International cooperation
for and through EDUCATION


Literature review

We begin from the idea that it is difficult for an international entity, however “powerful” it may be, to have an impact — what is more, a positive one — on national education systems. The latter’s actions are subject to dynamics that disrupt the objectives — relevant or not — initially set by the international entity. This part of the literature review answers the question: Can a significant global entity (in terms of the number of organizations) such as International Geneva (IG) influence actions on the ground? Can it be a vector of (positive) change? Finally, is there added value in IG’s specific actions? The literature already addresses some of these issues at a macro level — in particular at the level of organizational headquarters — and in terms of the complexity of their influence (internal divergences, divergences between organizations in a context of intersectorality, etc.); however, we will focus on the issues at the national level. 

The primary trend in the scientific literature on the influence of international entities and international organizations in general, especially in sociology, is to adopt a critical approach that has as its main focus the analysis of the relationships of hegemony between different actors and levels of governance. This is notably the case for studies of large institutions such as the World Bank or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These organizations are seen as hyper-powerful entities that, by imposing their standards, leave little room for maneuvering, especially at national levels. Their influence on national education policies is said to be so powerful that their choices have direct effects at the local level. Mundy, Green, Lingard and Verger’s (2016) The Handbook of Global Education Policy and Klees, Samoff and Stromquist’s (2012) The World Bank and Education: Critiques and Alternatives illustrate this approach well: « These policies have been adopted uncritically and alternative policies have been ignored, which leads to our focus here. The World Bank is the major architect in formulating a global education policy and has been so for decades » (p. 209). This type of analysis may be relevant to understanding the IG’s influence: this entity brings together various major international organizations that are, themselves, involved in multiple sectors and, therefore, potentially powerful. These studies, which indeed represent points of reference in the analysis of global educational policies, have as their object the study of unbalanced power relations and the omnipotence of neoliberal ideology. However, they do not sufficiently consider the complexity of the processes linked to the specific national contexts in which international entities intervene.

It is crucial to consider theoretical elements that allow for a more detailed analysis of this type of influence because, as Lange (2003) points out, it is a matter of putting the process of imposing international standards into perspective. Van Zanten (2004) and Yang (2010) insist on the need to see education policies as more than just implementing guidelines from an all-powerful force. In this context, there are several possible impediments to the influence of international entities: the heterogeneity of the interests involved (States, international organizations, etc.), the complexity of actors’ strategies, the meandering of public decision-making, the reinterpretations during concrete implementation, the feedback effects, and the regular readjustments at local levels. All of these make any linear or causal reasoning impossible. In this regard, Yang (2010) brings in the concept of hybridization: “When global trends are encountered in the local context, some form of hybridization results from a combination of elements to make up the final programme package for policy transfer” (p. 233). Different processes thus unfold when there are exogenous and endogenous elements in educational policies. While we do not question a certain homogenization of educational policies, we would like to qualify the powerful effects of the influence of transnational forces.

Moreover, in the face of this complexity, the general organization of international aid sometimes leads to “doing worse” (Doligez, 2020). Let us take the example of research conducted in Mali and Senegal on the influence of the World Bank to illustrate this point. The policies that led to the precariousness of teachers in the 1980s and 1990s, supposedly to rationalize the costs of education systems in crisis, ultimately led to teachers going on strike for months at a time, which meant that school programs could not be implemented. The adverse effects on student learning and teacher motivation came at a considerable cost to education systems. They thus did not allow for the rationalization initially desired by the World Bank (Lauwerier, 2013).

