AUSTIN, TEXAS – Less than a mile southeast of where the Colorado River begins its erratic journey to Lake Travis on the western edge of the city of Austin, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation stands on its own lot surrounded by a few residential developments and a stone’s throw away from Davenport Ranch – site of the Austin Country Club, one of the oldest private and most exclusive golf clubs in the country.
The main entrance runs along Westlake Dr., but an alternate access point can be found around the corner on Royal Approach Dr., which seems far more in keeping with the foundation’s role as the lead outcome funder in the largest social impact bond (SIB) experiment in the world, which is currently unfolding in far-away India under the auspices of the Prince of Wales, or Prince Charles, as he is more widely known.
Officially inaugurated in 2018, the Quality Education India Development Impact Bond (QEI DIB) program is set to conclude in 2022 after four years of collecting performance and behavioral data from 200,000 children attending state, private and technical schools across four regions of the enormous country. As the primary outcome funder, the Dell Foundation committed to putting up the lion’s share of the payouts, which the contracted service providers are entitled to receive after delivering a successful “social outcome”, as defined by the project’s outcome metrics.
According to a report prepared for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in February by ECORYS, one of the “key learnings” of the QEI DIB has been the need for better communication strategies “in order to get the necessary buy-in and manage reputational risks” associated with social impact bonds, such as the hiring of lobbyists “to capitalise on the new education law in India”, referring to India’s New Education Policy (NEP) policy, approved by Modi’s government a few months earlier, which calls for the establishment of a national Academic Bank of Credit (ABC) to “digitally store the academic credits“.
The project’s ulterior motives are revealed to us in the same paragraph, couched as the “spillover objectives” of the DIB, and candidly stated as the “building of the wider outcome-based financing sector”, championed by the likes of Sir Ronald Cohen, who is connected to the QEI DIB via the other members of the project’s steering committee; specifically, through Prince Charles’ British Asian Trust (BAT), which pools the funding of the other sponsors as the DIB’s “outcome convener”.
Together with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the project’s risk investor, UBS Optimus Foundation, these three organizations are coordinating the biggest blockchain-based, social impact bond experiment in the world and data-mining children to generate their proof-of-concept. Joining them are some of the most powerful forces in the technology and telecommunications sectors, along with major media organizations and India’s elites, who are conspiring to lay the cornerstone of a neo-colonial digital enclosure.
Queen Elizabeth II’s first-born and heir-apparent to the British throne welcomed Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to the Science Museum in London in 2018 for an exhibition titled “5,000 Years of Science and Innovation”, celebrating India’s long history of contributions to the fields of science and technology. The visit coincided with the formal launch of the QEI DIB and had been arranged months earlier during a trip Prince Charles, himself, had made to India to announce the bond pilot program.
A trial-run took place in 2015, when the British Asian Trust – founded by the Prince in 2007 “to tackle widespread poverty, inequality and injustice in South Asia” –, funded an education outcomes bond program called Educate Girls to the tune of $275,000 provided by BAT’s partners. Starting with one school in north-west India, the program expanded to 140 villages and 7,300 children over the following three years, and while the initiative was praised by pay-for-success advocates, it drew harsh criticism from educators.
David Edwards, the secretary general of teachers’ union network, Education International (EI), has blasted outcome bonds – also known as results based financing – by pointing out how these mechanisms undermine “democratic accountability and teachers’ authority and rights”. University of Sussex professor, Keith Lewin, who is nonetheless a proponent of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), writes that DIBs fail to account for “the core problem of educational financing”, which he frames as generating “sufficient domestic revenue to finance nationally defined educational goals delivered through predominantly publicly financed systems”, and which ultimately “end up being a distraction with high transaction costs and limited impact”.
Given the purely profit-driven motivation behind DIBs, it is not surprising that dissenting voices are ignored on the way to escalating these kinds of programs. The father of impact investment, himself, summarizes the incentive when he states that he “wouldn’t be surprised if paying for success raises $1tn”; a sentiment mirrored by UBS Optimus’ CEO Phyllis Costanza, who revealed that her “clients who are involved in finance are really interested” in these types of investments.
