NORRAG is a direct descendant of the Research Review and Advisory Group (RRAG). This was a 12 person international advisory group set up and funded by Canada's IDRC from 1977, in order to review the existing educational research (especially from the developing world), and come up with advice to donor agencies on educational investment. It was a group drawn more from the developing countries than the global north. The mechanism selected for RRAG's dissemination was the state of the art review, a way of synthesising and providing policy advice.
After a few years, RRAG felt it might have greater impact if there could be regional RRAGs. One example of such a regional RRAG would be the Education Research Network of West and Central Africa (ERNWACA). Another would be the REDUC network of documentation centres in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Kenneth King, who had been the co-ordinator of the original RRAG from late 1983, felt that there would be value in exploring a network that could synthesise key information on education policy across Northern research centres and donor agencies. Thus in late 1985, there was the first meeting of the Northern Research Review and Advisory Group (NORRAG), as it was first called. It was agreed that its main task would be to produce an aid policy bulletin. Swedish SIDA agreed to support the production and dissemination of the bulletin.
NORRAG NEWS (hereafter NN) was thus born. Getting the balance right between merely reporting and synthesising, on the one hand, and offering a critical, analytical account of a particular development, on the other, is something that has concerned NORRAG from the beginning. NN has always appeared twice a year.
The original idea was for NN to go to Southern researchers as a critical information service. Thus it was sent to the ERNWACA and REDUC networks. A second obvious constituency was the donors, and NN was sent to named individuals usually located in education and training divisions. The third NORRAG target were originally those academic contact points, often just one or two per country. All three groups had a role in feeding information into the newsletter. In these early years, NORRAG was really a small grouping of like-minded academics and agency policy people in the Global North and the Global South. It was more like a ‘club' than an organization.
In 1992 it was decided to encourage a paying membership of NORRAG in OECD countries; but NN continued to be sent free to Southern networks. NORRAG also then constituted itself as an Association under Swiss law and it located its coordination point in Geneva with Michel Carton at IUED, now IHEID. Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) started to support the coordination. At that point also it changed its name from ‘Northern' to ‘Network' to reflect its more global reach.
NORRAG is more than just NN. NORRAG has also pulled together meetings to review key policy papers and key themes. It was often supported by DSE, now InWent of Germany, in organizing and publishing material from these NORRAG meetings. In addition, NORRAG has always organized a section of the biennial Oxford UKFIET conference since it started in 1991.
During the second half of the 1990s, NORRAG broke new ground in its role of policy review and advice by becoming one of the organisers, with ILO and Swiss Development Cooperation, of the Working Group on International Cooperation in Skills Development. This continued till 2009, and there is a valuable set of critical documentation on its web site.
NORRAG has always been aware that its largest challenge was to expand its work and its impact in the developing world. It could not achieve this by sending a few copies to a handful of selected people in the South and a small number of paying members in the North.
The key decision was therefore taken in 2003 to make NORRAG NEWS free online. This has led to a very rapid expansion in membership in both the Global North and Global South; NORRAG members worldwide increased from under 200 in 2003 to over 4,300 by January 2013.
It would not be appropriate to close this account without mentioning a word on the agencies that have supported NORRAG. Originally supported by Swedish Sida from 1985, then Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) since 1992, and DFID from the later 1990s, NORRAG is currently (in 2009) funded by SDC and DFID, with support in kind from NUFFIC (the Hague). SDC was the leading supporter of NORRAG's work in catalysing the Working Group for Skills Development.
We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to these three bilateral agencies, from Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.