UNESCO, Education, and the Private Sector: A Relationship on Whose Terms?

  • Natasha RidgeEmail author
  • Susan Kippels


Over the past 25 years, there has been a steady increase in the involvement of the private sector in the global education landscape. While studies of what is now referred to as the global education industry have taken a critical look at some of these new private sector actors, there has been less attention paid to the role of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in facilitating their entry and growing influence.

This chapter explores the relationship between UNESCO and various private sector organizations active in the global education market. It examines how a multilateral donor organization which, in its own words, is committed to education for all is increasingly appearing as a brand for sale, with its commitment to free, universal education being seemingly diluted over time. It also examines some of the more recent private sector partnerships and trends in private sector funding for UNESCO, alongside exploring the ethical conflicts inherent in some of these relationships. The chapter concludes by considering how the increased involvement and solicitation of funds from the private sector may actually be influencing and driving UNESCO’s global education agenda rather than the other way around, thus potentially placing UNESCO’s own brand and reputation at risk.


  1. Adams, B., & Martens, J. (2015). Fit for Whose Purpose? Private Funding and Corporate Influence in the United Nations. New York, Global Policy Forum.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, J. (2011, September 22). UNESCO in Partnership to Train School Principals in 3 Nations. The New York Times.Google Scholar
  3. Associated Press. (1984, December 28). Singapore Says it Plans to Leave UNESCO. The New York Times.Google Scholar
  4. Associated Press. (1985, December 5). Britain Following Lead of U.S., Will Withdraw from UNESCO. Los Angeles Times.Google Scholar
  5. Barta, P. (2012, August 10). Bringing Pepsi Back to Myanmar. The Wall Street Journal.Google Scholar
  6. Belfield, C. R., & Levin, H. M. (2002). Education Privatization: Causes, Consequences and Planning Implications. Paris, France: UNESCO, International Institute for Educational Planning.Google Scholar
  7. Blanchfield, L., & Browne, M. A. (2013). The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Congressional Research Service.Google Scholar
  8. Bouyamourn, A. (2015, June 15). GEMS Bottom Line Benefits from School Seat Shortage. The National.Google Scholar
  9. Bull, B., Bøås, M., & McNeill, D. (2004). Private Sector Influence in the Multilateral System: A Changing Structure of World Governance? Global Governance, 10(4), 481–498.Google Scholar
  10. Callahan, D. (2017, June 30). As Government Retrenches, Philanthropy Booms. The New York Times.Google Scholar
  11. Chabbott, C. (2003). Constructing Education for Development: International Organizations and Education for All. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Davies, R. (2016). Firms Such as Kellogg’s, Unilever and Nestlé ‘Use Child-labour Palm Oil’. The Guardian.Google Scholar
  13. Draxler, A. (2008). New Partnerships for EFA: Building on Experience. Retrieved from Accessed 03/01/2018.
  14. Draxler, A. (2014). International Investment in Education for Development: Public Good or Economic Tool? International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement. doi:
  15. Earley, K. (2016, September 30). More Than Half of All Businesses Ignore UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Guardian.Google Scholar
  16. Easterly, W. (2015, September 28). The SDGs Should Stand for Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled. Foreign Policy 28.Google Scholar
  17. Education UNcovered. (2011, November 11). UNESCO Funding Cuts – Highlighting Internal Inefficiencies. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  18. Engel, L. C., & Rutkowski, D. (2012). UNESCO Without U.S. Funding? Implications for Education Worldwide. Retrieved from; Accessed 03 Jan 2018.
  19. Ericson. (2014, March 31). Ericsson Named a Network Supplier and Managed Services Provider for Telenor in Myanmar. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  20. Fall, P. L., & Zahran, M. M. (2010). United Nations Corporate Partnerships: The Role and Function of the Global Compact. JIU/REP/2010/9.Google Scholar
  21. GEMS Education. (2011, September 22). UNESCO and Varkey GEMS Foundation Announce Program to Train 10,000 School Principals at Clinton Global Initiative. PR Newswire.Google Scholar
  22. Gotev, G. (2013, March 5). UNESCO Chief: Millions Can Benefit from Partnerships with Private Sector. EURACTIV.Google Scholar
  23. Haddad, W., Colletta, N., Fisher, N. Lakin, M., & Rinaldi, R. (1990). World Conference on Education for All: Meeting Basic Learning Needs. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  24. Harvard School of Public Health. (2017). Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet. Retrieved from Accessed on 06/20/2017.
  25. Heyneman, S. P. (2003). The History and Problems in the Making of Education Policy at the World Bank 1960–2000. International Journal of Educational Development, 23, 315–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hüfner, K. (2015). What Can Save UNESCO? (Vol. 9). United States: Frank & Timme.Google Scholar
  27. Irish, J. (2012, October 11). UNESCO Chief Says U.S. Funding Cuts “Crippling” Organization. Reuters.Google Scholar
  28. Jones, P. (2004). Taking the Credit: Financing and Policy Linkages in the Education Portfolio of the World Bank. In G. Steiner-Khamsi (Ed.), The Global Politics of Educational Borrowing and Lending (pp. 188–200). New York City: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  29. Karliner, J., & Bruno, K. (2000, August 10). The United Nations Sits in Suspicious Company. International Herald Tribune.Google Scholar
