International cooperation
for and through EDUCATION


Literature review

In addition to the complexity of ownership in the actions of international cooperation in education (Part II), the overlapping political agendas of a multiplicity of actors can lead to contradictions and inconsistencies (Bray & Russell, 2013). Thus, we address the issue of coordinating actions on the ground in this part of the literature review. 

The 2000 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness is explicit: “Donors commit to harmonize their activities. Harmonization should focus on […] coordination of political engagement; and practical initiatives such as the establishment of joint donor offices.” (OECD, 2000). Indeed, coordinating aid would make it possible to act more effectively in favor of populations in need by joining human and financial forces rather than leaving each party to act alone. This would be all the more the case in the context of a proliferation of cooperation institutions and new financing mechanisms in the Global South (Lauwerier, 2021).

However, these intentions, relevant as they may be, have been in vain for decades of cooperation in the education sector. As far back as 1967, the British think tank ODI pointed out the lack of coordination among aid agencies, criticizing the anomalies resulting from conflicts of interest, different administrative procedures, and contradictory prescriptions for the social progress of recipient countries.

We wish to illustrate the challenge of coordinating international cooperation actions on the ground with two concrete examples. We refer, again, to the previously-mentioned research on the practices of NGOs based in Switzerland. These NGOs have clearly shown that coordinating actions on the ground remains challenging to address. Only 50% of respondents to a questionnaire mentioned that their actions in the field were coordinated with similar actions of other institutions: “There is a special atmosphere among the actors. We are somewhat competitors,” said an informant during an interview. In concrete terms, dozens of NGOs intervene in in-service training for teachers with their own programs and approaches without necessarily consulting one another on the possibility of joint actions. Moreover, “the big and small actors are not at the same level” since some institutions have a more privileged place than others in the decision-making process at the national level, and not all have access to the same level of information about the actions carried out in a given country (Lauwerier, 2021).

Another example is the action of French cooperation in the context of the G5 Sahel. The effects of a lack of coordination can be dramatic in such contexts of extreme adversity: schools are closed by the hundreds, leaving thousands of children unable to attend. The COVID-19 crisis has amplified these challenges. Key people in the French cooperation system go so far as to say that “if we take this further, the problem of financial resources is not a problem. There are about 40–50 projects and dozens of actors, often lacking coordination and overlapping projects.” A report published in 2019 by the French Education Coalition network showed that the inventory of on-the-ground actions does not reveal any real overall coherence, which poses the risk of amplifying existing imbalances (Lauwerier, 2021).

It also seems interesting from the point of view of the coordination issue to draw a parallel between International Geneva (IG) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE): both entities bring together several international organizations. While the GPE is solely concerned with education, IG has the additional challenge of intersectorality. The GPE was created partly to address the coordination challenge, with the conviction that “by working better together, through collaboration and coordination, the aid regime will become more democratic and participatory.” However, the multilateral and bilateral cooperation institutions represented within the GPE continue to act independently and according to their own agendas, which limits this coordination effort (Menashy, 2018). The influence of countries from the North through bilateral cooperation remains strong. Furthermore, the GPE was initiated by the World Bank, and since its creation, a relationship of dependence has persisted between the two institutions. In particular, the Bank physically hosts the GPE, employs its staff, or serves as a supervisory entity in most recipient countries. Although external evaluations have identified this close relationship, the two organizations remain very close. Beyond the World Bank, donor countries from the North, particularly those providing significant aid, are widely perceived as having power within the GPE; they are the ones who sit on the Council with the most critical votes. Actors collaborate under the guise of equity in decision-making. However, those who have historically built up administrative positions, possess material resources, and speak the dominant languages are positioned differently from others within the partnership, giving them a more remarkable ability to influence the organization’s direction. As such, they maintain their hierarchical positions by upholding structures that reproduce their dominant status, thus contradicting the principles underlying the GPE’s mandate (Lauwerier, 2019c). In the case of IG, we can hypothesize that small International Geneva organizations, such as human-sized NGOs, may not have the same weight or power on the ground or in country-level negotiations with states as large structures like UNICEF, the World Health Organization, or the International Labour Organization. 

In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO), based in Geneva, published a report capitalizing on the experience of intersectorality in the field of health, with the initial hypothesis of the added value of going beyond the health sector: “Without working beyond the health sector, we will simply be unable to address the complex challenges that we face in our efforts to improve health and well-being, and reduce inequalities and inequities” (WHO, 2018, p. vii). Nevertheless, the organization highlights the many challenges encountered in this experiment:

A lack of political will or commitment has been cited as a clear challenge. Other common challenges include a lack of resources and coordination; inability or failure to identify co-benefits and to act in win-win situations; poor communication and ambiguous use of language; and entrenched siloed thinking, where resources are restricted for use only within a specific sector or program. In a few cases, the health sector’s own perceived superiority was mentioned as a barrier to collaboration with other sectors. In several cases, multisectoral and intersectoral approaches struggled to overcome conflicting interests between sectors, power imbalances and competition for resources, which made sustainability over time unachievable. A change of government or ministers was also found to present a challenge in terms of continuity and sustainability of policies and initiatives (p. xii).

