What do missionaries make of the latest GEM Report on non-state actors in education?

By Éamonn Casey, human rights and advocacy officer, Misean Cara

On the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, in the district of Mbagala, many children have never been to school. Some are orphans from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, others are homeless street children, still others have been pushed into early employment. La Sainte Union Sisters’ Complementary Basic Education in Tanzania (COBET) project sets out to help these children and bring their educational level up to the point where they can mainstream into state run public schools, and grow into confident, productive adults. Since its opening, more than 1000 children and young people have come through the project and all have moved on to local primary schools and passed state exams, with results that regularly exceed those of the other students. The school has been selected as a centre of excellence, further testament to the quality of the education being provided and the impact that modern missionary-led development and education can have to transform lives.

Ireland has a long history with non-state provision. As the GEM Report’s PEER country profile highlights, our education system is almost entirely ‘non-state’ in the sense that all primary schools and the majority of post-primary schools are owned and operated by religious denominations and recognized organizations. This religious domination of public education is unusual for a high-income country and provides a unique case study on the influence of non-state actors in education.

Religious-affiliated and non-governmental schools play an important role not only in the domestic context but also in the international arena. There is a long history of Irish missionary and faith-based schools working with marginalised communities around the globe. The 2021/2 GEM Report interrogates the role, motivations and impact of all non-state actors including non-governmental schools. It shows that there are faith-based schools in 120 countries around the world.

The Irish missionary movement Misean Cara, for instance, works to uphold the right to education for the most marginalized learners both through direct provision of education services, as well as carrying out advocacy and campaigning for quality education for all.

The Misean Cara approach

Misean Cara took a keen interest in the theme and progress of the 2021/2 GEM Report. This was partly out of early concern that the report might take a homogenised view of non-state actors in education – and arrive at recommendations that did not adequately distinguish between those actors actively supporting the right to education, and those for-profit and commercial actors who pose a distinct threat to its access and equity dimensions. In fact, our members bring considerable resources to education, with a strong focus on low-income, marginalised and conflict-affected contexts. In 2020, members brought some €6.4 million to diverse projects, alongside €4.7m in Irish Aid funding, through Misean Cara alone. These member projects support holistic and transformational education, without discrimination by religion, gender, caste, etc., and operate squarely within, often in partnership with, state regulatory, evaluation and oversight frameworks.

Now published, it is our view that the GEM Report 2021/2 contributes enormously to the debate around the role of non-state actors in education. It will clearly help, as it sets out to, shape the necessary frameworks, conditions, and oversight requirements “to harness the contributions that non-state actors can make to deliver education of quality without sacrificing equality”.

Misean Cara also supports most of the report’s recommendations on education financing and inclusion, as well as on quality, regulation, innovation, and transparency around representation and lobbying. We welcome the idea of states “creating an enabling environment” for innovation, and framing partnerships to share, test, adopt or adapt new ideas. We also share the assertion that profit-making is inconsistent with the right to a free basic education for all.

Credit: Marist Asia Foundation. Refugee education in Thailand

The issue of school fees

Misean Cara agrees fully that more state funding needs to go to education, particularly to meet commitments for free basic education. It supports civil society calls for OECD DAC members and other development donors to increase their funding to education and to clearly report against their funding commitments. We agree in principle that there should be no fees at point of use for basic education, to honour the right to education. We are concerned, though, that a hard and fast application of that, without reference to realities on the ground – millions of children out of school and a serious investment gap in education – could have the opposite effect to that intended, and actually undermine access and equity.

Missionary projects do not charge any fees in many contexts, particularly when working with the ‘furthest behind’ groups – and that’s something Misean Cara supports; they are also proactive in supporting families around the indirect and opportunity costs of sending children to school. But some institutions need to charge low, often nominal, fees at times to ensure school sustainability – and sometimes to use school income from wealthier students to cross-subsidise poorer students.

Without any access to fees, some schools may not be viable, leaving greater access and equity issues, particularly for some ‘furthest behind’ cohorts that faith groups especially support, such as girls, forcibly displaced people, and persons with a disability. Until educational investment and opportunity matches demand, Misean Cara believes that there needs to be a pragmatic response in the form of low or nominal fees – alongside progressive, supported realisation of the right to free education which ensures that no-one is excluded or left behind based on fees.

The contribution of faith-based organisations towards transformative education and education systems

Faith-based organisations have provided a high-quality, relevant education to millions of children around the world for decades. The holistic, empowering education they provide addresses the physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of those people and communities they reach throughout life’s stages. They particularly seek to encourage a love of learning, a critical questioning mind, civic values, and a culture of social service. They use their knowledge, long-term presence and commitment, expertise, and evidence to strengthen education systems and influence the education agenda – for equitable access to quality education or all – through modelling and evolving good practice, actively engaging on policy, processes, and methods, and sometimes through advocacy and campaigning.

These Misean Cara faith-based organizations in education are non-state, not-for-profit providers that are not just accountable to local communities and stakeholders through school/project governance and accountability mechanisms, but also to district/national education ministries within the national education framework, and operate within national legislation, education frameworks and regulation/inspection regimes. They are additionally accountable within their own organisation structures, to Misean Cara and – through that – to Irish Aid and its public accountability mechanisms, so there is no gap in transparency and accountability, as may be the concern with some types of non-state, for-profit providers. Non-state providers take many forms, ranging from large-scale for-profit firms to individual entrepreneurs, NGOs or faith-based organisations, non-profit community groups, and sometimes non-state armed groups exercising territorial control.

Misean Cara’s faith-based and non-profit education providers fully support the right to education for all, and engagement with government to demand and support fulfilment of that right – and they share many of the concerns being expressed about for-profit education, privatisation, and public private partnerships (PPPs) being promoted in the Global South and developed countries alike, together with the allocation of official development assistance towards those ends.

Misean Cara is a member of the Irish Forum for Global education (IFGE) a network of civil society actors, NGOs, teacher unions, education providers, faith-based and missionary organisations, professional associations, academics and individuals concerned with education inequities and issues that impact on development at a global level, with a particular concern to people living in middle and low- income countries. IFGE hosted a national launch of the 2021/2 GEM Report on February 10, 2022.


Leave a Reply