Questioning the “business case” for investing in the education of Syrian refugees

Are humanitarian and profit-oriented goals in education compatible?

In settings of humanitarian crisis, where governments often have low capacity and limited public funds, private sector engagement in education has become increasingly appealing to a growing portion of the international community. In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, where public education systems in the Middle East have struggled to accommodate the growing refugee populations, very well-known business actors, some with celebrity status, have become publicly engaged in “solving” the crisis.

Such high-profile businesses as Goldman Sachs, Google, Hewlett Packard, LinkedIn, McKinsey & Co, Microsoft, Pearson Education, and RAND, amongst many other companies and corporate foundations, have made funding commitments, proposed new initiatives, and developed partnership arrangements to advance the cause of educating Syrian refugee children.

On the surface, this mobilization is commendable. It is a positive development that so many prominent actors are voicing their concern for refugee education. And businesses may be able to help address crucial educational gaps. Some cite the notion of “shared value,” which means generating economic value in ways that also do something good for society by addressing societal needs or challenges. From this perspective, humanitarian and profit-based aims are both compatible and desirable.

Critics, however, argue that the state is the primary duty-bearer to provide and regulate quality education for all children within its borders. The involvement of businesses can weaken public systems of education, and it also undermines a key component for ensuring education as a human right, which is the responsibility of the state.

Furthermore, in contexts of crisis, privatization can be seen as exploitation. Canadian journalist Naomi Klein aptly calls this “disaster capitalism,” or when catastrophic events are seen as an occasion to enact market-based reforms, or as she puts it: “the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”

Of course, not all business people exploit crises, but in the Syrian refugee context, where we have noted a rapid rise in the involvement of corporate actors in education, we saw a need to look closer at what they are doing, the nature of their partnerships, and the rationales that drive their involvement. Our research study analyzed 144 non-state organizations involved in Syrian refugee education in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Of these, 32% were private businesses and an additional 10% were foundations, including very well-known multinational companies and philanthropies. A closer look at these found that 77% were headquartered in the global North, from high-income countries, and 62% did not work on educational issues as part of their mandate.

This surge in business involvement is very recent, with most actors first engaging since 2015. In interviews with business and other non-state actors, representatives described this to us as a mass proliferation of private involvement, everything from small start-ups to large multinationals. They cited several concerns however.

First, the rush to involvement has led to a lack of coordination and knowledge sharing between actors, creating gaps and duplication, as well as irrelevant programming. Second, with almost 50% of businesses involved in the development or distribution of education-related technology to help reach large numbers at low cost and with few teachers, the overemphasis on technology is seen to be problematic. The content, form, and delivery are often not appropriate for the reality on the ground, particularly where teachers have not been consulted, and the technology has been developed somewhere else. Third, the Syrian refugee context appears to be fertile ground for the establishment of business-supported private schools, which have been criticized for their lack of accountability and for hiring non-unionized and poorly-trained teachers.

The motivations for business involvement may be problematic as well. While some business actors talked about having humanitarian-related motivations and simply wanting to “do the right thing,” and others have family or loved ones in the region, most also talked about the profit motivations of their work. That is, many in our study explained to us their “business case” for participating in Syrian refugee education. They explained how being affiliated with high profile, good causes enhances brand image. Furthermore, businesses are motivated by the possibility of creating markets for their products and testing innovations in an unregulated environment. They also explained that employee engagement in good causes has been tied to higher productivity.

So, is creating a “business case” for investing in the crisis suggestive of “shared value” or “disaster capitalism”? Businesses can fill gaps in educational provision, and there is a need for non-traditional funding in the face of declining international aid to education. High-profile CEOs are also able to raise awareness of the Syria crisis in ways that others cannot.

However, our interviewees brought attention to the potential incompatibility between humanitarian and profit-oriented goals. Furthermore, business-led interventions that circumvent the informed input of a range of stakeholders--including parents, students, school and community leaders, local Ministries of Education, teachers and their unions-- will have negative repercussions for longer-term systemic change in the service of all children.

Our research spurs educational policymakers to think about how to harness the expertise and funds of the private sector in ways that are coordinated, contextualized, equitable, and grounded in a commitment to refugee educational rights.

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