The global architecture for aid is mostly contained within the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted by the United Nation’s member states in 2015. We’ve discussed goal 4 – the one on education – at length in previous episodes. Today we take a look at goal 17, which aims to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” What is a global partnership for sustainable development? And how does it manifest in education?
With me to discuss goal 17 is Francine Menashy, an Associate Professor in the Department of Leadership in Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her research explores global education policy, international financing of education, and private sector engagement in education.
Francine’s latest book, International Aid to Education: Power Dynamics in an Era of Partnership, provides a critical take on partnerships, arguing that power asymmetries continue to exist.
Citation: Menashy, Francine, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 186, podcast audio, February 10, 2020.https://freshedpodcast.com/francinemenashy2/
Will Brehm 2:47
Francine Menashy, welcome back to FreshEd.
Francine Menashy 2:50
Will Brehm 2:51
So, I want to start with maybe just a context question here. Can you tell me what the Sustainable Development Goal #17 is?
Francine Menashy 3:00
Sure. I am sure most of your listeners are quite aware of the SDGs, which is this huge agenda to address all sorts of economic, social, environmental challenges that are facing humanity. And in particular, most people working in the field of international education know about SDG 4, which is on quality education. But the SDG goal that I think we should be paying a bit more attention to is the last of all the goals, and that’s #17, and it’s on partnership, or as its termed “partnership for the goals.” So, this goal, and the way that it’s framed in the UN SDG declaration, actually acts as the foundation for all the rest of the goals by advocating for increased partnership in order to achieve the whole SDG agenda. So, the other 16 goals.
Will Brehm 4:04
So, basically, SDG 17 is saying that we need partnerships to achieve goal 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…all the way to goal 16. Is that?
Francine Menashy 4:12
Will Brehm 4:13
Partnerships are somehow the most important thing, or a valuable tool, to achieve these goals.
Francine Menashy 4:20
Yes. So, it is framed as this need for global solidarity between all different actors -the state, the non-state sector, the global North, the global South- nobody can achieve the SDGs on their own. We need to work together in partnership with one another. So, in many ways, the SDG agenda is considered dependent on partnership on achieving SDG 17.
Will Brehm 4:45
So, how do we even begin to understand what the idea of partnership is? I mean, I am just thinking here, there’s so many different definitions of what a partnership could be, you know. My wife and I are in a partnership, I am a partner in the structures of FreshEd, you know, I have a partnership with my university in the IoE in London. So, you know, how do we even begin to understand what a partnership even means?
Francine Menashy 5:11
Yeah, I mean, when I say the word partnership, a lot of different definitions pop into my head, too. And I am sure everyone listening has an idea of what a partner is. And it probably brings about pretty positive associations, right. But in trying to define it, it is actually a pretty ambiguous term. And this has meant that in international development and in international aid, people and organizations have taken it up and used it in all sorts of ways. So, for instance, a partnership might be defined as something really practical, like just working together to reach common aims. And in international aid, it often means coordination between actors, or collaboration, or building coalitions, but in this sense, partnerships are for practical reasons. It is very instrumentalist to achieve particular aims and more effective practices.
Will Brehm 6:15
So, that is how they are implied in the SDGs, but you know, are there other ways to think about partnerships that you know, maybe people in development aspire to?
Francine Menashy 6:24
Sure. And even in the SDGs, it goes beyond that. So, partnerships are also defined in the development arena through a more ethical or a more normative lens. So, most often, this is in reference to those on the receiving end of aid. So, local communities, beneficiaries, people in the global South, and how they need to be viewed as partners as well. Because not only would this lead to more effective development practices, but also because inclusion and participation is the right thing to do -that recipients of aid shouldn’t be excluded from the processes that directly affect them. And then finally, this term partnership is often also conflated with this notion of public-private partnership. So, many organizations and people in the development arena argue that the private sector -and you know, I will admit the private sector is huge. It is really anything non-state, but I’m speaking mainly about businesses and foundations- that they must be partners in all of this as well. And so, and even within the SDGs and SDG 17, there is a lot of discussion around public-private partnership. And so, some organizations use this term partnership interchangeably with PPPs with public-private. So, partnership is a huge, vague term that actually has multiple definitions. And over the past decade, especially, it’s become a real buzzword in international aid.
