Knowldedge-based international aid: Do we want it? Do we need it?

 Conference and paper presented at
International Seminar on Development Knowledge, National Research and
International Co-operation, organised by the DSE and NORRAG, Bonn (3-5 April 2001).

Included in
Knowledge, Research and International Cooperation
Edited by Wolfgang Gmelin, Kenneth King and Simon McGrath,
DSE/NORRAG/CAS, September 2001.
This paper approaches «knowledge-based aid» in vogue within the international aid community from some specific perspectives: (a) a view from «the South», that is, from countries traditionally considered beneficiaries of such aid, typically facilitated by «the North» through international aid agencies; (b) a critical perspective, thus acknowledging that there is an uncritical South -- and a critical North; (c) a regional focus on Latin America; (d) a focus on education reform as a specific field to analyze some of the assumptions and practical consequences of such «knowledge-based aid», particularly over the past decade; and (e) a focus on the World Bank (WB) as a paradigmatic agency, given its leading role in shaping North/South cooperation and in promoting «knowledge-based aid» for school education reform. The «we» assumed in the title of this article refers to the global South in general, and to Latin American in particular.

The increased global concentration of economic and symbolic power (information and knowledge) and of the means and resources to access, synthesize and disseminate such information and knowledge is supported by an instrumental ideology about issues such as development, knowledge, information, education, and learning. In this context, and without fundamental changes in North-South relationships and cooperation patterns, as well as in knowledge and learning paradigms, there is little hope that the announced Knowledge Society and Lifelong Learning paradigm will bring the expected «learning revolution» and a more equitable distribution of knowledge.

On the contrary, we are experiencing a major epochal paradox: never before have there been so much information and knowledge available, so varied and powerful means to democratize them, and so much emphasis on the importance of knowledge, education and learning, but never before has the banking education model been so alive and widespread at a global scale: education understood as a one-way transfer of information and knowledge, and learning understood as the passive digestion of such transfer. Many global promoters of the Knowledge Society and of Lifelong Learning dream with a world converted into a giant classroom with a few powerful global teachers, and millions of passive assimilators of information and knowledge packages.

In an era characterized by change, uncertainty and unpredictability, knowledge-disseminators and technology-promoters seem to have too many certainties about the present and about the future. Recommendations and solutions are at hand and become global - «global development knowledge», «global education reform». «Global» means in fact [for] «the global South», «the developing world», «low- and middle-income countries», «client countries», «the poor». «What works» and «what doesn't work» are offered as clear-cut black and white alternatives, without the obvious questions that should follow: what works -- where, when, for what, with whom, for whom, under what circumstances? «Knowledge-based aid» rhetoric insists on avoiding the discussion of issues such as power and vested interests, not only within governments but also within civil society and within and among international agencies.

What development? What knowledge? What kind of aid? Who is

There is nothing new about «knowledge-based aid». Knowing, and transferring knowledge to «developing countries» under the form of technical assistance has been the raison d' être of international agencies. It may be new, however, from a bank perspective, since banks are supposed to provide money, not ideas.

WB's decision - in 1996 - to become a «knowledge bank» made explicit the evolution of its role into an institution that provides both expert advice and loans - in that order of importance, as stated by the WB. This new role includes lending no longer as the most important role, but technical assistance, knowledge production and knowledge sharing; expanding clients and partners beyond governments, also incorporating organizations of civil society (OCS); and aggressive support to, and use of, modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) as a critical tool for putting such strategies in place.

In WB's terms: there is something called «development knowledge», which is available at the WB/knowledge bank, has been (and continues to be) compiled and synthesized by the WB, and needs to be «disseminated» (with the assistance of ICTs) or transferred through «capacity building» not only to «developing countries» - from government officials and decision-makers all the way down to OCS and school agents - but also to other agencies. The Global Education Reform Website and the Global Education Reform course offered by the WB to a wide range of learners (Ministries, OCS, international agencies, etc.) are some of the tools put in place for the global transfer of education reform knowledge to education reformers at various levels in the whole planet.