IG will have to learn from this experience to limit the potential constraints to intersectorality and, in the first place, by addressing the issue of effective coordination.

Finally, we would like to highlight positive experiences in favor of better coordination. More and more consultation frameworks are being created on the ground, bringing together the Ministry of Education and significant cooperation institutions in any given country. In Mali, for example, the Education Cluster, jointly managed by the Ministry, Save the Children, and UNICEF, aims to develop capacity and coordination mechanisms to improve responses to humanitarian crises and to strengthen the capacity and readiness of humanitarian staff and government authorities for planning and to manage the quality of education programs in emergencies (Lauwerier, 2021).

To conclude this section, it should be noted that coordinating the actions of international organizations constitutes a real historical challenge for the concretization of the concept of “International Geneva,” especially in a context of intersectorality: the organizations act mainly according to their own interests, including in terms of sectoral priorities. It will be necessary to understand better how national relays of International Geneva promote coordination on the ground, including by pooling the actions of organizations from other sectors (health, labor, etc.). Do international organizations within IG act in a coordinated way on the ground? If so, are we observing positive effects on the ground, especially in the context of intersectorality?

Insights from the field

Intersectorality is supposed to be one of the strongest features of International Geneva (IG). Therefore, we wanted to see if this was a reality among the IG organizations at the national level.

We begin this section by highlighting that the intersectoral perspective is considered essential in international cooperation in education: 

We consider this to be an important dimension: beyond basic education, we must ensure that children and young people can develop a culture of peace, a culture of… environmental management, and everything related to the preservation of the environment, including climate change, but also everything related to education for solidarity and tolerance. (E5)

Multidisciplinarity is very, very fundamental to what we do. So, yes, I think these are fundamentally linked things, especially if we want to have a considerable impact on the countries that are more or less concerned. We can’t deal with environmental issues only with environmentalists… So, here we have to be as broad as possible. This is fundamental to what we do and, fortunately, occurs at the level of International Geneva. (E7)

Intersectoriality is even a process that is well entrenched in some organizations whose mandate is to work across sectors:

[The institution] is also an organization that covers the different sectors of intervention for the protection of refugees, so it’s cross-sectoral in nature. So yes, that’s something that’s a big part of our work. (E6)

One respondent, however, was skeptical about the need for an intersectoral approach, indicating, “I don’t know what intersectorality means. It also means a lack of specialization. I don’t know what you’ll do with that” (E3). 

While noting the added value of this intersectorality, respondents emphasized that it was still far from being a reality in the field: 

This is something that we don’t work enough on today, but undoubtedly, we need to work more on it in the years to come. To respond to emerging issues: I am talking about the problem of youth employment, for example. God knows how important it is in Africa now to give jobs to young people. To meet this challenge of youth employability, we must mobilize education and training, as well as the employment and labor sectors. (E2)

The interviews highlighted the weak interaction between organizations. This was especially the case in the education sector:

So it’s true that we have approached these topics separately often, but probably for historical, institutional, personal reasons, or whatever. Nevertheless, I think we will win and move toward a somewhat joint approach in supporting the ministry. (E2)

Thus, this interaction was even more limited between organizations from different sectors within IG. This was explained by how intersectorality was structured within this entity:  

I think it’s interesting, but it comes up against a systemic approach that is already extremely rigid and rooted, and that comes from the UN… That is to say, the UN has its own approach to intersectorality. As a result, it already takes much time for the different actors to fit into these frameworks. Thus, it is not easy. This does not mean that the idea is not good, but it does mean that there is a constraint (for instance, that an intersectoral approach is already put forward by the UN). The UN is a vector of a unique and powerful systemic approach. The objective is One Response. In other words, we are all aligned… and as a result, this creates a lot of constraints, even tensions. (E1)

In any case, as of very recently, I don’t remember having a meeting where all these actors were around the table to discuss a topic. (E2)

While noting the scarcity of intersectorality, some respondents highlighted some conclusive experiences of IG organizations based in Dakar:

I had meetings, for example, with the UNHCR education officer here in Dakar, and we may have meetings with UNICEF and WFP sometimes. (E2)

For example, we’re setting up a joint project with the ILO here… since you’re talking about the ILO… in the region to try to see how the national vocational training systems can be more inclusive of refugees. So that’s one example. Recently, we have been working very closely with the WHO on immunization campaigns… to ensure that refugees are included in them. We also collaborate with UNICEF, especially in the area of washing, for example. We also work a lot with UNICEF on child protection documentation. (E6)

We have a lot of contact with the organizations represented at the International Geneva level. Generally speaking, these are the offices of the IOM, UNCTAD, etc. So, generally speaking, we collaborate a lot. In fact, last year, we had planned to hold a conference with the IOM office, which is located here. (E7)

However, experiences of intersectorality in the field often extended beyond the framework of IG organizations. Specifically, we heard of an example of intersectoral activities (setting up school canteens) with the World Food Program, whose headquarters are based in Rome.