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International Cooperation for Education in Developing Countries

Summary and Keywords

This article looks broadly at the intersection of education, development, and international cooperation. It discusses trends in international cooperation in education for developing countries as well as ongoing challenges. Education has expanded rapidly throughout the world. Even so, the industrialized nations are decades if not generations ahead of parts of the developing world in terms of enrollment and learning attainment. For reasons of equity and economic development alone, it is imperative that all efforts be put to the task of achieving universal school enrollment and learning. To achieve such a goal in the context of what some researchers have termed a 100-year gap requires efforts on the part of national governments and international cooperation on the part of all nations of the world. International cooperation in education includes: (1) the institutions and architecture of international organizations; (2) development assistance, which is closely related; and (3) international agreements to promote education and other development goals. In a broad sense, these initiatives can be seen as moving toward increasingly cooperative relationships between wealthier nations and developing countries. International institutions involved in education include various agencies of the United Nations (UNESCO, UNICEF, ILO, UNHCR) as well as multilateral development banks (the World Bank, IMF, IDA, etc.); regional development banks (Asian Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, etc.); and bilateral development agencies. Development assistance is provided in the form of technical and financial assistance to national governments by bilateral development agencies, the multilateral development agencies, UN agencies, as well as an increasing number of non-governmental agencies (NGOs). The UN Declaration on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child are foundational documents laying out the rights of all children to education and the obligation of governments to ensure children have access to quality education. Several global initiatives have led the way toward increasing educational participation in developing countries, including Education for All, the Millennium Development Goals, the UN Global Education First Initiative, and the Sustainable Development Goals. The article concludes with a listing of trends in educational development.

Keywords: development assistance, education and development, EFA, MDG, SDG, donor agencies, development partners

The story of global mass education is an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand kind of thing. On the one hand, 100 years ago an article by this name would have read very differently than it does today. Educational participation rates were quite low worldwide. Even in the countries with the highest enrollment rates and wealth, rates of participation in formal schooling beyond the basic education level would be shameful if viewed in the context of today’s expectations. Schooling beyond the level of basic education was for the elite. The majority of people in the majority of territories were not able to read and write. Formal schooling, as today, served the interests of those who paid, organized, and managed the institutions of schooling. However, those institutions were for the most part less accountable to the people or the world at large for serving the interests of those they educated. Now education is discussed internationally as a right to which all people are entitled. National governments are charged with responsibility to ensure access to their citizens, and most have signed agreements to do so.

One hundred years ago, international cooperation in developing countries, to the extent that it existed at all, took place largely between colonizer and colonized, or between subject and empire. Today, many argue that the power dynamics in international cooperation for development are still heavily weighted toward the former colonial powers of the West as well as newer comers such as Japan. There is substantial and serious critique of formal schooling itself as well as of the global “project” of educating all children. Still, despite the legitimacy and fundamental challenge of critique, formal schooling has assumed a fundamental place in the international development agenda.

The development landscape has changed. One hundred years ago, the vast majority of the world’s population lived at subsistence levels. The industrialized nations had achieved a good standard of living, often capitalizing on their colonial power. Other than Japan, most countries outside northern and western Europe, Anglophone North America, and parts of Latin America were quite poor. While at present there continue to be millions of poor people living below the absolute poverty line, large segments of the world’s population, formerly poor, have many of their basic needs met. A number of countries have moved to middle- and upper-income status. The world now has a substantial middle class. Life expectancy has grown almost everywhere, and there are many fewer people in absolute poverty.

On the other hand, even with increased attention to increasing participation and learning in schooling, many parts of the world will take many years—decades if not a century or more—to catch up in terms of population-level attainment and skills. Many children remain out of school. As of 2012 an estimated 896 million people still remained in absolute poverty, earning less than $1.90 per day compared with 1.95 billion people in 1990 and 1.99 billion in 1981 (World Bank, 2016). A 2015 study by Credit Suisse found that 1% of the world’s richest people own more of the world’s wealth than the remaining 99% (Credit Suisse, 2015).

