Single Blog Title

This is a single blog caption
04 Dec 2019
Mario Novelli

Knowledge Production on Education in Conflict Contexts: Towards an Ecology of Knowledge

This NORRAG Highlights is contributed by Mario Novelli, Professor in Political Economy of Education at the University of Sussex, and Director of the Centre for International Education (CIE). This post addresses the challenges and characteristics that comparative education researchers face and argues for the need to critically analyse knowledge production processes of education in conflict affected contexts. The author sets out various suggestions on how to improve the evidence base for education in emergencies.

The Crisis of Development & The Development of Crisis[i]

In recent years there has been rising concern about the effectiveness, morals and ethics of the field of international development: from the predatory sexual behaviour of some aid workers – and the subsequent cover-up by major institutions that ensued, to issues around the ‘white gaze’ of the field, ‘white saviour’ complexes, and growing calls for decolonising our ethnocentric and westo-centric practices and approaches (Sriprakash et al., 2019). We have also seen the diversion of international development funds towards both Western security interests, since 9/11, and Western economic interests, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis; which have further undermined development’s ‘humanitarian’ credentials. More generally, the entire field of international development has become increasingly commercialised, competitive and subject to market logics of competition.

Whilst the commercialisation of the field of international development is a relatively new phenomena, its neo-imperialist and predatory practices are not. We should not forget that International Development was itself born within and historically entangled with colonial conquest (Kothari, 2005) and the Post WWII Cold War era was similarly full of international development practices skewed by the prerogatives, politics and economic interests of Western nations in using ‘development assistance’ as a means to further Western hegemony. That is to say that neither the securitisation of aid (and research therein) and the commercialisation of aid (ditto) are new; and while history does not repeat itself in exactly the same ways, we may well be once again ‘Back to the Future’.

As international development and education researchers we are not immune from the developments, pressures and challenges on our field outlined above. In his keynote at the 2019 UK Development Studies Association conference, Mahmoud Mamdani (2019) noted how ‘development studies used to be the critique of empire’ but ‘has become the language of empire’. This I think reflects the way the combined imperatives of geopolitics, securitisation, neoliberalism and the commercialisation of both international development and the academy has tipped the balance of the structural foundations of our field and reduced the space for critical, considered, independent research. The quest and commitment by major funders for ‘Evidence-Based Policy’ has too often become the byword for ‘Policy-Based Evidence’, which is delivered by compliant ‘researchers’ in bitesize and consumable pieces to a hungry policy world. The world of consultancy corporations has replaced Universities as the go-to place for ‘evidence’ and ‘knowledge production’, and Universities and academics often bend to these practices in order to stay in the game.

Understanding the Conditions of Production of Academic Fields

In his Presidential address to the British Association of International and Comparative Education (BAICE) in 2014, Professor Roger Dale, explored the Conjunctions of power and comparative education and argued for the need to analyse the knowledge production processes within Comparative Education in order to understand how it is shaped by power in different ways. As Dale (2015: 342) noted, his

“starting point is that the complexity and significance of the relationships between fields of study as distinct and collective academic endeavors, with that which they seek to explore, comment on, understand and explain, are relatively rarely addressed. Exponents of such fields often seem to proceed on the assumption that they are purely driven by the sets of methods, theories, concepts, approaches and so on that have been developed in the name of CE.”

If we accept this, then we need to open up to scrutiny how the economic, political and social context within which we research, and the actors that fund our research, shape what we ask and what we do. These broader factors are the conditions for the production of knowledge, and lead us to ask the question “Who is researching what, where and with what outcomes? With what effects? On which populations? With what methodologies? For what purposes? And what other subjects, contexts, methodologies are foreclosed?” These are some of the things that I want to begin to unpack in this short piece – how the conditions of the production of knowledge in the field of research on education in conflict affected contexts shapes the nature, focus and content of this endeavor – and of course the spaces of resistance therein.

Mapping the Conditions of Production of Research on Education in Conflict Affected Contexts

