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07 Aug 2019
Steven J. Klees

The International Education Architecture: Some Reflections

In this NORRAG Highlights, Steven J. Klees, Professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland, takes a critical look at Nick Burnett’s recently published essay in the “International Journal of Educational Development” on the international architecture for education – Burnett is a Senior Fellow at Results for Development Institute. In this post, Klees reflects on Burnett’s analysis and offers some thoughts on the global education crisis and what needs to be done to tackle it.

Last month, the U.N. High Level Political Forum met to consider progress and prospects for SDG4, the education goal. The meeting was accompanied by dire warnings that we are way off track and that, if current trends continue, we won’t even reach the minimal goal of universal primary education (UPE) by 2030. The international community has been promising UPE since the 1960s, and right now it looks like it won’t be achieved even 70 years later, not to mention all of SDG4’s more ambitious goals. Something is seriously wrong!

Tackling a big part of the problem, Nick Burnett recently published an invited essay in the International Journal of Educational Development entitled: “It’s past time to fix the broken international architecture for education.” Note that Burnett, a senior fellow at Results for Development Institute and formerly of UNESCO and the World Bank, is not just targeting the financial aid architecture but the whole ball of wax – he has a 300-word footnote listing the many public, private, bilateral, and multilateral organizations that “set and follow international policy for education.” Clearly, this is a big task for his short essay and even bigger for this shorter blog post in which I reflect on some of Burnett’s analysis and offer some of my own thoughts.

Burnett begins by arguing that this international architecture is “failing the world” as evidenced by many things, including: stagnating numbers of out-of-school children; a continuing learning crisis; unmet “huge global financing requirements;” and insufficient attention to the neediest countries. In his essay, Burnett makes at least two other points with which I agree. First, UNESCO’s paltry budget and U.S. withdrawal make it difficult to assume the leadership position it should naturally have. Even the highly regarded UNESCO Institute for Statistics and the Global Education Monitoring Report struggle for adequate funding. Second, Burnett points out the “recent proliferation of new funding agencies” is “further fragmenting an already broken architecture with even more actors.” Below, I consider some of the problems with his analysis of the situation and with what needs to be done.

Lack of Knowledge

Burnett argues: “It is astonishing how little we know about what works in education and how poorly we disseminate what we do know.” I disagree completely. There is abundant knowledge about why children are not in school, what it takes to get them there, and what a classroom conducive to a broad view of learning necessitates. We need well-educated teachers, small class sizes, good learning materials, a decent school environment, and sufficient scholarships to make up for the direct and indirect costs of schooling to families. Burnett seems to think more RCTs can help direct spending, but I see that evidence as easily contestable and mostly a waste of hundreds of millions of dollars. Most RCTs take a very inadequate education infrastructure, make one small change, and try to see if it “works” to improve a very narrow definition of learning. We are never going to improve much a narrow or broad view of learning within the current grossly inadequate constraints of education in most developing countries.

Burnett also calls for a “central clearinghouse or depository for knowledge about education that encompasses research from around the world.” This is an awful idea. The World Bank’s desire to be the “Knowledge Bank” has been extensively critiqued, but since 2011, it has tried to fulfill Burnett’s call for a central clearinghouse with its SABER system. However, as a recent critique elaborates, SABER’s massive analysis of 16,000 indicators of so-called “best practices” in education is mostly a one-size-fits-all, biased ideological promotion of neoliberal education remedies (Klees et al. forthcoming). The search for better education is not a technical exercise.

Lack of Prioritization

Burnett complains that the education goal, SDG4, “does not suggest priorities, leaving these to individual countries.” In particular, he sees the “higher and post-secondary aspects of SDG4” as irresponsible, “a vague and irrelevant goal.” For Burnett, responsible leadership “would have insisted on universal basic education for Africa as the overriding global goal.” To the contrary, the emphasis on UPE over the past 50 years hasn’t even yielded UPE. The associated neglect of higher education has led to its privatization and the reinforcement of developing countries competing in the international economy based on low-wage labor. It should not be the international community who tells developing country governments to ignore higher education.

Influence of the Private Sector

At several points in his essay, Burnett opines that the private sector should have more influence in the international architecture of education. He laments that “no one has adequately stood up to recent moves to limit non-state education.” In particular, he criticizes what he calls the “Right to Education Initiative lobby” that helped produce the Abidjan Principles, an international statement based in human rights law on the obligations of nations to provide public education and regulate private education.