  30. Mezzalama, F., & Ouedraogo, L. (1999). Private Sector Involvement and Cooperation with the United Nations System. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  31. Mingst, K. A., & Karns, M. P. (2016). The United Nations in the 21st Century. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  32. OECD. (2015). Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, PISA. OECD Publishing. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  33. Patrinos, H. A., Barrera-Osorio, F., & Guáqueta, J. (2009). The Role and Impact of Public-private Partnerships in Education. Washington, DC: World Bank Publications.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. PepsiCo. (2014, March 28). Pepsi-Cola Bottling Plant Opens in Myanmar. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  35. Pogge, T., & Sengupta, M. (Forthcoming). Critique of the Sustainable Development Goals’ Potential to Realize the Human Rights of All: Why Being Better Than the MDGs is Not Good Enough. Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  36. Rai, S. (2014, April 14). Billionaire Education Entrepreneur Varkey Takes His Dubai School Chain Worldwide. Forbes.Google Scholar
  37. Reckhow, S., & Snyder, J. W. (2014). The Expanding Role of Philanthropy in Education Politics. Educational Researcher, 43(4), 186–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ridge, N. (2012). In the Shadow of Global Discourses: Gender, Education and Modernity in the Arabian Peninsula. In G. Steiner-Khamsi & F. Waldow (Eds.), World Yearbook of Education (pp. 291–308). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  39. Ridge, N. (2014). Education and the Reverse Gender Divide in the Gulf States: Embracing the Global, Ignoring the Local. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  40. Ridge, N., & Kippels, S. (2017). The Rise and Role of State Philanthropy in the United Arab Emirates. In M. Thompson & N. Quilliam (Eds.), Policy-making in the GCC: State, Citizens and Institutions. London: I.B. Tauris.Google Scholar
  41. Ridge, N., Kippels, S., & Shami, S. (2016). Economy, Business, and First Class Education: The Implications of For-Profit Education Provision in the UAE. In A. Verger, C. Lubienski, & G. Steiner-Khamsi (Eds.), World Yearbook of Education 2016. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  42. Samoff, J. (2000). Institutionalizing International Influence. In N. Burbules & C. A. Torres (Eds.), Globalization and Education: Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  43. Singh, J. P. (2010). United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): Creating Norms for a Complex World. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  44. The Economist. (2015, March 26). The 169 Commandments.Google Scholar
  45. UN. (2017a, June 28). Increased Support for Education Crucial to Reaching Sustainable Development Goals, Speakers Tell High-level General Assembly Event. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  46. UN. (2017b). World Day Against Child Labour 12 June. Retrieved from Accessed on 09/19/2017.
  47. UN General Assembly. (2000). Comments by the Administrative Committee on Coordination on the Report of the Joint Inspection Unit entitled “Private Sector Involvement and Cooperation with the United Nations System.” Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  48. UNESCO. (1999b). Guidelines for Mobilizing Private Funds and Criteria for Selecting Potential Partners: Proposals by the Director General.Google Scholar
  49. UNESCO. (2000). The Dakar Framework for Action.Google Scholar
  50. UNESCO. (2006). UNESCO-private Sector Partnerships: Making a Difference.Google Scholar
  51. UNESCO. (2011, December 13). Irina Bokova: Technology Can Be a Powerful Education Multiplier. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  52. UNESCO. (2012a, April 26). Education Entrepreneur Sunny Varkey to be Named UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Retrieved from Accessed on 11/22/2018.
  53. UNESCO. (2012b). Follow-up to the Independent External Evaluation of UNESCO: Work for Strategic Partnerships. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  54. UNESCO. (2012c). Governance for the Administrative Manual.Google Scholar
  55. UNESCO. (2012d). UNESCO Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education – One Year on. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  56. UNESCO. (2013). A Practical Guide to UNESCO’s Extrabudgetary Activities. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  57. UNESCO. (2014). UNESCO Education Strategy 2014–2021. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  58. UNESCO. (2016). UNESCO Transparency Portal. Retrieved on December 20, 2016 from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  59. UNESCO. (2017a). Education: Mission. Retrieved from Accessed on 01/25/2017.
  60. UNESCO. (2017b, March 17). Director-General to Attend Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai. Retrieved from Accessed on 06/22/2017.
  61. UNESCO. (2017c). Private Sector. Retrieved from Accessed on 01/22/2017.
  62. UNESCO, & Microsoft. (2004). Cooperation Agreement. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  63. UNESCO Bangkok. (2015). UNESCO Partners with Ericsson to Launch an ICT for Education Project in Myanmar. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  64. UNESCO Constitution. (1945). Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  65. UNESCO, UNDP, UNFP, UNHCR, UNICEF, UN Women, World Bank Group, & ILO. (2015). Education 2030 Framework for Action.Google Scholar
  66. Van Fleet, J. (2012). A Disconnect Between Motivations and Education Needs: Why American Corporate Philanthropy Alone Will Not Educate the Most Marginalized. In S. L. Robertson, K. Mundy, A. Verger, & F. Menashy (Eds.), Public Private Partnerships in Education: New Actors and Modes of Governance in a Globalizing World (pp. 158–181). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.Google Scholar
  67. Varkey Foundation. (2016a). About Us. Retrieved from Accessed on 12/27/2016.
  68. Varkey Foundation. (2016b). Changing Lives Through Education. Retrieved from Accessed on 12/27/2016.
  69. Varkey GEMS Foundation. (2015). Trustees’ Annual Report.Google Scholar
  70. Verger, A., Lubienski, C., & Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2016). The Global Education Industry. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  71. Watson, B. (2015, January 14). 10 Companies Spending Millions on Education. The Guardian.Google Scholar
  72. WHO. (2017, April 13). Radical Increase in Water and Sanitation Investment Required to Meet Development Targets. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  73. World Economic Forum. (2011). Global Education Initiative Retrospective on Partnerships for Education Development 2003–2011. Retrieved from Accessed on 03/01/2018.
  74. Zin, M., & Joseph, B. (2012). The Opening in Burma. Journal of Democracy, 23(4), 04–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy ResearchRas Al KhaimahUnited Arab Emirates

Personalised recommendations