Slowing Education?

By Mònica Serlavós, NORRAG, Geneva.


« Should we prepare the students to be intelligent and revolutionary but unemployed or alienated producers-consumers? »[1]


Legros and Delplanque (2009)

From the 2nd – 6th September 2014 more than 3,000 people from 74 different nationalities gathered in Leipzig (Germany) for the 4th International Conference on Degrowth[2] for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity.

The Leipzig conference aimed at exploring ‘concrete steps towards a society beyond the imperative of growth’. All the panels were thematically organised around three themes: 1) facing the current crises: critique and resistance; 2) building alliances; and, 3) visions and strategies for the transformation. Among all the topics addressed – including housing, transport, food security, social services, environmental issues and others – a key one was education. Several panels and scientific sessions were organized on education, including: ‘Dimensions of learning for a degrowth society’, ‘Following Ivan Illich – education in a convivial society’ and ‘Creating ruptures and re-imagining society’.

Some of the main points shared by all the speakers and panellists on the subject refer to the importance of being aware of: a) the existing conceptualization of society and education systems, b) how we construct the world from a social-cultural constructivist approach, c) the key role of community engagement at the local level, and, d) the severe disconnection of humans with regard to our social and natural environment.

Behind all these elements lies an agreement on the important role of education as a means to transform society. Curiously, in spite of this and the fact that education is considered by some to be a tool to model people’s behaviour, values, skills and knowledge, there is a gap in the degrowth literature concerning education issues. Broadly speaking, in the so-called western developed countries we are facing a situation in which values transmitted through education imply a specific conceptualization of the world and our place in it. It is what Legros and Delplanque (2009) call ‘teaching as usual’ referring to an educational model that contributes to perpetuate a hegemonic thinking through the mythicization of values like growth, competition, individualism, success and progress, more often than not approached from a purely quantitative perspective.

But how could a gradual transition take place when the current system offers limited space to question the roots of its weaknesses? In that sense, hybridization between the individual and collective level could be one plausible answer.

The balance between providing citizens with the tools and the critical spirit to try to find new ways of doing things, and socializing them to be part of the existing society, is a critical element in this process. In line with this, there might be realistic propositions adapted to each context with the aim of raising interest among adults about the kind of society and the sort of education we want. These elements could lead us towards the construction of a slow, decentralized, locally based, democratic and participative transition process in which each of us would become an ‘educator’ in our own environment.

As in any other process of thinking and reflection, we ended up with more questions than those that led us to write about those issues in the first place. Who will be the change agents and what will be their strategies in all this process? To what extent is the training of teachers a key part of this transitional process and how it should be approached? What is the role of public policies and civil society in all this? And last, but not least, what would be the effect of such an educational change in relation to the degrowth approach to work?


This blog is based on the article entitled ‘Reconsidering the transitional role of education’ presented in the 4th International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in the panel on ‘Creating ruptures and re-imagining society’ by Mònica Serlavós.

Mònica Serlavós is a Technical Officer at NORRAG in Geneva. She holds a MA in Development Studies from the Graduate Institute of Geneva during which she particularly analysed social and solidarity economy as a transitional path towards a degrowth society. Email:


Legros, B. and Delplanque, J. (2009) L’enseignement face à l’urgence écologique, Editions Aden

[1] Translation by the author.

[2] As defined by the organization committee of the Conference, degrowth refers to the ‘downscaling of production and consumption in the industrialized states that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet’.

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Learning and Working in the Informal Economy – What do we Know and What Should we Do? A German perspective

By Léna Krichewsky, The Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg.

toolkitThe share of self-employed workers and employees without regular work contracts is rising globally, reaching over 70% of the workforce in African countries like the Ivory Coast, Mali or Zambia, and over 60% in Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua or Paraguay. The problems associated with informality – poverty, precarious work conditions, gender inequalities and social as well as economic marginalization, among others – are not new and have been described and analysed for over 40 years by numerous economists and social scientists. By asking “Is informal normal?”, the OECD has, however, been challenging our perspective on the phenomenon, prompting us to reconsider what we already know about the causes and consequences of informal employment and how we deal with it.

