Harvard Educational Review
  1. International Aid to Education

    Power Dynamics in an Era of Partnership

    Francine Menashy

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2019. 141 pp. $37.95 (paper).

    Calls for greater participation of education actors in the Global South have gained traction in an effort to ameliorate power asymmetries, increase country ownership of education programming, and improve aid effectiveness. In International Aid to Education: Power Dynamics in an Era of Partnership, Francine Menashy explores discourse and practice around collaboration between the Global North and South in international aid. Through a layered examination of how power is structured in the international aid architecture, she shows that the discourse fails to reflect reality, reproducing similar inequities that have defined the field.

    The book is organized into six chapters: the first three chapters provide relevant theoretical and historical context on partnerships; the next two chapters present case studies that assess power dynamics within two prominent multistakeholder partnerships (MSPs): Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and Education Cannot Wait (ECW); and the volume ends with recommendations for how practitioners and policy makers can take steps to bridge the gap between discourse and practice. Menashy asks a provocative and important question that continues to confound students and experts grappling with the politics and ethics of international aid: “Can partnerships truly ameliorate power imbalances, or do they reproduce and exacerbate the inequities they are meant to address?” (p. 2). From the onset, she problematizes the promises of partnerships, arguing that partnerships continue to privilege actors in the Global North. She also clarifies that while she takes a “critical standpoint,” the aim of the book is to explore inequities rather than criticize individuals who work within international aid organizations. Drawing on years of rigorous, mixed-methods research, she explores persistent power imbalances in the international aid environment.

    The book focuses on one type of partnership—MSPs that bring together stakeholders from state and nonstate actors from the Global North and the Global South “into single decisionmaking forums to collaborate and coordinate policies on development funding” (p. 29). She notes that in practice another term for MSPs is transnational public-private partnerships (PPP). This is relevant, since one of the main contributions of the book is to problematize the discourse around the promises of private partnership. The public component of a PPP includes governments and civil society actors, while private actors include foundations or philanthropies and businesses. In examining power structures and discourse, Menashy both explores the practices of MSPs and questions the discourse on the increasing participation of the private sector.

    Through a mixed-methods approach that combines quantitative and qualitative methods, Menashy examines how power is woven through processes and discourse in international aid. Employing social network analysis, she explores “different forms of power and . . . power dynamics in the global education arena through the lens of partnerships” (p. 12). In chapter 3, an examination of seven partnership-based organizations in education shows how donors from the Global North “maintain a position within the network that suggests that they wield the greatest influence over both the resource flows and normative preferences of partnerships” (p. 21). The chapter offers a broad view of the international aid landscape before presenting a more detailed analysis of two prominent aid organizations. In chapters 4 and 5, Menashy applies process tracing to “understand the processes that resulted in the GPE’s and ECW’s governance structure, strategic planning, distribution of responsibilities, policymaking procedures, and implementation practices, with an overarching aim to determine influence and power dynamics” (p. 12). Combined, the two approaches illustrate the intricacies of how power is constructed and maintained through practice and discourse.

    Menashy’s theoretical framework focuses on the multiple pathways through which power is produced and sustained. To examine global education partnerships, she looks at structural power and productive power. “Structural power concerns the social positionality of actors within a structure and how this position then determines their capacities and interests” (p. 7). For example, across most international aid organizations, actors in the Global North hold important decision making positions, particularly around funding, that enable them to exercise power over actors in the Global South. Productive power is also concerned with social processes but focuses more specifically on discourse and “constructs what actors perceive as reality, which signify ideas taken for granted as permanent and normalized” (p. 9). Menashy points out how the dominance of English and other Western languages in policy circles undermines country-level participation in key decisions and enables actors in the Global North to shape the discourse. Taken together, structural and productive power are located in the Global North, where funding decisions continue to be made within institutions that privilege fluency in dominant languages.

