Let’s take basic education in my country, Tanzania. The ministry of Education employs hundreds of experts, many with degrees; and staff members are constantly away on courses, seminars, and exchanges with other experts seeking to further boost their capacity.
For decades, this cadre has received help from a large group of development experts. These experts and their consultants from academia have advised on everything from education financing and governance reform to teacher training and child-friendly schools. Increasingly, many NGOs have joined the fray, doing research and advocacy, serving on task forces, and contributing papers and inputs at the table of policy dialogue.
And what do we have to show for it? Education is priority number one in Tanzania, taking up about a 50 of public revenue and donor money. The education budget has also grown: in absolute terms it is more than three times what it was a decade ago. Primary school enrolment is close to universal, and secondary school enrolment is expanding fast. Thousands of classrooms have been built and teachers trained.
The country’s leaders and their donor partners have wasted no opportunity to tout this success. Last year, at a colorful ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, Tanzania was presented with a special Millennium Development Goals award for its achievements in education.
But millions of children are not learning. According to the large-scale and independent Uwezo Survey, 7 out of every 10 children in Grade 3 cannot read Swahili at their level, 8 out of 10 cannot do math and 9 out of 10 cannot read English. Even after seven years, when they have completed primary schooling, half the children cannot read Grade 2-level English.
Yet many of these children go into secondary schools where classes are taught in English. No surprise then that in 2010, only 1 out of every 10 students graduated from tenth grade with a decent passing grade in the national examinations. A new study shows that some of the teachers in fact perform worse than their students, spending on average less than 2 hours a day in the classroom.
It is difficult to see education in Tanzania (or Kenya, Uganda, and many other countries) as anything other than a massive failure. One could marshal similar evidence for health and water and infrastructure. So, after 50-odd years of advice and studies and reforms and programmes, why have the experts not managed to deliver a system where children are learning?
The facts that services are not working well are widely publicised. However, most experts are fuzzier about what it will take to turn things around, and even less equipped to help make change happen.
Second, experts emphasize the formal approaches in which they have been trained, when in fact things actually work quite differently. It doesn’t help that the education and socialization that experts go through have a distancing effect, leaving them with little appreciation for the circumstances, politics and practical constraints faced by ordinary people.
Third, experts tend to be driven by institutional incentives that give priority to certain output—log-frames, reports, formal and clear governance structures, rules—the production of which can easily displace outputs that may be of greater benefit to the people. Shaking up this status quo is difficult, because experts tend to form a sort of self-reinforcing priesthood that is difficult for outsiders to penetrate. The sum effect of this is that experts often lacking the very expertise they need to make things happen.
The good news is that it’s not as if people are waiting for answers to fall from the heavens—or from the experts; everyday, in many communities, people are thinking, crafting solutions, acting to move on and up. The problem is that all too often development reforms and projects are irrelevant to these local efforts, and at times even undermine them.
So, what if instead of thinking of bringing in experts to fill in gaps in a community’s or a country’s capability, we identified how people are already analyzing problems and getting things done?
This approach need not romanticize what ordinary people can do or actually do, but rather make their everyday, pragmatic knowhow—and know-do—a starting point for development. The purpose of development then would not be to create and apply expert solutions, but rather to help enrich the conditions in which people can do more of what they already do well–by making it easier to get, compare, and share information; learn from each other and from outsiders how they have made things work; search, experiment with, and craft solutions; and team up to get things done.
In this scenario, expertise is distributed and contingent, rather than anointed and appointed. It is local and rooted, and connected and cosmopolitan, with anointed experts brought in only as needed.
The writer is the head of Twaweza, a ten-year initiative to promote citizen agency and improved service delivery in East Africa.