«Knowledge-based aid» is fundamentally North/South asymmetry-based aid: donor/recipient, developed/non-developed, knowledge/ignorance (or wisdom), teach/learn, think/act, recommend/follow, design/implement. The global North views itself as a knowledge provider and views the global South as a knowledge consumer. The North thinks, knows, disseminates, diagnoses, plans, strategizes, conducst and validates research (including the one done in, or referred to, the South), provides advice, models, lessons learned, and even lists of desired profiles (i.e. effective schools, effective teachers); the South does not know, learns, receives, applies, implements. The North produces and disseminates knowledge; the South produces data and information. The North produces global policy recommendations to be translated by the South into National Plans of Action. «Global knowledge» versus «local wisdom». «Think globally, act locally».
Rosa María Torres

For international cooperation purposes, «countries» refers to governments. Cooperating with governments has been assumed as equivalent to cooperating with countries and with the people in those countries, thus avoiding critical questions related to the representativeness of concrete governments in terms of public and national interests. Also, agencies' widened perception of «countries», incorporating civil society, are generally centered around NGOs, ignoring the variety of actors interacting in real civil societies: political parties, social movements, academic community, workers' unions, grassroots organizations, mass media, churches, etc. It is only in recent times that the term Organizations of Civil Society (OCS) has been incorporated. As a result, many key political, social and economic sectors and actors in the South - especially those unrelated to government and NGO circuits- have remained alienated from the resources, mechanisms, information and discussion surrounding international cooperation in their own countries.

We will discuss here some assumptions and consequences of the «knowledge-based aid» concept in action, as per WB's and other agencies' involvement in (school) education reform in the South, and in Latin America in particular.

Are we (the South) striving for and heading towards «development»?

Development (in the sense of progress) seemed desirable and achievable in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the term virtually disappeared from political and academic discourse, from social debate and from social expectations in the South -- very much so in the case of Latin America.

Development discourse has been substituted by «poverty alleviation», «debt relief», «combating unemployment», «improving the quality of education», etc. The overall spirit is that of «reversing decline» rather than that of «ensuring development». In the education field this is reflected in goals that do not go beyond augmenting (enrolment, instruction time) or reducing (illiteracy, drop-out, repetition) rates, aiming at «preventing school failure» or «improving academic achievement» (among the poor) rather than at «ensuring school success» or «ensuring lifelong and meaningful learning» for all.

Realities and analyses show that globalization is not moving in the direction of a more equitable world and that economic growth is no guarantee for human (even for economic) development. «Alleviating poverty» has become a condition for, much more than a result of, the possibility of getting access to education and learning by the majority of the world population. And yet, agencies continue to speak of «development» and «developing countries», of basic education as a strategy to alleviate poverty, and of economic growth leading to economic and social development.

The very meaning of development, as well as the means and strategies to get there, are not consensual and remain an issue of debate and controversy not only in the North and in the South but also among and within agencies themselves.

Is there is something called «development knowledge»?

How much does «development» depend on knowledge? What is the knowledge required to make «development» happen in «non-developed» contexts? Is there such a thing as «development knowledge» in general? Is it available, waiting to be «disseminated» or transferred through «capacity building»? Who possesses and who should possess such knowledge in order for development to occur? Is it a problem of dissemination and capacity building?

Most of these questions are already answers, or unraised questions, within the international cooperation community. Agencies act as if they knew, because this is their role and their business. And like bad teachers who have poor expectations of their students and think for them, agencies have in mind clients that are avid for ready-made diagnoses, recipes, transportable and easily replicable «success stories».

Conventional international aid has operated under one central assumption: the South has the problems, and the North has the solutions. If the solution proposed does not work, a new solution will be proposed, and countries will be held accountable for the failure. And again, just like the conventional school system that homogenizes students to facilitate its role and to ensure the prescription of universal curricula and rules, agencies prefer to think of «developing countries» as a uniform world, homogenized by poverty and by a number of problems that are well-known (by agencies and by experts in the North) and that differ at most in their magnitudes.