In my view, the private sector has entirely too much influence on the international architecture for education, and the Abidjan Principles are a welcome potential brake on the global juggernaut of private schooling. While Burnett is correct that many parents are choosing to send their children to private schools, this is because for 40 years, neoliberalism has yielded gross underinvestment in public education which needs to be reversed. The right to education isn’t a “lobby” but a set of principles which are mostly neglected in practice within today’s architecture.

What to Do?

Burnett closes his essay by arguing we need to publicly recognize that the current architecture has failed and therefore initiate a global conversation about how to fix it. He proposes two initial steps: “The establishment of a specific mechanism to fund global public goods in education; and…[a] major initiative to combine technical and financial support to low-income countries….” While both might be welcome, I believe that neither will help much. Education is not in crisis because we don’t have better knowledge and data but because it is drastically underfunded. Burnett’s latter initiative seems less focused on needed finance than on his belief that the major constraint low-income countries face is limited technical capacity. But this is more an issue of finance than it is of technical assistance. Ministries have been stretched to the bone by 40 years of neoliberal policies that have cut real salaries and staff.

What is needed are much more sweeping changes. Burnett might not see these as “realistic” or “feasible,” but then neither have been our EFA goals or the MDGs or the SDGs. It is shameful that the international community has put forth such goals without ever making the efforts necessary to achieve them. Tinkering will not get us there. What will get us there is uncertain, but, to me, we will need to radically reform how we approach education and international development, as suggested below.

We need to resuscitate UNESCO. UNESCO is the only international organization with the legitimacy to look at education as a whole globally. Yes, “one country, one vote” makes UNESCO inherently political, but education is necessarily enmeshed in politics. Its $50 million regular budget is a pittance; the World Bank’s annual expenditures on education is 90 times as large. Future generations will look back in horror that we let a bank and its ideologically-driven economists have so much power in education. We also need to re-think the current proliferation of new organizations to finance education whose lack of coordination and limited budgets don’t bode well for meeting SGD4.

But, to me, the biggest problem underlying the international architecture for education is the present international architecture for development. At least three major changes are needed in the latter in order to have any hope that the former can succeed in transforming education. First, we need a sea change in international development finance. At a minimum, the so-called developed countries need to live up to their decades-long commitment to devote 0.7% of GDP to ODA. But more than that, we must give the U.N. the ability to tax and spend if the SDGs are ever going to materialize. International assistance must no longer be viewed as charity but as a right to correct long-standing and current injustices. In the U.S., discussions about reparations for slavery are beginning; what about thinking of global wealth transfers as international reparations for colonialism and continuing neocolonialism? We will never have the financial resources needed for education without such reforms.

Second, it has been 75 years since the Bretton Woods conference resulted in the World Bank and the IMF. Neither is any longer fit for purpose in today’s world – if they ever were. Their stranglehold on development financing and policy has been driven for the past 40 years by a neoliberal, market fundamentalist, ideological perspective. They are governed almost exclusively by developed countries, and they have led to an increasingly unequal world where the basic necessities of the majority of the world’s population have been far from met. We need a new Bretton Woods conference to drastically reform their mandate, governance, and operations. Education policy should not be at the mercy of international financial institutions.

Third, we need to dial way back the involvement of the private sector in influencing development directions, policies, and programs. As a former business school professor of mine used to say: “The business of business is business.” Contrary to current hype, business leaders have neither the knowledge nor experience with how to deal with complex social problems that have no “bottom line” and are embroiled in disagreements about facts and values. Moreover, business leaders have no legitimacy to be so engaged. Yet, in this neoliberal era, they have been involved at the highest level of decision-making and they push for more. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2009 Global Redesign Initiative is a plan to turn the entire U.N. into a public private partnership – and it is being implemented! The U.N. just quietly, without any public scrutiny, signed an MOU with the WEF to establish “multistakeholder governance groups,” comprised mainly of multinational corporations, as an integral part of its governance structure. This is but one example – a frightening one – of how pervasive the privatization of development policy and practice has become and how challenging it in education requires challenging the whole development architecture.

To make SDG4 a reality, to make all the SDGs a reality, means we need a sea change in the entire international development architecture. Of course, it is developing countries themselves that need to be an integral part of the sea change, one that resuscitates governments from their neoliberal marginalization into ones that work with civil society to increase their capacity to tax and spend in ways that yield progress. Tinkering with the international education architecture will not get us anywhere. Indeed, the changes called for above mean challenging 40 years of neoliberal capitalism – and perhaps capitalism itself. Without doing so, we will get to 2030 and, once again, be confronted by unfulfilled promises.



