#05 Ownership or turnkey models in international cooperation in education?

Author: Thibaut Lauwerier

Several articles in this blog will be devoted to the notion of ownership, which is fundamental to acting in the field of international cooperation, and which is more in the education sector. In this article, we will focus on the definition of ownership and some observations.

To define the concept of ownership in the field of cooperation, we can refer to the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness1, which established it as a key principle:

It is now the norm for aid recipients to forge their own national development strategies with their parliaments and electorates (Source: OECD). 

We see that ownership implies not only the involvement of national decision-makers, but also (and the difficulty is to know to what extent) local education actors, such as teachers, school principals, parents, etc., who are well placed to know what is relevant to be put in place in this field2. This means that international cooperation can succeed only in the long term if stakeholders in developing countries consider externally funded projects or programs as their own and are closely involved in their design, implementation and evaluation. In short, they must take ownership of the actions to be carried out in education.

This concept also reflects the idea of balanced partnerships between national/local and cooperation actors. We will have the opportunity to come back to this notion of “partnership” in a future article.

But what about the ‘ownership’ in practice of international cooperation in education (ICE)?

Despite changes in the methodology of development assistance, which appeared in particular after the above-mentioned declaration, many criticisms are levelled at the ICE. A common criticism is that projects or programs are still too often thought of in a top-down way, without setting up real participatory processes at the different levels (design, implementation, and evaluation) that would allow, among other things, this ownership at the national policy level, but also and especially at the level of beneficiaries. Indeed, very often in international cooperation projects, decisions are rarely made with local actors3.

Based on two studies we have conducted in recent years, we will demonstrate the difficulty for international cooperation actors to respect this principle of ownership.

The first research project focused on the design and implementation of the Competency-Based Approach (CBA) in French-speaking West Africa. Without going into detail, this approach, whose purpose is to ensure that learners not only learn knowledge, but also build skills, was supposed to be the miracle cure for the poor quality of education systems. Among its characteristics, it is a question of moving from a traditional, transmissive pedagogy to an active pedagogy, “a pedagogy of learning”4. What we must remember in our discussion is that this approach did not emanate from the will of national or local actors, but was driven by international cooperation in contexts where countries are historically accustomed to an exogenous presence (dependence linked to colonization and then to international aid). The institutions supporting the adoption of CBA were as follows: UNESCO, UNICEF, CONFEMEN, European Union, African Development Bank (AfDB), Belgian, Canadian and French cooperation etc. Expertise offices have also specialized in promoting CBA in Africa (including textbook writing as in Senegal), often arriving with turnkey models, but in technical language that is difficult for national decision-makers to understand. These offices operate with the funding offered by international cooperation. This strong international influence makes this approach explicit in the curricula of a very large number of countries on the African continent as a result of this impetus from international cooperation (countries in green on the map below).

Source: United Nations

The low national and local ownership led to many implementation difficulties: the available resources did not meet the requirements of CBA (teacher training, equipment, languages of instruction, etc.), and the populations directly concerned were not sufficiently mobilized to understand the value of this approach. For more details on the research

A second research that allows us to illustrate the challenges of ownership highlighted the practices of ICE actors in Switzerland*. Almost all our interlocutors (mainly NGO representatives) believe that their actions are explicitly linked to national and local priorities, and above all that they are based on the needs of their beneficiaries. Some people nevertheless noted that the projects or programs are designed according to a model specific to the cooperation structure, without any real ownership by national and local actors:

We have developed a tool in one country that we will use in other countries. That is not my vision. […] You can’t come in and then think that the system can integrate that.

This led us to address another crucial issue related to ownership, namely the sustainability of activities beyond their intervention of the ICE. Indeed, the local actors must have sufficient ownership of a project or program in order to be implemented in a sustainable manner once the ICE withdraws. Indeed, Enée (2010) notes that massive aid, coming from outside, contributes to favoring a certain assistance and, finally, produces perverse effects in the long term5. However, even if it is interesting to note that the ICE in Switzerland gives itself the means, not all practices go in this direction:

There is never any guarantee that the actions will continue. (…) And when there is no permanent monitoring, quality decreases, especially in emergency situations.

More details about the results of this research.



1 OECD. (2005). Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness

2 Lauwerier, T. (2015). Relevance and basic education in Africa

3 Lauwerier, T. & Akkari, A. (2019). Construire et mettre en œuvre un projet de coopération internationale en éducation

4 Altet, M., Paré-Kaboré, A. & Sall, H. N. (2015). OPERA, Observation des Pratiques Enseignantes dans leur Rapport avec les Apprentissages des élèves

5 Enée, G. (2010). Les ONG au Burkina Faso: une référence dans le champ du développement africain?


*The results of this research, soon to be published, will also be the subject of other articles in this blog .