous national and regional assessments. Such initial investments were made – largely by the World Bank – but it didn’t hold the course. Over the same period, the agencies that we might look to to develop or support broadly owned learning metrics, went off in different directions with their own technical fixes for measuring learning outcomes, usually working bilaterally (think USAID’s EGRA, think World Bank’s service delivery indicators). The governments and organizations that might be expected to provide core funding for global education statistics – including the World Bank, GPE and bilateral donors – have not provided it. In the meanwhile UNESCO (and its scion UIL), have lost their groove. 

International organizations and donors are fickle and always seeking a new shiny “silver ball” – their main focus is on their own organizational needs and drivers, and rarely on the regional and global goods needed to shift a whole education system or the aid regime. UIS is struggling to gain its ground, and may not be the best “agent” for scaffolding regional assessment regimes. PISA and the OECD may have overplayed their hand. GPE’s Strategy 2020 stood out because it was the first time an international organizations promised to hold its own work to account for improving learning outcomes, and UNICEF quickly followed. But have they really changed the way their organizations fund and support learning?  Today’s World Bank seems to be a frenetic “metrics machine”  – deeply fragmented internally about how and what metrics to use to monitor learning outcomes. For example, the World Bank’s new Learning Poverty Measure, draws from different data than last year’s  big annual meetings announcement, the Human Capital Index; while the Bank’s Service Delivery Indicators framework, which the Bank promises to spread across its portfolio, draws from – yup – another learning outcomes measure!  Go figure. 

Skepticism about the underlying “theory of change.”   So lets unpack the theory of change behind global metrics.  It might look something like this:  the world community comprised of nation states sets a meaningful goal, identifies a target and a measure of this goal. Countries report on this target, and change their priorities to reflect this shared goal. At the global level an advocacy and accountability “boomerang” helps to hold countries to account, and provides a significant tool for accountability politics among local and regional stakeholders (aka, governments and citizens!), stimulating further incentives for policy makers committed to change.  This is essentially the theory of change for the new Learning Poverty indictor, except that initiative is not a globally set target owned by countries. Nonetheless, it is gaining wide support (see this blog from the Gates Foundation).

Is this a plausible ToC?  The record is mixed.  As a recent Centre for Global Development paper on the role played by regional assessments in Latin America and Africa by Bruns et. al. shows,  successful assessment regimes are built painstakingly by engaging regional actors and countries over long periods of time. If these processes are managed well, along the road countries to develop both a strong normative frame for thinking about learning outcomes and learning equity, and the technical and policy capacity for using data.

We could hypothesize from this that the process through which learning targets and measures are developed is as important as the metric itself:  metrics work best when there is time to build a sense of ownership and belonging among a“club” of countries — where the “muscles” for constructive comparison are gradually built alongside national capacity to use data for reform. Yet this organic pathway is not at all what we see in current efforts.

We can further stress test the theory of change behind global learning indicators by looking at the mixed impact PISA has had in developing countries. It is true that international metrics can spur change where there is a change oriented policy entrepreneur ready to catch the boomerang (aka, Jaime Savaedra in Peru), or where a robust civil society and free media demands national response (see Germany).  But few low-income countries have either of these assets – which combined are what we typically mean when use the term “political will”. Instead several low-income countries have simply pulled out of PISA altogether, finding the metric irrelevant.  

We can also learn by taking the MDG era targets and experiences seriously. The MDG global goals for education were widely rejected by developing countries because of their sole focus on primary education; GPE’s early support for “all children reading” campaign for learning metrics suffered a similar pushback.

Do we want a quick fix, or country and regional ownership and commitment to learning?  

In short:  these new global metrics may all be great inventions for moving a single agency forward – and they certainly give an organization a reputational boost and the patina of strategic focus. But as far as I can see, none of these new metrics is built on the kind of consensus and the underlying accountabilities that are likely to generate lasting global change.  We should all worry when a new learning poverty metric is not organic.  If I am right, global targets of this type will do little to shift policy winds that are almost entirely focused on secondary schooling and youth skills, as for example across Africa.

More importantly, supply driven metrics and diagnostic tools of all kinds may have pernicious side effects, undermining rather than bolstering national will and ownership of learning goals, reinforcing a culture in which global policy talk and national policy action continue to diverge. This is one of the lessons highlighted in GPE’s recent country level evaluations, in regards to its emphasis on a prescribed model for education sector planning.

So what should we do? Three thoughts.  