    Through case studies of two prominent organizations in the international education sector, Menashy shows how power is produced, retained, and strengthened by actors in the Global North. Regarding the participation of private actors, Menashy shows that the benefits of private engagement have been overwhelmingly discursive, with little action to show for it. Private engagement was initially encouraged as a way to integrate unique knowledge expertise and diversify funding. While there continues to be strong support for the inclusion of the private sector, Menashy points out “the private sector has yet to embody the nontraditional funding role thus far, and according to respondents, the likelihood of eliciting many resources from private actors remains slim” (pp. 106–107).

    Beyond a scholarly analysis of power structures, Menashy exercises ways to further dismantle deficit-based constructs rooted in colonial and neocolonial discourse by paying particular attention to terminology. Developed and developing continue to be widely applied in academic and policy realms regarding international contexts. Seemingly improved compared to first world and third world, these concepts imply problematic assumptions, including the notion that there is one course of development defined by Western models that prioritize economic growth and industrialization. Menashy instead chooses to utilize Global North and Global South. Rather than a geographically fixed interpretation, Menashy advocates for a “geographically flexible, sociospatial mapping of the negative effects of capitalist accumulation” (p. 16). Her use of international aid instead of international development reflects similar considerations. While she acknowledges that the term development may not be avoided in all circumstances, the discussion around conceptual decisions is an important contribution and a pragmatic takeaway that compels students and experts in the field to reflect on the implications of the terms we use and the worldviews they construct. More importantly, this type of consideration is an important step toward questioning Western-centric frameworks and decolonizing the field.

    Convincingly illustrating the persistent and pervasive power asymmetries built into the aid architecture, Menashy ends the book by discussing three potential areas where individuals and organizations can work to foster genuine partnerships between the Global North and the Global South. First, she recommends that a network approach be applied within an organization to uncover “the reality of relationships and power dynamics in their organizations and partnerships” (p. 113). Second, she advocates for active participation of southern partners “at all stages—in the design of a partnership, in its governance body, in its administrative hosting relationship, and at the country level in aid distribution, implementation, and policy design” (p. 114). In contrast to symbolic participation, full, active participation takes both time and trust in local partners. Last, Menashy urges readers to question the discourse around the benefits of private-actor participation. She argues that private actors wish to gain a seat at the table, while private actors “appear to be largely concerned with advancing profit oriented agendas and join in partnerships to solidify relationships with actors who have the capacity to implement their initiatives” (p. 116). Through a compelling analysis of power inequities and some ideas for how to correct them, she lays solid groundwork on which scholars and practitioners can continue to build.

    Menashy notes that the book is written for scholars and practitioners in the fields of international education, development, and humanitarianism. As a doctoral student focusing on international education, I appreciate that the book presents a systematic analysis of power in international aid. Parts of the book can be integrated into graduate-level courses to generate discussions about power, colonial legacies, and structural inequality. The content is also critical for undergraduate levels, as some students begin their engagement in international work without advanced degrees, but it might require greater instructor guidance to enhance accessibility. In particular, the text assumes some level of familiarity with the international aid environment and incorporates complex concepts that could be further unpacked for undergraduate audiences. Moreover, while I have concerns about the accessibility of the book for practitioners, in particular those who are immersed in the field and have limited time to engage with in-depth academic work, the book does enable practitioners who are in positions of power to think critically about how power is structured within their organizations and how to make incremental changes to balance it.

    International Aid to Education is an important read for individuals and groups involved in the international aid environment. With its rigorous empirical research, it validates concerns that many of us have raised in our classrooms, conferences, and gatherings and shows that power imbalances in international aid to education are deep-seated and extensive. As Menashy explains, while the field of international education has made important strides in addressing resource imbalances, we continue to fall short. Partnerships are part of the recipe for improving international aid, but to be effective they must be based on authentic power sharing at every level of decision-making and implementation.

    Bibi-Zuhra Faizi
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    International Aid to Education
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