Will Brehm 7:57
Yeah. So, it seems like there is a conflation of different meanings of partnership sort of into one, which maybe is a good thing somehow, maybe it is a bad thing. What do we know about the history of this sort of partnership-based mandate in the aid and development structures that you know, such as the SDGs that we started with?
Francine Menashy 8:21
So, I would trace the real start of this partnership-based mandate to around the late 1990s. So, the 1990s were a pretty interesting time -well, I think they were an interesting time- when the international aid community was going through sort of an identity crisis. So, first of all, you have the end of the Cold War. And during the Cold War period, motivations for development aid were pretty clear cut. Rich country, capitalist governments largely saw international aid, as a way to get the support of post-colonial countries while also promoting democracy and capitalism. So, this was essentially buying allies in the Cold War. But then, with the end of the Cold War, capitalist countries no longer needed to build these strategic alliances or any kind of strategic advantage through aid. Secondly, the development practices and the policies of these capitalist economies, and also multilateral agencies, were very market-based. I mean, some would argue that they’re still very market-based, but then they were largely promoting structural adjustment, which, and especially in education, came under intense scrutiny by the mid-90s when critics really came down hard on structural adjustment programs, they’re widely considered ineffective, they hadn’t spurred substantial economic growth, and they had severe impact on social services, exacerbating all sorts of inequities. And so, by the mid-90s, public perception of aid was that it simply didn’t work. It actually sometimes did harm. And this led to really tempered public support and reduced aid budgets overall, it was a really pessimistic mood. So, this combination of this vacuum in purpose left by the end of the Cold War, and then all this rising criticism of the ethical impacts of all these market-based development policies, it left the aid world in kind of a crisis state, and they were in search of a remedy. And so, a new framing of international aid was needed, that would provide a clear purpose and lend a new legitimacy to aid. And this new framing, or this new narrative, became this notion of partnership. And it was actually an explicit decision that was made by members of the OECD DAC to change the narrative. They wrote a report on this new agenda and development cooperation, and it was also codified in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, which was adopted in 2005. So, partnership became the new aid narrative.
Will Brehm 11:10
So, there’s these very clear actors who wanted to, as you said, rewrite the narrative on aid in this sort of post-Cold War moment, or not even post-Cold War, I should say, sort of post-Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War, we have to think about how does aid fit into development around the world. And so, you know, what did -these particular actors that were trying to rewrite the narrative- what did they see the purposes of partnerships as being?
Francine Menashy 11:42
Well, they thought it would be a narrative that could be sold really well to all of those who’ve been critiquing the aid environment over the course of the 80s and the 90s. So, I mean, although this partnership narrative was taken up as a mandate, because new actors agreed that collaboration and coordination, and that sort of thing was needed, the real value of partnership as a development mandate, I think, really rested on this idea of North-South partnership. So, the critiques of development aid that I was just talking about, at that point, were really focused on structural adjustment and on this unethical, top-down nature of aid, and how donors and multilateral organizations from the global North just drove development policies and practices. It was a near completely non-participatory environment. And this was seen as wrong and unethical. But partnership meant that power asymmetries between actors and organizations in the global North and the global South could be reversed, in a sense with recipient countries now considered partners, who not only participated in the design of development programs, but owned them. So, this concept of “country ownership” became core to so many aid policies. So, through North-South partnership, with more country ownership, with more local participation, there would be a change in power relations.
Will Brehm 13:15
It just makes me think, so this is the 1990s, it is like 30 years on from then, how did it go? You know, did the power imbalances change?