Taking the example of German development cooperation policy in Vocational Education and Training (VET), changing perspectives on the informal economy can be observed to materialize both in policy documents and in projects or programmes on the ground. In its early days, cooperation in VET focused on setting up vocational training centres with modern equipment in cooperation countries. These centres were to be used to train specialists and managers in the latest technologies who, in turn, would then drive economic and social development in their own countries. However, focusing on the skills development needs of a non-existent or embryonic formal economy did not always yield the desired results. In particular, this approach failed to reach poorer segments of the population and to strengthen the local economy. The ‘Vocational Education’ concept published by the Federal Ministry of Development Cooperation (BMZ) in 1992 made the first mention of target group-specific measures for those working in the informal economy. The  meta-evaluation report (in German) commissioned by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in 2011 in the area of vocational education and training found, however, that “Only a very small number [of projects] relate explicitly to the informal sector in which pro-poor results are most likely to be achieved”. As a consequence of this evaluation, learning in and for the informal economy became one of the four priority areas of BMZ’s strategy for vocational education and training as defined in its 2012 Position Paper (German only).

In practice, the priority given by the BMZ to the informal economy lead to the increased promotion of a more flexible approach to VET provision, the systematic cooperation with local partners to develop target-group oriented measures and a holistic approach aiming at overcoming incompatibilities and institutional barriers between learning forms. The improvement of traditional apprenticeship training, the recognition of informally acquired skills and the opening up of TVET centres to provide short-term, demand-oriented courses to informal workers are but a few examples of concrete action.

While research-based evidence on the costs and benefits of specific tools and approaches used to promote target groups from the informal economy is scarce, there are many examples of good practice which can be provided by non-governmental organisations and state-led development agencies. In order to systematise existing theoretical and practical knowledge on learning and working in the informal economy, the BMZ recently commissioned the GIZ to develop an online platform bringing together the results of academic research and experiences from practitioners. This toolkit is now available in English at Building on the insights of renowned international experts such as Marta Chen, Robert Palmer, Richard Walter and Patrick Werquin, the toolkit provides the opportunity to foster exchanges between researchers and practitioners both from Germany and other countries.

Léna Krichewsky works at the Department of Vocational Education and Training, The Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg. Email:

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Sustaining Literacy in Africa: Developing a Literate Environment

By Peter B. Easton, Florida State University.

literacy in AfricaThe goal of achieving widespread and durable literacy in Africa and other target areas of Education For All is not likely to be attained – even by the next international deadline chosen – if equivalent attention is not given to ensuring that the basic skills school leavers and new literates acquire can in fact be regularly and beneficially used in the environments where they live.

Drop-out figures and weak rates of literacy retention witness all too often to the absence of such supportive conditions. Programs based on the assumption that literacy is its own reward take inadequate account of the dearth, in depressed environments, of the materials and opportunities that create learning imperatives elsewhere. As Malian farmers in the “Boucle du Niger” region of West Africa were wont to reply to extension agents recommending new agricultural equipment to them in the years that I spent there, Kòlongòsi bè dlòn fè, sen t’a la: “The tortoise loves to dance; he just doesn’t have the legs!” In short, certain basic conditions are required to learn and exercise new routines in life.

One critical issue of research and practice broached in my recent book on Sustaining Literacy in Africa” Developing a Literate Environment (2014) is therefore to examine the conditions under which local usages for literacy begin to multiply in poor communities, and measures for building an environment where acquisition and retention of literate and numerate skills come naturally to the majority of the population. Educators have made some real progress in improving the supply side of literacy – that is, in providing learning materials, instructional methods and teacher training programs – but they have typically been much less versed in tending to the demand side of the equation, or the factors that determine the usability of new knowledge in different settings.  Most such usages reside in fact outside education itself – in domains like agricultural marketing, health promotion, small business creation and natural resource management with which educators have little professional contact. Yet the experience examined in the book strongly suggests that literacy acquisition only accelerates in deprived regions when new social, political and economic opportunities take shape – or are configured – to intensify demand, and when educational supply is closely linked to the learning requirements of such change.