Paradoxically, the concept of ownership is framed within an accepted asymmetrical relationship. International agencies acknowledge the need to "put countries in the driver's seat". UNESCO acknowledges the need of "countries having a sense of ownership for the initiative" (UNESCO, 2000). But it does not occur. 

Donor-driven, top-down and one-size-fits-all policies have resulted in repeated and costly failures. If we are to judge the direction and quality of future changes in international aid by the lessons Education for All (EFA) partners say they learned during the 1990s, we should not expect meaningful changes in the 15-year EFA extension agreed upon at the Dakar World Education Forum (2000). On the contrary, many such problems - i.e. lack of coordination and enhanced competitiveness among agencies and specifically among EFA partners - have worsened. On the other hand, the new solutions aimed at amending previous problems (i.e. the «sector-wide approach», which attempts to correct the damage caused by the extensive agency-promoted «project» culture) may initiate a new wave of improvised solutions, without affecting the core of the problems, including those of conventional aid culture. Just as ineffective teacher training results in teachers incorporating new terms but not necessarily new concepts and renovated practices, agencies have incorporated politically correct jargon such as participation, consultation, transparency, accountability, empowerment and ownership and haven given them their own meaning and functional use.

Is [good] knowledge only to be found in the North?

Both related assumptions must be put into question: that the North produces good quality and universally accepted knowledge -- in general, about itself and about the South - and that the South does not. In fact, both the North and the South have good and bad schools and universities, produce good and bad quality research and knowledge, and have competent and incompetent professionals. The difference is that the North has far better conditions than the South to develop research and to enhance professional competencies and work conditions, and that the North socializes its professionals with a «run the world» mentality where «knowing» what is best for the South may appear as an in-built professional competency. However, when one looks at the tremendous North/South asymmetry one wonders whether the North is making the best use possible of its comparative advantages. One also wonders how much more and better the South could do if we would have similar conditions in place.

Knowledge produced in the South is disqualified or ignored altogether. The education field is a good example of this. Those reading about education only in publications produced in the North, and specifically those produced by agencies (which is the case of many education specialists in the North and of millions of students in universities around the world), probably come to the conclusion that there is no research, no intellectual life and no debate on education going on outside North America and Europe, and that most of it - if not all of it - happens to be written in English (Torres 1996). And yet, the South has a vast research and intellectual production, much of it of similar or better quality standards than that produced in the North, but much of it is invisible to the North. Arrogance and prejudice are important explicative factors as well as linguistic limitations. Here, the asymmetry and the comparative advantage may operate the other way round: while researchers and intellectuals in the South are often multilingual or at least bilingual, and can thus have access to a wider variety of literature and views, many researchers in the North are monolingual (especially native English-speakers) and thus have limited access to the intellectual production available worldwide. However, this does not prevent them from speaking for the entire world and for the «developing world» in particular, even when they access only to North-produced syntheses of South-produced research.

Linguistic limitations should not be a valid reason if the production of scientific knowledge is at stake and, moreover, is such intellectual production claims international validity and aims at interpreting and influencing realities in the South. Being professional and aiming at serious professional roles at international level today requires not only multidisciplinary but multilingual teams.

Is «good» knowledge expert knowledge?

The knowledge-based rhetoric reinforces the technocratic culture (the «symbolic analyst»). National and international experts multiply. The term is abused to a point where anybody can be called «expert» or believe he/she is one. The expansion and costs of the international consultancy industry have been analyzed and documented by various studies and for the various regions. The situation is particularly critical in the case of Africa, as highlighted in UNDP's Human Development Reports.

The perverse consequences of the expert and the consultant drive in the global South are enormous. The expert culture reinforces elitist approaches, social participation and consultation as mere concessions to democracy rather than as objective needs for effective policy design and action. It cultivates the separation between thinkers and doers, reformers and implementers, at national and global scale. It reaffirms the tradition to locate problems on the implementation side, never on the side of those who diagnose, plan and formulate policies.

Effective and sustainable policies and reforms require not only (good, relevant) expert knowledge, but also the (explicit and implicit) knowledge and will of all those concerned. Policy in practice - i.e. educational reform not resulting in educational change- shows the insufficiency of expert knowledge and the indispensable need for consultation, participation and ownership - whether it is governments, institutions, groups or individuals- as a condition for good policy design.

