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New Philanthropy and Education Policy Reform in Liberia

Tue, April 16, 5:00 to 6:30pm, Hyatt Regency, Pacific Concourse (Level -1), Pacific F


In 2016, Liberia launched the Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) pilot, outsourcing management of 93 public primary schools to eight national and international private management chains. Despite initially being met with widespread criticism both locally (COTAE, 2017) and internationally (OHCHR, 2016), the partnership was scaled up to 194 schools in year 2, with the possibility of expanding to substantially more public schools in subsequent years (MoE, ND). PSL (recently rebranded as Liberia Education Advancement Program or LEAP) is part of a growing global education industry (Verger et al, 2016), encompassing new forms of philanthropy including “philanthrocapitalism” (Bishop and Green, 2010; Edwards, 2008), which promotes “strategic investments” and high-impact, innovative, business-like structures and solutions, and “disruptive philanthropy,” which attempts to alter the public conversation on social issues while offering an alternative and competitor to public services (Horvath and Powell, 2016). With the intended goal of being “bigger, faster, and better” than traditional philanthropy (Culwell and Grant, 2016), these new forms of philanthropy have transformed educational policy and provision around the world. While the global education industry and new philanthropy pride themselves on delivering innovative, timely, accountable, scalable and effective solutions, serious questions exist regarding their impact on democracy, governance, transparency, and who ultimately has the power to participate in the reform process (Olmedo, 2016).

This paper situates PSL/LEAP within the broader literature on the global education industry (Verger et al, 2016), network governance (Ball and Junemann, 2012), and the “new” philanthropy (Ball, 2008), particularly “disruptive philanthropy” (Horvath and Powell, 2016), to examine the role of philanthropic foundations throughout PSL/LEAP. The paper analyzes how the logics and characteristics of this new philanthropy, specifically its aims to “change the conversation,” promote competition, and provide alternatives to public services (Horvath and Powell, 2016), have played-out in Liberia under PSL/LEAP. The paper highlights how local actors and stakeholders have perceived, experienced, and participated in the process, ultimately examining how “high impact” solutions promoted through PSL/LEAP break with, transform, and perpetuate existing networks of power and development logics. To do this, the paper draws on interviews with a variety of local, national, and international stakeholders, including teachers, ministry officials, parents, community-based organizations, and watchdog groups, as well as document analysis of local and international media reports, and key philanthropic actors’ websites, talks, and social media posts. Overall, the paper provides a case study of how these new forms of philanthropy and policy reforms are experienced and understood by a diverse set of actors, and how they are transforming the roles, responsibilities, and relationships within the educational sector in Liberia.


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