Schooled for growth

Investment in education in India is best described by a John F. Kennedy quote: "There is a lot of noise on the stairs but no one is in the room." A recent Unesco report revealed that the millennium pledge made by leaders across the globe, that all children should have access to primary education by 2015, will not be fulfilled. After an initial surge, no one was ready to do anything about it. In India, education has been driven by the government. The number of children not going to school went down from 20 million in 1998 to 2.28 million in 2010, which is a noteworthy achievement. But increasing literacy is not enough. A fast growing economy needs young people to be educated in such a way that they can make responsible life choices, get the right jobs, and lead communities toward positive change. So who will educate India's millions?

Big businesses will have to be brought on board too, as there is a need for models that focus on returns. When for-profit investors fund solutions, they seek good returns on their investment. Returns-based models will ensure that education is oriented towards jobs, leadership and change. However, the risk is that to deliver those returns, businesses will cater to the largest possible market, which is mostly urban and suburban. They may also engage only with communities where their operations or products could have a market. In doing so, businesses may accept a mediocre impact and miss the great value that lies at the bottom of the pyramid.

It is fantastic that non-profit organisations often aim for deep impact. However, my experience as founder of a non-profit organisation has been that we are no good at providing long-term systemic solutions on our own. This is because in the development sector, money is often project-based and not self-sustaining. We are not part of a "system" so we can be creative, but that does not give us the framework to carry on the good work. The risk of relapse is high.

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