We have reached a point where common sense can make the difference between good and bad policy making, between good and bad program design.

Is «expert» knowledge good knowledge?

«Experts» can make expert and costly mistakes. WB experts have been behind the cyclical mistakes admitted by the WB in WB-assisted education policies and projects over the past decades, notably: the emphasis placed on infrastructure in the 1960s and 1970s; the priority given to primary education in the 1990s and the rates of return argument behind such priority; the abandonment of higher education (admitted as a major mistake by J. Wolfensohn during the official launching ceremony of the Higher Education Report on March 1, 2000 in Washington); and the «project approach» (now being amended with the SWAP - «sector-wide approach»). All these mistakes, and their long-term consequences, were based on expert WB knowledge and paid by countries in the South in monetary as well as political and social terms.

The faulty grounds of WB research in the education field has been highlighted and documented by many researchers in the global South and in the global North, and by WB people themselves. Problems mentioned include overgeneralization, oversimplification, lack of comparability of many studies that are anyhow compared, poor theoretical and methodological frameworks, lack of conceptual rigor, mechanical translation of research results into policy-making, and, more generally, use and abuse of research (and of comparative international research in particular) and of evaluation to legitimize recommended policies, funded projects and selected «success stories».

And yet, good or bad, this is the research that sustains technical advice provided to client countries in the South (and to other agencies). And the one that is now attributed global validity that is made available through a global web portal and offered to decision makers in face-to-face intensive seminars.

The opaque relationship between knowledge validation and (agency) power is a critical, un-mentioned, factor. Many of the ideas and trends that become dominant do so not necessarily because of their merit or proven efficacy to explain or transform realities, but because of the (ideological, political, financial) power that is behind them.

Are information, communication, knowledge, education and learning the same?

In the age of knowledge and learning, scientific research on learning -- from the most varied fields: Biology, Psychology, Linguistics, Anthropology, Sociology, Pedagogy, History -- shows its highly complex nature, mechanisms and processes. And yet, these notions are being banalized by agencies and by many international and national advocates of the «learning revolution».

Information, knowledge, education, training, learning are often used indistinctively. Ignoring current scientific knowledge available on these issues, and in the tradition of the «banking school education model», knowledge and learning continue to be trivialized as a matter of access (to school, to the computer and the Internet) and/or dissemination (of information, of knowledge, of lessons learned, of models to be replicated).

Many false assertions need to be analyzed and clarified. Consider the following:

- Information can be disseminated but knowledge must be built.
- Information dissemination does not necessarily result in knowledge or in learning.
- Education (and schooling) does not necessarily result in learning.
- Learning exceeds education and education exceeds school education.
- Having access to the Internet is no guarantee of being informed, much less of learning.
- While lifelong education is something that no society or person could afford, lifelong learning is a fact of life.

Good distance education requires face-to-face interaction. The «Knowledge Society» many people have in mind is close to an information society. The Lifelong Learning many are advocating is e-learning, with everyone buying devices and connected to the Internet. For others, Lifelong Learning entails the burial of the school system and of formal education, and the multiplication of non-formal and/or informal learning opportunities and arrangements.

Unless North and South engage in serious analysis, research and debate on all these issues and their implications for a global «Knowledge and Learning Society», the «learning revolution» may be a new false alarm, an illusion created by the technological revolution, or a revolution only for a few, with many victims and wider gaps, controlled by central powers and benefiting strong economic interests.

Is there a positive relationship between (expert) knowledge and (effective) decision-making?

The weak linkages between information/knowledge and public policy design/decision-making are an old and well-known problem in both the North and the South. However, the «knowledge-based aid» rhetoric appears to take such relationship between (expert) knowledge and (effective) decision-making for granted, as well as between their respective assumed agents - agencies, on one hand, and countries (now governments and civil societies) on the other. The whos, whats, what fors, wheres and hows of knowledge and knowledge transfer are not put into question.