As I have written elsewhere (Novelli, 2013, 2016, 2017), the field of ‘education in emergencies’, and research therein, is closely tied both to policy and practice and the product of particular historical and socio-political conjunctures. In this section I want to trace out roughly some of the chronology of its expansion as a field. Whilst its roots lie in refugee education, peace education and comparative education – it really emerges as a sub-field of Comparative and International Education in the late 1990s run up to the 2000 Dakar ‘Education For All’ – follow up Conference. It was in this period that the Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (INEE) was created to coordinate inter-agency work in this field, and it was in Dakar that the recognition that more than 50% of out of school children lived in conflict affected contexts – and that if the global commitments to EFA were to be achieved, then the particularities of the conflict/education relationship needed to be better understood and acted upon. From this watershed moment flowed resources, and the development of expertise – most evident in the production of INEE ‘Toolkits’ and the ‘Minimum Standards for Education in Emergencies’. This was also a Post-Cold War period when ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the internal affairs of nation states was entering UN lexicon, and development actors were acting not on the borders of conflict zones, but in their midst – which placed new demands on education actors. The second major catalyst for EiE was 9/11 and the ensuing ‘War on Terror’. For a range of reasons, education post-9/11 occupied a privileged position in the explanatory framings for those at the helm of a Western military/societal mission to use 9/11 to radically alter the balance of power in both Asia and the Middle East. Education was seen as the catalyst for radicalisation – with wildly exaggerated claims that radical madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan were responsible for nurturing a generation of children socialised into hating the West. In post-invasion Afghanistan, education was similarly used as a justification for intervention – with Western concern for girl’s education becoming the cause célèbre. This polarization between Western/Secular/Inclusive education and Islamic/Religious/Gendered education remains a key cleavage, and a driver of policy, research and practice, and led to a range of educational interventions initially in Pakistan and Afghanistan and later in Iraq and other Muslim majority countries driven by ‘war on terror’ imperatives – including using education as part of the military strategy of counterinsurgency (Novelli, 2013). Linked to this increased polarisation, was a rise of attacks on ‘secular’ educational institutions and students by radical Islamic groups – from the infamous attack on Malala Yousef to the brutal attacks on Universities in Kenya and other places. After terrorist bombings in Madrid, London and elsewhere – and the emergence of the concept of the ‘home-grown terrorist’, the field of EiE expanded beyond its previous focus on ‘developing contexts’ to a growing interest in using education and education systems as ‘sites’ for ‘deradicalisation’ and for the identification of potential radicalisation amongst young people and adolescents, most notably the PREVENT programme in the UK (Novelli, 2017). Thirdly, the exodus of refugees from Syria and elsewhere – particularly towards Europe, has also led to a rising interest in ‘refugee education’ and huge amounts of resources emerging from Western governments towards policy, practice and research in these areas – aimed at keeping as many refugees in the surrounding countries and deterring their attempts to come to Europe. All of the above political drivers have massively influenced the flow of resources towards research in the area of EiE, dominated as it is by the decisions of several key international actors and agencies that skewed and directed the field in very particular ways – illuminating some aspects of the education/conflict puzzle – but obscuring much as well.

The Architecture of Agenda Setting and Funding

I think there are a number of key characteristics of the nature and architecture of the field. Firstly, the field of research funding has been dominated by a few key agencies and funders: USAID, DFID, World Bank, Dubai Cares, UNESCO: IIEP, Education Cannot Wait, Save the Children, UNICEF. Collectively, many of these agencies have provided the foundations for the work of INEE and developed the priorities. Unsurprisingly, as it emerges from the challenges of working on education in conflict contexts, much research is short term and highly focused on policy problems/issues – and would be most likely to be labelled ‘consultancy’. Most research conducted is pre-determined by the funder – rather than open-ended and responsive to ideas of researchers, reflecting unequal relations between funders and researchers. Reflective of the Western dominance of funders, the research domain is dominated by Western researchers and Western institutions – particularly from the USA and UK. Partially as a result of this, partnerships between Northern and Southern researchers are often highly unequal: Western researchers designing the research, southern researchers carrying out the data collection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the geography of power in this process, much research is closely allied to Western interests and priorities – and there is a notable absence of research that critiques the critical role of key international actors in contributing to the education/conflict crisis in the respective contexts: research generally begins at the borders of conflict affected context – with little recognition of the West’s role in the production and reproduction of conflict in many of the places where research takes place. In combination these factors, at different times and in different ways, produce a research and policy field that is highly conditioned by a very particular and myopic understanding of problems and solutions – that leads to an avoidance of the complexity, the inequality, and the inherent (though never addressed) neo-colonialism of the field.

Critical Research in Education and Conflict & The Limits of the Possible 

Reflecting then on the content of this piece, we are faced with the question of What is to be done? How can we push back at the conditions of production of knowledge in our field and create more diverse and varied space? How can we promote what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls an ‘ecology of knowledge’ – that moves beyond Westo-centric and neo-imperial domination? (Santos, 2010). Firstly, I think it’s crucial to work towards diversifying both the researchers and the research funders – to increase both the ecology of knowledge and freedom of thought and focus. Secondly, in doing this we need to push back against the agenda setters, asking difficult questions about the genesis of research agendas, and making the case for alternatives. Thirdly, we need to research the policies and practices of the dominant Institutions and dominant policies. I propose the setting up of a ‘Education in Emergencies Watch’ – that monitors and critically evaluates the working patterns and research outputs in the field, pointing out the epistemic and focal blindspots. Fourthly, as a community of practice, we need to develop a specific Code of Practice for researchers and institutions engaged in research in education in conflict affected contexts, to ensure that we are not part of the problem, but part of the solution to supporting education systems and practices that promote sustainable peace and development around the world.

[i] This is a shortened version of a paper presented at the 2019 UKFIET Conference, Oxford, September 2019.


About the Author

Mario Novelli is Professor in Political Economy of Education at the University of Sussex, and Director of the Centre for International Education (CIE). His recent work has focused on issues related to the role of education in peacebuilding processes and has worked on a series of research projects since 2010, including being a co-director of a major Research Consortium on Education and Peacebuilding, partly funded by UNICEF. The consortium was led by the Universities of Amsterdam, Sussex and Ulster and carried out a multi-country study on the role of education in peacebuilding. Since 2018 he has been leading an ESRC multi-country study on Learning and Knowledge Production in Social Movements in Conflict Affected Contexts. Email:

Contribute: The NORRAG Blog provides a platform for debate and ideas exchange for education stakeholders. Therefore if you would like to contribute to the discussion by writing your own blog post please visit our dedicated contribute page for detailed instructions on how to submit.

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.

(Visited 1,872 times, 1 visits today)
Sub Menu
Back to top