Building this type of “literate environment” typically means rethinking sectorial development strategies in joint instructional design and empowerment terms, where:

  • progressive literacy acquisition and mastery of basic skills are closely linked to the assumption of new socio-economic responsibilities and viable livelihood options on the ground; and
  • the spread of different levels of competence beyond a limited cadre of current occupants of the functions in question helps ensure the democratic character of the undertaking, active monitoring by stakeholders and the possibility of recruiting new blood if the old turns sour.

Both history and current experience suggest that the one of the quickest routes to literacy and numeracy acquisition lies in the exercise of significantly increased resource management responsibilities. From the Bronze Age Fertile Crescent, where writing was invented as a means for managing proliferating irrigation schemes, to 17th century England, where the rapid growth of business and manufacturing spurred by the triangular trade stimulated literacy to such an extent that, Harvey Graaf (1987) maintains, the common school had to be established to control and regulate it as much as to promote it, a lesson seems clear: increased responsibility for governance, resource management and economic activity that create the strongest demand for new skills.

Lacking these, education may have very little “purchase.” As a good colleague from Burkina Faso put it in lapidary fashion during a field discussion of strategies for promoting literacy for management purposes in the country’s rural areas, “On ne gère pas le néant!”: “You can’t manage nothing!” But when circumstances or policy change resource flows, experience documented and discussed in the book suggests that the resulting reinforcements on the demand side have a further positive consequence. The development of new opportunities for beneficial usage of skills generally serves to “smoke out” unsuspected human resources and reservoirs of existing competence in the local population that those concerned had not previously though it worthwhile to mobilize.

An old maxim of adult education underlines a related and relevant principle: “Teaching is the art of putting people in situations from which they cannot escape without learning.” But the cross-sectoral policies and intervention designs that create such situations and bolster effective demand have been little analyzed in available educational literature.

[Editors note: readers familiar with the 2006 Education For All Global Monitoring Report on Literacy will of course recall their earlier point about the importance of developing rich literate environments if the literacy challenge is to be met].   

Further reading:

Easton, P. (2014) Sustaining Literacy in Africa: Developing a Literate Environment. Paris: UNESCO Press. 295 pages.

Peter Easton is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the College of Education, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA, Email:

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Africa Must Invent its Own Economic Model

By Albert Damantang Camara, Minister of Technical Education, Vocational Training, Employment and Labour, Guinea.

AfricaAbidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) hosted the Third Ministerial Conference of the Inter-country Quality Node on Technical and Vocational Skills Development (ICQN/TVSD) from 22nd to 23rd July 2014.

[La version originale de ce blog a été écrit en français et apparaît ci-dessous]

Like previous events of its type, the Ministerial Conference aimed to ‘think about and take resolute action on the type of socio-economic measures required and promote the type of skills which should be developed to allow young Africans to gain access to jobs and thus earn a decent living while doing all they can to create wealth in their countries’.

A major decision to emerge from the conference was the adoption of a work programme to encourage inter-country cooperation, investment in training and the implementation of the education-training continuum.

One key question has yet to be answered, however: how can enough jobs be created to absorb the many unemployed individuals – of all ages, genders and levels of training – flooding the job market every year?

It is now becoming clear that the classic economic theory of virtuous growth which creates wealth and, thereby, jobs has been superseded. In the debate in Abidjan, the Ivorian employers’ representative asked a very pertinent question: during a discussion of the average rate of growth in Africa (5%) as a reason to feel hopeful for the future, the businessman asked who was driving that growth. We might also ask what is driving it.

The answer is clearly not local small and medium enterprises (SMEs). We can be sure of this because our economies and private sectors are actually too weak to create sufficient jobs. Our industries and local production of goods and services are practically non-existent. We therefore import most of our convenience goods and, in so doing, as was pointed out by the representative of Benin, we import unemployment for our young people.

For these reasons, I wholeheartedly espouse the reaction of the Moroccan Minister for Vocational Training, who advocated an alternative assessment of the criteria for growth.

In my opinion, then, the time has come to pay heed to the theory posited by British economist Tim Jackson, according to whom growth as it is currently envisaged is not a viable prospect.

In a report submitted to the British government by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, Jackson suggests among other things that we replace the use of fossil fuels with human labour, in particular by the means of ‘green jobs’ in construction, transport and agriculture.