The WB claims that the gap between knowledge and decision-making is getting smaller in client countries - where we would be seeing «more effective policy making». However, the EFA decade assessment showed that education policies conducted in the 1990s did not accomplish the goals. In Latin America «quality improvement» in school education is not visible, at least in terms of learning. It is accepted that these reform processes did not «reach the school», did not improve teacher performance and morale, and did not modify conventional pedagogical practices. Even some of our publicized «success stories» have deteriorated -- such as Escuela Nueva in Colombia or the 900 Schools Program in Chile -- when looked closer at the school level (Carlson 2000; Torres 2000a; Avalos 2001). A closer, more analytical look at the micro levels and dynamics might reveal the same of many other «success stories» and «best practices» hastily labeled as such and enthusiastically disseminated by agencies all over the world.

On the other hand, the «Cuban success story» has been hard-to-digest and little publicised. The evaluation of learning achievement in primary schools (language and mathematics among third and fourth graders in both public and private schools) conducted by UNESCO Regional Office (OREALC), showed Cuba's superiority over all other countries studied (Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education -LLECE). Cuba faces a very difficult economic situation, and it is the only country in the region that has no loans for its education system and reform, and has not followed WB education reform recommendations.

While some attribute the failure of reform processes conducted in Latin America to lack of attention to research results and policy recommendations, many others - included the author of this piece - believe that part of the problem was too much attention to such recommendations (the educational reform recipe of the 1990s) and too much reliance on national and international «expert knowledge» for policy design and decision-making, too little social and teacher participation and consultation, and too little value given to domestic research, indigenous knowledge, and common sense.

The fact is that many countries in this region are today «reforming the reforms», reviewing previous approaches, acknowledging the limitations of top-down reforms and the importance of involving teachers in more meaningful ways as well as the need to put pedagogy and the school at the center. Growing disillusionment and loss of credibility in reform efforts have come together with a growing regional movement demanding responsibility, transparency and accountability both from governments and from agencies. The 2001 regional meeting of Ministers of Education (Cochabamba, Bolivia, 5-7 March 2001), and the Cochabamba Declaration and Recommendation, which closed the two-decade Major Project for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (1980-2000), put for the first time aid-related problems and issues high on the agenda.

In this respect, the experience with the Latin American Statement on Education for All (prepared on the occasion of the Dakar Forum, circulated widely, and signed by thousands of people in the region) represents an innovative and promising development that contradicts conventional North/South aid patterns: it is an endogenous initiative, born in Latin America, out of Latin American concerns, and conducted in Spanish and Portuguese (ownership is here a fact, not a concession); it is critical of the role of governments and agencies vis a vis education development and reform in the region, and proposes the need for a new aid framework; it is not an NGO but a social movement, involving a wide spectrum of sectors and groups, including civil society, government and agencies; information disseminated regularly to the list of signers is both local, regional and global; and it operates on a voluntary basis, with no international funding and thus with intellectual and financial autonomy. (Torres 2000d)


Why would we want such aid? It has been ineffective and costly, it has increased our dependency and our foreign debt, it has not allowed us to develop our own human resources (while we have paid external consultants to learn and become experts while working in our countries); it has not allowed us to identify and develop our own ideas, research, thinking, alternatives, models. And it has not allowed us not learn along the way about both our achievements and mistakes.

Do we really need such aid? In most, if not all, countries in the global South we have the knowledgeable and competent professionals we need to put in place sound education policies and reforms. Moreover, if qualified and committed, nationals (and non-nationals who end up sharing these characteristics and ideals as their own) have two important advantages over non-nationals: they know the national/local language(s) and share local history and culture, and they love their country. Motivation, empathy, ownership, sense of identity and of pride, sense of being part of a collective- building project, are key ingredients of effective and sustainable policy making and social action. There is an important difference between living in a country and visiting it on technical missions. External consultants may leave ideas, documents and recommendations, but it is those living in the country, zone, or community who will finally do the job. Separating and differentiating the roles of those who think and recommend, and those who implement and try to follow recommendations, remains the key formula for non-ownership (or for fake ownership) and thus for failure.

