International Review of Education

, Volume 62, Issue 1, pp 101–111

International education is a broken field: Can ubuntu education bring solutions?

Research Note


Ubuntu is an African philosophy of human kindness; applying it in the Global South would fundamentally alter the design of the education sector. This essay argues, however, that the field of international educational development is not, in fact, structured to support an education influenced by ubuntu ideals. Specifically, the educational development milieu includes donors, implementers and academicians who do not sufficiently question the power dynamics which underpin education development. This creates a field where the power imbalances between donors and host governments are not interrogated, where development workers place too much faith in their own knowledge rather than that of local education experts, and where development practitioners rarely appreciate the privilege of working in countries which are not their own. An ubuntu education would alter the educational development field in myriad critical ways, a few of which are suggested in this essay. Educational development programmes in universities and intake programmes for implementers and donors should teach officers humility, appreciating existing local talent and expertise. Donor programmes should incentivise reflective practice which formally embeds appreciation for local culture and expertise, thereby supporting structures which help educational development experts to review their metacognitive processes. The field should also dramatically increase the numbers of local, minority and female educational development practitioners and provide more avenues for advancement for those groups. These are activities which are critical to supporting the education development field, but require a fundamental change of attitude by practitioners to ensure the right kind of relationships between the West and the Global South.


Ubuntu Development Donors Education Education development 


L’enseignement international, un domaine dysfonctionnel : l’éducation ubuntu peut-elle apporter des solutions ? – Ubuntu est une philosophie humaniste africaine, et son application à l’ensemble de l’hémisphère Sud modifierait profondément la conception du secteur éducatif. L’auteur de cet article avance cependant que le domaine du développement international de l’éducation n’est en fait pas structuré pour favoriser une éducation influencée par les idéaux ubuntu. Plus exactement, le milieu du développement éducatif compte des donateurs, agents d’exécution et universitaires qui ne remettent pas suffisamment en question les structures de la dynamique du pouvoir à la base du développement éducatif. Cette situation crée un univers où les inégalités de pouvoir entre donateurs et gouvernements bénéficiaires ne sont pas remises en cause, où les agents du développement ont trop confiance dans leurs propres connaissances et pas assez dans celles des spécialistes locaux en éducation, et où les praticiens du développement apprécient rarement le privilège de travailler dans un pays qui n’est pas le leur. Une éducation ubuntu modifierait le domaine du développement éducatif d’innombrables manières, dont quelques-unes sont proposées dans cet article. Les programmes de développement éducatif des universités et les programmes d’initiation pour exécutants et donateurs devraient enseigner aux agents l’humilité et leur apprendre à apprécier l’expertise et les talents locaux existants. Les programmes des donateurs devraient stimuler une pratique réflexive qui intègre officiellement l’appréciation de la culture et de l’expertise locales, tout en favorisant les structures qui aident les experts en développement éducatif à examiner leurs processus métacognitifs. Le domaine devrait en outre augmenter en masse le nombre de praticiens locaux, minoritaires et féminins du développement éducatif, et multiplier les possibilités de perfectionnement pour ces groupes. Toutes ces initiatives sont décisives pour promouvoir le domaine du développement éducatif mais exigent un changement radical de comportement chez les praticiens, pour établir des relations saines entre l’Occident et l’hémisphère Sud.

You find yourself walking toward the Minister’s office, in your new suit, recently pressed on the hotel’s rickety ironing board. You are preparing yourself to share the results of your research study, ready with your two “asks”. But at this point, your strongest emotion must be humility.

You recall the harsh response your colleague received during the last visit to the Minister – but the humility does not stem from the fear of a repeat performance. Instead, it comes from a visceral understanding of what a privilege it is to be granted this meeting at all. The only reason you have secured this appointment is because your research was funded by a bilateral donor and the Minister is hoping that the donor will consider funding a new pet innovation. You recognise that you don’t deserve to be there; by contrast, the lifelong civil servant walking you down the hallway to the Minister’s office has never had the chance to meet one-on-one with the Minister and share results of research – even though this person has much deeper experience than you do, with years at various levels in the system, and a clear understanding of what is needed to improve education quality.

