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Educational reform in a post-Socialist world

Silova stands in front of a monument to "Rukhnama," a mandatory textbook in Turkmenistan, authored by the country's former president.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly independent republics of the Caucasus, Central Asia and Mongolia have struggled to redefine themselves. But their attempts have been hampered by government strife and political instability, which plague many other former Soviet republics forming the geopolitical border bridging Europe to Asia.

Policy reforms, in particular, have yet to gain traction in the post-Socialist era—despite each country’s willingness to invest considerable energy on national priorities, such as education.

So when Georgia’s deputy minister of education and science, Bela Tsipuria, took the stage at an international conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, to discuss educational reform in her country a few years ago, she had everyone’s attention—particularly that of Iveta Silova, now an assistant professor of comparative and international education at Lehigh.

“I remember she started talking about the reforms in Georgia, which appeared to be strikingly similar to reform efforts in other parts of the socialist bloc,” said Silova, who, at the time, was the senior education advisor for international education policy programs at the Open Society Institute, a prominent non-governmental organization (NGO). “And when I looked around the room, which was filled with education policy makers from over 20 countries of the region, I saw everybody nodding their heads in agreement.”

“What the deputy minister was really talking about was a ‘post-socialist reform package’ that was being uniformly implemented throughout the former socialist region,” she says. “We realized that everybody in that room was following the same course of nearly identical reforms.”

The realization didn’t surprise Silova, who would go on to teach education and public policy classes at universities in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan before coming to Lehigh in 2007. For years, she had been studying the impact of post-socialist education reforms—a set of policies that included decentralization, privatization, curriculum extension, standardized assessment, market-driven textbook provision and technology expansion.

Joining Silova at the conference was Gita Steiner-Khamsi, incoming president of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) and a professor of comparative and international education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which is recognized as one of the most prominent education schools in the world. Silova had earned her doctoral degree from Teachers College in 2002 under the tutelage of Steiner-Khamsi.

“Many NGOs and international organizations are trying to leave their footprints on education reforms,” says Steiner-Khamsi, who recently visited Lehigh’s College of Education to speak about international education reforms. “But we’re learning that countries in this area of the world are taking entirely different trajectories, even though they share similar pasts and have the same core reforms in place. It’s an interesting dynamic.”

Those trajectories are the focus of a new book edited by Silova and Steiner-Khamsi. The book, titled How NGOs React: Globalization and Education Reform in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Mongolia, examines the role the Open Society Institute and its associated Soros network play in supporting or influencing educational reforms in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Mongolia.

A target destination for aid and reform

Circling the Caspian Sea and heading eastbound over 1,500 miles towards Mongolia is a region in the midst of transformation. These states are globalizing their educational models. For this reason, the area as become a target destination for thousands of NGOs—agencies that work independently from governments while seeking to inform and, in many cases, influence public policy.

The Open Society Institute is, perhaps, one of the best known—and most controversial—NGOs in the region. Developed to support smaller foundations throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Open Society Institute was created by philanthropist George Soros in 1993 to support his network of foundations in countries transiting from communism to open-market and more democratic societies.

In some cases, however, their help and other grassroots activities haven’t been welcomed by the host governments, especially in some of the region’s most authoritarian regimes, such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The book raises questions about the role of NGOs in centralist governments, as well as strategies NGOs use to interpret global reforms locally. It also explores the relationships NGOs have with such international donors as USAID, The World Bank, UNICEF and the Asian Development Bank.

“The question becomes, ‘What is the money used for?’ Is it being spent wisely and does it support ongoing initiatives in the countries, or is the money is being used in to implement a foreign-driven agenda?” Steiner-Khamsi asks.

“Sometimes, the priorities of NGOs are not aligned with ongoing reforms in the country, but rather, they’re aligned with what the NGOs believe the world should look like,” she explains. “An NGO’s priorities may not be shared by a nation’s government, but still it’s a priority in their minds. After all, it’s their mission, they passionately believe in it, and they make convincing arguments why their proposals should be implemented.”

Ultimately, it’s a discussion—often a contentious one—that involves billions of dollars of potential aid for educational development initiatives.

“Every donor has its own logic about where and how they decide to spend money and how they decide to channel it,” says Silova. “Ultimately, NGOs in this region of the world are in the game to support, complement or correct post-Socialist reforms in the education sector.”

“There’s a lot of pressure to perform”

After spending almost 20 years in the region, NGOs like the Open Society Institute may be moving on to other parts of the world. Their shifting focus may be their greatest gift to the world – and their biggest weakness.

“There’s a lot of pressure to perform, to show that your educational reform policies are the right way to go,” says Steiner-Khamsi. It’s why the Soros network rarely stays in one place for more than 10 years, she says.

“NGOs want to take on a few significant and highly innovative projects and show the governments—and the people—that they work. But they don’t have a lot of time to make that happen. They can’t overstay their welcome,” she says.

Although the Soros foundations have, together, invested nearly $60 million in these regions since 1995, a more competitive NGO landscape has made it difficult for these organizations to distinguish themselves. There are more than 40,000 NGOs in the world, according to the United Nations Development Program.

“It may be a while before we fully understand the impact of NGOs and, in particular, the Soros network in post-Socialist communities,” says Silova. “But until then, they have consistently helped to introduce and begin national dialogues about educational reforms in places that, more often that not, need it most.”

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Wednesday, May 28, 2008

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