A few final conclusions and recommendations

If international agencies want to assist the South, they must be ready to accept the need for major shifts in their thinking and doing. It is not just a matter of more of the same, or of improving cooperation mechanisms and relationships. What is needed is a different kind of international cooperation, operating under different assumptions and rules, to be discussed and devised together with the South, in professional dialogue. Partnership, but not for business as usual.

What can international agencies do to assist the South?

Work not only addressed to the South but, most importantly, to the North. Development and non- or under-development are intertwined. Development can only occur in the South if major changes are introduced in the North and in North/South relationships. Awareness raising, critical positions and pressure within the North, with both governments and societies, for the building of a more equitable world, is the single most important contribution international agencies and critical intellectuals and activists in the North can make to the South. In this, they are not substitutable.

Acknowledge diversity and act accordingly Homogeneous understandings and approaches to the South are no longer admissible. Just as we, in the South, learn about the North, and are aware of the diversity that characterizes the various countries and regions in the world, we expect the North to get better acquainted with the realities and the diversity that characterize so-called «developing countries». Universal recipes, formulas and ready-to be transplanted models offend intelligence, deny scientific knowledge and learning as a possibility, and prove ineffective.

Revise international cooperation assumptions based on asymmetry and unidirectionality Deficit approaches to the South must belong to the past. Knowledge production takes place both in the North and in the South. There is no reason why the North, international agencies and the WB in particular should monopolize the function of global catalysts, synthesizers and disseminators of knowledge. There is much agencies can do to collaborate with the South in disseminating (to the North and within the South) what the South produces and does.

Support social watch and enhance professional dialogue with the South  Social watch and participation of civil society are critical requirements of national development and of effective international cooperation for such development. This has been emphasized by agencies themselves, so here is a common platform for partnership and alliances with «the critical South». This implies from agencies a coherent institutional behavior (democratic, transparent, accountable, open to learn), a wider and more complex understanding of «civil society» beyond the traditional NGO-centered approach, and enhanced professional dialogue and exchange with the intellectual community in the South including universities, higher education and research institutions as well as teacher and other professional associations.

Sound understandings and critical approaches to information, knowledge, education and learning Critical thinking and critical approaches to information, knowledge, education and learning are today more important than ever. Ensuring that all information and knowledge transactions -- including of course those between countries and agencies -- incorporate such critical component should be part of any modern international development cooperation model and of any modern knowledge management system.

More questions and more learning together Agencies have too many answers and too few questions. Admitting ignorance and the need to learn, and to learn how to learn, is at the very heart of a new international cooperation model. Only honesty builds confidence, and mutual confidence is fundamental for a healthy and collaborative relationship. North and South, agencies and countries, must learn to learn together and from each other.

Assist countries identify and develop their own resources, talents and capacities If ownership is essential for development, it is time that it is considered seriously by both countries and the international development community. The most effective way to assist the South is by making sure that such assistance is sustainable, non-directive, empathetic, invisible: assistance to help countries in the South do our own thinking, our own research and experimentation, our own networking and sharing, our own search for alternative models, our own learning by doing, in our own terms and at our own pace.


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Other texts from Rosa María Torres 

- Lifelong Learning in the South: Critical Issues and Opportunities for Adult Education, Sida Studies 11, Stockholm, 2004
- El enfoque de Aprendizaje a lo Largo de Toda la Vida, UNESCO, 2020.
- About «good practice» in international co-operation in education
- 25 Years of 'Education for All' ▸ 25 años de 'Educación para Todos'
 - The World Bank and its mistaken education policiesEl Banco Mundial y sus errores de política educativa
Lifelong Learning for the North, Primary Education for the South? ¿Aprendizaje a lo Largo de la Vida para el Norte y Educación Primaria para el Sur?
- The green, the blue, the red and the pink schools
- 12 tesis para el cambio educativo
- The 4 As as criteria to identify «good practices» in education
- ¿Educar para adaptar?Education for Adaptation?
- Rendimientos escolares y programas compensatorios: El P-900 en Chile
- Pronunciamiento Latinoamericano por una Educación para Todos / Latin American Statement on Education for All
 - Expertos

3 comentarios:

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