Walking down the hallway towards the Minister’s office is where humility should overwhelm you. At the same time, you realise you must do your best to share the ideas about the education system that will most help the poor and disaffected of that country. You will call on your years of research in history, political science and development to better understand that country. You, unlike your classmates in graduate school, realise that understanding the historical and sociological background of that country is as important as understanding the p-value1 of your research question. You know that as an outsider, it is critical to show that you loved the country enough to study it, so that the ever-important recommendations section of your research report would be filled with realistic, country-specific, regionally appropriate suggestions. You are humble enough to know that your Master’s degree or PhD is not enough. Even more essential than those credentials are knowing the language, understanding the culture, knowing the educational history, and deciphering the differences between the bilateral and multilateral players. You are humbled by the evidence that your contribution technically matters. You know that instead of complaining about your hotel transfer or your lumpy bed, you should focus your time and energy on doing the very best job you can for these busy, tired, underpaid and cynical (for good reason) civil servants.

This scene has a discouraging backdrop: Education development is broken. Donors want nothing to do with recurrent costs, and teacher salaries (the ultimate recurrent cost) constitute more than 90 per cent of many education budgets. Donor funding does fill a gap, since there is limited space for innovation in systems where Ministries’ nonsalary expenditures are focused on maintaining a modest management structure to provide at least minimal support to schools and teachers. Securing these donor-funded projects or direct budgetary support initiatives is, then, an avenue for a creative and thoughtful Education Minister or policy maker to try new things and embed them in the system.

Despite the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (OECD 2005), aimed at improving the quality of aid and its impact on development, however, such innovations occur far too often around products and ideas important to the donor and not to the education leaders in the Ministry. Crafty national leaders, then, find ways to mould the programmes to fit both the donor’s requirements and their system’s needs. The more cynical ones (again, for good reason) design them to support the allowance needs of their civil servant colleagues – but that’s a side note.

The job of development workers, then, is to align themselves in this curious place between the donor or non-governmental organisation (NGO) they work for and the crafty national leader, in order to serve both. And for many of us, that requires deeper understanding of both perspectives, more work, and harder effort than we are currently giving. We have been too lazy. It is a privilege to be an education development professional, someone whose salary is measured by “level of effort”. But if our level of effort could be truly measured, I wonder what its worth would be? How much do we really help? The only reason we are sent to the field is to add value, so if our effort is halfway effective or our prior knowledge is modest, then what’s our contribution?

Ubuntu, a South African term2 which can be loosely translated to mean “human kindness” in English, is a philosophy which captures “the substance of collective ethos” (CIES 2015, Call for papers). If we as educational development professionals believe in ubuntu education, we should work harder, work longer, and work better, due to the privilege we enjoy and the needs we can help meet.

As if the brokenness itself were not enough, education development has been broken for a long time. William Easterly (2013) showed that the development exercise is not wholly altruistic. There are reasons and rationales for the policies which donors encourage, and a history behind them which we have to understand. For the West, that history includes the use of education to “create” the ideal colonised people. Although the colonised saw through the guise and used their benign education for revolution, the purpose of the proffered education was in no small part to make them British, or Belgian, or definitely French.

We have to know that those previous educational development activities aimed to create specific attitudes. Our predecessors walked these same Ministry hallways arguing that, to respond to the structural adjustment programmes’ (SAPs’)3 requirements for austerity, and because of the limited returns of secondary education, user fees should be part of the system. When such fees were introduced, this immediately and continually disadvantaged the poor, the almost poor, and the minority. And then our Global Monitoring Reports and sector assessments recounted the disadvantages of those groups, wondering why.

