Single Blog Title

This is a single blog caption
11 Dec 2014

Development Inc. and the Ghost in the Machine: the Idea of Global Governance by Euan Auld

By Euan Auld, Institute of Education, London.

globeThough global governance in education is often attributed to any of a number of world powers or international organisations, in most cases a common idea has in some way infused the array of actors performing the function. I therefore begin by clarifying the origin and essence of the idea, before examining how this manifests in its various outlets (conduits and distributaries). Finally, I consider the relation between the post-2015 goals and global governance, focusing on the shift from ‘provision’ to ‘quality’ and (adapting Ball 2012) the rise of Development Inc.

First, regarding origin, the idea (or collection of ideas) I refer to is the rise of neoliberal ideals, primarily in England and the US, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and the associated shift towards New Public Management (NPM). Second, regarding essence, and paraphrasing Baroness Thatcher, the idea does not believe in society, let alone a global society. It is individualistic and atomizing, and thrives on a combination of markets and competition. Business management is its logic, efficiency, effectiveness and productivity are its bywords, and these are pursued under the unyielding demand for ‘quality’. These standards of quality are used to develop the measurements of accountability necessary to legitimise governance.

In the context of contemporary processes of globalisation and the move towards a global knowledge economy, the demand for improved comparative datasets in education has elevated these principles to the transnational level, bringing the authority of international reference frames to governance as part of the ‘comparative turn’ (Grek 2009). The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data has emerged as a key source, promoted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as a reliable proxy for a system’s stock of human capital and marketed under a relentless narrative of education quality and global economic competitiveness.

This aspirational rhetoric draws us into an unending quest, aptly characterised as the ‘will to quality’ (Pongratz 2006); a perpetual cycle of comparison and improvement. These measurements both reflect the idea and exert a normalising force, framing debates and establishing priorities. We are thus encouraged to view our existence through a shifting matrix of numbers, recasting debates on values as technical problems to be solved. Comparative data therefore serves as a key conduit for the idea, and the post-2015 shift from ‘provision’ to ‘quality’ will further extend its flow into the context of international development.

PISA for Development will be anchored to the post-2015 goals, expanding the OECD’s influence and allowing us to measure ‘quality’ and therefore track ‘progress’. The first rounds will identify ‘winners’, ‘losers’, and then ‘improvers’, galvanizing the search for ‘what works’; the Trojan horse will open its hatches and knowledge companies (distributaries: e.g. McKinsey; Pearson) will emerge to put each system’s house in order, selling their expertise and educational services (often both; what conflict of interest?) to give systems the edge against their competitors. Beneath the slick marketing and technocratic language of development packages, we find ideology and intuition dressed up as scientific ‘best practice’, and confirmatory comparisons drawn in as empirical affectations (Auld and Morris forthcoming).

They will introduce a measurement and then orient the system towards improvement on that measurement, using any gains in outcomes to demonstrate the value of the enterprise. Legitimacy is thus cultivated through the production of data, the monopolisation of expertise and the management of knowledge. This development industry both fails forward (“don’t give up, you’ll do better next time!”) and is too big to fail, requiring spiralling investment as the quest for quality unfolds in an endless cycle of testing and reform. As it expands, other goals are subsumed and resources are directed towards this narrow conceptualisation of progress. Meanwhile, it is a feature of the NPM that we are encouraged to look beyond the broader imbalances of power that underpin (global) economic inequality, recasting it as a function of the poor ‘quality’ of our education systems, our schools and our teachers, or a culture of low achievement; pushing blame down and demanding more of the individual rather than the whole.

This raises two questions: (1) are these measurements valued primarily for their utility in marshalling real progress, or for the role they play in legitimising the development industry? And, critically, (2) what are the real effects of interventions (i.e. unintended consequences), beyond the preferred measurements of quality?

Focusing on the idea behind global governance offers a series of related insights. First, it acknowledges the normalising force exerted by global dissemination of the idea, while allowing for the agency of actors across diverse contexts. Second, the idea and its outlets are not necessarily a homogenising force, as ideas are (re)interpreted across both contexts and levels. Third, just as it pushes out, the idea also pushes down, both on those working in the industry (ripples?) and those experiencing it ‘on the ground’. Fourth, global governance is not something ‘out there’, wielded by world powers and corporations, but is something which we are living and of which we a part: the ghost and the machine are not distinct. We are subject to its mechanisms and we reinforce (or resist) it with our actions. Finally, and from the above, given its complex and amorphous character, talking of global governance as an agenda to be managed seems misconceived; the idea is not under our control at all, we merely subscribe to the frame and reinforce its order.

Clearly we must play realpolitik or risk being dismissed as ideologues. The idea is neither benevolent nor evil, after all, but it takes many forms and they are not equally legitimate. The emphasis on quality risks turning development over to an industry that both perpetuates and profits from the ‘will to quality’. By way of contrast, I draw attention to research that acknowledges the reality of our broader conditions while contemplating the ethics (and implications) of contemporary globalisation processes (e.g. Unterhalter and Carpentier 2010). And yet, with the changing culture of our institutions (and hearts?), I wonder if we can preserve the space in which to research, to pursue and, just perhaps, to realise such goals post 2015.

Euan Auld is a research student at the Institute of Education, London. Email:


Auld, E. and P. Morris (forthcoming). ‘Best practice’ for identifying ‘what works’?: moving from complex conditions to simple problem-solutions with international comparisons.

Ball, S. (2012). Global Education Inc.: New policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary. London, Routledge.

Grek, S. (2009). “Governing by Numbers: the PISA ‘effect’ in Europe.” Journal of Education Policy 24(1): 23-37.

Pongratz, L. A. (2006). “Voluntary Self-Control: Education reform as a governmental strategy.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 38(4).

Unterhalter, E. and C. Carpentier (2010) Global Inequalities and Higher Education: Whose interests are we serving? Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills.


>>View all NORRAG Blogs on Education Governance

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.


(Visited 175 times, 1 visits today)
Sub Menu
Back to top