He also raises the idea of creating environmentally friendly businesses and jobs, which increase quality of life by offering local services. These low-energy services would make it possible to reduce unemployment without creating growth.

Until our businesses gain the impetus to create jobs, the State must do so. If our countries are under construction and/or still developing, major infrastructure projects should be able to absorb the unemployed youth. Basic social services also have a role to play, and we know that our public-sector staffing quotas fall way short of actual needs. How many of our hospitals and schools are still lacking doctors and teachers?

We inherited our African economies from Western systems, and they have continued to be configured to fit the standards imposed by our economic and financial partners. The G7 and G20 powers are all reassessing their economic models; some have gone so far as to call them entirely into question. Even the most liberal of governments are calling upon the State to shore up private businesses. It is time for Africa to examine its own economic model. That is where healthy, sustainable and wealth-creating growth is to be found for the entire continent.

Albert Damantang Camara is Minister of Technical Education, Vocational Training, Employment and Labour, Guinea. Email:


L’Afrique Doit Inventer son Modèle Économique

Albert Damantang Camara, Ministre  de l’Enseignement Technique, de la Formation professionnelle, de l’Emploi et du Travail, Guinée.

DU 22 au 23 juillet 2014 s’est tenue à Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) la troisième conférence du Pôle de Qualité Inter-Pays dans le Domaine du Développement des Compétences Techniques et Professionnelles (PQIP/DCTP).

La conférence des Ministres, comme les précédentes, avait pour objectif « d’engager une réflexion et une action en profondeur sur le type de mesures socioéconomiques à promouvoir et le type de compétences à développer pour que les jeunes africains puissent accéder à l’emploi et ainsi gagner décemment leur vie tout en participant au maximum à la création de richesse de leur pays »

A la fin des travaux de la conférence il a été notamment décidé d’adopter un plan de travail encourageant la coopération inter-pays, l’investissement dans la formation et la mise en œuvre du continuum éducation/formation.

Une question fondamentale reste posée : comment créer suffisamment d’emplois pour absorber la masse de chômeurs qui se déverse chaque année sur le marché de l’emploi ? Qu’ils soient diplômés ou non, jeunes ou adultes, hommes ou femmes.

Aujourd’hui il devient évident que la théorie économique classique de la croissance vertueuse, créatrice de richesse et donc d’emploi est dépassée. Au cours des débats de la conférence d’Abidjan, le représentant du patronat ivoirien a posé une question pertinente lorsqu’il a été évoqué le motif d’espoir que représentait le taux moyen de croissance en Afrique (5%). Cet homme d’affaire a demandé « par qui » était portée cette croissance ? On pourrait ajouter : « par quoi » ?

Visiblement pas par les PME/PMI locales. Car la vérité est que nos économies et nos secteurs privés sont trop faibles pour créer suffisamment d’emplois. Nos industries et notre production locale de biens et services sont quasi inexistantes. Nous importons donc la plupart de nos biens de consommation courante et, par la même occasion, ainsi que l’a rappelé le représentant du Bénin, nous importons le chômage de nos jeunes.

C’est pourquoi, je souscris pleinement à la réaction du Ministre marocain en charge de la Formation professionnelle qui a préconisé une autre évaluation des critères de la croissance.

Il me semble en effet qu’il est temps de prendre en compte la théorie de l’économiste anglais Tim Jackson selon laquelle la croissance telle qu’envisagée actuellement est insoutenable.

Dans un rapport remis au gouvernement britannique par la Commission Britannique du Développement Durable, il propose, entre autres, de remplacer l’utilisation des énergies fossiles par du travail humain.,, notamment des “emplois verts” dans le bâtiment, les transports, l’agriculture.

Il émet également l’idée de création d’entreprises et d’emplois écologiques, qui améliorent la qualité de vie en produisant des services relationnels locaux. Ces services peu intensifs en énergie permettraient de diminuer le chômage sans pour autant créer de croissance.

En attendant que nos entreprises aient suffisamment de vigueur pour créer des emplois, il appartient à la puissance publique de le faire. Dans nos états en construction et/ou en développement, les grands projets d’infrastructures devraient pouvoir absorber ces cohortes de jeunes chômeurs. Les services sociaux de base également quand ont sait que les quotas imposés à nos administrations sont loin de couvrir les besoins réels en ressources humaines chargées des services publics. Combien de nos hôpitaux et de nos écoles manquent encore de médecins ou d’instituteurs ?