Just who these clients are can be inferred by the kinds of businesses BAT’s most active board members are involved with. Chris Mathias, BAT’s Investment committee and social finance committee chair and trustee, is the founder of Arbor Ventures, a VC firm that invests in IoT, FinTech and Cloud-based technologies. Along with him on the BAT board of trustees is Tom Singh OBE, founding member of the UK’s Social Investment Task Force, launched in 2000 by then Chancellor Gordon Brown and headed by Sir Ronald Cohen. Singh and Cohen sit on the advisory board of Bridges Fund Management, a social impact investment firm, that boasts £68 Million in outcomes contract payments, according to its website.
Birds of a Golden Feather
Financial interests are not the only interests pushing the impact bonds model. Big technology players are also heavily invested, as attested to by the involvement of the Larry Ellison Foundation (LEF) – the philanthropic organization of the Oracle founder and CEO, which abruptly discontinued operations in September 2020 to focus “his philanthropic efforts on fighting Covid 19”. Oracle has been leading the way for the development of the interoperable data base systems, which underlie the entire premise of the emerging data-driven economic paradigm.
LEF has been funding outcome education programs in India’s since 2008, when it backed Reach To Teach, a government outreach group run by former Oxfam executives, which features two LEF directors and a former Michael & Susan Dell Foundation employee on its board of directors. Despite shutting down LEF, Ellison’s grant for Reach To Teach runs through 2024. LEF also funds Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change, which promotes the stakeholder capitalism model through its partnerships with Cohen’s Social Finance UK, The Rockefeller Foundation (which developed the framework for the so-called benefit corporation), the aforementioned UBS Optimus Foundation and many other powerful organizations intent on remaking the world into a digital gulag.
Blair’s connections to yet another of the QEI DIB’s sponsors exposes the deep, interlocking web of business interests and corruption that bubbles just beneath the surface of these purportedly beneficial plans and proposals to redefine the way we approach society’s needs. In 2005, Tony Blair won his third consecutive term in office as UK’s Prime Minister and counted with a £2 million contribution from Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal to do so.
Mittal had sponsored Blair’s political career since at least 2001, when he gifted the Prime Minister £125,000 on his way towards his second victory in a general election. The reviled Labour leader repaid the favor by interceding on the industrialist’s behalf on a number of international acquisition deals, that considerably expanded the steel company’s holdings and made Lakshmi Mittal the “king of steel“.
The Mittal Foundation, run by his wife Usha and daughters, is among the QEI DIB’s outcome funders managed through Prince Charles’ BAT. Vanisha Mittal, one the charity’s four trustees, claimed some notoriety in 2007, when her father threw her a lavish, week-long $60 Million-dollar wedding, earning her the “top spot” among wealthy heiresses, knocking off the then-ubiquitous Paris Hilton.
However, it is another charity sponsoring the QEI DIB that can claim the fame crown. Comic Relief, a British non-profit known worldwide for its Red Nose Day fundraising telethon on the BBC, can call on any number of stars in the UK show business circuit to drum up support for these outcome bond pilots. In January, the charity announced the appointment of Samir Patel as its new CEO. Patel, described as a “digital expert”, was the managing director and Head of Insights and Innovation for Blue State Digital, a UK-based constituency development and social networking strategy firm, whose client list includes Google, Barack Obama, Amnesty International and many others.
Teach For America (TFA), a controversial teacher-recruitment organization, which has been leading the way for the SIB education model in the U.S., hired Blue State to revamp its online application user interface. Dallas-based Lynn Davenport, who has been fighting the implementation of SIBs in education for years, followed TFA’s efforts to move pro-SIB legislation through the state’s congress and the organization’s ability to place its teachers in government positions.
Patel considers digital storytelling to be “part of [his] DNA” and intends to use the star power his new employer is able to harness, which includes such British television mainstays as Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross and more internationally-recognized names like James Corden and Russel Brand. Distribution won’t be a problem, either, as the fifth and last sponsor of the QEI DIB is British Telecom (BT), one of the largest broadband, mobile and subscription television providers in the world.