Education, Development, and International Cooperation

This article looks broadly at the intersection of education, development, and international cooperation. It discusses trends in international cooperation in education for developing countries as well as ongoing challenges.

All of these key terms are problematic. “Education” is often conflated with formal schooling. And while state-supervised, credential-providing schooling has become the norm for organized attempts to educate children, education is earlier, longer, broader, and deeper than formal schooling. Critiques of formal schooling may focus on its “domesticating” function, silencing the voices and debilitating the social and political agency of those schooled (Friere, 2007), the role that schooling plays in transnational capitalism (Fuenzalida, 1985), or its linking of learning with credentialing and giving to the institution of the school, and thus the state, sole access to credentialing authority (Illich, 1971). Some critique the social reproductive nature of most schooling (Anyon, 1980; Bourdieu, 1986; Kozol, 1991). Others see schooling as a form of cultural imperialism (Carnoy, 1974) or imposition.

Even so, mass formal schooling has proven itself a reliable if not unproblematic vehicle for mass education. Though difficult to reconstruct very precisely, historical estimates suggest that global attainment rates for basic education have risen from about 18% in 1820 to about 83% in 2010 (Nagdy & Roser, 2015).

Another problematic term, “development,” suggests a systematic, linear, and known progression from a less developed to a more developed state. Until recently, educational development efforts have been led Western donor countries and agencies and international agencies, which are more or less influenced and dominated by Western modes of—notice the language—“development,” “assistance,” “cooperation,” and “aid.” The enterprise and modalities of development assistance have been critiqued by Moyo (2009), Easterly (2006), and Escobar (2011), as has its active passification of non-Western peoples (Alatas, 1977). Development draws on the epistemology of progress, ultimately perhaps a “narrative template” from the Judeo-Christian heritage. Informed by scientism, development can be understood simplistically as a process with a singular path and fixed sequence of stages. Even Margaret Mead, a 20th-century anthropologist known for her culturally relative approach to the study of other cultures, referred to Samoans as “primitive” (Mead, 1928). Yet the unique patterns of development exhibited by different countries continue to confound easy prescription. Who in 1960 would have predicted that India would become a leader in high technology? In the 1950s Korea was among the poorest countries in the world; by 2011 its per capita income had surpassed the OECD average. Even within the industrialized nations, finer-grained analysis suggests quite different paths of development. While people everywhere seek a comfortable standard of living beyond basic needs, the relative weight given to different development priorities, i.e., differing economic, social, and political aims, as well as approaches to achieving those priorities varies, even within the West.

Finally, the “nation” (aka “nation-state,” “state,” or “country”) must be seen as a social construction, located within a particular set of circumstances and period of history. Though often treated as a primary, primordial, and permanent organizing unit for the world’s population, the nation-state must increasingly be seen in the context of a range of forces and institutions with global, subnational, and cross-national impact on education and development. Challenges of the definition and boundaries of the state are evident in contemporary Europe and the Middle East, as identities, aspirations, and the movement of peoples fail to be contained by national borders.

It would be interesting to see how things look in a hundred years. Will education be truly universal? Will state-organized schooling remain as powerful, influential, and formative an institution as it is now? To what extent will education be equated with schooling, and schooling with an industrial model, a model linked to the state and the formation of citizens? To what extent will citizenship expand to a global frame of reference? Will persistent challenges to the quality of education be overcome? As schooling loses its monopoly as repository and vessel of knowledge, how will technological advances change the fundamental educational processes of the world? Will the world have mobilized to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals? What role will education play in fostering sustainability? To what extent will the nation-state be the primary organizing entity of the globe? Will extreme poverty be relegated to the past? Will ways be found to provide basic needs for all?

Spread of Schooling

Figure 1 illustrates the rise of formal schooling throughout the world. The trend toward universality is clear. Starting in the 19th century and accelerating dramatically post–World War II, increasing numbers of young people have enrolled in school at all levels.

