.
G

lobal education systems are working for some children, but failing to allow many to thrive. Even before COVID-19 threw us off-track on SDG 4, some 258 million children were out-of-school, while 53% of children in school in low- and middle-income countries were not acquiring even basic literacy and numeracy—which only represents one aspect of education. Even across higher-performing education systems early data suggests the gaps have widened over the last two and a half years.

COVID-19 has affected foundational learning, as well as widened pre-existing inequalities along country, gender, urban-rural, and citizenship status. Children facing intersecting adversities are left even further behind by the existing education systems. These deep systemic issues mean that a root and branch transformation of education is without an alternative. However, the communities the education system fails most, rarely have a voice in redefining their education requirements.

Against this background, it is important to recognize that the outcomes of a transformative education agenda largely depend on who is able to sit at the table and meaningfully participate in the discussions. Power, agency, and voice shape content and process, which in turn shape outcomes. This is also recognized by the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, which states that “The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.” Accordingly, a transformative education agenda can only be meaningful if it reflects the aspirations of the communities and societies impacted by the transformation—particularly the most marginalized among them.

Realizing Power, Agency, and New Partnerships

There is an inherent tension in offering the purpose for a transformative education agenda on the one hand and in rethinking power, agency, and voice for such a transformative education agenda. We are one voice among many. We are not representative and we acknowledge this tension. Our subsequent offer on purpose and process is thus meant to ignite participation and discussion, rather than to be prescriptive or authoritative. It is instead a set of relevant principles, questions, and tools for a process that enables meaningful participation, power, agency, and new partnerships for all.

Principles:

A three-year vertical case study on promising partnerships for Education in Emergencies has identified 5 guiding principles for rebalanced partnerships:

  • Shifting from power imbalances to self-reflection through awareness and interrogation
  • Shifting from saviorism to care, kindness, thoughtfulness and empathy
  • Shifting from a culture of monitoring and outputs to a culture of trust and respect
  • Shifting from coordination to organic communication
  • Shifting from capacity building to mutual learning

Conversations around power are inherently fraught with conflict and can leave everyone feeling judged or inadequate. It is thus necessary that when we enter into these conversations, we are able to center ourselves and reflect on our own values and ways of being. We can only do that when we slow down and take a pause. This does not mean we are moving slowly or not invested in progress. A moment of pause and reflection will help move the process much further along than if we try to rush it.

Any shift in power is a process of rebalancing. This requires that we meet each other where each one of us is at and move forward together. It also means recognizing that each one of us are at different points on our journeys and we cannot judge where someone else might be, even if their views are different from ours. It implies openness to different ways of expression-including arts.

If you are the person that is holding space for a conversation on power, you will, by default, have more power in the group. In such a context, it is very important that you have clarified for yourself and the group what the boundaries and scope of the conversation will be. Examine your own privileges and ensure that you are not only the appropriate person to hold the conversation, but also how deep you want to go with the group. It is likely that the conversation can trigger people or resurface past traumas. As such, it is very important that prior consent is established for the boundaries of the conversations so that everyone can feel safe and comfortable.

Model

Shifting power is a process. In acknowledging this, we realize the need for a model to guide interactions and decision-making processes. The model has three parts—each framed as a question. The central question on “Values” is the starting point and the anchor from which the two other questions extend. Taken together, these three questions give us a way to plan, act, and reflect on our way of working.

What are the values I am operating from?

This is an invitation to pause and reflect about the values on which we are operating. Our values guide our decision making, and by taking this step, we are acknowledging and clarifying them. Being the anchor question, we suggest returning to this question during interactions with others and reflecting on reactions and judgments. In the way we listen and react to others, in how others listen and react to us, we may recognize when we are projecting our beliefs and perceptions on others. Over time we will become more aware of our own power and privilege.

Who is here? Who is not?

The education system has a wide and diverse set of stakeholders. A critical step in shifting power is to be more aware and intentional about who is actually informing decision making. Who is present and actively being heard ‘in the room’ or ‘at the table.’ And equally important: who is absent? This step is about challenging ourselves to invite and empower a wider group—particularly those who are often marginalized—to speak from their experiences and express their needs and the challenges. We must scrutinise whose voices are being heard and whose voices are not at every step of our work. As we answer this question, we can learn more about which values and beliefs are guiding us consciously and unconsciously.

How do I listen and step aside?