Francine Menashy 13:24
So, the partnerships that I have studied and also, I mean, I make this assessment based on all of the, you know, research that I’ve read from other fields, from development studies, from those who have studied partnerships in health and in the environment and in other areas, as they’re currently designed, it appears that partnerships don’t really shift power asymmetries. In fact, sometimes partnerships exacerbate inequities. And this is because although the narrative changed the structure of international aid, the systems, or the architecture of aid, and by that I mean, the system, and the relationships, and the mechanics through which decisions are made on aid and how it’s delivered, and the people and the organizations who really drive the policies and the processes have remained the same. Those in power are still those from the global North. And those who I mean, to put it really bluntly, those who have money, those who have resources.
Will Brehm 14:30
Right. So, the discourse perhaps has changed, but the underlying power structures have not.
Francine Menashy 14:36
Yeah. And even the organizations have changed, and the activities they engage in have changed. But the structure of international aid has really fundamentally remained the same.
Will Brehm 14:50
So, let’s look at a couple examples to sort of explore what that actually means, where things have stayed the same even if some superficial changes have taken place. So, one of the big actors in development today is the Global Partnership for Education. It literally has partnership in its name. Can you tell us a little bit about, we call it, the GPE? What is the GPE? And how does it sort of operationalize the idea of partnerships?
Francine Menashy 15:21
Yeah, I mean, first of all, I wouldn’t call these changes so much “superficial” because I mean, the partnership mandate actually spurred the design of a new form of organization. And that’s pretty big. And they are called multi-stakeholder partnerships, or MSPs. And I should first explain that these multi-stakeholder partnerships are everywhere. They are not just in education, they’re in development more generally in all different sectors, and they’re these organizational manifestations of this partnership narrative. So, multi-stakeholder partnerships, they tackle single-issue areas like health or the environment or, as in the case of GPE, education. And they bring together stakeholders from the state and the non-state sectors from the global North and the global South into single decision-making forums where they can collaborate and coordinate policies on development funding, they pool aid. And GPE is a multi-stakeholder partnership dedicated to increasing quality education worldwide, and they support low-income countries. And GPE was initially launched in 2002 by the World Bank, and it was called the Education for All Fast Track Initiative. But it’s since been rebranded into GPE. It’s been GPE for quite some time, and it operationalizes this idea of partnerships through both its country operations and its governance. So, its governing body is rhetorically defined as an equal partnership. It is a constituency-based board. It consists of voting members that represent donor countries or bilateral aid agencies, recipient countries, multilateral agencies, civil society, from the North and the South, private sector foundations, and includes over 70 developing country partners -that’s what GPE terms them DCPs- that receive resources via this GPE Fund, which is this pooled fund, and it’s financed predominantly by high-income, Northern donor country partners or bilateral donors. And its first guiding principle in its charter is country ownership. So, it is an organization, it really attempting to embody this idea of recipient countries on equal footing with those in the global North.
Will Brehm 17:57
And has it lived up to such a value?
Francine Menashy 17:59
In my research -and this includes many interviews with stakeholders and analysis of many different kinds of documents- I studied GPE’s history of reforms, its governance dynamics, its country-level processes and I found that despite real efforts, like real explicit efforts, GPE tends to retain a power dynamic that’s akin to that of this traditional aid architecture in which actors who are situated in the global North wield the most influence and have the most dominant voices in decision making. So, just as an example, the World Bank, which initiated GPE back when it was the Fast Track Initiative, it acts as its host, the GPE offices are within World Bank headquarters, and it is GPE’s most common grant agent, which means it distributes funds at the country level. And according to many of my interview respondents, the World Bank is viewed as having just an outsized level of influence on the partnership. As well, representatives of high-income donor governments were widely viewed as having the most dominant voice and influence within GPE governance based on my interviews, and it’s no coincidence that they’re the ones that are financing GPE. So, in this case, resources, or money, equals influence in many ways. I also found that those who speak dominant languages, mainly English and French, also had more influence, which naturally exclude so many representatives from many countries in the global South. And I also saw that country-level operations, despite engaging local education groups and local actors, were, in fact, very donor and multilateral dominated as well. But I do want to add that GPE as an organization, its members, its Secretariat; they’ve made huge strides and numerous explicit efforts to ensure that its developing country partners have more voice and have more influence. They’ve started having these pre-board meetings for Southern constituencies; the Secretariat gives them a lot of support to engage. So, these are more recent efforts that I’m hopeful will make some difference, but at the time of my research, these North-South power asymmetries were pretty stark.