International Cooperation for Education in Developing CountriesClick to view larger

Figure 1. Diffusion of schooling

(Source: Brookings Institution, 2015).

Despite these trends, a considerable gap remains between more and less schooled areas of the world. Winthrop and McGivney (2015) estimate that schooling in much of the developing world is 100 years behind the industrialized world, seen simply in terms of the year in which participation in basic education was made compulsory (see Figure 2). Thus, in terms of the most basic metric of enrollment or educational participation, substantial work remains to be done. As of 2012, 121 million children and youth remain out of school entirely (UNESCO, 2015b); 715 million adults are illiterate, two-thirds of whom are women. Participation in schooling is closely tied with family and national wealth. Poor children are four times less likely to enroll in school and five times less likely to finish primary school.

International Cooperation for Education in Developing CountriesClick to view larger

Figure 2. Timing of compulsory schooling in selected regions of the world

(Source: Brookings Institution (2015)).

Beyond participation, however, Hanushek and Woessmann (2008) found a major learning effect. Carrying out an influential series of analyses of panel data, they found that measures of participation in schooling were much more weakly correlated with economic growth than the cognitive skills acquired by the population, as measured by performance on large-scale international assessments. They estimate that economic growth rates, as well as income distribution, would be much more favorable if countries scoring lower on international assessments scored higher. They estimated that if Ghana were able in 15 years to equip all its children with skills equivalent to level 1 (lowest of 5 proficiency levels) on the Program in International Student Assessment (PISA), a girl (or boy) born today would see a 38-fold increase in GDP over her or his lifetime. Winthrop and McGivney (2015) cite research estimating that for developing countries to catch up to the average learning of industrial countries it will require six generations or 126 years.

Assuming that schooling is an important if not essential component of economic and social development, international cooperation is likely to be essential if these gaps are to be narrowed. Not only is it necessary to improve student participation in schooling, but student learning must improve as well if schooling is to have its intended impact.

International Cooperation in Education

We will define international cooperation in education as intentional attempts on the part of multiple nations to collaborate in improving education in low- or middle-income (or “developing”) countries. International cooperation in education includes: (1) the institutions and architecture of international organizations; (2) development assistance, which is closely related; and (3) international agreements to promote education and other development goals. In a broad sense, these initiatives can be seen as moving toward increasingly cooperative relationships between wealthier nations and developing countries.

International Organizations Promote Cooperation

The current system of international organizations including the various entities of the United Nations such as the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the International Development Association was created in the aftermath of World War II. Arguably the most idealistic of all, UNESCO was founded with the aims of promoting peace, in Archibald MacLeish’s memorable words of the UNESCO Charter: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” These organizations have worked in a variety of sectors to promote development and establish agreements as to norms and standard for the diverse nations of the world.

The international organizations most involved in education are UNESCO, UNICEF, the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO), the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the institutions of the World Bank group, and the regional development banks (e.g., the Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank).

Collective International Agreements Support Development of Education

Foundationally important documents on educational development include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990).

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(United Nations, 1948)

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) goes further, as in the following selections:

Article 28: (Right to education): All children have the right to a primary education, which should be free. Wealthy countries should help poorer countries achieve this right. . . . The Convention places a high value on education. Young people should be encouraged to reach the highest level of education of which they are capable.

Article 29 (Goals of education): Children’s education should develop each child’s personality, talents and abilities to the fullest. It should encourage children to respect others, human rights and their own and other cultures. It should also help them learn to live peacefully, protect the environment and respect other people. Children have a particular responsibility to respect the rights their parents, and education should aim to develop respect for the values and culture of their parents. . . .

Article 30 (Children of minorities/indigenous groups): Minority or indigenous children have the right to learn about and practice their own culture, language and religion. The right to practice one’s own culture, language and religion applies to everyone; the Convention here highlights this right in instances where the practices are not shared by the majority of people in the country.

Article 31 (Leisure, play and culture): Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.

Article 32 (Child labour): The government should protect children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or their education. . . . Children’s work should not jeopardize any of their other rights, including the right to education, or the right to relaxation and play.