Nos économies africaines sont des héritages des systèmes occidentaux et ont continué à être formatées pour répondre aux standards imposés par nos partenaires économiques et financiers. Les puissances du G 7 et du G 20 sont toutes en train de s’interroger sur leur modèle économique quand elles n’ont pas carrément commencé à les remettre en question. Les gouvernements les plus libéraux font intervenir l’Etat pour sauver des entreprises privées. Il est temps que l’Afrique s‘interroge sur son propre modèle économique. Celui-là qui lui donnera une croissance saine, durable et créatrice de prospérité pour l’ensemble de sa population.

Albert Damantang Camara, Ministre  de l’Enseignement Technique, de la Formation professionnelle, de l’Emploi et du Travail, Guinée. Email:

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Training without a Soul

By Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Brazil shared the traditional disdain of Iberian countries towards working with one`s hands.

senaiSENAI had a decisive role in reversing prejudice and creating a well-prepared labor force. Being a private agency, run by industrialists and funded by a levy on industrial payroll, it had what it takes to face this arduous task of going against the grain of local culture. German and Swiss role models were grafted into the DNA of the institution. It was training with a Swiss soul, since this was the nationality of the first director in charge.

The system has been around since 1942 and remains effective, as well as impressive. However, there are signs that the sailing is not as smooth as one could think; there are conflicting signals.

Candidates for the “classic” occupations, such as machinists, carpenters, brick masons and several others are shrinking. Dropouts are more numerous. And the proportion choosing to work in the occupations learned is lower.

At the same time, there has been a massive increase in the pay of these same occupations, far more than for any others. It is somewhat bizarre, more pay and less interest in these same occupations.

What is going on? Funded by SENAI, I am beginning an inquiry into this puzzling situation.

One possible reason is the combination of more vacancies for higher education and higher levels of schooling of the young work force.  Many more students reach or finish secondary education, making them closer to the enticement of a magic university diploma. In addition, there has been an expansion in fellowships and student loans, making the temptations more reachable. Even if youth fail to enter higher education, its magnetism deflates the possible interest they could have for trade training.

Another hypothesis is the growth of the service sector. Regardless of pay, work is lighter and has greater prestige. As someone said to me: it is better to be a security guard in a shopping center than a machinist.

In addition, there is a third persuasive cause and it is inside SENAI.

In the last few decades, SENAI considerably expanded its secondary technical courses. It also created two-year post-secondary programs. In parallel, it is boosting its R&D and innovation activities. The result is a change in the center of gravity of the institution. The new activities require a lot more masters and PhDs and hardly any craftsmen. More money and discussions focus on these higher-end activities. Nothing is wrong with this new emphasis. It is a mandatory direction to be taken, considering the technologies deployed by modern industry. But the unavoidable consequence is a decreased attention to trade training.

Turners and woodworkers are taught as before. But, perhaps, something is missing. Are the trade instructors as proud as they were? Has their leadership towards the students slackened? Is there less effort put into training them? Is their heart and soul still in it?

I visited a very fine school of natural gas technology, with a serious applied research agenda. After the visit I realized that the highly sophisticated managers did not show me the workshops where students were trained to convert gasoline automobiles into gas combustion. One cannot imagine that students and instructors fail to perceive that their position is seen as inferior, considering that their workshops did not deserve being shown to visitors.

When I first compared SENAI with its European counterparts, it struck me that it was using its facilities and instructors to offer courses of widely different levels to a broad clientele of students. It could be training in a simple trade or a post-graduate program. That seemed a very efficient way of deploying resources. In comparison, European institutions catered to much narrower sets of students.

In hindsight, we can see that mixing high and low status occupations in the same school can be detrimental to those at the bottom end of the spectrum.

This is not a hopeless situation. By the same token that SENAI was able to prepare a generation of proud workers, when conditions were much more difficult, it must be relatively easy to pay a lot more attention to convert the soul of the students, not just deliver the curricula and operate workshops.

