International cooperation
for and through EDUCATION


Literature review

Having faced significant criticism, international cooperation is trying to evolve toward more inclusive practices of “Southization,” which will seriously consider the populations at the heart of its actions. Many relevant concepts have appeared over the last two decades: integration, participation, involvement, capacity development, capacity building, appropriation, ownership, empowerment, autonomization, leadership, localization, etc. This would end a pattern of North/South or West/Rest domination (Joxe, 2020). However, according to Naëlou, Hofmann, and Kojoué (2020), this transition towards (at least) the delegation of decisions is not simple:

More fundamentally, aid actors are faced with constrained choices between strategic orientations, either technocratic and quantitative, or concerted and qualitative. The first path is supposed to strengthen organizations by integrating them fully into the aid system, at the risk of a certain industrialization, and the second carries an objective of experimentation and renewal of practices that make it possible to distinguish the contributions of organizations, but carries a potential risk of marginalization within the aid market. (p. 28)

The literature reveals that, even if practices are evolving, power remains, implicitly or explicitly, in the hands of policymakers in the North. For example, a reading of sector policy documents or many other analytical or measurement tools promoted by donors and written by experts with the laudable aim of supporting governments highlights texts that are often long and complex and in which the finesse of the analysis sometimes seems to take precedence over its pragmatism necessary for implementation (Michel & Prigent, 2016). However, even if international cooperation organizations are often blamed for the failures of education systems in the countries of the Global South, more and more authors are emphasizing the responsibility of national actors. Following the period of independence, the cause of underdevelopment was attributed to recurrent colonialism. Today, we know that failures in various areas of development are primarily due to internal causes, and the State has a large share of responsibility for the current situation (Lauwerier, 2011). 

Having said that, despite changes in the methodology of development assistance, many criticisms are leveled at international cooperation in education. A common criticism is that projects or programs are still too often thought of in a top-down way without setting up actual participatory processes at different levels (design, implementation, and evaluation), where such participatory processes would allow, among other things, project ownership at the national policy level — but also, and especially, at the level of beneficiaries. Indeed, very often, decisions in international cooperation projects are rarely made by States and/or with local actors. This is all the more problematic because international cooperation rarely examines what happens in the system and classrooms, specifically by observing and exchanging with teachers about their practices, knowledge, and objectives (Prigent & Cros, 2018). 

In a recent study (Lauwerier, 2019a), we examined the practices of international cooperation institutions in education with headquarters in Switzerland. In this context, we highlighted the contradictions between, on the one hand, actions that are explicitly linked to national and local priorities and based on the needs of the institutions’ beneficiaries and, on the other hand, approaches that exclude the perspectives of the actors on the ground. Some representatives of these institutions noted that the projects or programs were designed according to a model specific to the cooperation structure, without any actual 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 cannot come in and then think that the system can integrate that” (Lauwerier, 2019b).

This leads us to address another crucial issue related to ownership: the sustainability of activities beyond the intervention of international cooperation in education. Local actors must have sufficient ownership of a project or program in order to be able to implement it sustainably once the international cooperation withdraws. Indeed, Enée (2010) notes that massive aid from outside contributes to favoring a certain kind of assistance and, finally, produces perverse results in the long term: “There is never any guarantee that the actions will continue. […] And when there is no permanent monitoring, quality decreases, especially in emergencies” (Lauwerier, 2019b).     

In summary, according to the literature review, we can hypothesize that IG representatives in the field will highlight the weak capacity of national-based actors for making decisions: the orientations come above all from Geneva, with little consideration of the problems that arise on the ground, including from the organizations’ national relays. Our question is to what extent International Geneva contributes to greater national ownership: 1) how the offices at the national level accompany this process; and 2) whether these offices have the means to influence the organizations’ direction since they are more familiar with the challenges in the field.

Insights from the field

As we noted in the literature review, for the influence of an international entity to be fruitful for the actors in the education system, the orientations must not be perceived as exogenous. They must be owned by the actors who will operationalize them. We will therefore look at how International Geneva (IG) works with the actors in the field to understand how the guidelines are defined. 