As this model is a way for us to continuously practice shifting power, we expect that the ways in which we listen will change. Our aim is always to include diverse voices, build agency, and challenge ourselves to shift the balance of power. This requires us to remove all barriers to participation, take risks, be creative, allow for an iterative process, and let go of our needs for perfection and control. It is not something that will happen in a single event or at a specific point in time—rather it is an invitation to see ways we can rebalance power in our organizations, our communities, our schools etc. At every step we take as educators, organization leaders, and change makers, we need to ask ourselves: can we also step aside and give space for those with whom we wish to create change?

What can I expect from rebalancing power and partnerships?

As the study on promising partnership models for Education in Emergencies revealed “the sometimes intangible and difficult to quantify, but significant impact that personal relationships and the roles of particular pivotal individuals have on the success of Education in Emergencies partnerships.

The study focuses in particular on those partnership-based initiatives that participants considered among their most successful or promising and shows that rebalancing power for the future of education has the potential to improve success and sustainability of initiatives, as well as trust and mutual respect. This trust in turn allows for greater transparency in goals, activities, and decision-making processes.

“The success of any relationship is bound to trust and respect between the two parties. Once these two things are true, you can proceed. There shouldn’t be any patronizing like, “I am the boss; I am the leader.” (Interview with field based teacher on relationship with Education Partner in the Global North; Promising Partnership Models for Education in Emergencies, p. 108)

This mutual trust, respect, and ongoing participation appeared to counter power imbalances that might have emerged in other partnerships. (Promising Partnership Models for Education in Emergencies, p. 172)

Behaviors that appear to reduce power asymmetries include self-refection, openness to change, trust and respect for partners. Through acknowledging one’s own position of power and engaging in efforts to alter power dynamics, we argue that anyone and any organization has the potential to be a good partner. (Promising Partnership Models for Education in Emergencies, p. 173)

Yet, with all the tangible benefits of rebalancing power and partnerships in education, we should not overlook that it is not only a means to an end, but also a value by itself. It is simply the right thing to do, as outlined in the Declaration on the Right to Development.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Rebalancing Power and Partnerships in the Education Space

Photo by Kenny Eliason via Unsplash.

September 18, 2022

Global education systems are working for some children, but failing to allow many to thrive. A transformative education agenda can only be meaningful if it reflects the aspirations of the communities and societies impacted by the transformation—particularly the most marginalized among them.

G

lobal education systems are working for some children, but failing to allow many to thrive. Even before COVID-19 threw us off-track on SDG 4, some 258 million children were out-of-school, while 53% of children in school in low- and middle-income countries were not acquiring even basic literacy and numeracy—which only represents one aspect of education. Even across higher-performing education systems early data suggests the gaps have widened over the last two and a half years.

COVID-19 has affected foundational learning, as well as widened pre-existing inequalities along country, gender, urban-rural, and citizenship status. Children facing intersecting adversities are left even further behind by the existing education systems. These deep systemic issues mean that a root and branch transformation of education is without an alternative. However, the communities the education system fails most, rarely have a voice in redefining their education requirements.

Against this background, it is important to recognize that the outcomes of a transformative education agenda largely depend on who is able to sit at the table and meaningfully participate in the discussions. Power, agency, and voice shape content and process, which in turn shape outcomes. This is also recognized by the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, which states that “The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.” Accordingly, a transformative education agenda can only be meaningful if it reflects the aspirations of the communities and societies impacted by the transformation—particularly the most marginalized among them.

Realizing Power, Agency, and New Partnerships

There is an inherent tension in offering the purpose for a transformative education agenda on the one hand and in rethinking power, agency, and voice for such a transformative education agenda. We are one voice among many. We are not representative and we acknowledge this tension. Our subsequent offer on purpose and process is thus meant to ignite participation and discussion, rather than to be prescriptive or authoritative. It is instead a set of relevant principles, questions, and tools for a process that enables meaningful participation, power, agency, and new partnerships for all.

Principles:

A three-year vertical case study on promising partnerships for Education in Emergencies has identified 5 guiding principles for rebalanced partnerships:

  • Shifting from power imbalances to self-reflection through awareness and interrogation
  • Shifting from saviorism to care, kindness, thoughtfulness and empathy
  • Shifting from a culture of monitoring and outputs to a culture of trust and respect
  • Shifting from coordination to organic communication
  • Shifting from capacity building to mutual learning

Conversations around power are inherently fraught with conflict and can leave everyone feeling judged or inadequate. It is thus necessary that when we enter into these conversations, we are able to center ourselves and reflect on our own values and ways of being. We can only do that when we slow down and take a pause. This does not mean we are moving slowly or not invested in progress. A moment of pause and reflection will help move the process much further along than if we try to rush it.

