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17 Jul 2020
Noah W. Sobe

As we build global solidarity and action in education, think infrastructure not architecture

This NORRAG Highlights is contributed by Noah W. Sobe, Senior Project Officer at UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative. It is published in conjunction with the UNESCO-NORRAG online consultation on the Futures of Education in Emergencies and Protracted Crises (17.07.2020). In this post, the author calls for reimagining education structures in the wake of COVID-19 around the concept of infrastructure.

As the education sector sets to work on reconstruction and reimagining in the wake of COVID-19 disruptions there is much necessary talk about global solidarity and action. Alongside intelligent local and national strategies, it is equally important to have an intelligent global strategy.  Is the international education community up to the task? How does that work need to be set up?

The question of how best to work collectively at a global level generated plenty of debate well before the current pandemic. In a 2019 essay in the International Journal of Education and Development Nicholas Burnett made the case that the “international architecture for education” was “broken” and in need of repair.  In response, Steve Klees argued that the problem had been misdiagnosed and that, rather than a tinkering repair, a sea change in development approaches is needed.  Burnett’s essay called for “one leading international agency for education,” which Richard Sack has suggested is an anachronistic response to an increasingly plural world of diverse actors and priorities. Concretely, at the end of 2019 Julia Gillard of the Global Partnership for Education called for making the global education community more “capable of joined-up strategic thinking, innovation, planning, delivery and accountability.” Stefania Giannini of UNESCO similarly proposed that progress would come through strengthened collaboration around common priorities.

In reacting to COVID-19, in place of structures that encompass and steer, the international education community appears to be heading more in the direction of collaborations and partnerships. UNESCO has launched a new Global Education Coalition. Cooperation among UN entities and other partners is running strong.  Many of these arrangements are less hierarchical and more horizontal in orientation—though, of course, this does not mean they too are without their limitations.  It has been pointed out, for example, that “partnership” models can obscure power imbalances. Many of the terms we use to describe these approaches no longer seem adequate.  For example, it can be argued that the “network” concept has become so over-used and over-burdened that we need a new idiom for thinking about collective global action.

This is where the concept of infrastructure is quite helpful (for example, as discussed in a recent essay by Lauren Berlant).  If architecture—at least as it has served as a reference in the debate on international education coordination mentioned above—is about solidly known structures that stabilize and organize, infrastructure is about the linking elements, the pathways between. Infrastructure is relational, it is all the “between” that binds us together and to a world in motion.

Command-and-control engineering solutions have run their course. We need to focus on the infrastructures that enable collective joining-up, collective intelligence and collective action.  Practically these might manifest as platforms, partnerships, networks or coalitions. But, the point is that infrastructure is defined by movement and use. An infrastructure orientation requires us to think carefully about our relationships with one another and with the world.

Over the last months, the actant capabilities of a virus 125 nanometers in diameter have viscerally revealed just how inextricably humans are collectively bound together—as well as the systems and structures that separate us and mean the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in nearly all sectors.  COVID-19 forces us think about how we should relate to other human beings, but also to the planet and the many beings on it. These most practical of ethical questions call us to embrace the complex and shared experiences of assembling knowledge and action. As we build global solidarity in education we need to embrace the messy process of making the pathways of infrastructure that connect people, ideas and action.

Thinking in terms of infrastructure additionally has the potential to help strengthen global common goods.  If we take the commons as an action concept, as Berlant among others have suggested, we keep our efforts focused on the difficult and necessarily ongoing world-creating struggle of making our actions together serve the good of all.  To strengthen education and knowledge as global common goods we need transparent social collaboration, participation and trusteeship.  For this, instead of turning to architectures to organize us, we should build infrastructures to connect us.

About the Author: Noah W. Sobe is Senior Project Officer at UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative.

Author’s Note: The ideas and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.

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Disclaimer: NORRAG’s blog offers a space for dialogue about issues, research and opinion on education and development. The views and factual claims made in NORRAG posts are the responsibility of their authors and are not necessarily representative of NORRAG’s opinion, policy or activities.

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