Speed bumps slow change to education-aid delivery

12 November 2010

Authoritarian governance, endemic social inequality and colonial legacies have stymied on-the-ground change to the way Australia's overseas educational aid is delivered, research by the Faculty of Education and Social Work has shown.

ARC research associate Dr Elizabeth Cassity said interviews she had conducted in Indonesia, Vanuatu, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, and the Philippines had led her to conclude that Australia's decision to focus on contributing to coordinated national programs rather than funding individual projects had encountered major practical barriers.

Dr Cassity was researching the implementation of the preference of the Australian Government – stated in 2007 – for funding partner countries' "sector-wide approaches" to spending overseas aid rather than focusing on discrete projects. "Sector-wide approaches" are centrally planned policy-and-expenditure programs (usually in the sectors of health or education) that are led by the recipient country and funded collectively by donor agencies. Dr Cassity said a key finding of her trip was that there was no sector-wide approach in any country she visited.

"The idea of introducing a coordinated approach that increases efficiency by bringing local NGOs and governmental authorities together is a good one, but when you're dealing with multiple NGOs and local government authorities, it can be quite a complex task," she said.

Dr Cassity said the factors delaying sector-wide approaches had been unique to each country.

"Vanuatu has taken the most significant steps toward a sector-wide approach in education, but Vanuatu's experience with colonisation, its linguistic and cultural diversity, and the remoteness of much of its rural population present complexities for policymaking. So far, only AUSaid and New Zealand Aid are attempting to align their systems with the government," she said.

"In Lao PDR, AusAID continues to work as a partner in project-based approaches and is increasing policy dialogue as a key actor in the education-sector development framework, which was formed in 2008 with the World Bank, other agencies and the government of Lao PDR. But progress with the Lao government is likely to be slow because of a political context that includes lack of transparency and authoritarian rule, minimal political reform, and international commitments concerning human rights that are contrary to the government's priorities."

Dr Cassity said in Indonesia – which receives, in dollar terms, the most AusAID education support of the nations studied – the donor community and the Indonesian government appear to lack consensus on developing a sector-wide approach, and donors appear to be stuck in a cycle of feasibility studies.

Lastly, in the Philippines, no sector-wide approach has been articulated, although AusAID is involved in policy dialogue with government through the Philippine Education Department's Basic Education Sector Reform Agenda and the Philippine Development Forum.

Dr Cassity said lack of political will, a discontinuity in education leadership, and an inability to capitalise on the gains made by education innovations had undermined improvements in the Philippine education sector. As well as these factors, recent findings suggest deeply entrenched national inequalities may also be preventing the Philippines from achieving the goal of universal primary education.

Dr Cassity concluded that AusAID is indeed shifting its ways of working in the education sector but that, in practice, the method was less aligned with sector-wide approaches than it was reflected in loosely harmonised arrangements with like-minded donors and partner governments.

"From AusAID's point of view, it is meeting its objectives in negotiating the coordination of program delivery wherever funds are provided. But development of sector-wide approaches in each country – if that is what partner governments want – seems a long way off."