Klees, S., Ginsburg, M., Anwar, H., Baker Robbins, M., Bloom, H., Busacca, C., Corwith, A., DeCoster, B., Fiore, A., Gasior, S., Le, H.M., Primo, L.H. and T.D. Reedy. forthcoming. “The World Bank’s SABER: A Critical Analysis,” Comparative Education Review.

About the author: Steven J. Klees is a professor of international education policy at the University of Maryland. His publications include co-editor of The World Bank and Education: Critiques and Alternatives (Sense 2012). He is a former president of the Comparative and International Education Society.

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5 Responses

  1. Mike Douse

    “We need well-educated teachers, small class sizes, good learning materials, a decent school environment, and sufficient scholarships to make up for the direct and indirect costs of schooling to families.” Well, yes, maybe. But even more than that we need a sensitive recognition that digitisation is fundamentally transforming education, as it is the setting world wide in which education occurs. There is only one debate in education: the consequences of digitisation – all other issues, including those in this and related papers, are sub-sets of this central development. Imagine a study of, say, banking, or entertainment, or communication that relegated digitisation to a side issue! Please refer to recent publications on ‘the Global School’ and on ‘Education in the Time of Digitisation’ by Professor Philip Uys and myself.

  2. Alexandra Draxler

    This post touches on the heart of development for education, and we can hope it leads to a lively and penetrating debate. Steven Klees has made an eloquent plea for both re-ordering priorities and for fulfilling promises. Thank you. This comment will attempt to add to the critical perspective.

    Nicholas Burnett, in the invited essay for IJED subject of this commentary, posits the need to repair the global aid architecture for education. He sketches out his vision of a well-conceived architecture as well as an analysis of what has gone wrong. He has laid out an admirable and succinct roadmap of the main actors, history and power struggles, as well as the basis for an in-depth debate about what fixes he identifies as needed for the current configuration. Putting into place his recommendations would require the majority of stakeholders to accept his assessment and move on that basis, which is unlikely to happen.

    For this observer, both the analysis and the recommendations by Burnett seem to posit a pre-ordained acceptance of global governance as it was conceived and has been functioning – more or less well – since it was set up after World War II. Another view could be that fundamental changes in power relationships between state and non-state actors and between nations over the intervening years have led to dysfunction of the current system that will defy repair.
    Burnett’s metaphor concerning “fixing the broken architecture” invites the reader to carry it forward. If an architecture is broken, bringing the structure back to the orginal state may not be a satisfactory or indeed feasible solution. After all, some seventy years have passed and we do have experience of what has and has not worked, although causality between development financing and changes in education in developing countries is fiendishly difficult to establish. Comparing and contrasting original and contemporary assessments of needs, purpose, terrain, available materials, and budget, and fitting them to contemporary usage would be necessary before undertaking repairs.

    While the present “architecture” is obviously not entirely fit for purpose, as illustrated by the failure to meet a single international target for progress in education since the first was tabled in 1960, Burnett does not give even a nod to the many critical analyses of aid in general and aid to education in particular. The question can and has been posed as to whether aid as it is conceived does not contribute more to disparities and dependencies than it does to improving the educational outcomes that contribute to enlightened governance, personal autonomy, and strengthening of the global public good. He does not acknowledge that even in the best of circumstances, the six aims he describes contain built-in design flaws whereby contemporary power structures will render more weight and credence to priorities of wealthy countries (and their private sectors) than to self-defined needs and aspirations in the poorest ones.

    Just as individual pupil achievement in classrooms depends for a very large part on factors not endogenous to those classrooms but relating to socio-economic, cultural and ethnic status, gender and geography, educational development assistance can also be seen as the product of hundreds of years of power struggles and relationships between rich and poor entities or regions. How these power struggles and relationships bear on investment in education and the production of quality opportunities for all is at least as important as the technocratic solutions to financial flows and measurement techniques. The technocratic approach to aid that it seems to me Burnett is endorsing passes on conditionalities concerning management and governance to poor countries that are demonstrably inadequate in the rich ones advocating them.

    Each of the six functions of the global architecture is subject to both definitional analysis and agreement and to broad acceptance by the target populations. This is clearly not currently the case, and perhaps could never be the case in the asymetrical relationships between donors and recipients of aid. The growing literature on the ambiguity of the SDGs points to their general conceptual flaws, inherent in any agreement where parties have fundamentally contradictory objectives on top of wildly unequal power of negotiation. In short, another metaphor could have the architect/mechanic’s head under the hood of a stalled car, trying to get it started, while potential travelers are not agreed on the means of transport, designated driver, destination or route.

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