Will Brehm 20:38
It’s quite interesting, I mean, because you can, you know, design a whole organization to sort of embrace that 1990s idea of partnership and, you know, have constituencies on the board and have DCPs trying to be represented and try and have a bit more equality between the North and the South, so to speak and yet, you’re saying, we still see sort of power imbalances reemerging along very familiar lines -language, money, particular institutions that are powerful globally and have been for quite some time. And it just makes me wonder, you know, even if we had the best design structure, are we always going to be running into some of these larger problems? Like in other words, is it actually a function of the nation-state being sort of problematic and therefore having power imbalances among and between nations, and so creating structures that are multi-stakeholder partnerships where the nation-state is, you know, one of the main actors, that these problems that you’ve identified are sort of always going to emerge out of it?
Francine Menashy 22:01
That’s a great question. It is entirely possible, but my only hesitation with thinking that that’s at the root of the problem is because these multi-stakeholder partnerships are also highly inclusive of private sector actors and non-state-based actors, civil society actors. And what I also observed is that those power dynamics, the issue is not with the nation-states so much, the issue is with the global North and having money and being from high-income countries. That is where I see this issue hinging. Less so about the issue of the nation-state.
Will Brehm 22:48
Right. So, it could be more about, in a sense, global capitalism, and you know, big multinational organizations or companies finding new ways to extract profit. And for whatever reason, they’re deciding to get into these multi-stakeholder partnerships; they still have their bottom line as being the driving force.
Francine Menashy 23:09
Absolutely. Yeah. And that would be most notable when we are discussing the private sector. But I think this has much more to do with the capitalist and unequal -as a result of being capitalist- unequal economic structure of the world economy. It’s less about the nation-states and more about economic structures, in my view.
Will Brehm 23:37
Yeah. Right. It’s interesting because then it just makes me think, you know, how can you then create any organization and structure in, you know, these sort of idealistic, ethical, sort of you know, want to change power imbalances but if you don’t actually address some of these deeply unequal economic structures, we’re going to basically replicate the same power imbalances that we originally were trying to solve. I mean, it’s a bit, I don’t know, depressing.
Francine Menashy 24:07
It is! I mean, the economic system and our structures are so fundamentally flawed and so destined to rely on these power imbalances in some ways. It is depressing, but I’m hopeful for change.
Will Brehm 24:25
I mean, that is interesting as well. That the power imbalances are actually a needed feature in the system. And, you know, therefore, it’s almost impossible to overcome them. But I want to turn to maybe not as big of an organization as GPE, but a slightly different type of organization that also is thinking about partnerships in new ways. And I want to talk through that. And this is the organization called Education Cannot Wait or it is a fund, I think, and you sort of detail this in your book as well. Can you just give us an idea of, you know, what is Education Cannot Wait, and how does it sort of understand and operationalize the idea of partnerships?
Francine Menashy 25:09
Sure. So, Education Cannot Wait is a partnership with a mandate to fund education in emergency contexts, which are contexts that have been historically underfunded. And it’s fairly widely agreed now that the traditional aid mechanisms have not been adequate to address education in sudden emergencies and in contexts of fragility. So, Education Cannot Wait was envisioned as a faster, a more agile, a less bureaucratic organization that can respond rapidly to support education in contexts of crisis. So, it was largely spearheaded by Gordon Brown, who’s the UN Special Envoy for global education. ECW is governed by what’s called a high-level steering group, but it’s actually very much like the GPE board. It’s also constituency-based, and it operationalizes this idea of partnership, and in a similar way to GPE, through its decision-making process. It has governments of conflict-affected countries represented in this high-level steering group; it has representatives from the state and the non-state sector. And it also promotes in its policy discourse, and its organizational rhetoric, this idea of national ownership. And it promotes what it calls a localization agenda. And this means the participation of local communities, affected communities in its governance and in its country-level processes. And it’s only been around since 2016.
