Profiting from catastrophe


25 May 2017

The Syrian conflict has caused a migration crisis of breathtaking scale. Turkey alone is playing host to almost 1.4 million refugee children and adolescents, where schools are having to operate in shifts despite only 40 per cent of those children having access to formal education.

The crisis is proving to be fertile ground for making profits and promoting a switch to private education.

In Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon combined, 900,000 Syrian children are going without schooling.

A flood of offers of aid from the private sector is raising questions about the tension between humanitarianism and profit, the best ways to support and educate refugee students, and the roles of the state and private sector in running school systems everywhere.

The size of private involvement in these three countries is highlighted in a new report, “Investing in the Crisis: Private participation in the education of Syrian refugees, by University of Massachusetts researchers Francine Menashy and Zeena Zakharia. The report was commissioned by Education International, which represents educators across the globe. Education International’s global response project director Angelo Gavrielatos says the report puts the spotlight on the serious ethical tensions between humanitarian support and the profit motivations of businesses.

The researchers found that 61 “private actors” – 46 businesses and 15 foundations – were among the 144 aid agencies and other non-state organisations working in education. In the face of declining aid budgets and one of the biggest refugee movements in living memory, money and support from businesses and foundations are desperately needed. But that comes with serious challenges.

Much of the work is uncoordinated, some of it duplicated, and some arguably fails to meet urgent needs by putting forward technological solutions unsuited to the refugee situation. Teachers are often not consulted.

Mixed motives

Private involvement ranged from professional development, to school or tent construction, to health and advocacy services. By far the most common involvement was funding (49 per cent of private bodies) and the development and distribution of educational technology (also 49 per cent). The private actors’ motives could be both humanitarian and profit-driven. Private sector interviewees talked of “the right thing to do”.

But the Middle East also offers business opportunities. The report notes that the region is a large and growing market, and that, before the war, Syria was highly educated, with 94 per cent of K-12 children in school. A high proportion of the Syrian refugee population is middle-class. Some IT firms view the crisis as a good test site. “Sometimes an area in conflict might be the right environment to test out a [new] product or service,” one business interviewee said.

Poor organisation and duplication exist across the spectrum of private involvement. The report describes a “rush to involvement without careful consideration”, partly due to the speed at which the crisis unfolded, but arguably also through a bandwagon effect, with firms eager to join their names to a high-profile cause. Other crises, such as sub-Saharan conflicts and famine, haven’t garnered nearly the same level of support, the authors note.

Policy clout

Together, these interventions represent a new form of aid: ‘philanthrocapitalism’. It’s led by firms such as Microsoft and Google, which have substantial clout in the policy areas of education and humanitarian aid.

“Members of the private sector have been embraced as core policymakers as well as funders,” Menashy and Zakharia note. Not least in the global Education Cannot Wait Fund, launched last year in response to a direct challenge by politicians to the private sector to play a part in meeting humanitarian needs. Many private actors are partnered with non-profit organisations. Save the Children, which is working with Pearson Education, argues that IT can facilitate education “unrestricted by borders”, allowing continuity of learning.

A lack of teachers is a problem in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The researchers argue that technology can make a difference, but can’t replace teachers, particularly in such complex settings. Others ask whether the private sector has the capacity to bring serious money to the table, while sceptical staff at non-government organisations question what strings are attached. “We must never forget what their business is,” one said.

Push to privatise

Most worryingly, some private actors are said to be actively spruiking private schooling as a solution to the crisis, building on the sector’s track record in post-hurricane New Orleans, Haiti, Liberia and elsewhere. “Privatisation by way of catastrophe”, as it has been termed.

So far there is little sign of an increase in private schooling in response to the Syrian crisis, but the report’s authors say it has the potential to be fertile ground for this to happen.

Menashy and Zakharia conclude: “To profit fiscally from any humanitarian crisis is arguably exploitative. Some businesses have transparently entered this fragile context in order to create markets, increase brand recognition… and thereby increase profits.”

But with the Syrian crisis demanding a global response, the challenge must be to harness the expertise and funds of the private sector while ensuring that nation states retain their primary duty to provide quality education. They say the fundamental rights of refugees must always come first.

The report makes it obvious that countries must urgently fulfil their obligations to the refugees, including the provision of free, quality public education, says Angelo Gavrielatos. “Beyond that, given the ethical tensions and contradictions of businesses profiting from the crisis, it’s essential that countries control business involvement through regulation and legislation,” he says.


The is an edited version of an article by Nic Barnard that appeared in the Australian Educator, Winter 2017