Global Public Goods: Knowledge

The idea of knowledge as a Global Public Good is multifaceted and complex, dealing with issues like technology transfers, intellectual property rights and which type of knowledge should be provided by public institutions and how to do so. These are important areas of study as knowledge, its production, dissemination, uptake and development plays a large role in ending poverty. It helps make the world a more prosperous, safe and interesting place. One of the largest differences in living standards between developed and developing nations has been attributed to differences in knowledge.

One important aspect of knowledge is that it has positive externalities. The production of knowledge by one person can have a positive impact that extends beyond the individual responsible for its producing it. In other words, the public benefits from the hard work of an individual. This misalignment of private and public interests can mean that knowledge is undersupplied, as it indeed is.

In an interconnected and interdependent world, ensuring the proper level of knowledge and education is a global challenge. The spillovers of investment in knowledge and the problem of “human capital flight”, or brain drain, require an integrated global response.

Looking at knowledge from the view of Global Public Goods helps strengthen the case for the global response, and can broaden our understanding of how to plug the knowledge gap plaguing the developing world.

Demographic trends mean that a greater share of human capital will be born in the developing world, a place that is struggling to provide quality education to all. Part of the problem is that it might be unfair for these places to be expected to provide national education through national taxes. Take India for example, where the government is tasked with providing education to a quarter of the world’s future work force, of which many will live outside India and work for non-Indian companies. In 2012, “human capital flight” was estimated to cost India $2 billion yearly, a number that is rising.

Still, there is a collective interest in having an educated populace in all countries on the planet, so solving issues like the one above are a high priority for ending poverty. However, this does not necessarily imply more taxes and public provision of the good, as most attempts at correcting externality failures focus on.

The insight that “businesses, donors and governments alike have a mutual interest in co-investing in the outcomes which will benefit all,” which is gleaned from the Global Public Good school of thinking, may incentivize more involvement from the private sector.

Creating a market mechanism whereby private money can be funneled into education — hiring teachers, building schools, updating software and retraining to make teachers more effective — for the payoff of better access to more talented employees in the future may prove to be crucial in addressing the $26 billion funding gap for reaching the goal of universal primary education.

This does not entail the privatization of the education system, it is simply businesses integrating up the supply chain all the way to education, ensuring a global pool of well educated and talented workers.

The concern that “the global talent gap is the issue that keeps me and every other CEO I know up worrying at night,” was voiced by the CEO of a fortune 500 company and reveals that demand for such a market mechanism may already be in place.

Knowledge as a Global Public Goods offers many insights into how to effectively increase the level of knowledge worldwide, and the above example of private funding is just one way in which this new field promises to make the world a better place.

John Wachter

Sources: Brookings Institution, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, SPARC, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Photo: Stilo