Western influence’s seesaw went deeper than financial management of educational systems. We educational professionals have provided countries contradictory advice on whole language and then phonics; active learning and then direct instruction; group work, experiential learning, and then “the basics”; criticism of African Socialism with its agricultural education, and then the promotion of farming at schools; vocational tracks and then academic learning for all; an imported examination structure and now problem-solving; public investment in education and then charters and private solutions for education quality. These contradictory ideas came from the same types of people, representing the same organisations, just in different eras.

Worse, we have pushed this advice on countries years, even decades, after those same strategies fell out of vogue in the sending countries. Active learning, for example, remained a significant part of educational programming of various donors in sub-Saharan Africa even though those same ideas had long since fallen out of favour at home. Will the current emphasis on basic skills in primary school be derided in years to come as short-sighted, when African economies need creative thinking and an expansion of the secondary-educated middle class?

An ubuntu education would be self-critical, investigating itself to see where its ideas were outdated or where it was serving the purposes of the sending West and not the poor in the Global South.

The lofty promises made by the education sector in the Global South are perilous. Communities believe that education is the route to stable employment, that education structures are designed to provide access to languages of power, and that education levels the playing field for the poor. Results, however, are contrary to that promise: Pupils who have been in school for years have limited learning outcomes, results are inequitable across background categories, and illiteracy awaits many graduates. It is astonishing that faith in education remains robust in the face of facts and data, and research has shown that the returns for the individual are sometimes less than families had expected.

An ubuntu education would emphasise the shared contributions of all actors. While other articles in this special issue focus on how ubuntu education could be realised in the Global South, my interest is in understanding how the development sector could be improved primarily by revising the attitudes and philosophical perspectives of the educationists themselves.

Use your metacognitive skills to test yourself, and be honest: When you read the opening lines of this essay about the person walking down the hall to see the Minister, in your mind, what was their age, skin colour and sex? Far too frequently, graduate development education courses are producing Westerners who work for NGOs and donors, and primarily men. On the other hand, whom did you see as the civil servant? Far too often the Africans and Asians and Latin Americans who work for governments are the underappreciated civil servants. Far too often the ones with the power and the decision-making ability in the donor organisations, who can push their agenda, are male Westerners whose backgrounds don’t match the countries in which they work.

When we think of why Africa was underdeveloped, as per Walter Rodney (1972), it’s in part because development workers didn’t identify with the beneficiaries – those on whom development was “done”. Development which is “done to” people will never work. They must not only design and implement programmes, but also be the architects of their own country’s solutions. We need to increase the percentage of people doing development work who are from the countries where development is happening.

One of my proudest moments in graduate school was working with the university to create a scholarship programme for one African student. But who was advocating for that scholarship programme? Five Western graduate students. Even those kinds of imbalances further exacerbate the numeric differences. Fixing such ratios is not the only solution, but it is an important one, since many of those from developing countries who overcome the challenges and lead complex development programmes are from a social milieu which does not reflect the people they are working tirelessly to support. In other words, we need to have policies to encourage those whom development is being done to, to provide intellectual leadership in how that development is structured and who owns it. Leadership from a bright Ethiopian is probably better than from a Clevelander (like me), but not if that Ethiopian is more comfortable in Washington, DC, than in Bahir Dar.

While I am no expert on the world’s faith communities’ views of poverty, I have been told that most large-scale religions reject the philosophy that God accepts inequity as a core part of the human condition. Among the Abrahamic faiths, zakat, or charitable giving, is one of the five obligatory pillars of Islam; its purpose is to reduce hardship and income inequality. In Judaism, the terms mitzvah and tzedakah encompass concepts of divinely commanded moral deeds, justice and charity. Jesus’s statement in three of the Christian gospels4 that “the poor you will always have with you” unfortunately is sometimes interpreted to mean that one need not actively fight poverty, since it will be impervious to our efforts anyway. That is weak hermeneutics and does not consider the enormity of Biblical passages which are focused on either giving specific support to the poor or admonishing the rich to better help the poor. In the Christian Bible, Acts 2 and Acts 4, as well as passages in the New Testament which are expanded expositions on how the early church was to operate, offer many examples of how wealth could be shared across small communities of faith.