Be that as it may, these are conjectures, based on observation, rather than systematic research. The forthcoming study will confirm or deny the above speculations.


Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Email:


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Back to the ‘Vocational Education’ Drawing Board: Do we Need Some Serious Re-visioning?

By Salim Akoojee, South Africa and Hong Kong.


Vocational education 110 years ago (Image from Kansas State Manual Training Normal School, 1904)

An August 2014 article in the Economist referred to the vocational sector as being the ‘detritus of an industrial era rather than the handmaiden of a new economy’. Citing the ‘twin curses of low status and limited innovation’, the Economist cites the McKinsey report  in which students in four out of seven European countries surveyed were discouraged from vocational education as a result of the ‘disorganisation’ and ‘lack of prestige’ of the sector compared to universities. If we were honest, we have to admit that this is indeed the case in a number of emerging economies as well. Indeed, poor vocational education enrolment is compounded by even more serious disengagement from the world of work. While we could contest the wisdom of blaming the sector for this lack of engagement with the wider economy and its disorganisation and decay, there is perhaps a need to identify where this comes from and perhaps more importantly, why and how it can change so that the sector can take its rightful place as a legitimate sub-sector of the national education and training systems.

It is clear that the various skills challenges that a country faces does not rest entirely with the vocational sector itself. The fact that it has not kept pace with the changing economic realities (as initially envisaged) suggest that some serious re-thinking is necessary. This is especially so in emergent economies with the deep seated social and economic challenges that have potential to create considerable upheaval. We therefore have to get back to the drawing board regarding the key question of purpose, mission and vision of vocational education, referred to in the international discourse as Technical, Vocational Education and Training, or more recently Technical and Vocational Skills Development (TVSD).

Let us begin with the purpose identified in the international discourse during the colonial era, underpinned as it was by a link with an economy crafted on the basis that the benefits of industrialisation were expected to flow to the colonies and that the skills systems needed to be responsive to this new reality. The current discourse has, of course changed. The sector is considered to be tasked with the responsibility of skills for work and further learning so that it advances the ‘human, social and environmental aspects of development’ (see UNESCO, 2012). However, the reality is that it is still embedded in a formal industrial economy discourse, and stuck in a time-warp that has not been radically unseated. It therefore carries its label of the handmaiden of an industrialised economy as a crown that has lost its glimmer.

This means that the traditional responsiveness of the sector to develop a mid-level skills corps for a widening industrial labour force, primarily driven by mining/agriculture extraction and manufacturing needs to be radically redefined as economies have transformed. The fact is that the very nature of the economy and labour market has changed.

The challenge of a shrinking formal technical employment market means that a new story needs to be written regarding notions of development.[1] Jobs are a central concern for those in developing countries, where obtaining decent work and employment is slowly becoming more and more elusive. Since the industrial model and the expansion of the formal economy is less likely to be the panacea promised by some economists, the reality has to be understood and taken on board.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the TVET sector, as traditionally crafted, has ceased to be the handmaiden of an economy, when the very notion of economy has changed over time. In emerging economies, the lack of a vibrant and expansive formal economy means that if the sector is still to be responsive to national development prerogatives, it has to take on board the new reality and change accordingly.  As a recent report on African TVET pointed out, ‘…at least three out of four jobs are created by the self-employed and micro/small business entrepreneurs, who are the principal drivers of the local, national, and sub-regional economy’.[2] The reality of this “new” development and its absence in global discourse suggests that a new story has to be written and taken on board in the emerging world.

In both emerging and high income contexts, the danger of not crafting a responsive TVET agenda for a new era has the capacity of undermining its core purpose and leads to disconnect.  Current purposes must respond to the objective conditions of inclusive economic and social development that many of those in the emerging economies face. This means that the sector has to respond more effectively to the national development discourse; whether it is infrastructural development, developing small business; entrepreneurship development or enabling targeted national resources. Ensuring that the sector supports the advancement of achieving ‘sustainable livelihoods’ for all in support of the drive for inclusive development has to be a key feature of its overall thrust.

