Turning a drop into a ripple

September 15, 2000

Will the shift in British third world aid to 'in-country' training be a more effective strategy? asks Sheila Vaughan

It has taken Britain about 40 years to realise that training aid for developing countries is best channelled to "in-country" activities rather than bringing their aspiring professionals to study over here. In that time, sub-Saharan Africa has ceased to exude the promise of post-independence prosperity and slid into poverty.

It is almost as if training provision for the privileged and mostly already educated sector of the third world has gone hand in hand with the poverty and famine of their fellow countrymen.

Skills for Development, the new Department for International Development aid programme, aims to refocus investment on: building priority skills, especially vocational, agreed with partner countries; extending existing links with British further education institutions; and "innovative and knowledge-building projects" that develop portfolios of approaches to skills development and provide "models for skills development".

It still sounds very western-driven, but then Pounds million of tax-payers' money will be made available. However, there is a risk that all it might do is radically alter the pattern of global movements so that instead of the representatives of the poor travelling to the western expert, the "experts" travel there.

What is to stop western experts continuing to promulgate the "best practice" models or ways of thinking that have been at the root of most of the lack of progress? These models are often inappropriate, not simply on the grounds of geographical orientation, but also in their total disregard for individual organisational identity and reality. Even if developing country experts substitute for western experts, the so-called expertise will still be external solutions to local and internal problems.

There is a common, but erroneous, belief that development will only result from, at worst, sanctions, or, at best, well-meaning intervention, that is, something that someone has to do to someone else. The idea that local market traders will not progress unless helped to become better entrepreneurs is a prime example.

In terms of the eradication of poverty, skills imparted to students from developing countries via higher education programmes in the United Kingdom have always had questionable relevance to their country of origin. It is the formal qualification that is most valued rather than following up on the implementation of what they learn. Those who acquire higher qualifications become "marketable". If you are marketable, you get jobs. If you get jobs, you get paid. If you get paid, you eat. In developing countries, those who have education have the power to obtain scarce economic wealth. The sharing of that wealth is not part of the educational remit. So we have gross inequalities of wealth-sharing and, it seems, educational opportunity.

The question is, why is this so? This leads to a debate not just on development but on poverty. Professionals and the largely uneducated and rural masses in developing countries may have a different view of what constitutes economic advantage. This is not to dispute that literacy and numeracy are life skills and should be available to all. But are westerners right in advocating that developing countries follow our, sadly, rather selfish and competitive behaviour, or should the provision of in-country training aid provide an opportunity for them to think and behave in a different way that suits local intentions and needs?

The Skills for Development initiative provides an opportunity for such development of thinking and, especially, learning skills that starts with an honest exchange of intention and a keen awareness of where we want to go - and on whose terms.

When very poor people in rural areas of developing countries are invited to map, model, appraise and evaluate their own development, they are more than up to the task. Our assumption that they have to be told how and what to do is unfounded.

The international development goal is to halve the proportion of people in extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015. The World Bank claims that "only with inclusive growth - only with the right combination of policies and interventions... can we stay on track to reach the target".

The phrase "policies and interventions" and the obsession with targets strike a note of dread. How can we reduce the energy-sapping dependency it implies? If we want to help and share the responsibility for eradicating hunger, we all need to become better, self-organised individual and collaborative learners: farmers, teachers, foresters, mothers, nurses, village seamstresses, consultants, professors and so on. If a farmer wants to farm better, then help him to learn about learning to farm so that when he wants to build a house well he will have learning skills to support his endeavours.

The Department for Education and Employment produced a research brief last year titled From Thinking Skills to Thinking Classrooms. It raised hopes, but, sadly, inspection, punishment and reward rule in our schools, colleges and universities. This is a system discarded long ago by world-class organisations, and suggests that our education masters need themselves to learn about learning.

If the DFID seriously wants to concentrate on vocational skills, it cannot ignore this issue. Skills for Development has to ask itself - what skill, what development and for whom? Will it be more of the same, or will they seize the challenge to invite new and better ways of building capabilities to significantly raise the quality of life for all?

Sheila Vaughan is short course programme director at the Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester. She writes in a personal capacity.

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