·      First:  Pool international resources and support regional coalitions for learning. Predictable funding for collaborative policy dialogue about learning should be our first goal. Supporting country-led efforts to develop national and regional assessments (especially in Africa), can be part of this effort – but at best these should be a supporting concern, not an ends in themselves. And don’t forget: for learning metrics, it’s all about process, and that takes time and steadfast commitment.

·      Second: Invest adequate resources in a simple global learning indicator module in household surveys. This strategy is cost effective and has the advantage of drawing new focus for the learning crisis in the youth and adult populations. (Recall that even teachers aren’t reading at primary level in parts of Africa).  SDG 4.6.1 – everyone has the right to literacy – needs just as much attention as all children reading.

·      Third:   Don’t overestimate the importance of international organizations and international metrics.  But do demand more information about what each international organization plans to do increase learning outcomes and ask whether they will be using learning metrics to evaluate the performance of their own portfolios and programs. Too few IOs have looked rigorously at the impact of their sector financing on learning outcomes; more and more of them are moving funding away from primary education and towards secondary and TVET. I suspect the new focus on learning metrics is more political ploy than conscientious effort to shift the way aid dollars are spent. Twenty years ago a group of donors conducted a joint evaluation of aid to basic education – and shortly afterwards the World Bank evaluated its support to primary education. Each suggested lacklustre performance – in areas that are consistent with USAID’s more recent evaluation of its support to basic education and a Norwegian evaluation of GPE and UNICEF. It’s time to evaluate our sector again, answering one clear question (with thanks to Lant Pritchet):  why after 30 years, and so many global commitments, have aid and international donors had such limited impact on learning?

More Money Matters: New work on financing education development

As the CTO at the Global Partnership for Education, I spent a lot of time working with the GPE Board to design GPE2020, the organization’s strategic plan.  Everyone hoped GPE would raise more money to reach the Sustainable Development Goal 4; but many also criticized the effectiveness of aid to education, and worried about how new funds could be better spent.

This month has seen the release of new research and recommendations about financing that bring the importance of more funding for SDG4 into sharper focus. In this blog I review new costing of the funding gap for Education 2030; an update on the International Financing Facility for Education; and new research on the role of educational financing in achieving learning and completion (raising questions about recent World Bank prescriptions). All highlight the importance of additional financing for equitable educational outcomes – particularly relevant to the sometimes neglected SDG 4 Target 5: “By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations.

Costing the Education Sustainable Development Goal:

The UNESCO GEM Report team estimates that an annual education funding gap of at least US$39 billion per year in low and middle income countries will persist over 2015–2030, requiring international financing to achieve SDG4. Using a slightly different methodology the International Commission on Financing Global Educational Opportunity, estimates total financing for education in low and middle income countries will need to increase from USD $1.2 trillion to USD$3 trillion by 2030 to achieve SDG4. Allocations of external financing for education, now at $16 billion per year, would need to grow $89 billion per year by 2030. These funds would remain particularly critical for low-income countries, covering on average half of their education costs.

Last week a publication from the IMF provided a new way to look at the domestic and international financing needed to achieve the SDGs, this time modelling what is needed to close the gap in public and private financing for education, health, roads, electricity, water and sanitation by 2030. The report’s findings are revealing:  While approximately US$ 2.1 trillion is needed to close the SDG spending gap in these areas in emerging (middle income) countries, only US$ 0.5 trillion is needed in low income countries. However, as the report concludes, it will be much harder for low income countries to raise this sum, because it requires average additional spending representing an increase of 15 percentage points of GDP. In contrast, for emerging market economies, the spending gap is a more manageable 4 percentage points of GDP. This is why external resources are so important to low income countries.

What is perhaps most interesting in this new study is the remarkable heterogeneity in the financing gaps for education and health within low-income and middle income country categories.  Some countries have done much better in raising domestic education spending, but why and how? There are lessons in positive deviance here to learn from.

New Evidence that Financing Education Matters

For quite a while, the World Bank has argued that more money is not what is needed to reach the global goals for education. Key reports, including the Bank’s World Development Report 2004 and the World Development Report 2018showed little correlation between spending and access to school, and a similarly weak correlation between spending and learning outcomes.  

As a result the World Bank has tended to emphasize a greater focus on improving the efficiency of spending, and shies away from recommendations to increase per capita education spending in low-income countries. For example, the Bank’s new book on African education, “Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa,” the handful of major recommendations include only one focused on financing: “strengthening key budget processes.” (Watch for further detail in my forthcoming book review blog).

