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Addressing Ethical Issues in Contemporary International Education & Development

Jessi Hanson-Defusco

University of Texas – Dallas

Sakil Malik

University of Maryland, College Park

Empowered by global movements like Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and Education for All (EFA), the field of international development is ever-growing in size and scale as an industry striving to support furthering human rights, social justice, economic empowerment, political freedom, and human development particularly in low-income nations. In the last twenty years, net official development assistance and aid doubled to nearly $170 billion USD (World Bank, 2021). In FY2021, $1.2 billion was provided for education programming in the State Department, Foreign Operations and Related Programs (SFOPS) appropriations, mainly for basic education (Congressional Research Services, 2021).

Most aid is provided by bilateral and multilateral donors, global foundations and private-public partnerships, to a variety of implementing stakeholders. Most stakeholders include international development agencies and international nonprofit organizations (INGOs) that work in global South nations, often in partnership with established national nonprofits, host-national government ministries, and civil society & grassroots organizations. Yet, the majority of professional development, policy, and programming incorporate content reflecting “Western traditions of knowledge, the Western literature canon, and Western philosophical assumptions” (Altbach, 2014, 2). Crucially, the international studies and international development community needs to take a starkly truthful look at how we, especially in the global North, go about promoting international development in the global South. Often what we do in the name of ‘good’ is not reflected in our attitudes, actions, or practices, and the art of authentic collaboration, sustainable change, and meaningful inclusion are left by the wayside. One of the most tragic errors that we make is our blindness to the way that we develop, implement, and evaluate the policies and programming that we support.

This article presents the qualitative findings of research on contemporary neocolonialism in international development. Many crucial results support improving international education policy and practices. Named in honor of recent protests worldwide for social justice, the research project, ‘#UnwokeID: Ethical Issues in 21st Century International Development’ (#UnwokeID) will bring researchers and professional practitioners together through research and virtual forums, with special focus on representation from the global South, to explore the topics of:

  • Violent, coercive, or paternalistic policy and programming in international aid
  • Unethical practices in international development partnerships between international stakeholders and national partners
  • Unequitable representation- concerns of limited or ignored voices and perspectives by host-national and regional development experts, nonprofit workers, and beneficiaries
  • Struggle for transcultural and multicultural perspectives in the promotion of globalized human rights and a globalized economy
  • Contemporary terminology reflecting evolved stage of neocolonialism in development and global South philosophy and scholarship

This work proposes to re-examine, update, and advance the philosophic representation of neocolonialism in contemporary international development. The term of neocolonialism is first recorded in literature in the early 1960s, as most colonies were breaking away as independent, democratic nations, in Africa, Latin America, and south-east Asia. Since Nkrumah’s 1965 work, Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, concepts of neocolonialism evolved as major topics in both development theory and global South philosophy. Most scholars and practitioners in international development are informed by decades-long body of literature focusing on human capital, human development, and human progress. But the great majority of literature reflects westernized biases against the global South, and the need to make periphery/low-income nations progression mimicking that of metropoles/global North. In international studies, the study of neocolonialism warrants vital consideration of socio-economic and political state of Africa, post-independence from colonial rule, as well as the ongoing effects that ex-colonizing nations exhibit on the global South’s socio-economic and political ideology. Yet, how much does the literature on neocolonialism reflect the evolution of development in the early 21st century? Some scholars contend that new neocolonialism is ‘globalization’ in which low-income regions are economically, political, and culturally dominated by Europe and the West (Afisi, 2009; Basu, 2016; D’Souza, 2007; Easterly, 2006; Mazrui, 2002; Maduagwu, 2000). Yet globalization is only the stage upon which modern day development is implemented.

The power dynamic in international development education has shifted, but only a bit towards the center, leaving today’s version of neocolonialism not where it was but also not eliminated. Racism, discrimination, and systemic violence may be more nuanced in modern policy and practice, but the effects still are catastrophically experienced by global South members. A new dialogue is thus needed, using a platform that highlights the voices of researchers and practitioners in the global South, placing their perspectives, terms, and knowledge at the center, to help new generations of international development and human rights to understand our microaggressions, internalized and systematized disparities in international development policy and practice, which often are insensitive to regional culture, context, and socio-political dynamics.