Will Brehm 26:57
Do you think it is, you know, living up to this idea of partnership by creating, you know, less Northern driven aid, more local participation, changing power imbalances, you know, how do you read what ECW has been doing for the last three or four years?
Francine Menashy 27:16
So, based on my research, including interviews that I’ve conducted, quite interestingly, because I conducted the ECW research after the GPE research, but many of the critiques of GPE were really paralleled in my findings. So, just as the World Bank hosts GPE, UNICEF hosts Education Cannot Wait. And respondents in interviews repeatedly identified UNICEF as holding an outside influence and being a real central player. As well, in its governing body, high-level actors and organizations from the global North hold the most vocal positions, while beneficiaries, including local governments, and communities that are affected by crisis -refugee communities, for instance- have participated in only a fairly limited way. And in its country level work, I was told that organizations and actors from the global North -including not only donors and multilateral agencies, but also international nongovernmental organizations, so the big global NGOs- really control the Education Cannot Wait fund implementation process, with very little input from local actors. So, I should add, though, as I mentioned, ECW is a very young partnership. It’s only been around for a few years, and all the people who I spoke, I was going to say most of the people, but all the people that I spoke with, recognize this as a problem, and they want to make changes. But as it stands, there are still these clear North-South power asymmetries with ECW.
Will Brehm 28:56
It’s interesting. So, I mean, this is sort of like organizational studies in a way, right? How do you have an organization where everyone potentially inside sees that this is a problem, and they want to make change, but then still cannot make change? Right? How is the organization somehow larger, and has a life of its own, that’s preventing all of these individuals who share the same idea from enacting the change they want to see?
Francine Menashy 29:21
You know, that’s such an interesting point, because I’ve actually been in search for a name for this phenomenon of an individual recognizing the problem and individuals within an organization, all of them recognizing that this is an issue, and not so much even the inability or the incapacity to change it but it’s almost as though the institution itself won’t permit the change. And so I’d be really curious if any of your listeners have a name for it in organizational theory perhaps, for this phenomenon, because I find it so fascinating, because I can safely say that I interviewed so many people from within these organizations that partner with them and believe in them and recognize this as a fundamental problem and yet, these power asymmetries continue.
Will Brehm 30:24
And, are private actors involved in ECW, like they are in the GPE?
Francine Menashy 30:29
They are. They’re involved in both of these multi-stakeholder partnerships. And by this, again, I am speaking mainly about companies and foundations, and in Education Cannot Wait rhetoric, they’re really strongly embraced. So, the Global Business Coalition for Education, for instance, has been involved, since the start. Actually, a core impetus behind the establishment of Education Cannot Wait was to engage the private sector and leverage private actors as what’s termed non-traditional funders to education in emergencies. So, they’ve been invited into the Education Cannot Wait fund and partnership largely because of their resources. In my analysis of the discourse around Education Cannot Wait, private actors are framed in a very aspirational and positive way. A lot of language around efficiency, technical expertise, having huge resources, advocacy power, they’re a new form of financing. So, it’s all very exciting, creativity, innovation. And I should add that a very similar discourse comes out of GPE, too. And this discourse, I think, drives perceptions of private actors as legitimate partners. And it leads to their authority in decision making spaces. So, private actors, including both foundations and companies, sit on the governing bodies and the decision-making spaces of both Education Cannot Wait and the Global Partnership, but what I actually found is that the private sector hasn’t made much of a financial commitment to either of these partnerships. But they have this key powerful role in governance. So, they have what’s termed, and this is a term I do know, “private authority,” which refers to the growing role of non-state based actors, most notably those affiliated with businesses in public policymaking spaces such as education. And I’d say that this role of private actors also perpetuates; it comes back to this North-South power hierarchy because the vast majority of private partners are situated in the global North, or headquartered in the global North, be it in California or New York, or London, or in other high-income countries and they’re primarily involved from my understanding because they have resources.
