At the core of a discussion on the UN and the development of education worldwide, are the underlying assumptions on education and national development. Depending on the lens through which you assess UN’s contributions, it can appear reinforcing or detrimental; positive or negative.
Underpinning UNESCO’s motivation was the Western world’s view of mass education as a pathway to democracy and development.
Karen Mundy (1999) reminds us that underpinning UNESCO’s motivation was the Western world’s view of mass education as a pathway to democracy and development. She sees one of UNESCO’s main limitations as their adoption of a Western prototype of schooling, coupled with a top-down structure of multilateral assistance. It’s only in recent decades that a more “indigenous” way of approaching development has been welcomed (and then arguably only rhetorically…).
It might seem ridiculous to fuss over “details” in UN’s approach to multilateralism and educational assistance: after all, where would we be without a UN today? Said differently: who cares about how they get there, as long as they get there. Thousands of UN schools are being operated worldwide, compulsory mass education is the norm in UN members states, UN-supported research provides valuable baseline data and statistics, allowing governments and policy makers to craft efficient solutions where needed. Why the complaints?
Despite unquestionable progress, I see two main areas of concern with UN’s contribution to global education: sustainability and cultural pluralism.
Thousands of UN schools are being operated worldwide, compulsory mass education is the norm in UN members states, UN-supported research provides valuable baseline data and statistics, allowing governments and policy makers to craft efficient solutions where needed. Why the complaints?
The sustainability of any program rests on the level of local input, from the initial planning phases to the construction and maintenance. Without ownership (or process and result) there can be no sustainability. This is rarely true for UN programs, at least in my experience. UN’s top-down strategies and (ludicrously paid) expatriate staff ensures that their presence remain one of detached— almost mysterious— power in the local community. The UN logos carry respect, yes, but also a sense of Western patriarchal pity. The come-in-and-fix-it approach to educational assistance can damage a program, even if the initially intent is based on wonderfully progressive ideas and strategies.
UN’s top-down strategies and (ludicrously paid) expatriate staff ensures that their presence remain one of detached— almost mysterious— power in the local community
Second, I am wary of UN’s failure to truly embrace local ideas, and loosen their grip on Western/U.S. notions of education purposes. The “indigenous aspect” becomes a superficial add-on to traditional UN strategic planning, not an integral part of their philosophy. And, as Kazuo Kuroda, asks, “should the agenda for education in developing countries be set by the World Bank or UNESCO? (Smith et al, 2007, p. 236).
Do we want a world that works, or a world that works like the West? I think the UN’s inclusion of indigenous knowledge still bears traces of patriarchy; like an indulgent father humoring an imaginative child (yet remaining convinced that his way is better). Embracing non-Western concepts is not only about maintaining a global cultural pluralism, but also about discovering new (maybe even better) solutions.
Do we want a world that works, or a world that works like the West?
On a last note, I also find the internal competition between UN agencies rather telling. The focus on how to remain relevant, as opposed to how to be useful, is the downfall of all development agencies. In trying to convince the world that they are needed, the UNESCO, like many other agencies, spend more resources on internal reform and publications, than on developing effective programs. The World Bank, UNDP, UNICEF, and UNESCO struggle with program overlapping. The UN agencies need to accept that they can’t all be omnipotent. With more clearly defined responsibilities, these agencies might be able to focus more deeply in their area of expertise instead of trying to reach as broadly as possible in order to prove their importance.
Mundy, K. (1999). Educational multilateralism in a changing world order: UNESCO and the limits of the possible. International Journal of Educational Development, 19(1): 27-52.
Smith, P., Pigozzi, M. J., Tomasevski, K., Bhola, H. S., Kuroda, K., & Mundy, K. (2007). UNESCO’s Role in Global Educational Development. Comparative Education Review, 51(2): 229-245.