In close partnership with external consultants who are global South experts in international development theory, ethics, culture and contextuality, the investigators synthesize real-world case studies provided by global South academics, researchers, decision-makers, and practitioners. Their work sets a foundation for redefining contemporary neocolonialism. Key messages extracted from this qualitative data can be theoretically categorized within stages within the policy cycle, both in ex-ante and ex-post phases.

In ex-ante phase, policy problems consistently are ill-defined by foreign experts who typically hold positions of privilege, including being western-educated, residing in middle-/high-income countries. When technical consultants or specialists in the international sector have insufficient experience and/or knowledge of educational problems reside in low-income settings, such as within African or Latin American nations, they are more likely to misunderstand or overlook context and culture (Hounnouvi, 2022; Matangwa, 2022; Nakiryowa, 2022; Obondoh, 2022). Case studies of RELI-Africa members including EACH Rights in Kenya, ISER in Uganda, Haki Elimu in Tanzania, Twaweza East Africa illustrate the need for listening to the voices of those who often are hard to reach in research, or who are often excluded, to create spaces and opportunities for people-centered policy engagement in regions like East Africa. The issue must be defined not only by experts but also through the perspectives of those who advocate for localized change and who are directly impacted (Obondoh). Problems often viewed as ‘wicked’ or unsolvable actually can be solved sustainably when better defined through multi-stakeholder lenses (Brønn & Brønn, 2018; Lynch, Ashley, Pinkwart, & Aleven, 2009). Transitioning so-called wicked problems to improved quality education projects involves robust and diversified theoretical models involving national, institutional, and local inputs addressing a wider array of variables (Krause, 2012).

In policy planning, it is crucial for international development and educational efforts to avoid deriving solutions with oversized, unrealistic goals. Often bilaterally funded projects are planned with little input from national experts and partners. Theories of change that inform solutions can be at risk of imported results, outcomes, and benchmarks that are artificially created, which may be achievable in specific settings but may be inappropriate and poorly-capture reality in LICs (Faley, 2022; Muzenda & Chiromba, 2022; Nakiryowa). Solutions can yield better results when created in authentic collaboration between national and international networks. Through this analysis, we have come to appreciate that measuring or evaluating advocacy and policy influence work should not just focus on the ultimate goal (e.g. how did we achieve new education policies, but on the activities, processes (which engage the voiceless) and outputs that moves local groups and citizens towards their set advocacy goals. For instance, community action groups are able to identify incremental gains & milestones towards their set goals, e.g., how did we mobilized those left behind/hard to reach and give them space to influence critical policy reforms? Have we built a formidable and people-led coalition/network around the issue? (Obondoh). Another example of people-led coalitions includes Ebola survivor networks in West Africa that nascently emerged out of the crisis, led by survivor leadership. As billions in foreign assistance supported Ebola response and recovery, one major issue that would have gone missed by many international actors that was identified by the Ebola survivor networks was decreased access to quality education. Due to stigma of living with the disease, thousands of children and youth from Ebola-affected households were ‘chased’ out of classrooms. Thousands more who lost adult family members to the disease were unable to afford attending school, being thrown into the margins of poverty and social isolation. The Ebola survivor networks including in Liberia and Sierra Leone created a grassroots advocacy strategy to bring educational support for Ebola-affected peoples to international development funders’ agendas. UNICEF supported covering schooling costs for all Ebola-affected children, and various universities offered scholarships to adult survivors to pursue higher education. Yet these promises were often left unfulfilled, leaving hopes of marginalized persons dashed and creating a rift of distrust between target beneficiaries and international actors (Davis, 2022; Faley, 2022). This case study exemplifies the importance of follow-through in the implementation phase to fortifying partnerships of trust and respect. Yet when implementation of western-funded or western-led initiatives too often top-down, cookie-cutter approaches (Jiménez-Aceituno, Peterson, Norström, Wong, & Downing, 2020; Muzenda & Chiromba; Venugopal, 2015).