A refreshing blog last week from World Bank economist Dave Evans raises questions about Bank orthodoxy on education financing. In it he reviews a new paper by Kirabo Jackson (“Does School Spending Matter? The New Literature on an Old Question”) based on 13 studies in the US. As Evan’s notes, twelve of the studies in the synthesis show convincingly that improvements in school completion and learning outcomes over the last 20 years can be traced to sustained increases in financing – with particularly strong impacts for low SES students.  

Because these studies all come from the US, they also raise an important challenge for researchers who study education finance and education reform in the developing world. More money matters.  But Evans argues that while the impact of a marginal dollar in the developing world might produce even stronger effects than spending increases in the US, the effectiveness of education spending is likely lower in developing world – mainly because less reaches schools and the poorest children.

But we simply don’t know for sure.

We have remarkably little research or evaluation evidence like that reported by Jackson to help us to understand the causal impact of spending changes on learning and equity in the developing world.  

So: I’m wondering whether we can’t divert some of the our international research dollars to this type of question. We’ve gone whole hog using experimental methods to study discrete educational innovations – but are we spending too little on research on whole of system reforms, like how changes in financing levels effects equity? Love to hear your views.

And if we do such research, let’s continue to focus on positive deviance – how some low income countries have been able to increase their spending and achieve equity-focused improvements in completion rates and learning outcomes. A good example of this highlighted in “Facing Forward” is Burundi.  Lessons from such examples are essential if we want to spur future progress.  

More on Development Finance: 

Meanwhile, Nancy Lee highlights the challenge the world faces in providing the right mix and levels of public finance and commercial private finance for the SDGs (including education) on an OECD blog. As she notes, despite global commitments “four years later the hoped for trillions are no where in sight… In fact we have reached the stage where we need to decide whether to change the goals we set in 2015 or take a hard, critical look at the institutions we rely on to propel mobilization of private finance for sustainable development.”  The situation is most critical for low-income countries where 40% are in or at risk of debt distress, often for borrowing to fund investments in the social sectors and infrastructure.

It might appear that education has been quicker to address this problem than other sector, what with the new Education Finance Facility moving forward. But not so fast! As the 2019 updated prospectus and plans for the facility make clear, this facility is focused on filling the gap in financing for lower middle-income countries, with an expected USD$10 billion in additional finance. That’s important because approximately (according to the commission) 155 million out-of-school children live in this geography, including more than half of the total refugees and displaced persons globally.  

However, for education we need to look at demographic, economic and educational trends going forward, realizing that making investments now will only yield results decades into the future. Such trends suggest that the number of out of school or under-educated children in low-income countries is stubbornly expanding and likely to grow as a share of the total underserved population over the next 20 years. Furthermore, high levels of global geopolitical and economic volatility raise the risk that countries recently “graduated” to lower middle-income status will sink back into low-income status (see for example Zambia) or indebtedness (see for example Ghana). 

This brings us back to the need for sufficient external concessional financing for education.  Yet according to a GEM policy brief, international financing flows for education in low-income countries are declining: less than a quarter of basic education aid goes to low income countries, compared to 36% in 2002; and overall aid to sub-Saharan Africa, home to about half of all out of school children world-wide, has slipped down the donors priority list. 

Money matters! 

It’s clear from the above that we continue to need new educational financing solutions for children in low-income countries. While a large share of the financing gap could be filled if donors met the internationally agreed target of providing aid at the level of 0.7% of GNI  – a fact that the IMF paper emphasizes – this seems unlikely. 

Of course both domestic and international funding needs to be spent well, reaching the poorest children and most marginalized schools with good quality education. But spending funds more efficiently alone won’t get us where we need to go.

More money, not just money better spent, is essential if we want to improve equitable educational outcomes for all.  New research on educational financing also shows that more and better financing, especially through concessional flows, is essential, not incidental to achieving the global goals in education.


Bashir, S., M. Lockheed, E. Ninan and Jee-Peng Tang. 2018.  Facing Forward: Schooling for Learning in Africa, Washington D.C.:  The World Bank.

Education Commission. 2016. The Learning Generation.  https://report.educationcommission.org/finance/

Gasper et al. 2019. Fiscal Policy for Development: Human Social and Physical Investment for the SDGs.  IMF Staff discussion Note # 1903. Washington: International Monetary Fund. 

Evans, D. 2019. Education Spending and Learning Outcomes. Development Impact Blog January 17, 2019.  

Jackson, C. Kiribo. 2018. Does School Spending Matter? The new literature on an old question.  

Lee, Nancy. 2019. Trillions for the SDGs?  Time for A Rethink. OECD Development Matters Blog

the Education Commission. 2019.  IFFED Prospectus Update. New York: the Education Commission 

UNESCO. 2018.  Policy Brief # 36:  Aid to Education: A return to growth?   Paris: UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report. 

