Higher education aid project’s £3.3 million ‘largely squandered’

Academics raise concerns over the priorities of international development agencies

February 28, 2018
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Priorities: aid agencies’ focus on the ‘global knowledge economy’ overlooked countries’ pressing problems

Questions have been raised about the value of international organisations providing aid for developing countries’ higher education systems, after the veterans of one project warned that much of its $4.6 million (£3.3 million) budget had been squandered.

Leang Un, who formerly worked for Cambodia’s education ministry on a five-year World Bank project that offered research grants to universities in the country, complained that aid agencies’ focus on the “global knowledge economy” and science disciplines was “reshaping higher education in places like Cambodia into engines of economic production” and “exacerbating inequalities”.

“What gets left behind are issues like education, social science, and humanities research seeking to meet pressing problems we face as a country and as humans,” Dr Leang, now director of the graduate programme in education at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, told Times Higher Education.

Dr Leang has outlined his concerns about the project in a paper co-authored with Jeremy Rappleye, an associate professor in Kyoto University’s graduate school of education, who worked for two years as a World Bank consultant on the Cambodian scheme.

The initiative offered research grants of up to $200,000 to universities to support improvements to education and efforts to address development issues.

However, the paper, published in Comparative Education, highlights that the scheme received low numbers of applications and that many of them asked for funding for development projects, such as building new fishponds, rather than research. A key problem was that several universities did not have a single PhD holder on their faculty.

“Few [universities] had any idea what research meant, let alone how to construct multi-year research projects with large amounts of funds,” the paper says.

Another major problem was the World Bank’s procurement guidelines, says the paper, which cite the example of an agricultural project that received a $166,000 grant. The researcher required “a large amount of cow dung” to carry out the research, but bank procurement rules stated that funding was contingent on collecting receipts for the cost of the manure, which local farmers do not issue.

The researcher eventually gave up on purchasing the manure and planted without it, meaning that, when the study’s authors visited the test plots, they found “only a few sickly looking plants”.

The study suggests that the $4.58 million grant could have been spent on funding “young, promising Cambodian researchers at leading universities…to complete their PhD studies” or on creating “a national forum for Cambodian leading researchers to think about their own priorities for higher education reform, rather than flying in Bank consultants to set these priorities for them”.

Dr Leang told THE: “Today we have many very talented young Cambodians with PhDs and long-term dedication to tackle Cambodian problems, but they are blocked from this by Western-led development agencies who, because their agendas are tied to their money, shape policy. When will Cambodians have a say in the future of Cambodia?”

A World Bank spokesman said the organisation was committed to helping countries reach the United Nations sustainable development goal which calls for access to quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030.

He said that the organisation’s independent evaluation group, which reports directly to the executive board, “evaluates the development effectiveness of the World Bank Group to help the group deliver better services and results by generating lessons from past experience to shareholders and stakeholders at large”.


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