International education is a broken field. Can ‘ubuntu’ bring solutions?

This post was originally published on RTI’s SharEd website. Re-posted with permission.

by Dr. Benjamin Piper

Imagine yourself as an international education officer in sub-Saharan Africa. You are walking into a meeting with the Minister of Education of your host country, prepared to share the results of your research study, and make your “asks” directly to the Minister.

You are being walked down the hall by one of the Ministry’s lifelong civil servants. His years of experience at various levels of the country’s education system has given him a clear, first-hand understanding of what is needed to improve education quality in his country. Yet, he has never had the chance to share his ideas and knowledge one-on-one with the Minister. Right now, his job is to facilitate that opportunity for, in my case, a man from Cleveland.

This all-too-familiar scene reflects a broken field. In the present state of educational development, power imbalances between donors and host governments are not questioned, too much faith is placed in the knowledge of development workers over that of local education experts, and practitioners fail to realize or appreciate the privileges they are granted while working in countries which are not their own. The scene underscores the need for fundamental changes in how the educational development establishment operates.

Ubuntu is an African philosophy of human kindness. Applying ubuntu in educational development would result in a field that is more humble, self-critical, diverse and inclusive, and ultimately more focused on serving the purposes of the poor in Global South. In the context of ubuntu, I would like to offer several actions that should be undertaken to fix our broken field.

First, while we have done a reasonable job of preparing new practitioners for technical work, we have not instilled humility in those practitioners. Universities, NGOs and donors must better prepare development professionals for the reality that they are entering complex political-economic environments and that their advanced degrees are insufficient to provide appropriate technical advice. We should have deference to and respect for education leaders in host countries and desperately seek to understand the needs, histories and cultures of the countries in which we are privileged to work.

Second, the profession must depend more on local expertise. Local perspective is required because, as an outsider, your natural point of view is fundamentally wrong, and no matter how long one lives in a country and learns the language and culture, one will still misunderstand contextual clues and interpret situations incorrectly. The history of development is unanimous: large-scale education change without local leadership is impossible.

Next, the demographics of educational development professionals must more closely reflect those of the people whose education we are working to improve. Development professionals differ in their demographics with those that we are to support across gender, age, race and educational background. For donors, thinking about how local education officers can transition from junior officers to director or advisor level would be a potential strategy for addressing this problem. Implementers and nongovernmental organizations who are not actively searching for female, ethnic minority, or Global South applicants are going to have increasingly large mismatches with the countries in which we will work.

Finally, the mindset with which professionals approach their work must change. Incentives in our field focus on winning projects (for implementers), disbursing money (for donors), and using donor funds for allowances for civil servants (country governments). The mismatch between the incentives which exist for each cadre of professional on the one hand, and the ultimate goal of improved and equitable educational outcomes for the poor on the other, means that without incentives changing, ubuntu education will be a fleeting dream. While I am not optimistic that major structural changes will happen in the short term, we can begin to instill a deeper awareness and understanding of the truisms of educational development that will help shift how professionals evaluate success as well as their own actions. Donors and implementers can lead the way by requiring programs to share how demographic transitions are happening within their field teams, how local ownership is being created, and how they are developing humility in their technical staff.

There will be a place for Westerners in supporting educational development in the Global South for the foreseeable future. But we can do better in ensuring that our role is appropriate, that we are aware of our privilege, and that we never forget that supporting the educational development of children in a country which is not our own is an honor. I look forward to a day when professionals are expected to understand educational development history, and that deliverables require evidence of how one created local ownership and built on the ideas of experts from that country. I am pessimistic about the current state of our field, but optimistic about the people in it. We are a hopeful and well-meaning people, and these changes could better support the type of educational development which reflects ubuntu ideals.

For a deeper look at this topic, please see: Piper, B. (2016). International education is a broken field: Can “ubuntu” education bring solutions? International Review of Education, 62(1), 101–111.