Tech Philanthropy and “Entrepreneuring” Education in Africa

Leveraging assumptions about the efficiency of business corporations (in comparison to perceptions about corrupt African governments) as well as humanitarian rhetoric brought about by a rise in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs (see Rajak 2011), Silicon Valley technology start-up companies are increasingly filling the role of service provider across parts of Africa. The seductive tales of highly successful mobile phone-based services such as M-PESA instills a belief that entrepreneurship coupled with information communication technologies (ICTs) can solve the world’s biggest challenges. But as communications scholar Vincent Mosco (2005) has highlighted, this myth conceals the fact that technology’s control continues to remain in the hands of a few global businesses. In this section, I explore how international and transnational corporations and organizations are leveraging moral calls of “empowerment through enterprise” (Rajak 2011) for their own gain. These companies are “entrepreneuring” to get around issues (for example in public education) that were in fact largely brought about when IMF structural adjustment programs in the 1980s gutted the capacity and functioning of many African public sectors including the public education sector. Instead of supporting citizen efforts to hold governments to account and boosting government’s own abilities to provide public services, for-profit tech companies ultimately are in it to extract a profit. While this may be helpful in the short-term, what are the long-term implications and risks of outsourcing basic free and public education to a Silicon Valley technology company that reports to its investors and seeks to make a profit? The recent closure of several Bridge International schools as well as AltSchools in the US demonstrate the instability and fickle nature of relying on a start-up to provide such an important public service as education. 

This section of the essay includes a nested essay focusing on two case studies: AltSchool, a for-profit tech education start-up based in Silicon Valley that purports to offer highly tailored education that uses technology to target each student’s “needs and passions" and Bridge International, a for-profit tech education start-up started by three Americans with strong ties to Silicon Valley that has raised over $100 million from tech giants like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as well as global development organizations like the International Finance Company (a part of the World Bank). The two examples illustrate the kinds of "solutions" that Silicon Valley is proposing to address the "education crisis" in the US and in the global South. The two are put in the same frame because not only do they share funders such as Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation, they also have some of the same advisors who sit on their boards. These cases are revealing of the types of values, concepts, and need for scale that drive "innovation" in the education sector.

This essay is part of a broader orals document on Decolonizing the African University. Additional sub-essays within the document can be found through the following links: 

Ethics and Responsibility | Colonial Policies and Practices of Education in Africa | Bretton Woods and Investments in Education for Development | Politics and Practices of the Neoliberal University | Proposals for Alternative Approaches to Education | Tech Philanthropy | Openness and Academic Infrastructures


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July 24, 2018