Education as the Great Leveller: How Philanthropy Can Bridge the Gap in Asia


Given immense returns on social investment, how can strategic philanthropy address Asia’s education challenges? Insights from PAS2024.

Education is often touted as the great leveller in society. Yet, it is not without challenges. Across Asia, pre-school enrolment rates in rural areas stand at just 40%—half that of urban areas—while the attainment gap between top- and bottom-performing students continues to widen.

Conversely, the payoff for investing in education is immense. According to UNICEF, every $1 invested in pre-school education can yield $9 in returns for society. With such pressing needs and clear evidence of impact, why does education remain chronically underfunded in Asia? How can philanthropy intervene more strategically to close the human development gap?

Recently, APC and UNICEF convened philanthropists, education experts, and funders at the Philanthropy Asia Summit 2024—one of the sector’s largest gatherings in the region—to examine the role of philanthropy in shaping the future of education.

The main panel featured several APC members who shared their diverse, strategic approaches to address different challenges in education around the region:

  • The Octava Foundation is tackling Singapore’s significant educational attainment gap—the widest among OECD countries. By identifying and addressing underlying causes—such as school adjustment difficulties and parental mindsets—the foundation aims to support students who fall behind.
  • The Tanoto Foundation focuses on “white issues” – issues overlooked by the public sector where philanthropy can have the most impact. Their initiatives include Early Childhood Development (ECD) programmes and leadership development through scholarships, training, and mentoring.
  • The Bakti Barito Foundation emphasizes holistic education that extends beyond basic literacy and numeracy to include environmental awareness and climate action. Their Green Schools programme to date has reached 14,000 students across Indonesia, instilling environmental protection values and helping schools achieve green building certification.
  •  The Prudence Foundation, CSR arm of insurance firm Prudential, collaborates with UNICEF to promote ECD across Asia. Their efforts focus on the first 1000 days of a child’s life, improving home environments for learning, and educating caregivers on nutrition and cognitive stimulation. 

Addressing intervention gaps

Despite on-going efforts, philanthropic initiatives in education often remain fragmented and uncoordinated. Key players have yet to fully collaborate, resulting in scattered and piecemeal efforts. Moreover, learning points and best practices from success programmes are not effectively shared across the sector.

Summit participants also pointed out the lack of partnerships centred around evidence, and how the sector struggles to contextualise global evidence locally. The sector needs to better translate research findings into evidence-based action and share field findings to facilitate better and informed decision-making.

Another critical issue that remains inadequately addressed is the development and support of teachers—who are fundamental to delivering quality education. There is a pressing need for programmes that address the professional development and well-being of teachers, amongst others.

Envisioning Philanthropy’s Role

Following the panel, the audience explored philanthropy’s roles—advocate, educator, convenor, and innovator—within the social impact ecosystem, examining which roles resonated most with them.

Many highlighted philanthropy’s unique role as an innovator and catalyst, as crucial for identifying and piloting new interventions. However, participants agreed that successful projects in Asia could only be scaled effectively with government support, underscoring the necessity of collaboration between public, private, and philanthropic sectors.

Given the finite nature of philanthropic funding, project development should also focus on sustainability to ensure continuity after initial support ends. This, they argued, is the ultimate measure of success for philanthropic initiatives.

The Way Forward

Wrapping up the summit, Laurence Lien underscored how inequality in education reflects broader societal inequalities. He shared aspirational “letter grades” for philanthropy:

Best in Class:

  • Be Agnostic: Open-minded towards new interventions and areas of work.
  • Be Adventurous: Willing to experiment, try new ideas, and embrace innovation.
  • Be an Advocate: Collaborate with governments to achieve scale. 

Worst in Class:

  • Avoid Fads: Focus on truly impactful initiatives, rather than trendy ones.
  • Avoid Fear: Don’t let fear of the unknown prevent action.
  • Avoid Being Friendless: Prioritise partnerships and collaboration over solitary efforts.

Laurence’s insights serve as a call for philanthropists to reexamine their strategies and ensure their efforts lead to enduring, positive change. As philanthropy in the region continues to evolve, its potential to drive meaningful impact in education and beyond, is promising.