Consequentially, one of the core messages from the conference includes the need for ex-post phase including implementation, monitoring and evaluation being adaptable and flexible. Bottom-up implementation mechanisms allow localized expertise and perspectives to identify implementation issues earlier on, yet programming must be able to adjust to changes that may not have been anticipated in the ex-ante phase (Jiménez-Aceituno et al; Obondoh). Without this flexibility, monitoring may not register this implementation cracks, which can result in lowered sustainability and effort impact in general. During the Ebola response, PREVAIL implemented a variety of research projects meant to support survivors. Yet the project was not properly designed with the flexibility to adapt to Liberian culture and context, and anticipated action plans constrained needed changes, including providing budgets for training feeding and providing stipends to trainees. As a result, attrition rates increased among target participants, which caused various projects to miss benchmarks promised to donor agencies (Davis, 2022; Faley, 2022).

Likewise, bilateral and multilateral organizations end to promote ‘one-size-fits-all’ models that inadequately address long-term that can be sustained after the life of project funding. Policy solutions can be designed frequently through insular global-North/global-South or Donor-Recipient models that use top-down or top-heavy approaches (Davis, 2022; Hounnouvi; Matangwa; Muzenda & Chiromba; Nakiryowa; Parmer, 2022). Current research highlights significant issues of low-quality education solutions using private-public partnership (PPP) models in Liberia.  PPPs in education growing worldwide. Governments can view PPPs as an alternative for improving quality, access or cost-effectiveness in education systems. However, studies highlight issues of whether non-state providers can achieve similar levels of quality and accountability as publicly-funded schools, and also, the quality of partnership between these various stakeholders (Aslam, M., Rawal, S., & Saeed, 2016).

Various low-income countries are increasingly promoting private sector involvement in education as a means to address growing educational demands. In basic education, this privatization model aims to promote lowfee private schools (LFPSs). LFPSs are a growing phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Yet there are concerns around accountability of consistent quality standards, as many LFPSs are unregulated and not subject to public-educational administrative reporting (Kaloostian, 2022; Sayed & Soudien, 2021; Verger, Fontdevila, & Zancajo, 2017). One of the major variables is when these PPPs are designed and/or implemented by westernized stakeholders, such as Bridge Academies International, which have implemented public-private programs in East and West Africa with a varied degree of sustainability. Governments must hold any implementer to national standards of performance, yet levels of accountability can differ drastically between national and westernized-bilateral stakeholders during implementation (Kaloostian; Obondoh).

Promoting south-south partnerships can yield more flexible models. For instance, south-south technical cooperation in e-governance is an effective means of ensuring grassroots to a wider-citizens participating model of government and governance. Yet more needs to be done to improve authentic and realistic partnerships and program expectations (Parmer). Donors regularly take on new policy and programming priorities based on building on or repeating the work of other donors. The globalization of foreign aid assistance can constraint innovation and new approaches, and can be isolated to western-developed solutions that do not adequately address context and culture in LICs. The drive for best practices in foreign aid can produce cookie-cutter and one-size-fits-all approaches, tailored to specific development challenges. This can act as risks to innovation, and limit motivations for taking on development differently. In cases when innovation is stimulated via “grand challenges” or pilot initiatives, concepts emerge about what are successful innovations. Often these innovations offer quick solutions that can be ramped up in size, again linked to overambitious goals that are not contextually-realistic or offer the best and most needed solutions. Donors rapidly jump on these endeavors to “scale up”, risking transitioning them into the “latest cookie-cutter solution” (Ordóñez-Llanos, 2021).

It is crucial for international development and the education sector to reconsider issues of neocolonialism in the early 21st century. Ex-ante policy and programming requires us to define and even redefine problems using a more robust multi-stakeholder approach, prioritizing offering equitable participation of national and sub-national actors including academics, researchers, and practitioners. Yet Western approaches by international development agencies and donors often result in ill-structured problem definition and thus inadequate policy and programming solutions, excluding quality opportunities for national feedback. Moreover, these issues can reverberate into ex-post stages including implementation and monitoring & evaluation. Top-down or top-heavy implementation can stifle the creativity and flexibility of projects and policies to make meaningful impact. Imbalanced power dynamics further catalyst unsustainable and less effective impacts. Understanding the moral and ethical values that influence how we promote human development (Anand & Sen, 2000) and human rights worldwide remains at the forefront for the humanities. The US continues to play one of the lead roles in the international development community, of which education is one of the largest funded sectors. Yet the philosophies and terms that we use today may be too antiquated or insufficient to represent common discriminant biases, attitudes, and practices that still linger underneath of the skin of international development.





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