Adding to this complexity is the fact that, increasingly, international organizations are not acting alone in national education systems. International cooperation in education includes multiple actors who wish to play a role. From this point of view, national actors, including ministries of education, must consider various interests that can thwart the action of an international entity whose influence becomes difficult to perceive. To take the example of the World Bank, this organization, however powerful it may be, acts alongside other actors of international cooperation whose financial involvement in West Africa’s national policy is significant. Multilateral organizations like UNICEF or bilateral organizations may hold more weight than the World Bank in terms of their impacts on, for instance, teacher policy in Mali or Senegal, notably through teacher training — although in the collective imagination, including that of researchers, the World Bank is the most powerful organization in most countries of the Global South (Lauwerier, 2013). In a context of multiple organizations and intersectoriality such as IG, it is essential to note that “the number and fluctuation of protagonists intervening in the name of development at different scales in the same country or region complicate the deciphering of the specific effects of the interventions of each” (Naëlou, Hofmann & Kojoué, 2020). We will see below whether partnership frameworks allow for better visibility of the on-the-ground effects of the actions of multiple international organizations.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the difficulty for research capturing international entities’ influence is rooted mainly in methodological issues. Few research findings are generated by on-the-ground investigation; even though they consider national contexts, many studies analyzing the influence of international entities refer only to institutional documents produced by the institutions themselves. Such studies emphasize, in particular, the potential impact of these documents: “It is my belief that the World Bank’s texts represent such dominant discourse because they contribute to shaping people’s lives. A few seemingly trivial words from the World Bank can convince politicians to adopt policies with far-reaching consequences” (Nordtveit, 2012, p. 21). Beyond the fact that there may be contradictions and evolutions in the organizations’ discourse — and therefore, from this point of view, conclusions that are difficult to draw — the analysis of an international entity’s influence should consider not only reports but also how the organization conducts itself on the ground. How are these texts translated into practice? The analysis of education policy is only relevant when conducted at different scales; otherwise, it fails to highlight the strategies of actors who implement this policy and, in our case, the potential role played by the IG organizations’ representatives in national contexts.

By way of synthesis, we understand through this literature review that given the complexity of the influence of international entities like IG, it will be difficult for the organizations’ representatives in the national contexts to detect the specific added value of IG’s actions on the ground, beyond the discursive, even normative level. In light of these observations, how does IG ensure that its action on the ground is effective and that it exerts a fundamental influence (beyond the discourse), constitutive of added value, on the beneficiaries of its actions?

Insights from the field

In this section, we want to show that, despite the discourses indicating a strong influence of International Geneva (IG), this influence is somewhat limited on the ground. 

Indeed, when we look at the official websites promoting IG, especially the one dedicated to it, or the websites of the city of Geneva and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), we understand, through the deployment of a growing marketing strategy, that this place has a specific role to play in the field of international cooperation, even if the educational sector is not explicitly highlighted: 

{International Geneva} is a recognized center of expertise in the following areas:

  • Peace, security, disarmament
  • Humanitarian action and law, human rights, migration
  • Work, economy, trade, science, telecommunications
  • The health
  • Environment and sustainable development. (SDC, 2022) 

On another site, we see “it is here {…} that responses to environmental challenges are developed; and that the fight against AIDS is organized. Victims of abuse, torture and violence find forums to be heard and to seek justice” (Genève internationale, 2022).

We, therefore, asked our interviewees what IG meant to them to understand whether the vision of this entity on the ground is similar to that of institutions based in Switzerland and Geneva. 

Although representing the institutions of IG, we found that the actors in the field did not necessarily know the name of “International Geneva,” nor did they explicitly understand its meaning. One interviewee, who was very familiar with Geneva and its organizations, had never even heard of this term:

It wasn’t referring to anything very specific. When you contacted me, I obviously Googled a little bit and saw the general information. But no, I wasn’t sure… [International Geneva] didn’t refer to anything specific to me. I wasn’t really aware of the structures, the objectives, or the working methods. (E6)

Even for those familiar with this entity, it remained abstract in practice:

The concept of International Geneva has a slightly theoretical side because it is an international place full of diversity. In fact, International Geneva is made up of many extremely different things. So it remains… it’s a bit conceptual, actually. (E1)

Still, for those who have an idea of what “International Geneva” can mean, they recognize that this name is more evident for Geneva-based representatives than for those in the field:

People wouldn’t really know what it was. I think there is a real awareness, including in all the humanitarian organizations, of the importance of Geneva in terms of action or regulation. In fact, I would say of international action. (…) Then, among the humanitarian actors themselves, it depends from one organization to another. There can be a mixture between International Geneva and the UN in the field… That is to say, whether it comes from New York or Geneva, in the end, we don’t really know. (E1)

From this point of view, we could sometimes see the confusion between IG and Switzerland, particularly through the SDC:

They are rather discreet. However, in any case, as far as I know, they already do a lot, and it is in their interest to improve Geneva’s visibility in cooperation programs. (E2)

I would mention the SDC itself, which holds an increasingly important place within our organization as… I don’t know if the SDC supports us at the central level, at the level of our own financing. I don’t know if it’s the SDC or a ministry… I’m not very familiar with it. (E3)

Moreover, it emerged that Bern could carry more weight in international cooperation in the field of education than Geneva:

At the educational level, [the institution] works essentially in three main areas of action: (1) protection, (2) education, and (3) participation. Concerning education, in the action plan framework, there is an important emphasis on the aspect of education for sustainable development. These are elements that are in line with the objectives of sustainable development, as well as the strategic documents of the SDC. (E5)

There is also the issue of distinguishing between the IG organizations, whose main headquarters are in Geneva, and the decentralized centers of these organizations. We understand that Geneva is thus not so central in reality:

We work mainly with the International Training Center. So they are in… if I’m not mistaken, they are in Torino. We don’t work much directly with the ILO [International Labour Organization], and we work more with their training center on training related to education, technical and vocational training, and the link with the labor market. (E3)

As far as we are concerned, in the region, we have interactions with the regional institutions and the countries we cover, and regional institutions that cover the region—potentially those that cover the region, but that are decentralized, like, for example, some donors like Education Cannot Wait and so on, that don’t have a regional presence but that cover the region. In this case, we can have direct interactions within the region. However, otherwise, for the institutions based in Geneva and that are themselves decentralized with regional presences, we are in contact with the regional level rather than with the Geneva level. (E6)

Moreover, IG was not considered an international place par excellence for concrete, fundamental issues. For the United Nations, in particular, New York was perceived by our interlocutors as having more weight: “Even in humanitarian matters, there are many things that depend on the United Nations Security Council. So it is not the political place of the United Nations” (E1). 

Beyond IG as such, our interviews did not reveal a clear understanding of the role of this entity in the specific sector of education: “Personally, it is true that I do not particularly associate Geneva with education. I’m looking for it, but…” (E3).

Finally, some interlocutors assumed the role of marketing/communication in their positioning on IG without any identifiable substance:

Well, at the time, I knew that Geneva was a more strategic choice because it was a “showcase” for us. I repeat the word, the expression that has been circulated, and therefore the ease of exchanges and proximity with other international organizations. That was really what motivated the choice of Geneva. (E4)

Nevertheless, despite the vagueness of the concept of “International Geneva,” especially for the education sector, many of our interlocutors emphasized the critical role played in the humanitarian field:

International Geneva exists for two reasons for me. It exists around the fact that… there are UN headquarters and that there is the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross]. This is what created International Geneva in the first place. So a whole bunch of fascinating dynamics is based on this. The Humanitarian Lab… the Innovation Lab… I think it has created a dynamic around the humanitarian sector, which is extremely interesting. (E1)

This humanitarian community is… it is felt quite strongly. I have often spoken about this with colleagues from international NGOs: the idea of having someone in Geneva, that’s how we say it: “You have to have someone in Geneva”. It’s quite strong, and it means that there is a humanitarian tropism in Geneva that is important, so it’s difficult sometimes to say exactly how the concept is seen and experienced by everyone. However, I think there is a real reality to this humanitarian community in Geneva. (E1)

More specifically, in the field of education, some interviewees noted (although the questions may have led them to this conclusion) that IG has an increasing influence on the issue of education in emergencies: “That said, we must qualify [the low weight of International Geneva] a little bit, because the networks like INEE, the network for education in emergencies if I’m not talking nonsense, are based in Geneva” (E2).

For organizations particularly involved in this issue, the influence of IG was major, as evidenced by the Geneva Global Hub for Education in Emergencies:

If we take the newly created Global Hub for Education in Emergencies… which was created in Geneva, we can now establish contact according to the area of interest, such as when they have events that concern the region, etc. However, for example, the focal point for us as [the institution] in the Global Hub is the person at the headquarters level. (E6)

Furthermore, our interlocutors recognized advocacy as a potential means of influence in the field of education:

It is not a very strong operational center. In fact, International Geneva has become a rather strong center for humanitarian debate. Besides, the big NGOs that are present in Geneva are not the operational sections, except for Doctors Without Borders, but that case is a bit special. The others are representative offices, so we are there for all the debates, advocacy, and that kind of thing. So, that really exists for me. (E1)

At this level, it is sincerely on the level of advocacy. For instance, in working to ensure that the Senegalese school, at least the quality, is there and to sound the alarm on the risk of privatization of the Senegalese public school, this is the level where I really see the challenges and particular expectations. (E5)

Geneva really has added value because of its location, not only between the different organizations but also because most of the donors, country missions, and so on are there. (E6)

This advocacy can focus on increasing funding for education. Again, the issue of education in emergencies emerged in the interviews:

Well, education, particularly in emergencies—and humanitarian funding—has increased in recent years, but it remains largely underfunded compared to other sectors. So, that is transparent. Beyond that, I think that the issue of forced displacement in general in all funding… so we are talking about intersectorality… and when we see the numbers of the campaigns, whether for WHO or health in general, and the percentage that is taken into account for forced displacement situations, it is really minimal. This is also the case in many other sectors. So, from my small vantage point and my position, I would say that, on the one hand, education in emergencies is relevant to the humanitarian response in general. On the other hand, situations of forced displacement are relevant to the more general response and the more general design of programs, whether humanitarian or generally developmental. (E6)

Within the framework of this advocacy, one respondent saw IG as a place where funds could be catalyzed for education systems in the Global South:

Geneva must also be able to finance projects. Today, if Geneva commits itself to work strategically on lifting the bottlenecks to truly free education, at least in the first ten years, we must also be able to feel it on the ground. This is because free education is not equivalent to the little crumbs children pay as school fees; on the contrary, it is more than that. (E4)

These debates are all the more favorable when this place is conceived as a neutral and stable zone:

It’s a real place for debate. (…) I think that it provides a real opening to an international debate around humanitarian issues, which is still very important. When you work in this field, you have the possibility to influence. (…) It is still a place where a certain number of debates occur and where it remains a sphere of neutrality that makes debate possible, including at a political level…very, very political, and at a fairly high level. So, I think this creates International Geneva: this humanitarian anchoring and then a space for debate. (E1)

Geneva should not suffer from its notoriety as the capital of a stable country, recognized as a financial center, which also reflects… the character of trust that the partners already have. We will no longer look for aspects of trust and credibility in Geneva. (E4)

In addition to neutrality and stability, an accessible, “local” aspect was also identified:

The added value is really to have the possibility of confronting several extremely varied actors and then exchanging with them in the same place. You can’t get that anywhere else, even in New York… New York is a very different place; it’s a very political place. Geneva is smaller, and that makes it easier, too. There’s a local side to it, which facilitates this connection. In my previous job, I arrived to set up a kind of representational function with the United Nations and other NGOs. Well, it’s not easy, but I managed to do it on my own… we managed to contact people and create links. Geneva is also made for that, and I find it an enormous added value in terms of… Well, so that the different actors can learn from each other and eventually improve. (E1)

If this working group were in Vienna or New York, I don’t think it would make much difference to our analysis. At the same time, I think that the proximity that we have here in Geneva has made it easier for us to get involved in these groups. (E1)

Thus, from the point of view of advocacy, it is a matter of mobilizing influential actors in the field who will then relay messages during their stay in Geneva: “In Geneva, what we used to do was to work with, for example, the ambassadors of African countries who were there. Also with the African Union” (E7). Lobbying strategies are then put in place to orient the discourse of influential actors in the field:

What we do is that, with the African organizations that are well represented in International Geneva, for example, the embassies and even the African Union, we also try to participate… that is to say, to propose capacity building on the issues that have been dealt with. We also try to synthesize them to make proposals… to tell them, “Here, this question could be addressed as such; this question is also one that comes up, and yet it is not well treated in International Geneva. (E7)

Finally, and not unrelated to advocacy, another role for IG, identified with the interviews, was that of academic research and training. Indeed, this place is renowned for its academic institutions, including the University of Geneva (60th in the world in the Shanghai Ranking) and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. International dimensions are present in these institutions, especially in the field of education. This has repercussions on the ground:

We even received students from the University of Geneva who came to Senegal to study the current problem of education of talibé children and thus to accompany us and reinforce the work that we had to do. We also had academics who came to provide their input regarding the impact of the vocational training we provide. We think that all these elements allow us to have an external view of all the work being done in Senegal. (E5)

The research process was said to be facilitated by the fact that academic and cooperation institutions were located in the same place: “We worked on an applied research project between students and an organization” (E1).

In addition to its value for research, International Geneva was recognized as a center for training in the field of international cooperation:

We have a training program in humanitarian analysis. Again, it is a program that does not give… that doesn’t give university credits. However, it has been developed with a certain number of United Nations agencies, so International Geneva finds its meaning there. In fact, we have organized the Humanitarian Analysis Program for several years. We organized it in Geneva and did others in the field. (E1)

Moreover, studies at the academic institutions of IG, particularly at the University of Geneva, can lead to involvement in international cooperation. This was the case for one respondent, who held a position of responsibility in Dakar in an institution representing IG: “I am a Senegalese. By training, I am an economist. I spent a good part of my studies in Geneva, at the University of Geneva… I finished in 2019” (E7).