Winners take all: A master class in contemporary philanthropy?

I’ve just finished reading** (aka listening) to a provocative new book —  Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World by New York Times journalist Anand Giridharadas. For those of you who want a master class in how to interface with international donors in education, I think this may be the book for you. 

First impression: this is a compelling, if cynical, book about philanthropy.  It’s not about individual donors but about the entire complex of ideas, actors and behaviours that form the mental models underpinning contemporary US based philanthropy. The book literally gallops along, fueled by insider accounts of the Clinton Global Initiative, the Aspen Institute, the work of major foundations and consulting firms. It’s studded with a cast of star appearances from leading philanthropists and young professionals. Political scientist Dan Drezner,  economist Dani Rodrik, and even Hilary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, are featured, adding to the fun.

Argument:  Building a layered account through short case studies, participant observation and interviews with major philanthropists, politicians and foundation staff, Giridharadas argues that that the culture of philanthropy in the US has changed and is increasingly narrow. 

He builds a convincing portrait of what does and does not count as good philanthropy and shows how these ideas have come to permeate the field: 

  • Donors increasingly frame what they want to do with their philanthropic funding as “win-win” – for the investors and the recipients/targets of the funding. A double bottom line is essential.
  • The only acceptable language is the language of market and entrepreneurship. And it’s all about innovation – disruptive innovation – – all the way down.
  • Out of bounds are topics like the potential role of billionaire donors and their corporations in the creation of social inequality; the need for progessive taxation; and the role of state policies in ensuring equity and democracy.
  • The “heroes” are always innovators from the business sector.  Problems of the poor are personalized and individualized – leading to the concentration of efforts on improving the resilience and adaptability of the poor to the social and technological changes affecting them. Collective action or state regulation is rarely on the menu.
  • Major consulting firms have codified how to make “win-win” proposals and programs using a set of analytic tools that is reproducible across almost any field of philanthropic endeavor (but often neglecting collective action, context and the political economy of forces that drive inequality).
  • A whole generation of young people are being trained to execute this philanthropic approach – including through their recruitment into major consulting firms. As Giridharadas hilariously documents, there are workshops, seminars and even cruises that provide “how to guidance” to young professionals encouraging them to be part of the “win win”.
  • The new culture of philanthropy is changing the role of public intellectuals and academics:   “thought leaders” who purveys win-win arguments are the new normal (building on Dan Drezner’s recent book). 

Winners Take All is at times hyperbolic and reads a bit like Jonathan Swift satire. This may come from the fact that, for Giridharadas this topic is very personal. He worked for a major consulting firm and spent time as an Aspen institute fellow. Not only was he  deeply immersed in the culture of the new philanthropy; his ideas were sharply critiqued when he presented them at the Aspen Institute. 

The upshot:  Read this book if you need a master class in the language of current donor discourse. Giridharadas describes a mindset that increasingly permeates work in educational development organizations. I don’t necessarily agree with his portrait of the motivations behind this culture nor would I dismiss the benefits of entrepreneurship and innovation as completely as he does. But I have learned some of the lessons he offers in this book the hard way. For example:  Arguments that work best with international donors are those that are framed as “win-win” innovations. Never start with any strategy with a zero sum argument.. And try using a major consulting firm to advance an idea or proposal, it almost always improves the uptake of an idea.   

However, if you are really interested in contemporary philanthropy, try something more grounded in research. Stanford University Prof and colleague Rob Reich’s new book “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it can do better” is on my holiday reading list. I’m curious to read his take on how to reform charitable giving. 

I’m also looking forward to a NORRAG sponsored workshop on the new philanthropy being held in Stanford California in April 2019, where Rob Reich will be our host, with collaboration from the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, and the Open Society Foundation. 

What to watch/read/listen to this week:

An update on the future of reading:  one of the questions I raised in a recent blog is: “is listening as good as traditional reading for knowledge acquisition”  Today a New York Times article by Daniel T. Willingham takes up my question. The answer is “it depends.”

Read Rob Reich’s new book –  or see this short piece by Rob in the Stanford Innovation Review.Rob Reich. 2019 (winter).  Philanthropy in the Service of Democracy. Stanford Innovation Review.

Rob Reich. 2018.  Just Giving:  Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it can do better. Princeton University Press

Take a look at Dan Drezner’s book on decline of the public intellectual and the rise of “thought leadership.”  Or listen to this podcast interview.

Dan Drezner. The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.. Oxford University Press.

Listen to Anand Giridharadas on the NYT Book review or NPR. Or just go all out and read** (listen) to the book.