Education could and should be a tool to address injustice and lessen inequity. An ubuntu education would find a role for all, using our unique skills and comparative advantages to support the entire exercise of educational transformation. Ubuntu education’s raison d’être would be to ameliorate the disadvantages which emanate from colonialism, neo-colonialism and the kleptocracy to ensure high-quality education for the poor in the Global South.

As education development professionals, every moment we get to spend in a country which is not our own is a privilege. The privilege is granted not because of our intellectual skills or hard work, but because of the kindness of the receiving country and the soft power of the donor community. We should not expect those with whom we work in these countries to adulate in our presence. We should appreciate the talent and skill which is already there, we should bring our very best from our training and ourselves, and we should appreciate the joy which comes from humility in the invitation to work in these beautifully challenging countries. That does not mean we accept injustice or inequity with a blind eye, but that we recognise that our “power” comes from who we represent and we never pretend it is because of any intrinsic skill or aptitude.

When something is broken, we have two choices. Option 1 is to sound the clarion call about its brokenness, to push, as William Easterly (2013) and Dambisa Moyo (2009) did, for the cessation of donor funding entirely, and particularly in the politically sensitive, and often paternalistic, education sector. Option 2 is to recognise the brokenness but to wager that since the entire structure is not ready to radically solve its brokenness, one has more power within the system than astride it. Option 2 adherents must recognise that our engagement within the broken system takes the form of working as effectively as we can so that as much responsibility as possible can come to us. As Option 2 adherents, we will never tire of ensuring that funds and other resources go to those who are most in need, but in a way which maximises their dignity and ensures that we know, and they do too, that the change is in their hands. Success as an Option 2 adherent requires that the need for development professionals lessens over time, and that local knowledge and skills are expanded. In other words, Option 2 is not very comfortable for our own job prospects, since we have to be willing to switch over to Option 1 (the nuclear option) immediately if we realise that the inherent sickness of development is not being cured. Engaging in Option 2 means that Option 1 is always a threat.

I suppose my view is that any development professional who is not aware that development is broken is either lying to him/herself or is so unaware of the reality in these countries that they could not be successful and useful anyway. Therefore, any skilled development professional faces the internal but dangerous struggle between Options 1 and 2. Since both options mean that the role of the professional should be lessened, it is often easier to ignore reality and just focus on the deliverable due to the client. Once that happens, we become professionals most focused on our career prospects and monetary well-being and not on the work of resolving the fundamental and inherent tension between Options 1 and 2. Ask yourself now, how close are you to giving up, realising that you are doing more harm than good? If you have not almost given up several times during the past 12 months, you are lying to yourself.

The necessity of understanding culture is not just based on equality and moral issues, nor is the purpose that we can feel better about our work as development professionals. Understanding the culture we work in is essential to the quality of the programmes being implemented. There are obvious reasons why this matters: Maybe the languages we are supporting are significantly different in orthography or script from the ones we have long known, or grouping particular regions together for training doesn’t make sense for ethnic or language reasons even if it does for geographic ones.

But the history of development – so painstakingly explained in Easterly’s (2013) work – shows that ignoring culture and community is the basic reason why many development programmes have failed. The pattern is obvious and repeated and consistent, yet the field disregards the zero per cent success rate of programmes which discount culture in a way which should baffle the researchers amongst us. People should develop their own education systems; it is as simple as that. Our role is to provide the context and the structure for them to consider something new, but the local communities and governments do the work: They lead, they direct, they change.

Ubuntu education refers to unity, to togetherness, to the contributions of the collective to all children’s learning. By contrast, the global educational development field has done little to critique its own existence, let alone its modus operandi. An ubuntu education which received adequate contributions from the educational development establishment would require dramatic changes in how we, the educational development establishment, operate.

In the context of ubuntu education, which requires everyone to contribute to moving towards unity, I hazard the following suggestions targeted at the graduate student in international education, the professor of international and comparative education, and the donor or specialist in the field.

