Where Is the Bill Gates of Global Education?

This month marks the one year anniversary of the “Giving Pledge,” Warren Buffett and Bill Gates’ challenge to other billionaires to pledge at least half of their wealth to philanthropy. When the Giving Pledge launched, our initial analysis found no champions for global education. One year and a total of 69 American billionaire pledges later, supporting education in developing countries still does not appear to be high on the priority list. American billionaire philanthropists supporting education tend to do so domestically. Therefore, in a search for philanthropic champions of education in the developing world, we looked at the philanthropy priorities of billionaires living in developing countries and emerging economies.

Education Champions in Developing Countries

Emerging economies hold the vast majority of individual billionaire wealth in developing countries. China leads with 115 billionaires, followed by Russia (101), India (55), and Brazil (30). While over one-third of the 1,210 billionaires in the world are in the United States, only six are from sub-Saharan Africa, a region with troubling education statistics. In examining the billionaires in developing countries and emerging economies, several individuals stood out as champions of education:

  • Latin America: Carlos Slim Helú, the richest man in the world with an estimated net worth of $74 billion, has given an estimated $4 billion to his foundation based in Mexico. While not exclusively focused on education, he has directed his financial support for digital education programs in Mexico and Fundacion Alas, an education organization in in Latin America founded by Colombian singer, Shakira. However, Slim declined to join the Giving Pledge as he felt there are other ways he could fight poverty.
  • India: Azim Premji established the Azim Premji Foundation in 2001, which over the past 10 years has reached over 2.5 million children in 20,000 schools across 13 states in India. The organization provides education resources and grassroots level support for local communities as they improve local public schools. Sunil Mittal, founder of the Bharti Foundation, and Shiv Nadar, founder of the Shiv Nadar Foundation, have both focused their efforts on improving education in India’s rural regions through establishing schools and delivering quality education to primary school-aged children.
  • Indonesia: Sukanto Tanoto and Tinah Bingei Tanoto formed the Tanoto Foundation, which has built a number of primary schools, trained over 1,300 teachers, and awarded scholarships to more than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students in Indonesia.
  • Turkey: Husnu Ozyegin established the Hüsnü M. Özyeğin Foundation in 1990. The foundation has built approximately 50 schools and girls dormitories in areas with limited access to educational facilities and has provided about 10,000 scholarships to university students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Turkey.

Should Billionaires Drive the Education Agenda?
The concentration of billionaires in certain countries lends itself to the natural concentration of philanthropic resources in these regions. Of the few billionaires on the African continent, wealth is concentrated within two nations: Nigeria and South Africa. The remaining countries in Africa are left without significant sources of private high net worth philanthropy.

Some may actually argue that this is a good thing. While many may see individual billionaire champions as a way to catalyze a big moment in education, it can also distract attention from national priorities to narrow solutions and experiments. In the United States, some suggest that a few billion dollars from private philanthropy – a mere fraction of total education expenditures – has defined the national education debate. Even Bill Gates acknowledges that a lot of money he has invested into education has been experimental. “It’s been about a decade of learning,” he notes regarding the $5 billion the Gates Foundation has spent on education grants and scholarships since 2000 in the United States. While learning about the effectiveness of new policies is important, philanthropic education experiments are not the only type of support needed in developing countries at this crucial moment as we near the Education for All deadline of 2015.

Missing a Global Education Philanthropy Champion

The public nature of the Giving Pledge and much of American philanthropy is not a universally shared trait; many philanthropists do not publish their wealth and charitable activities, citing philanthropy as a private and personal matter. For this reason, there are likely many other philanthropists below the radar supporting education throughout the world. While billionaire philanthropists should not be driving the global education policy agenda, such a champion could help catalyze national discussions and mobilize investments from other actors, such has been the case in the global health sector. About one-third of 1 percent of the wealth from the world’s billionaires could fill UNESCO’s estimated annual $16 billion basic education financing gap. And while private giving from individuals to education in developing countries is taking hold at country and regional levels, the global learning crisis has yet to capture the imagination of a philanthropic champion.