Around the same time, in 1990, building on the success of global child immunization campaigns, UNICEF, the World Bank, and a number of other organizations working in education convened the World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien, Thailand. Representatives from 155 countries and 150 organizations set ambitious targets to universalize primary education and reduce illiteracy by the year 2000. Participating countries agreed to develop concrete action plans to achieve a range of specific targets related to participation in basic education, literacy, and gender equity. Multilateral and bilateral development agencies agreed to provide financial support. Over the 15 years of the initial plan, most countries made progress toward these goals, but by 2000 they remained substantially unrealized. A follow-up conference was held in 2000 in Dakar, where ambitious Education for All (EFA) goals were set for 2015:

Goal 1: Expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

Goal 2: Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to, and complete, free and compulsory primary education of good quality.

Goal 3: Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programs.

Goal 4: Achieving a 50% improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults.

Goal 5: Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality.

Goal 6: Improving all aspects of the quality of education and ensuring excellence of all so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy, and essential life skills. (UNESCO, 2015a)

Additionally, the Millennium Summit held in in September 2000 convened what is claimed to be the “largest gathering of world leaders in history” to adopt the UN Millennium Goals (MDGs). The MDGs set time-bound targets for 2015 aimed at addressing extreme poverty, hunger, disease, shelter, and exclusion while promoting education, gender equality, and environmental sustainability. They helped establish basic human rights—the rights of each person on the planet to health, education, shelter, and security (U.N. Millennium Project, 2015). Most relevant to education were Goals 2 and 3:

Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

Despite progress, by 2010 it was clear these goals would be impossible to fully realize. In order to accelerate progress toward the EFA goals and MDGs, the UN Secretary-General launched the Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) in 2012. GEFI aimed at rallying support for the 2015 goals, at placing education at the heart of the development agenda, and at generating funding for education. GEFI’s three priorities are to put every child in school, improve the quality of learning, and foster global citizenship.

Again, by 2015, substantial progress was made but EFA goals (and the MDG) had not been achieved. On the positive side, 84 million fewer children and adolescents were out of school than in 2000, of which 52 million were girls, reducing gender disparities in out-of-school children. Twelve million more teachers were deployed in primary and secondary schools throughout the world. Two thirds more children had enrolled in pre-primary education. As a consequence of EFA, 34 million more children were enrolled in school (UNESCO, 2015b).

At the same time, only one-third of countries have achieved all EFA goals, and only half have achieved universal primary education. Noted above, 121 million children remain out of school. Only two-thirds of countries reached gender parity in primary school, and almost half did not reach gender parity at the secondary level. Greater proportions of children and youth out of school were reported in areas affected by conflict, and major learning gaps have persisted between the most and least well-off students, within as well as between countries (UNESCO, 2015b).

A similar pattern was observed in relation to the Millennium Development Goals; progress was made but the goals were not reached. Again the decision was made to build on the progress made and redouble efforts toward their achievement. In considering how to make progress, however, development goals were reconceived, extended, and deepened. In many ways the MDGs represented a threshold, a minimum designed to eliminate the worst forms of poverty. Even though the minimum goals were not reached, it was decided to reconceive the development challenges, away from a sole focus on the problems of the poorest, toward a more holistic understanding of development.

The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have created a much more ambitious agenda, seeking to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.” The SDGs see human development in the context of the basic human needs of health, shelter, education, and the like, but include the sustainability of human activity and further development in the context of the natural environment and the challenges of peaceful coexistence among nations of human beings, among other goals. Thus the SDGs represent a much broader, more inclusive—and more challenging—set of goals. Developing countries are treated less as targets for the goals and more as partners, together with more developed nations, in taking on a global and interrelated set of development challenges. In addition, while governments retain the primary obligation to ensure young people have access to quality education, a wider range of partners is envisioned to help achieve the ambitious new goals, including government but also civil society, the private sector, and ordinary citizens. Education targets are also more inclusive and expansive (see Table 1). All girls and boys are to have access to quality pre-primary education, to free, equitable, and quality secondary as well as primary education, and to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education including university (emphasis added for new or more encompassing target areas).