Will Brehm 33:09
But yet they’re not giving the resources is what you’re saying.
Francine Menashy 33:12
Will Brehm 33:13
Right. So, GPE is inviting them in, or ECW is inviting them in, giving them a spot on the board because they have resources and then the private actors in return don’t actually -they’re not contributing to the common pool of funds.
Francine Menashy 33:25
That’s right. Or to a very small degree. And the reason that I was giving and asking directly to these private actors, to foundations, to company representatives, was they don’t feel comfortable putting their funds into a pool of money where they can’t track it. They can’t follow the money; they can’t track their investments, which I mean, I guess it’s a fair statement to make. They want to know where their money is going and whether or not it’s having an impact, and that’s not something that’s possible when it’s pooled with other funds.
Will Brehm 34:02
So, I wonder why do they then even accept the board seat?
Francine Menashy 34:06
Well, I think they want to have a voice and have some type of power in decision making. They want to have an ear to the ground on what’s happening. It’s a question that I don’t really have a firm answer to. And I should say my answer was kind of skeptical because they also say because they care. Because they care about humanitarianism, they care about education in emergency context, they care about education in development, and they want to be there because they believe they have the expertise, they believe they have the technical know-how, that they can really give something to these partnerships above and beyond resources.
Will Brehm 34:52
It’s a very fascinating ethnographic insight into some of these boards that are made up of such different stakeholders and trying to understand why they might participate in such an endeavor. So, you know, in the end here, we have a situation where we have, you know, new aid architecture forming since the 1990s around the idea of partnerships and yet, you know, in the end, we’re still seeing a lot of these power imbalances continue, even though we have some new aid architecture. In your research, did you find any sort of examples or things that you can point to, to say, that’s a particular strategy that seems like it would be valuable to explore, to create a bit more power equality?
Francine Menashy 35:40
Yeah. I mean, despite all of these critiques of partnerships, I believe, and this is based on not just my own thinking but also the views of many of these interview respondents that I spoke with that multi-stakeholder partnerships are a move in the right direction, and they do have potential to shift power imbalances. But it’s a real challenge -what they’re up against. One way, I think, to make this shift happen is to be very intentional about eliciting active participation of stakeholders from the global South. And what I found is that partnerships have a tendency to elicit what I describe as symbolic participation, which is when actors are included physically in a space, and they’re touted by an organization as partners based on their seats at the table, but they wield very little influence, and they’re positioned as the least dominant voices in decision-making. So, one of the respondents in the study told me, and I always remember this quote, “the whole starting point needs to be different.” The starting point needs to be with the recipients of aid. The starting point can’t be with a bilateral donor, a multilateral organization; it can’t be with UNICEF or the World Bank. It can’t be with a company in Silicon Valley. It has to be with those who are receiving the aid. They’re the ones that need to get the ball rolling, make the decisions. And also, this idea of active participation, especially at the country levels, requires trust in local partners. Yet this trust appears to be quite rare. It requires that Northern actors relinquish control over development processes. And I found that bilateral donors, in particular, seemed very resistant to relinquishing control. But if I had that opportunity, I would be more explicit about the fact that power relates so strongly to privilege. And there is a lot of conversation around this notion of privilege, especially in the United States, where I work around, you know, white privilege and male privilege and the need to recognize it. So, I’d say that actors from the global North, who engage in these partnerships, they need to recognize their own economic, social, and more often than not racial privilege. It’s not discussed nearly enough, I think, in comparative education. But these hierarchies we’re talking about, they’re near always racialized. But more important than just recognizing privilege, it’s being willing to give that privilege up. To either use less of your own voice, to keep quiet, to defer to others, or to possibly step down and off of these policy bodies to make space for representatives from local communities or recipient countries. So, I think that would make real structural change and begin the process of shifting these power dynamics in international aid.
Will Brehm 39:01
Well, Francine Menashy, thank you so much for joining FreshEd again. It really was a pleasure of talking.
Francine Menashy 39:06