Closing thoughts

Understanding that the purposes to which TVET has subscribed over the past few decades and how that reality has changed is an important way of beginning the process of renewal. TVET needs to respond to the economic and social development trajectory in individual countries. Perhaps the notion of TVSD, which incorporates all of the varied forms of skills development and argues for widening the basis for skills development outside of the formal (traditional) structure, is an important start to this renewal. There is clearly a need for re-thinking the purposes of the mid-level skills development sector as it responds to various sectors not traditionally responded to.

Yes, we could be deceived into thinking that vocational education is ‘detritus’ of that bygone industrial era and if understood in that way, there will be a strong case for consigning it to the rubbish heap of history. But this misses the point about its new mission, vision and purpose. As a sector that engages the various skills and challenges that face societies, it can serve as our saviour for the beginning of a brand new era of inclusive development. TVSD should enable and enhance the meaningful participation of those that other education and training forms are unwilling, or perhaps unable, to respond.  As Thomas Piketty insightfully reminds us, ‘It is obvious that lack of adequate investment in training can exclude entire social groups from the benefits of economic growth’ (Piketty, 2014). Thus the ‘diffusion of knowledge and investment in training and skills’ needs to take centre stage if we are to resolve the key contradictions that we are all aware of. If we are to respond to the reality of a world where rampant inequality, poverty and unemployment is likely to be considerably exacerbated by the lack of skills, there is a need for ensuring that all our education and training entities are appropriately directed to respond to the  real issues of national development. Skills have to be the solution, rather than the basis for the societal inequality that we know needs to be resolved at every level.

Salim Akoojee is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He currently lives in Hong Kong. Email:


Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (T. b. Goldhammer, Ed.) Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London (Engliand): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

The World Bank. (2012). World Development Report, 2013: Jobs. Washington: The World Bank/ International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

UNESCO. (2012). Current Issues and Trends in Technical and Vocational Education and Training: A UNESCO Report. Paris: UNESCO

[1] In his regard, it might be particularly useful to challenge existing notion of development that the World Development Report (2012) espouses when it points out that, ‘Economies grow as people get better at what they do, as they move from farms to firms, and as more productive jobs are created and less productive ones disappear’ (p.2). The notion of ‘less productive jobs’ needs perhaps to be redefined as  notions of innovation are cast in terms that advance more capital investment and technology and fewer jobs.

[2] The ICQN/TVSD 2014 Ministerial Conference, “Providing Africa’s Youth with Skills and Training for Jobs”, Abidjan, 21, 22 and 23 July 2014, Golf  Hotel / Riviéra, Summary Conclusions on the ICQN/TVSD Country Reports.

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The Post-2015 EFA Agenda: UNESCO and the New Global Education Network

By Maren Elfert, University of British Columbia.

CaptureThe run-up to the next round of Education for All (EFA) and development goals lends itself to a reflection about the political-economic underpinnings of the discussion about the future of EFA. The report of the high-level panel of eminent persons on the post-2015 development agenda emphasizes the role of the private sector. The document points out that “the massive investments that will be needed for infrastructure in developing countries [will require] …new ways of using aid and other public funds to mobilise private capital” (p. 3). It further stresses the role of “private philanthropists” and the importance of business “as an essential partner that can drive economic growth”, because “large firms have the money and expertise to build the infrastructure that will allow all people to connect to the modern economy” (p. 11). Also “social impact investors” are mentioned, whose “efforts can be sustainable over time”, “because they make money” (p. 11).

The Global Education First initiative (GEFI) launched by the UN’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012 as a five-year campaign “for the final push” towards the achievement of the second Millennium Development Goal, universal primary education, strongly builds on partnership with business and makes an effort to get the corporate sector on board by using a discourse it can understand, such as “education develops human capital required to create a skilled workforce, improve productivity and drive business growth” (p. 8).

UNESCO’s post-2015 position paper

In sharp contrast to the above discourse, the position paper on the post-2015 agenda put forward by UNESCO’s Executive Board at its 194th session touts the state as the “custodian of education as a public good” (p. 2). It is worth quoting the entire paragraph, which appears under “guiding principle”, sub-item “fundamental principles”:

Education is a public good. The state is the custodian of education as a public good. At the same time, the role of civil society, communities, parents and other stakeholders is crucial in the provision of quality education.