Table 1. Sustainable Development Goal 4

Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning

  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal 4 effective learning outcomes

  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care, and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education

  • By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational, and tertiary education, including university

  • By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs, and entrepreneurship

  • By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and children in vulnerable situations

  • By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy

  • By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development

  • Build and upgrade education facilities that are child-, disability-, and gender-sensitive and provide safe, nonviolent, inclusive, and effective learning environments for all

  • By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing states, and African countries, for enrollment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering, and scientific programs, in developed countries and other developing countries

  • By 2030, substantially increase the supply of qualified teachers, including through international cooperation for teacher training in developing countries, especially least developed countries and small island developing states

Source: Adapted from UN Sustainable Development Goals, 2015.

Development Assistance Helps Fund and Support Educational Development

A third dimension of international cooperation in education is through bilateral and multilateral development assistance. Development assistance is traditionally provided by multilateral organizations such as the World Bank or UNDP or by donor governments through bilateral assistance, typically through the primary international development agency—for example, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for the United States, the Department for International Development (DfID) for the United Kingdom, and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for Japan. Development assistance may consist of financial assistance through grants or low-interest loans and/or through technical assistance.

Though countries have long assisted each other in educational and other development ventures, systematic cooperation in education began, arguably as an afterthought, as part of efforts to promote national reconstruction and development. After the end of World War II, the United States used the Marshall Plan to help fund the rebuilding of Europe from the devastation of the war. Not too long thereafter, provision of foreign aid was systematically extended to “developing” countries in the form of development assistance, as new nations of Africa and Asia gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Foreign aid, while serving “altruistic” purposes of humanitarian aid and development, became enmeshed in the political wrangle for influence by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Though the extent of politics varies from country to country, development assistance has always included a diplomatic component—soft power in the current vocabulary. The primary difference is arguably between long- and short-term national and diplomatic interests and between broad attempts to win friends through mutually beneficial agreements versus narrower attempts to gain acceptance of specific policies of the providing government.

Increasing numbers of countries have established donor agencies. The primary organization of such agencies or development partners is the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) established in 1961 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Initially composed of Western European and North American countries and Japan, the DAC now includes Korea (accession in 2010), as well as the Slovak Republic, Poland, and Slovenia from the former Eastern bloc (accession in 2013). China sent representatives to the 2011 meeting, and other non-DAC donor countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa also attended. In 2014 the United Arab Emirates became the first non-voting “participant” in the DAC.

In 2014, DAC countries contributed $137.2 billion in assistance to developing countries (OECD-DAC, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c). Fifteen percent of this amount went to top five recipients—Myanmar, Afghanistan, India, Viet Nam, and Indonesia; 28.3% went to “least developed countries.” Sub-Saharan Africa received the largest share, followed by South and Central Asia, Other Asia and Oceania, Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Europe. Education, Health and Population represented 19.8% of the total. For the DAC as a whole, 7.3% of total bilateral commitments went to education, 1.7% to basic education (OECD, 2015). By contrast, 11.5% was allocated to government and civil society, 8.6% to transport and communications, 6.6% to population and reproductive health, and 5.3% to health sectors. The primary sources of development assistance are shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Donor/Agency ODA Commitments to Education, All Developing Countries, Average 2010–2014, Constant 2014 US$ (Millions)


Average 2010–2014



International Development Association (IDA)




United States


EU Institutions (EU)




United Kingdom












AsDB Special Funds










African Development Fund (AfDF)


United Arab Emirates






Islamic Development Bank (IsDB)


Kuwait (KFAED)


New Zealand






IDB Special Fund












OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID)




Arab Fund (AFESD)


Source: OECD (2016a).

In terms of education, Germany is the largest donor, followed by the International Development Association of the World Bank Group, France, United States, and the European Union Institutions. Figure 3 breaks down bilateral and multilateral development assistance to education by region.

