Powering Early Childhood Development in South Africa: Q&A With Ian Donovan

In his recent compelling 6-part series, Ian Donovan explored the crucial link between the private sector’s engagement in renewable energy and the advancement of education in South Africa, with a specific focus on early childhood development (ECD). His thought-provoking articles shed light on innovative solutions and emphasise the positive outcomes that can be accomplished through collaborative efforts.

We had the opportunity of sitting down with Ian to delve deeper into the topic of ECD and its intersection with renewable energy.

The Blue Sky Foundation focuses on how to address inequality in under-resourced communities. Why has the issue of early childhood development been a topic of interest to you and the foundation?

I see ECD as the key to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty which blights our society. Without access to good quality learning opportunities in early childhood, the chances that a child will enter school ready to learn are severely compromised. And that in turn makes it very difficult, almost impossible really, for a child to emerge from her school years adequately equipped to earn a meaningful income or pursue further training.

“Is There A Case For The Private Sector To Play A Greater Role In Public Education In South Africa?” In this article, you discuss the abysmal state of educational outcomes in South Africa despite significant government spending on education. Can you elaborate on where you believe the gap lies between funding and poor education results?

81% of grade 4s in South Africa are unable to read simple sentences or write answers to basic questions in their home language. This places South Africa at the bottom of the pile internationally and the position is really not improving.  And yet, as Professor Nic Spaull pointed out in a recent article in the Business Day, South Africa does not have a national reading plan, we have no plan to retrain our inadequate teachers, no plan to provide schools with the books and equipment to teach reading and no plan to eliminate overcrowded classrooms.

The Department of Basic Education is a shambles – and the Minister has been in that position for 14 long years. There is simply no accountability at the Cabinet level, no meaningful oversight by Parliament and currently insufficient political will to address the problem.

Why do you believe the private sector could help address this education problem in South Africa?

The private sector – by which I mean commerce and industry – is capable of bringing real energy to any situation in which it chooses to get involved. A recent example is the rate at which the private sector has been installing rooftop solar energy in response to the Government-created crisis at Eskom. Public education in general and ECD in particular are not obvious areas for the private sector but given government’s failure to deliver the skills which the economy requires, does the private sector really have a choice? I would argue not – the real question is how should the private sector get involved?

In your third article, you explore ways in which the private sector can help improve public education in South Africa. One idea you suggest is the establishment of an independent fund to support programs with a proven impact on early childhood development. Could you elaborate on how this fund would work and what impact it could have?

Civil society is doing what it can to improve access to ECD but with more resources, it could be making a much greater impact. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of wonderful projects which are capable of being scaled up but lack the resources to do so. The private sector is able to mobilise at least some of the resources that are required. It is already doing so by way of CSI spend but in a largely uncoordinated way and nowhere near to the extent that it could assist.

I envisage the establishment of a fund similar to the find which was set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A board of appropriately qualified trustees would oversee the fund’s small secretariat. The role of the secretariat would be responsible for managing the CSI funds made available by the private sector, raising additional funding from philanthropic organisations and donors, identifying projects and organisations which are already making a meaningful impact on ECD delivery and are capable of being scaled up, disbursing funds to those projects, and then monitoring and reporting on use and impact.

In your fourth article, you discuss the role of corporate social investment (CSI) funds in supporting organisations that provide quality pre-school learning. Can you give us some examples of these organizations and how CSI funds could help them make a difference?

In that article I mentioned Grow Great and Flourish’s Zero Stunting Campaign (two initiatives tackling inadequate nutrition), Ilifa Labantwana and Kago Ya Bana (which help ECD centres to navigate the bureaucratic requirements for registration needed to qualify for the government’s meagre ECD grant, currently R17 per child per day) and GROW Educare and SmartStart (both using a franchise model to support ECD centres).

Another wonderful organisation is Breadline Africa which has installed over a thousand structures to improve the facilities of ECD centres over the past 30 years. There are many others doing superb work and capable of scaling up if they are given greater support.

What are your thoughts on the role of the government in early childhood development, and how can collaboration between the private sector and the government lead to wider access to quality ECD?

It is government’s responsibility to ensure that every child arriving at school to start her formal education is ready to learn. For that to happen, every pre-school child must be appropriately nourished and have access to suitable early learning opportunities.  That requires a proper plan, an appropriate budget allocation from Treasury, a Department of Basic Education with the capacity to implement the plan, and a government with the political will to deliver on its promises.

Brazil managed to do it but it took two decades of effort. South Africa simply has to do it too. We have the benefit of a network of dedicated and effective not-for-profit organisations who understand what needs to be done in support of our government’s inadequate ECD initiatives. The private sector can assist the process by using its resources to support this NPO network and enable them to deliver solutions on a greater scale. To get the best result, the private sector’s approach needs to be well-targeted and coordinated.

Finally, why do you see the renewable energy sector as a particular opportunity for mobilising resources in support of ECD?

The government’s REIPPP programme is a unique opportunity because it generates significant amounts of money which each independent power producer (IPP) is required to spend on the social and economic development (SED) of the communities living within a 50 km radius. The programme has created more than 90 IPPs so far and they have already spent R2,3 billion on SED, with a further R700 million spent on enterprise development (ED). Of this R3 billion, almost 50% has been spent on education although the amount spent on ECD has not been disclosed.

The amounts available for SED and ED are increasing annually and will continue for 20 years or more. Each IPP decides how to spend its SED and ED budgets and very few of them bother to measure the impact of the spending. All of the communities which should be benefitting from this expenditure are poorly resourced and very few of their pre-school children have access to early learning opportunities. Just imagine what the impact would be if the SED budgets of 90 IPPs were used to ensure that every child in these communities was ready to learn by the time she entered Grade 1.

Read more in Ian’s 6-part series or reach out to our team.