Teach humility

It is incumbent upon the professors of international and comparative education to teach humility. We seem to have done a reasonable job of preparing new educators for the technical work of undertaking studies, training teachers and writing reports (although the “reasonable” rating may be a bit generous). But either we have not tried to teach humility, or our students are painfully hard-headed. In any case, it is our responsibility to better prepare professionals for the reality that they are entering complex political-economic environments and that they must combat their enormous privilege which stems from their graduate school ranking, their race, their gender, and the finances and power they represent. All of that baggage trumps their inherent knowledge or skill. Our appropriate attitude is one of deference to education leaders in these countries who have created functional structures in the face of understaffing and limited interest. To these people, our half-baked ideas which we wrote about as graduate students are meaningless. Our starting point must be an understanding of the felt needs of the countries in which we are privileged to work. The history of colonialism, and the decades of interactions between the West and the Global South which have advantaged the interests of the West, must not be forgotten. We need to train our educationists to undergo an internal metacognitive process which evaluates their behaviour against the history of development, so that they still make mistakes, but at least not the obvious mistake of neo-colonial interactions in the educational space.

The onus is on the university, of course, but NGOs and donors should also do a significantly better job of unveiling the privilege which underpins our interactions. We do not question ourselves enough; we do not examine our motives deeply. For implementers, while our interest in winning the next project might align with the interest of the country we are working in or for, it does not always. And for donors, while the external pressure to spend and to disburse will not relent, it could be combated by the pressure to be humble in a sovereign land. Contrary to how we behave, we do not know what is best for these countries, and we must, must remember, that even in international education (an altruistic field), and even in the recent past, we have pushed for policies and strategies which we no longer believe are correct (remember the SAPs, reduction in secondary education, and overdependence on active learning). So introducing humility to our interactions would help ensure we are less neo-colonial, and could also help us create better programmes in the first place.

Metacognition for development

Incentives in our field focus on winning projects (for implementers), disbursing money (for donors), and using donor funds for allowances for civil servants (country governments). None of these expected outcomes fit well within an ubuntu education framework. The mismatch between the incentives which exist for each cadre of professional on the one hand, and the ultimate goal of improved and equitable educational outcomes for the poor of the Global South on the other, means that without the incentives changing, ubuntu education will be a fleeting dream.

I am not optimistic that, in the short term, the entire structure of the educational development field in the Global South will transition meaningfully. But I do think we can begin a process whereby we require metacognition for development for each group. I think that courses can begin to teach the truisms on the development interaction which this essay has talked about, and that donors can begin requiring programmes to share how demographic transitions are happening within field teams, and how local ownership is being meaningfully created. I am confident that if the incentives were in place for implementers to report on how their interactions with donors were full of humility, things could change. The idea of appreciation for the culture, for the society and for the professionals in the civil service could be developed within a deliverables template. Given that educational development is broken, and in ways we are very aware of, I believe that we could create a “metacognition for development” perspective which requires all professionals across the field to review their own actions even as they are taking place, so that we learn from our mistakes and create structures which require us to interact in a modestly ubuntu manner.

Depend on local expertise

One large-scale international organisation recently transitioned a key part of its staff out of the Global South so that it could draw more heavily on Westerners to design and implement its programmes. There were a variety of excellent reasons for this transition, and the logic was unassailable. The history of development, however, suggests that this was a fatal mistake. The requirement for a local perspective has nothing to do with ensuring official acquiescence to your programme. The local perspective is required because, as an outsider, your natural point of view is wrong, and no matter how long one lives in a country and learns the language and culture, one will still misunderstand contextual clues and interpret situations incorrectly. Local leadership is necessary because interventions which are led only nominally from the country will be only nominally implemented. “Ownership” is not a mantra; it is fundamental to success. Without both trusted and empowered local expertise, we will fail, and without plans in place for that local expertise to outlast and surpass the international expertise, we will fail.

