International Organizations and the Setting of Educational Agendas: The Case of the Arab Regional Agenda for Improving Educational Quality

By Clara Morgan, UAE University

classroomThere is growing interest among scholars in understanding the internationalization of domestic policy and the important role international organizations (IOs) play in setting educational agendas.[1] With IOs such as the World Bank, UNESCO and the OECD positioning themselves as designers of universal educational solutions, political authority in education has gradually shifted from the national to the supranational arena.  It thus becomes imperative for scholars to analyze critically how educational governance across scales is enacted regionally and domestically.  As Beech notes, IOs promote an abstract universal model of education for the information age encompassing “principles of decentralization, school autonomy, the professionalization of teachers, a curriculum based on competencies and the setting up of central evaluation systems”.[2] Through the creation of this ideal type model, IOs are in a position to construct indicators for measuring progress towards the model, defining the problems associated with attaining objectives, and providing solutions for improving educational outcomes.

Recent developments in the Arab region reflect a movement towards an ideal type educational model that is concerned with educational and teacher quality and the evaluation of educational learning outcomes based on results from international student assessments.  However, other than reports from IOs such as the World Bank analyzing the quality of education,[3] there has been little scholarly work critically exploring the effects of these regional developments. My research study, which was funded by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (2015-2016),[4] contributes to our understanding of the effects of universalizing educational policy processes by tracing the development of an Arab regional initiative that was co-funded by the World Bank. Under the auspices of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO), the Arab Regional Agenda for Improving Educational Quality (ARAIEQ) was conceived at the 2010 Arab Ministerial Colloquium on Quality of Education and the Doha Declaration on Quality Education for All.[5]

ARAIEQ was a three-year initiative that ended in 2015. Its aim was to improve the quality and relevance of education services in the region through regional collaboration while also functioning as a think-tank, a network of experts, and a resource for tools and knowledge for policy-makers. There were five programs areas under ARAIEQ including (1) educational evaluation and policy analysis; (2) teachers’ professional development; (3) early childhood development; (4) curriculum innovation and information and communication technology in education; and, (5) entrepreneurship education. Each program was hosted by an organizational entity in the Arab region.[6]

My study focused on two of these programs – the Arab Program for Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis (APEEPA) and the Arab Program on Teacher Policies and Teacher Professional Development (APTP). APEEPA’s two main activities revolved around mapping the region’s educational evaluation systems and developing the capacity to analyze results of international student assessments for evidence-based policy development. UNESCO’s regional bureau in Beirut hosted this program. APTP’s main activities included mapping teachers’ development policies in the region, conducting in depth case studies of teachers’ policies in three countries, and developing a regional teachers’ policy framework. APTP was hosted by the Queen Rania Teacher Academy in Jordan. To gain an understanding of how these initiatives are reflected nationally, I took as my case studies Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.

Based on my preliminary findings, one can say that an attempt was made to fabricate an educational quality space in the Arab region with the institutionalization and integration of data-driven practices that inform educational policy developments and reforms.[7] Practices disseminated through ARAIEQ’s policy learning processes (e.g., country reports, mapping exercises, and workshops) embodied new governance forms. Certain policy actors in the ARAIEQ network acted as “policy brokers”,[8] mediating relations across transnational, regional, national and local scales, thereby facilitating the transfer of ideas and the adoption of new ideas and practices. At the same time, my findings indicate that several factors constrained the construction of an educational quality space in the Arab region and limited the degree to which universalizing policy transfer and policy learning processes could take place.  I will elaborate on three of these factors:

  1. Lack of sustainability: Interview participants pointed out that these IO-funded initiatives have limited effects at the regional and national levels due to the lack of sustainability. In the case of ARAIEQ, participants indicated that this should have been a 10-year program that aimed at building capacity in the medium and long-term.
  1. Lack of commitment from ministry of education bureaucracies: Interview participants indicated that a regional initiative’s impact is constrained since state bureaucracies must ultimately be responsible for institutionalizing educational quality practices. Levels of commitment varied across countries. Senior officials rarely were represented at ARAIEQ activities. Most participants were technical specialists that could not influence the decision making processes in their ministries of education.
  1. Local socio-economic and political problems: Interview participants shared with me their country’s specific educational quality problems. For example, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia all have issues of inequitable access and educational opportunities. This is exacerbated when poor children are concentrated in low quality public schools while more well to do students are concentrated in private schools. All three countries also suffer from an urban-rural divide with urban public schools having a higher quality level of teachers, facilities and resources compared with rural schools. In addition, in both Lebanon and Jordan, the presence of Syrian refugees in the public school system has placed an enormous burden on public school systems.

In summary, while ARAIEQ was a laudable attempt at building knowledge capacity among the region’s countries, the policy transfer and policy learning that took place was limited to a small number of technical specialists.  In addition, universalizing educational quality solutions rarely are able to address deeper issues of socio-economic inequities and the lack of political transparency and accountability.  As an expert I interviewed put it, despite such regional initiatives, “the problems are still there, but worse”. Perhaps we require an alternative vision and paradigm to educational quality rooted in our communities with students, teachers and parents working collaboratively to achieve the vision for an equitable and just education.

Dr. Clara Morgan is Assistant Professor in Political Science at UAE University. Her research interests include the global governance of education and educational developments in the MENA region. She can be reached at clara.morgan@uaeu.ac.ae.  To learn more about this research study, please visit: edqualityMENA.org

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[1] For example, see Jones, P. (2006). Education, Poverty and the World Bank.  Rotterdam and Taipei: Sense Publishers; Meyer, H.D. and Benavot, A. (Eds.). (2013). PISA, Power, and Policy: the emergence of global educational governance. Oxford, UK: Symposium Books; Pereyra, M., Kotthoff, H.G., & Cowen, R. (Eds.). (2011). PISA Under Examination: Changing Knowledge, Changing Tests, and Changing Schools. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

[2] Beech, J. (2009). Who is strolling through the global garden? In Cowen, R., and Kazamias, A. (eds.) International Handbook of Comparative Education International agencies and educational transfer (pp. 341-357). Dordrecht: Springer.

[3] For example, see The World Bank. (2008). The Road Not Traveled. Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa. The World Bank: Washington, D.C.; The World Bank. (2013). Jobs for Shared Prosperity. Time for Action n the Middle East and North Africa. The World Bank: Washington, D.C.

[4] For more information, see the ACSS Research Grants Program 2013-2016: http://www.theacss.org/pages/rgp_cycle3

[5] For more information, see: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2010/09/21/ministerial-colloquium-quality-education-doha-declaration

[6] More information can be found on the ARAIEQ website: http://www.alecso.site/araieq/?lang=en.

[7] Ozga, J., Dahler-Larsen, P., Segerholm, C., and Simola, H. (Eds.) (2011). Fabricating quality in education: Data and governance in Europe. London: Routledge.

[8] Grek, S., Lawn, M., Lingard, B., Ozga, J., Rinne, R., Segerholm, C., and Simola, H. (2009). National policy brokering and the construction of the European Education Space in England, Sweden, Finland and Scotland. Comparative Education 45(1): 5-21.

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