Any shift in power is a process of rebalancing. This requires that we meet each other where each one of us is at and move forward together. It also means recognizing that each one of us are at different points on our journeys and we cannot judge where someone else might be, even if their views are different from ours. It implies openness to different ways of expression-including arts.

If you are the person that is holding space for a conversation on power, you will, by default, have more power in the group. In such a context, it is very important that you have clarified for yourself and the group what the boundaries and scope of the conversation will be. Examine your own privileges and ensure that you are not only the appropriate person to hold the conversation, but also how deep you want to go with the group. It is likely that the conversation can trigger people or resurface past traumas. As such, it is very important that prior consent is established for the boundaries of the conversations so that everyone can feel safe and comfortable.

Model

Shifting power is a process. In acknowledging this, we realize the need for a model to guide interactions and decision-making processes. The model has three parts—each framed as a question. The central question on “Values” is the starting point and the anchor from which the two other questions extend. Taken together, these three questions give us a way to plan, act, and reflect on our way of working.

What are the values I am operating from?

This is an invitation to pause and reflect about the values on which we are operating. Our values guide our decision making, and by taking this step, we are acknowledging and clarifying them. Being the anchor question, we suggest returning to this question during interactions with others and reflecting on reactions and judgments. In the way we listen and react to others, in how others listen and react to us, we may recognize when we are projecting our beliefs and perceptions on others. Over time we will become more aware of our own power and privilege.

Who is here? Who is not?

The education system has a wide and diverse set of stakeholders. A critical step in shifting power is to be more aware and intentional about who is actually informing decision making. Who is present and actively being heard ‘in the room’ or ‘at the table.’ And equally important: who is absent? This step is about challenging ourselves to invite and empower a wider group—particularly those who are often marginalized—to speak from their experiences and express their needs and the challenges. We must scrutinise whose voices are being heard and whose voices are not at every step of our work. As we answer this question, we can learn more about which values and beliefs are guiding us consciously and unconsciously.

How do I listen and step aside?

As this model is a way for us to continuously practice shifting power, we expect that the ways in which we listen will change. Our aim is always to include diverse voices, build agency, and challenge ourselves to shift the balance of power. This requires us to remove all barriers to participation, take risks, be creative, allow for an iterative process, and let go of our needs for perfection and control. It is not something that will happen in a single event or at a specific point in time—rather it is an invitation to see ways we can rebalance power in our organizations, our communities, our schools etc. At every step we take as educators, organization leaders, and change makers, we need to ask ourselves: can we also step aside and give space for those with whom we wish to create change?

What can I expect from rebalancing power and partnerships?

As the study on promising partnership models for Education in Emergencies revealed “the sometimes intangible and difficult to quantify, but significant impact that personal relationships and the roles of particular pivotal individuals have on the success of Education in Emergencies partnerships.

The study focuses in particular on those partnership-based initiatives that participants considered among their most successful or promising and shows that rebalancing power for the future of education has the potential to improve success and sustainability of initiatives, as well as trust and mutual respect. This trust in turn allows for greater transparency in goals, activities, and decision-making processes.

“The success of any relationship is bound to trust and respect between the two parties. Once these two things are true, you can proceed. There shouldn’t be any patronizing like, “I am the boss; I am the leader.” (Interview with field based teacher on relationship with Education Partner in the Global North; Promising Partnership Models for Education in Emergencies, p. 108)

This mutual trust, respect, and ongoing participation appeared to counter power imbalances that might have emerged in other partnerships. (Promising Partnership Models for Education in Emergencies, p. 172)

Behaviors that appear to reduce power asymmetries include self-refection, openness to change, trust and respect for partners. Through acknowledging one’s own position of power and engaging in efforts to alter power dynamics, we argue that anyone and any organization has the potential to be a good partner. (Promising Partnership Models for Education in Emergencies, p. 173)

Yet, with all the tangible benefits of rebalancing power and partnerships in education, we should not overlook that it is not only a means to an end, but also a value by itself. It is simply the right thing to do, as outlined in the Declaration on the Right to Development.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.