The word “private” does not appear in the list of the “other stakeholders”, neither does it appear elsewhere in the document. After review by the EFA Steering Committee and the Task Force for the post-2015 Education agenda, the above paragraph remains untouched in the revised document (p. 3), but the term “private” appears in a footnote (p. 7) and in a list of “a broad coalition of partners for education beyond 2015” towards the end of the document (p. 10). Both – the total absence of the term “private” in the Executive Board draft, and the rather marginal mention of the private sector in the revised document – are remarkable given that the role of the private sector in education is gaining ground in the debates on the post-2015 EFA agenda.

How is this position paper compatible with UNESCO’s alliances with the private sector, such as its partnerships with Nokia and the Business Backs Education campaign, which was launched in March 2014 at the Global Education and Skills Forum held in Dubai? This event assembled a strange mix of philanthropic foundations, businesses, international organizations and high-level former politicians and proponents of the “Third Way” such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. One item on the agenda in Dubai were “social innovation” projects such as social impact bonds, which are about to replace the traditional charity model. They allow governments to retreat from their social responsibilities, save money and leave it to businesses to set the agendas of what is considered “social innovation”.

The basic concept of a social impact bond is that a service provider, usually an NGO, will raise money from private investors in order to fund a social program. The private investors will be reimbursed by government if they can prove that the program has been effective. The problem with this model is obvious: it puts even more emphasis than we already have on measurable results, at the detriment of long-term sustainable programs.

What does UNESCO stand for?

This contradiction between UNESCO’s partnerships with the private sector and the post-EFA position paper points to larger problems. First, it is increasingly difficult to tell what UNESCO stands for. On the one hand, there are staff members such as those who drafted UNESCO’s post-2015 education position paper who are committed to UNESCO’s humanistic approach to education which is laid down in UNESCO’s constitution. On the other hand, UNESCO pursues “strategic partnerships”  with private corporations in order to secure its survival at a time when it has to keep house with a budget reduced by the lack of United States’ membership dues. Another reason for UNESCO’s engagement with the private sector is the increasing difficulty to find aid money for basic education, which is one of UNESCO’s priority program areas. In a recent speech, UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova deplored an annual $26 billion underfunding of basic education (p. 5).

Although UNESCO’s interest in these new partnerships is understandable given the situation of the organization, these alliances are not as unproblematic as they are often presented. An organization such as UNESCO and a private corporation represent two very different paradigms. While the goal of a business is to maximize profits and therefore to appropriate material wealth to the exclusion of others, UNESCO’s mandate in education is based on principles of equality, sharing and participation. While for businesses education is a commodity, for UNESCO it is a human right. There is not much that these disparate ontologies have to say to each other.[1]

Who shapes the global education agenda today?

Second, and more importantly − who shapes the global education agenda today? This is increasingly difficult to tell given the surge of “unauthorised actors” (Swyngedouw, 2014, p. 127, referring to Ulrich Beck) in the field. UNESCO’s constitutional partners are governments and NGOs. Relationships with the private sector are briefly mentioned in UNESCO’s constitution and are only foreseen if those institutions “pursue goals that are in conformity with UNESCO’s ideals” and “are entirely non-profit-making”. UNESCO aligns itself with new networks or “heterarchies” (Ball, 2012), including businesses, but doesn’t seem to have internalized this change in position.

UNESCO changes because its traditional partners change. Governments are reconfigured as one source of authority among many in a new global education network. UNESCO, with its rights-based approach, serves as “conscience” and gives legitimization to corporate actors. In turn, UNESCO’s identity will be affected, and the organization needs to get prepared for this. Ultimately, the new private actors in “global governance” may undermine even further the role of international organizations such as UNESCO.

Other References

Ball, S. (2012).  Global Education Inc. New policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Swyngedouw, E. (2014). Where is the political? Insurgent mobilisations and the incipient “return of the political”. Space and Polity. 18(2), 122-136. An earlier version of this paper is available here.

Maren Elfert is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include UNESCO’s education work, in particular the concept of education as a human right. E-mail:

> See also Maren Elfert’s earlier NORRAG Blog post on ‘The Post-2015 EFA Agenda: The Role of UNESCO’

[1] This paper has benefitted from a conversation I had with Alexandra Draxler.

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