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La Educación
Número: (132-133) I,II
Año: 1999

Toward a New Ecology of International Cooperation

A word is now in order on what the international institutions can do and how they should proceed to comply with the Summit mandates. The Presidents did not prescribe a compliance recipe. Nor did they instruct or request the international agencies to prepare universal reform prescriptions or recipes for the solution of education problems in different countries of the Americas.

In addition, we have learned throughout the years that such universal prescriptions or recipes may well be irrelevant and ineffective in education reform. There is, in fact, extensive literature on the characteristics and patterns of technical cooperation that favor or hinder educational innovation and reform in rich and poor countries. Many specialists, like Joseph Farrell, a leading scholar from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, argue that there are no universal prescriptions for education reform. They further argue that there are no universal prescriptions for technical cooperation to support policy making and reform implementation.

Critical accounts of the international experience in educational cooperation have in fact taught us some important lessons. For example, today we know that technical cooperation requires a keen knowledge of local conditions under which cooperative action is developed. In this sense, there are convincing lessons in the private business world: no multinational company would ever initiate new operations in any country without a keen knowledge of local conditions and possibilities. Why? Because in the business world, like in education and other fields of knowledge, there is no one “best practice” applicable to all cases in all places.

We also know today that education experiences are not automatically transferable from one country to another, from one culture to another. This means that the results of research conducted in North America on North American issues are not automatically generalizable to South America and vice-versa. In this sense, it is encouraging to see Latin American graduate students in the United States and Canada deciding to write and being encouraged by wise academic advisers to write their dissertations on our own Latin American education and social issues. I think that such a practice is a productive learning experience for all parties involved. It is a good practice for the construction of knowledge in North America and in South America and, in the long run, the practice will pay high dividends for integrated educational development in the Hemisphere.

These lessons lead me to comment on the issue of cultural diversity in international education development activities. A number of anthropological studies reveal that children and adults of different cultures learn in different ways. Yesterday, Dr. Ursula Franklin, Professor Emerita of the University of Toronto, argued in her enlightening lecture that “each culture has a different way of knowing”. These findings call for specific pedagogical solutions when we address specific education problems in different cultures. Such findings also call for a revised ecology of international cooperation, which I would call a multicultural ecology of horizontal cooperation among nations; nations with different histories, different kinds of development, and different economic, political and cultural agendas. Needless to say that, in the context of today’s global society, these findings place enormous challenges for national and inter-governmental agencies of international cooperation. Inter-governmental organizations, as well as national institutions working in international cooperation, have a difficult homework to do. If international organizations are to be politically effective and socially relevant, they have to learn, again and again, that they cannot simplify problems and solutions inadequately based upon universal interpretations of the international state of the art in education development.

A selective bibliography examines the pathways toward a new ethic of international cooperation. Let me just mention a some specialists among many scholars in the field. OAS Secretary General César Gaviria argues that inter-governmental organizations, such as the Organization of American States, should be primarily promoters of international cooperation rather than providers of direct services of technical assistance. In the field of education in the Americas, Thomas Wiggins’ call for a transactional approach to technical cooperation, as opposed to the traditional assistance-intervention framework, highlights an acknowledged concern in a number of intellectual circles. In his analysis of the role of scientific institutions and professional education associations of civil society, Jack Culbertson, former Executive Director of the University Council for Educational Administration of the United States, calls for the construction of bridges of collaboration and exchange of knowledge and experiences as a way to ease genuine inter-institutional and international cooperation in higher education. Joseph Farrell proposes a paradigm of horizontal intellectual cooperation, being more concerned about the collective construction and exchange of knowledge than about the transfer of financial resources or pat formulas.

The evaluation of the summitry process reminds us, though, that different actors of international cooperation play different roles. In other words, there are different forms and methodologies of international cooperation which rely on different conditions and produce different results. The approaches adopted by the international banks are usually different  from those adopted by inter-governmental political and technical organizations, national development agencies, and non-governmental organizations. There are also a few general tendencies in the horizon. There is a growing emphasis on horizontal cooperation as opposed to the traditional vertical approach, on learning rather than teaching, on collaboration instead of assistance, on mediation rather than intervention, on cultural specificity as opposed to universal neutral-free best practices.