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Education Development Projects

History, The Project Model, Aid for Education

Contemporary education development projects can trace their origins to the programs of bilateral and multilateral official development assistance offered to newly independent and developing countries after World War II. The goals and purposes, content, format, actors, financing, and delivery of education development projects have undergone many changes throughout the last half of the twentieth century.


Official development assistance (hereafter, aid) for education expanded rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s when many previously colonized countries became independent. Industrialized countries were seen as partly responsible for the development of poorer and newly independent countries, through the provision of both financial resources and technical skills. Many multilateral institutions were founded to deliver development assistance, including the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Foundations such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations became early players in the delivery of education development projects. Bilateral development assistance institutions, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), were also established, and came to deliver both the largest share of international funding for development, and for educational development.

Ideas about modernization and progress dominated the work of these organizations. Development was generally defined as linear progress toward the kinds of economic and political systems existing in the Western industrialized world. Education, which was associated in industrialized countries with economic progress and national development through the creation of human resources, quickly became an important component of their development agenda.

Initially, educational aid was primarily used to provide tertiary or graduate training to foreign nationals in donor countries, to bring trained educators to developing countries, or to help establish international professional organizations. However, in the 1960s, the focus of educational aid shifted somewhat as concerns about "brain drain" and continued developing country dependency on external institutions led donor governments and organizations to support vocational programs and the construction of tertiary and secondary institutions in developing countries. Donors began to invest in discrete education projects, which often focused on training for education providers (for example, teachers), provided technical support to education ministries, or constructed schools. Projects tended to fund capital as opposed to recurrent costs (like teacher salaries), and were small in scale, and staffed and monitored by the donor organization. Individual donors often specialized in a specific type of educational intervention or level of education, thus dominating that field and the pattern of its development in the recipient country.

The Project Model

The project model for delivering aid had several advantages over the initial focus on high level training. It often kept developing country personnel in country for training, trained lower-level personnel, built infrastructure, and offered a greater variety of technical services and training. It allowed for variation and experimentation–leading, for example, to innovative efforts to focus on grassroots educational development and literacy by Scandinavian donors. Joel Samoff (1997) outlines some of the project model's weaknesses. Project aid often fragmented educational development and planning into a set of mismatched and uncoordinated donor-led interventions. It tended to emphasize short-term goals over longer-term needs, and to focus the resources of many of the countries' ministries of education on short term project management and evaluation, rather than on systemwide development. Donor resources were often tied–provided only to finance goods and services from donor nationals. Finally, the choice and implementation paths of education development projects were often highly politicized. Education development projects produced complex donor/recipient government interactions, often colored by the ideological or institutional experience with education in the donor country and by the donor's control over resources. For this reason, education development projects never functioned as the simple transfer of technical and financial resources originally envisaged in modernization theory.

Aid for Education

Hans Weiler notes that in the late 1970s, even as donor organizations reconfirmed the benefits of education for national development, education aid budgets began to stagnate or decline. Although there is a lack of comparable data before 1973, it appears that overall aid for education from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries barely kept pace with inflation after 1980. Ever fewer resources came from Eastern European, Soviet, and OPEC states and greater numbers of newly independent states vied for shrinking aid dollars. At the same time, the balance of influence among donors active in educational development projects shifted, with the World Bank emerging as the most significant single lender to education both in terms of technical and financial capacities.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many developing countries faced a serious crisis in national education spending, caused both by widespread scale economic collapse and by subsequent structural adjustment programs. Financial tensions fueled debates among donors about the merits of educational expansion versus qualitative improvement, basic versus postprimary expansion of education, and academic versus technical/vocational or adult education. In the early 1980s, commentators such as Paul Hurst questioned the assumption that investment in education would yield economic growth, since two decades of large growth in educational investment in developing countries had not convincingly supported this claim. Soon after, new economic studies, such as Maraline Lockheed and Adriaan Verspoor's World Bank–sponsored study claimed that a focus on basic education (particularly for girls) was the most cost-effective and developmentally effective form of educational investment. An era of economic austerity also fueled the introduction of new components in educational development projects, including an emphasis on cost recovery mechanisms, the decentralization of educational systems, the introduction of national testing programs, and support for nongovernmental provision of educational services.

The 1990s saw a new convergence of donor activities, perhaps in part because of the ideological convergence that followed the collapse of state socialism. The 1990 World Conference on Education for All, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Bank, the United Nations Childrens' Fund (UNICEF), and others, brought donors and developing countries together around a more unified aid agenda focused on the revitalization of primary education in the poorest developing countries. Many donors subsequently reoriented their educational development efforts to focus on primary education. However, despite strong rhetoric, overall levels of donor aid did not increased substantially during the last decade of the twentieth century.

Donors also began to debate the merits of sectorwide or systemwide approaches in education during the 1990s. Sectorwide approaches differ from project-based approaches in a number of ways. One of the most obvious is that sectorwide aid provides money directly to the developing country government's budget, on the basis of a long-term education development plan. There is debate about whether the effect of this mechanism is to give the recipient government greater control over how money is spent, or whether this shift actually amounts to greater restrictions on the government. First, sectorwide aid is often heavily conditioned, and second, donors now can expect recipient governments' entire sectoral approach to align with their increasingly convergent notion of what kind of education is best for development. Furthermore, instead of providing small-scale aid to many countries, the sectorwide model is highly selective, targeting the few countries able to provide a rational sector plan for educational change. Lastly, sectorwide aid is increasingly linked to wider acceptance of reforms in the areas of governance and economic policy.

Another important shift in educational development projects has been the growth of funding to support nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as direct providers of educational services. There remains considerable debate about the sustainability of such strategies. Several of the largest international nongovernmental organizations active in educational development believe that NGOs should act more as policy advocates that service providers, and have launched an international campaign to this effect.

There have been tremendous changes in the putative focus of educational development projects–towards basic education, and a greater commitment to donor coordination, systemwide planning and local control. However, many scholars question the depth of such changes. In many countries, education development continues to receive limited external funding. A lack of coordination among donors and a lack of government control over the direction of educational development are commonplace. As in the past, the longer term sustainability of such efforts remains open to question.


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