International Cooperation for Education in Developing CountriesClick to view larger

Figure 3. Breakdown of bilateral and multilateral ODA commitments to education by region

(Source: OECD, 2016c).

Education is somewhat of a latecomer to development assistance. In the early years, much of the funding went to large-scale infrastructure and agriculture. Population and health followed. Initially, education may have been seen as primarily as a consumption item rather than as an investment. The World Bank made its first education loan in 1962. As understanding of the critical importance of education for economic and social development and improvements in health and population grew, development partners began to devote more resources on education. Additionally private philanthropic organizations such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations in the United States allocated substantial resources in education for a time, typically in support of tertiary and university education. Other development partners provided substantial support to higher education as well as technical and vocational education.

With the mobilization of Education for All and the publication of a series of World Bank reports emphasizing higher returns to primary education as compared with secondary and tertiary education, much of the world’s external assistance to education in the 1990s shifted to support of basic education. With the ongoing needs for funding to support the various mobilizations discussed above, demand for funding of basic education (corresponding to compulsory education, or primary and lower secondary) has continued. At the same time, awareness has grown of the needs of the other subsectors, pre-primary education, technical/vocational education, university education, and, linking them, secondary education. Even so, the largest share of development aid to education in 2010–2014 went to higher education, as shown in Table 3.

Table 3. Distribution of Donor/Agency ODA Commitments to Education by Subsector, All Developing Countries, Average 2010–2014, Constant 2014 US$ (Millions)


Average 2010–2014

Higher education


Primary education


Education policy and administrative management


Vocational training


Education facilities and training


Secondary education


Teacher training


Advanced technical and managerial training


Basic life skills for youth and adults


Early childhood education


Educational research


Source: OECD (2016b).

As government resources have grown tighter seemingly everywhere, development partners have struggled to maintain existing commitments. Overall official overseas development assistance (ODA) remains relatively stable at about 0.30% of gross national income (OECD, 2015), which is far below international targets. There are calls for accountability of money spent and results achieved. Questions are raised about the evidence base for programming. At the same time, the higher placement of education on the development agenda and the proliferation of challenges to national governments as the sole or primary source of education have led to a wider range of actors involved in educational provision and even policy—international, local, and national NGOs; for-profit organizations, small and large; religious organizations; diasporas; and non-traditional donor countries and agencies. Demands and aspirations for educational development have grown, in number and complexity, while internal and external resources remain, at best, constant.

Trends in Development Assistance

In this changing context, it may be helpful to outline some of the developments in technical assistance that are likely to shape the picture of international cooperation in education for the next few years. Updating a recent review (Williams, Brown, & Kwan, 2014), I will suggest 13 such trends.

  1. 1. Ongoing importance of basic education. Compulsory schooling is the foundation of all subsequent learning in schools. Unless an essential foundation in basic skills is acquired, students will have difficulty taking advantage of further learning opportunities in or out of school. Achieving all “higher-order” goals in education is impossible unless the population enrolls in and completes basic education with most of the expected skills. Basic education is increasingly left to national governments to manage, but the challenges of organizing, funding, and managing a strong basic education system may keep children out of school or keep them from learning if enrolled.

  2. 2. Challenges of reaching excluded populations. Even well-resourced school systems face challenges in enrolling and teaching children whose members have been systematically excluded or marginalized. Exclusion may occur on many grounds—gender, ethnicity, language, disability, sexual orientation, etc. Exclusion may be intentional, or unintended, e.g., a function of geography or conflict. Effective school systems are particularly difficult to organize, fund, and manage under conditions of conflict. Even in the best of conditions, schools have difficulty reaching the most vulnerable and marginal populations, where out-of-school children and youth are concentrated.