History is unkind to those who ignore local knowledge, and the history of development is unanimous: Large-scale educational change is very unlikely in any case, and without local leadership it is impossible. This fact is not under debate, so those of us who ignore it are playing a foolhardy game with an inevitable outcome. Let’s make our mistakes, but at least let them be original ones: Local expertise, management and ideas are basic to success; and our instruction, mentorship and funding must reflect this reality. This seems to be increasingly important as many donors are riding the pendulum towards project support rather than direct budgetary support. Regardless of where the pendulum has swung this year or this decade, local leadership and management is either obviously fundamental, or fundamental without our being aware of it. We must embed this principle in our programming (for donors), our preparation (for universities), and our mentorship (for donors and implementers). In ubuntu education, the local must lead.

Change the demographics

Educational development professionals’ demographics do not reflect the demographics of the people whose education we are working to improve. This is something which should change in an educational system which reflects ubuntu ideals. Huge disparities exist across the characteristics of gender, age, race and educational background. While many international and comparative education programmes have strategies for increasing the number of students who are female, and young, and non-Western, these programmes are actually exacerbating the problem year after year, since few have found a way to have the pace of “minorities” attending their programmes outpace that of Westerners. For donors, while education officers from the Global South are hired within the countries where they are housed, the directors or advisors who make the major decisions still tend to be very different ethnically and socioeconomically from those whom they are supporting. Even in the case of the World Bank, which has done better than some others at having its decision-makers’ country and ethnicity reflect the ethnicity of the countries in which the World Bank works, there remains a yawning mismatch between the elites who meet the World Bank’s educational and training requirements and the communities they are expected to represent. For donors, thinking about how local education officers can transition from junior officers to director or advisor level would be a potential strategy for addressing this demographic problem.

Implementers actually could have the easiest time solving this problem, as they are the ones receiving ten times as many applicants as they have job openings. Considerations for diversity and having internship programmes to identify talented potential staff who do not have the same level of credentials are important, but many are uncomfortable with diversity programmes of any type. Some argue that Harvard College has more legacy students (whose social capital and family connections overcome their educational failures) than affirmative action students, and it seems to me that social capital and the impact it has on recommendations and suggestions for consultancies on full-time employment matter even more than educational background. Practically, what does this mean? If you have personal relationships with someone who knows an educational professional in our field, you have advantages in opportunities, and given the demographic characteristics of educational experts in the field now, this means that advantages (affirmative action in another sense) are given every day, but primarily to white Western males. Getting hired in an international education organisation without knowing someone is nearly impossible, but given the demographics of those in the organisations, does that social capital dependence not increase our demographic mismatch? Implementers who are not actively searching for female, ethnic minority, or Global South applicants for positions or internships are going to increasingly become more white and Western. Without active intervention, the problem will progressively get worse, and those organisations which do not change will slide behind the one or two implementing organisations which do find a strategy to meaningfully recruit professionals who look more like the people in the places where we work.

I am a Westerner, and for the foreseeable future, there will be a place for Westerners in supporting educational development in the Global South. But we can do better in ensuring that my role (and the role of others like me) is appropriate, that I am aware of my privilege, and that I never forget that supporting the educational development of children in a country which is not my own is an honour. I look forward to a day when it is an expected part of pre-trip preparation for donors and implementers to read texts explaining educational development history, and trip reports and deliverables require evidence of how one created local ownership and built on the ideas of experts from that country. I am pessimistic about the state of our field, but optimistic about the people in it: We are a hopeful and well-meaning people, so these changes could better support the type of educational development which reflects ubuntu ideals.


A p-value represents a calculated probability used to test statistical hypotheses.


In Xhosa and Zulu, it’s ubuntu; there are variants of the term in other African languages.


Structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) are interventions consisting of loans provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) to countries which experienced economic crises. Often SAPs have been tied to austerity programmes which adversely affect the educational services provided to the poor.


Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7 and John 12:8.


Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht and UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.RTI InternationalNairobiKenya

Personalised recommendations