#EI25: Reflections by David Archer, ActionAid

My first memory of meeting with Education International was in October 1999 – when ActionAid, Oxfam and the Global March for Child Labour met in Brussels to set up the Global Campaign for Education. That was a landmark moment – forging links between EI’s campaign on quality public education, Oxfam’s campaign on financing (Education Now), Global March’s campaign that saw free education as the solution to child labour and ActionAid’s ‘elimu’ campaign that sought to democratise education decision-making by forming national education coalitions.

We agreed a common platform to take to the World Education Forum in Dakar and committed to supporting the emergence of national education campaigns that would link NGOs and teacher unions into common platforms. By the time of the Dakar conference in April 2000 we were already a formidable collective force and within a few short years national education coalitions emerged in dozens of countries.

It was discussions with the late Elie Jouen in 2005 that led to another landmark moment. He was chair of GCE’s Board and regularly flagged the challenges of building trust between NGOs and teacher unions within the national education coalitions. For this reason we set up a joint meeting between ActionAid and Education International in South Africa in April 2006 – convening colleagues from across the world to talk openly about the challenges faced in building trust and what we could do to make a breakthrough. This led to the famous ‘Parktonian Recommendations’ (unfortunately named after the hotel where we met) where we developed a strategy for strengthening strategic partnerships between teacher unions and NGOs to achieve quality public education for all. Common positions were laid out for cooperation in 7 key areas: financing, non-professional teachers, gender and education, HIV and education, school governance, privatisation and a code of ethics.

A key part of this process of forging trust involved frank discussions about the historic tensions and mistrust between teacher unions and NGOs in many countries.  These tensions were particularly caused by NGOs involved in service delivery, running community schools and hiring untrained or undertrained teachers, in many cases undermining public education and the professional status of teachers. This created a space for more aggressive private sector actors and for World Bank policies that promoted para-professional teachers as a systemic solution. It was clear that more progressive NGOs who took on a rights-based approach found more political convergence with teacher unions, centred on the challenge of ensuring good quality public education which is recognised as a right and as a core responsibility of government.

However, even where there was a political convergence we recognised there were cultural differences in the ways in which teacher unions and NGOs work. Unions are rooted in their membership, have very different accountability structures and legitimacy than NGOs whose models of accountability are often less clear. The separation of political and executive structures in unions is often not well understood by NGOs – and the decision-making structures in NGOs are not always transparent or consistent, making it hard for unions to know how to engage. Unions have a different basket of political tactics and approaches from the basket of programme, policy and lobbying methods generally used by NGOs.  There are different frameworks, reference points, capacities and resources. Yet all these differences can become a source of strength when put together creatively in pursuit of common goals.

The Parktonian Recommendations led to national partnerships being developed between teacher unions and ActionAid in many countries, acting as a foundation for deepening wider links between unions and rights-based NGOs and strengthening broad based education coalitions. The Parktonian Recommendations were reinforced through regional meetings in Africa and Asia and were refreshed globally through a meeting in Accra in October 2009.  In September 2016, to mark a decade from the agreement of the original recommendations, high level representatives from ActionAid and Education International met in Brussels to review progress and agree an updated set of actions for future collaboration. We were able to celebrate many successes in forging trusting relationships, producing practical resources (e.g. on financing of education), strengthening resistance to privatisation, challenging threats to the teaching profession and advancing the right to education. 

But we also recognised that our partnership in the coming years will be needed more than ever to confront new challenges and threats. Public education systems are more at threat from aggressive processes of privatisation and commercialisation than they ever have been. We need to be united to resist fee-charging low cost private schools and private contractors taking over public schools. We also need to rebuild confidence in the public financing of education - and in this regard one area where we find strong common cause concerns the role of tax justice in expanding the resources available for education. As the Panama and Paradise Papers make clear we are confronted with a global system that facilitates tax evasion and tax avoidance by the richest individuals and companies. Unless we challenge this, we will see ever-diminished States that will fail to provide the sustainable financing needed for quality public education systems. To succeed in the coming years, we will need to forge stronger alliances than ever at global, regional and national levels; we will need to find new allies who share our principles; we will need to use new strategies and tactics and we will need to evolve new ways of learning. As Paulo Freire said, we need dialogue not monologue; rather than tolerating under-funded fragmented systems that aim at domestication, together we can build education for liberation.

On 26 January 1993, Education International was founded through the merger of the International Federation of Free Teachers’ Unions (IFFTU) and the World Organisation of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP). On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, a special series of blogs, “#EI25: reflections”, will be published throughout 2018, bringing together voices and thoughts of unionists, education activists, partner organisations and friends, reflecting on past struggles and accomplishments, from which the organisation has drawn strength and inspiration to address current and future challenges facing education and the teaching profession. If you want to contribute to the series, please write to [email protected].


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David Archer

David Archer (@DavidArcherAA) is Head of Programme Development with ActionAid and a board member of the Global Campaign for Education. Trained as a secondary school teacher in the 1980s, he specialised in literacy, developing the Reflect approach to adult learning in the 1990s (see www.reflect-action.org). As Head of Education for ActionAid for many years David worked extensively on rights based approaches, challenging the IMF and World Bank and building a strategic partnership with Education International based on the Parktonian Recommendations. David manages the Right to Education Project (see www.right-to-education.org).

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