Although decried for years, international entities, like IG, still function according to a top-down process in the view of the actors we spoke to in Dakar. Indeed, we note that the directions came essentially from the headquarters; they were not expanded on (or not very much) with the actors in the field who knew the realities well:

That is to say, all the international strategies are implemented in the field, particularly in countries such as Senegal, Guinea, Togo, and Madagascar (…)  [The institution] has a strategic plan for… if I take the current one, it is for 2020 to 2025. These are the strategic priorities and orientations until 2029. So, when I talk about compliance and consistency, this means that all the strategic and operational choices we make here… we make sure that these projects are consistent with the three directions and the three strategic priorities, that is one. In principle, these projects also respect the nine principles we have defined over the five years and then the targets so that everything respects the targeting that has been done. (E4)

As we are a Swiss organization, we must also align ourselves with the orientations and, therefore, the directives of Swiss cooperation. This is why I said that one of the reference documents on which we work is the SDC’s strategy document, which is useful for everything related to the educational dimension. (…) There are fundamentals and principles that, in any case, we have to work on. In any case, we are inspired by the orientation documents and reflections developed at the headquarters. (E5)

From our point of view, when we look at the macro level, and even when we look at the SDGs, for example, we can say that the objectives were set but without the means of being defined appropriately. This is a bit difficult because the contexts are not the same. There are realities on the ground that are not the same. (E7)

Nevertheless, there are some positive experiences of a whole process of ownership in the actions at the field level:

It is rarely a vertical relationship. That is to say, we are free to decide on our action plans and our projects, and we defend them. If headquarters ask questions, it’s not to correct them, but normally, like any headquarters, the intent is to ensure the relevance of the orientations; the added value of the impact on the populations; and the efficiency, effectiveness, and conformity with the national policies. (E4)

There are, of course, exchanges with Geneva and {another headquarter in Europe}, essentially because these are the two areas where we have the headquarters, which give a bit of direction. (…) After Geneva and {another headquarter in Europe}, they give a global strategic vision and general guidelines, and the regions translate them into regional strategies according to their specific context. (E6)

Consultation with the field offices often occurs with entities other than International Geneva, like the European Union or the French Development Agency:

There are consultations that the European Union organizes, and so it goes through a group of technical and financial partners in education. So, we get together, and then we discuss the priorities for the next planning, and so on. So, we are working seriously on that. The second case study that I know of is also a matter of French cooperation. The French cooperation, at any given moment, says, “You work in education in Senegal. What are your priorities, what are the challenges, and what are the difficulties?” (E4)

The top-down approach is counterproductive, as many studies have already shown because if decisions mainly come from Geneva, there is no support from the populations concerned and, therefore no will to implement the orientations:

One of the things that are a problem here in Africa… Generally, people tend to believe that all these decisions or proposals that come from above are dictated to them. (…) So, I think it’s always important not only to start from the grassroots to understand the issues, but also to involve the local actors. (…) In my opinion, it is always fundamental for these objectives to start from the ground to understand and involve the local actors so that it does not appear as though the decisions come from the top. So, for me, it is fundamental that we have this approach, which must be integrated at the level of International Geneva. (E7)

To respond to this challenge, one of the appropriate measures would be to establish a better representation of countries that have traditionally been set aside, even though they are primarily concerned with the IG orientations so that their voices are taken into consideration:

We also felt African organizations were not represented well at this level. Nevertheless, many issues are dealt with, or let’s say that should normally be at the center of everything that is done, including climate change… the effect of climate change, access to water… even some other related issues, like individual freedoms and everything. (E7)

This is why some organizations have created local branches in the Global South and, in our case, Dakar:

The objective is really to allow African organizations of different kinds to be at the heart of International Geneva without being physically there and also to be aware of the central issues that are dealt with. (…) So, we really try to contribute to what is done in International Geneva from our local antenna. (E7)

Nevertheless, as the general IG orientations are disconnected from the realities of the field, it seems more relevant that operationalization is ultimately decided in Dakar. Conscious of this need, organizations tend to decentralize the process of conception and implementation of actions at the national level:

So, the operation of [the institution] in the last few years has been decentralized considerably. (…) There are two roles, in fact, at the office level since [the institution] was decentralized: we have both a technical support role for the operations we cover, so technical support for the development and programming of education programs, and supervision of these same programs. (E6)

So, we are with the locals; we discuss these issues with them. These are the issues we will raise now so that they can serve as something solid at the level of International Geneva. Generally, there is always a gap between the theoretical questions treated at the level of International Geneva and what happens on the ground. That is one issue. Secondly, the local populations, to the extent that they feel involved in these issues, are more cooperative and participate better. Therefore, there is more fluidity between the exchanges and even the proposed measures at the level of International Geneva. For us, it is fundamental that there be this link between those at the top and those at the bottom, who are, in reality, the real actors. (E7)