Researching the politics of development

The politics of education in developing countries

Ensuring that more children, particularly girls and those from low-income households, can access basic education counts as one of the major development success stories of the past two decades. But impressive gains in getting children into school are not matched by progress in what they learn once they get there.
Our research investigates how educational outcomes in developing countries are shaped by politics. We have conducted a comparative case-study in five countries that broadly fit with three different types of political settlement: Rwanda (dominant); Uganda and Cambodia (weak dominant); and Bangladesh and Ghana (competitive). Our focus is on the extent to which the nature of the political settlement helps explain why improving basic education quality has been so challenging for developing countries. Our focus is not so much on the causes of poor quality provision, but on understanding how the political settlement influences how (and whether) the problem of quality is conceived and addressed.

  • The provision of primary education places has doubled to trebled in the countries we have studied, but there has not been a strong level of commitment to financing quality primary education.
  • The failure to promote higher-quality education in our country cases directly reflects the dominant ideas and incentives generated by the political settlement, which both emphasise the quantity of provision in terms of access, rather than the quality of provision via improved performance.
  • The clientelistic nature of all of our political settlements results in the politicisation of policy-making in the education sector and tendencies to generate populist and incoherent policy.
  • The incentives that ruling elites have to either support and/or not challenge certain groups is critical. There are much stronger incentives for ruling elites to promote reforms to improve access rather than quality.
  • There is likely to be less room for alternative reform agendas to emerge within more dominant settlements such as Rwanda. Nonetheless there are examples of lower-level coalitions coming up with problem-solving fixes that seem to run counter to national policy in the realm of front-line implementation.
  • All of the settlements are founded on shared paradigmatic ideas, the most powerful being the elite’s longstanding commitment to and belief in the power of education to secure certain forms of modernity and citizenship. However, the nature of these ideas can undermine and run counter to a focus on improving learning outcomes and higher quality learning.
  • As the education sector is tied to the tendencies generated by the political settlement, policy responses will need to be closely attuned to what is politically feasible, rather than what might be seen as technically optimal.
  • There is a need to support moves towards building stronger coalitions of change for higher quality education at multiple levels of the education sector. An important constituency here would be capitalists/firms, particularly those with requirements for a higher skilled labour force. The best-performing schools had achieved their success through the formation of local-level coalitions capable of devising and implementing creative solutions to local problems.
  • There is a need to learn the lessons from examples of success and identify the ways and extent to which these could be transferred to other similar contexts.
  • A stronger focus on quality would require long-term investments beyond a given electoral cycle, a coalition that includes non-poor parents and capitalists, and decentralised mechanisms that help ensure localised oversight of performance.