  3. 3. Increased attention to the impact of conflict. There is increased awareness of conflict and its reciprocal impact on education and state fragility. According to the Global Partnership for Education, 50% of the world’s out of school children live in countries affected by conflict, despite those countries accounting for only 20% of the world’s primary school–age children (Global Partnership for Education, 2016). The multi-generational effects of conflict on children, youth, their communities and education systems are only beginning to be understood. Development work is more difficult in areas affected by conflict. Despite efforts to develop effective mechanisms for aiding countries affected by conflict, funding levels are below those of similar developing countries not in conflict and below thresholds needed to ensure access to quality education for all children. Because of the long-term effects and protracted nature of many current conflicts, multiple generations of children face the prospects of little or no education.

  4. 4. Renewed emphasis on learning. A number of school-based assessments in recent years have revealed how little some children are learning (see Early Grades Reading Assessment (EGRA), Early Grades Mathematics Assessment (EGMA), Annual Status of Education Report (ASER)). Participation in school is necessary, of course, and schooling must be of sufficient quality for children to learn, but the critical question is whether children are learning and whether they are acquiring the foundational skills necessary for further learning, i.e., sufficiently fluent literacy, foundational mathematics, etc. Increasingly it appears that packages of interventions targeted at the teacher and classroom and supported by systemic supports are necessary for learning outcomes to improve. Schooling has many goals, but learning is likely to remain a high if sometimes overlooked priority.

  5. 5. Renewed interest in pre-primary education. The research is clear that early childhood care and education is an important investment and a critical intervention for success in school and beyond. Pre-primary education is provided in diverse ways throughout the world, but it is likely to increase in visibility and importance as educators look for ways to expand availability and assure quality of early childhood education.

  6. 6. Restoration of higher education as a target for international cooperation in education. Development partner assistance to higher education languished while experts focused attention on basic education. However, with awareness of the limitations of research on returns to education and the increasing competition among nations in a globalizing knowledge economy, higher education is resuming its place on the development agenda. Mobility of labor, transfer of skills, global competitiveness, and development of a national cadre of leaders depend on a well-functioning higher education system, including universities and diverse institutions, publicly and privately offered, to meet economic and social demand.

  7. 7. Increased salience of youth, skills, and linkages between school and work. In most of the world, industrial nations as well as developing countries, youth are profoundly underemployed. Some young people have been unable to complete secondary schooling, or have done so but lack opportunities to pursue higher education. Others may lack the skills or job opportunities to earn a livelihood. Unemployed, disengaged youth are a waste of potential and a source of social instability. Engaged and employed, youth can provide an engine of economic and social development. If nothing else, the challenges of radicalization are likely to keep youth, male and female, on the development agenda, even as educators struggle to find effective and scalable solutions.

  8. 8. Emphasis on accountability and assessment. The increased demands on education systems suggested by this review in a context of flat governmental budgets have several implications. One of these is an increased emphasis on accountability—of agencies working in educational development at both disbursement and implementation levels and for achievement of desired outcomes as well as tracking of inputs and implementation of good processes. As learning is increasingly emphasized, monitoring and assessment will likely grow in importance. Assessment links easily with accountability. On the one hand, assessment and accountability are important in tracking the use and impact of public funding. But given how little is known about how to improve the quality of a system of education (Elmore, 1996), how little learning takes place in many schools (see Gove & Cvelich, 2010), how modest the documented gains in learning from education projects by leading development partners (Chapman & Quijada, 2009), and how fragile development budgets are in periods of austerity, it is worrisome to see an emphasis on assessment-accountability without a corresponding emphasis on building knowledge on how schools can improve.

  9. 9. Continued pressure to increase aid effectiveness. Accountability is likely to affect development partners as well, as they seek to put in practice the principles of aid effectiveness outlined in the Paris Declaration of 2005: ownership, alignment, harmonization, managing for results, and mutual accountability. Despite the good intentions, a follow-up meeting in Accra, Ghana, in 2008 (OECD Accra Agenda for Action) found several deficiencies in terms of (lack of) country ownership, building of more effective and inclusive partnerships, achieving development results—and openly accounting for them. Still, pressures to increase the effectiveness of aid are likely to reinforce further what has become good practice in education and development—coordination among the various development partners to support host country—developed and—led planning; sectoral approaches to educational planning; program and budgetary support as opposed to projecticized assistance; decreases in tied aid; disbursement through regular government budgets; and utilization of national information systems.

