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The Private Sector Tackling Education in Emerging Economies

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Anyone who really wants to understand what is happening with education in emerging economies should look to Sunny Varkey. Born to expat Indian teachers in Dubai, Varkey is now head of the largest operator of private K-12 schools in the world, GEMS Education.

Varkey is working in an area that is in desperate need of improvement. Around the world, according to the Brookings Institution, some 57 million children -- mostly from marginalized groups -- are currently not in school. And not only is access a problem, but even out of those who do attend school, another 250 million can't read or count at basic levels -- especially in the developing countries that make up the bottom of the OECD's PISA rankings and other international evaluations.

Clearly, major changes are needed to turn this situation around. We need innovative ways to both expand access and improve quality for the world's lower-income students -- and no one government or company can do it alone. After a successful stint in the health-care industry, he decided to refocus his energy on education. Since 1980 he has opened schools across India and the Middle East, beginning with the management of his parents' school in Dubai, where they emigrated in 1959.

GEMS Education now operates a network of 132 schools and more than 142,000 students from 151 countries, employing over 11,000 teachers across the Middle East, Europe, China, and India. But in addition to investing his business acumen in the education sector, Varkey is also working hard to bring together governments and multilateral organizations to the table to advance this vision.

His annual Global Education and Skills Forum, held in Dubai, offers a perfect opportunity for bringing these sectors together. Dubai is itself a bridge to cultures, trends, and new developments, and this year the conference was attended by 1,200 people from more than 60 countries. The Forum included entrepreneurs, established business leaders, 35 ministers of education, and other representatives of international and civil society organizations. Multilateral organizations often pay lip service to public-private partnerships but in practice rarely collaborate with business. The reverse is true as well, as most in the private sector don't seek out relationships with government or multilaterals.

In Dubai, by contrast, these relationships are cultivated. This year the Forum launched the "Business Backs Education" campaign, which partners UNESCO with the Global Business Coalition for Education in order to challenge business to commit 20 percent of its social spending to education by 2020. Led by UNESCO head Irina Bokova and the CEOs of SAP, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Crescent Petroleum, and many others, the campaign will also seek to double global corporate education spending by March 2015, from $548 million to over $1 billion.

And while there is certainly a need for more dialogue between government and the private sector on education, there is much more need for concerted action. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair highlighted the challenges during the Forum's inaugural session: "The private sector is focused on short-term profit, not long-term outcomes, but it usually brings more innovation and is faster to adapt." At the same time, he explained, "the public sector has a more long-term perspective and is more concerned with the common good, but it can also be captured by special interests and bureaucracy."

In many ways, the divide between public and private education seemed almost old-fashioned in the light of the Forum's forward-thinking debates and panel presentations. The discussions were hands-on and free-flowing, with government officials debating entrepreneurs over the best way to address education reform. In addition to Blair's assertion that education must be a political priority everywhere, Vikas Pota, a chief executive of GEMS, also emphasized that "education should be at the top of the agenda of every board room of every corporation in the world."

Other business leaders in regions like Latin America are starting to get it too, thanks to these good examples. Argentina's Carlos Garcia, for example, in his role as Co-Managing Partner of DLJ South American Partners, made an investment of $370 million in Santillana, the leading publisher of educational texts in Latin America. Other examples include Linzor's Tim Purcell investing in Chile's Santo Tomas University, and Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann's education-oriented foundation. And not to be outdone, Peruvian businessman Carlos Rodriguez Pastor is launching a chain of 100 low-cost private schools in his home country.

These, like Sunny Varky, are all good role models -- and we need more of them in emerging economies.