  10. 10. Increasing private provision, “partnership,” and role for NGOs. A variety of forces—administrative fatigue; neoliberal, globalizing, and “democratizing” challenges to the dominance of the state in social provision; technology; and the people’s frustration with government are likely to lead to increased reliance on private provision and partnership with for-profit or non-profit entities under partial control of government control. These trends will provide opportunities for innovation as well as for capture of public goods by particular interests. The challenges to the public sector will be to find appropriate approaches to quality assurance and maintenance of equity in the system, while allowing for innovation, private sources of funding, and shared management of schools.

  11. 11. Novel approaches to development assistance. Development assistance is traditionally a government-run enterprise, where governments of donor countries work with other governments in recipient countries and where funding derives primarily from public budgets. As public–private partnerships increase, the number and type of actors have also increased, with greater stakeholder involvement in finance, provision, and evaluation of educational initiatives. This will likely lead to several developments—innovative modes of provision of funding such as pooled funding, for example, in conflict-affected Liberia; new stakeholders in assessment as in ASER in India; new modes and modalities of education finance such as results-based financing; and new providers of basic education as in low-cost private schools in Pakistan, India, and Nepal. These trends will provide numerous challenges and opportunities to those working in education and development assistance.

  12. 12. Involvement of new partners, donor countries, agencies, and international influences. In addition to more, new, and greater stakeholder involvement in education, new development partners, donor countries and agents, and new sources of educational ideas and funding are also beginning to emerge. As noted, non-traditional donor countries such as China, South Africa, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates are increasingly involved in education. The Global Partnership for Education has emerged as a leader in funding of education initiatives in developing countries. Its board includes business, foundations, a teachers’ union, as well as governments and agencies. Think tanks played a major role in defining the post-2015 education agenda. Traditionally quiet development partners such as Korea and Japan took a leading role in defining the breadth of the SDGs. In parallel, in some areas, regional organizations have begun to play an important role in working to develop education. A prime example is the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), the education wing of the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). In line with ASEAN’s moves toward regional economic integration, SEAMEO has taken a leading role on the human resource development side, working toward harmonization of higher education in the 10 countries of South East Asia.

  13. 13. Transformation of the learning environment with technology, out of school, potentially in school. With the widespread use of small, relatively inexpensive electronic devices linked to the Internet, schools have lost their monopoly over information. More information (though not necessarily wisdom) is available to a 14-year-old with a smartphone than to the most renowned professor or researcher a generation ago. The nature of format of learning will change. Whether it will change school instruction, of course, remains to be seen.

Final Thoughts

International cooperation in education for developing countries assumes at least three forms: (1) a set of international institutions that work to organize the globe’s business, mediating the various states; (2) a series of ambitious international agreements that increasingly enfranchise more individuals and groups, heightening the role and importance of education; and (3) a growing group of organizations and stakeholders working in education in and for developing countries. Education at all levels has grown in visibility and importance on the international agenda, signified by widespread affirmation of education as a human right and implemented by national governments, international organizations, and national and international civil society, through agreements; a range of consensus-building activities; and the setting of international and national targets for educational provision, attainment and increasingly learning, and monitoring of the achievement of those targets. Much progress has been made in moving toward global targets, due in substantial part to international cooperation. Though not without controversy, the apparently universal movement toward increased participation in formal education might be understood as one of the defining characteristics of human development in the 20th and 21st centuries.

By its nature, education assumes a number of lofty goals—basic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic but also others movingly discussed in the Delors Report of 1996: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be (UNESCO, 1996). This article has touched on a few of the ways in which international cooperation in education has and is likely to play out. It would be interesting, if we had the chance, to look back in 100 years to see if the highest goals of education and human development—elimination of poverty, illiteracy, inequality, and war—were reached.


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