Herbert Bergmann

German development cooperation has been promoting basic education in developing countries since the early seventies, the multilateral development banks even started a few years earlier. Quite a few early approaches went wrong, but the experience gained over so many decades has given people a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. Herbert Bergmann of the GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit – German Technical Cooperation) reviews the lessons learned, including those of other organisations. One of the major recognitions is that individual projects are ineffective and that there are no single-factor solutions: The system must be tackled as a whole. And that must always happen in a participatory way, together with local partners and parents. Dr. Herbert Bergmann is Senior Planner for the Basic Education sector in the GTZ Education and Health Division. He has worked in the basic education sector since 1974. herbert.bergmann@gtz.de. The article is reprinted from the journal “Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit” Vol. 43. 2002:8/9, pp. 240–243

What Works and What Doesn’t

Successful Approaches in Promoting Basic Education

Education has been promoted since the beginning of development cooperation. The initial emphases were on promoting higher education and vocational training. Basic education was included as a fringe activity. For many years teachers were seconded from the former colonial powers to support the secondary level.

German development cooperation began promoting basic education in the early 1970s, with the emphasis on technical cooperation (TC). Basic education development support funded from financial cooperation (FC) programmes began in 1984. While these initially focused on building and equipping schools, the range of FC measures has since widened significantly and now includes the promotion of basic and advanced teacher education and training, decentralisation processes based on popular participation and the improvement of planning instruments such as geographical information systems. In the late 1970s, the GTZ set up a Basic Education Unit in its Education Division. So German development cooperation itself can now look back on about 30 years’ experience in the basic education sector.

The multilateral development banks began their work in this sector around the same time, the World Bank granting its first development loan for basic education in 1965.1 Since then, the banks, too, have amassed a great store of experience.

This article aims to review the most relevant negative and positive experiences to explore what we can learn from them for future development cooperation in education. It mainly focuses on the experiences of the GTZ and the German Development Bank (KfW), but also includes those of the multilateral banks. For specific sources, it particularly refers to the series evaluation of basic education projects2 of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and to the Oxfam Education Report.3


Education is promoted through FC, TC and the secondment of personnel. Churches and NGOs are also active in the sector. Many projects and programmes are cooperative and deployed in combination, involving TC and FC and occasionally the seconding of experts via the Centrum für Internationale Migration und Entwicklung (CIM) and the German Development Service (DED). Future, still fledgling forms of promotion are the Sector Wide Approach (SWAp) and Sector Investment Programmes (SIP). The international trend is shifting from small, isolated projects with an ‘island’ and pilot character to a countrywide or at least regional SWAp that addresses the basic education sector’s main problems in a combined approach.


The Areas of Activities

Education is promoted at various levels and in different areas. The most important are:

  • Political consultancy: support of policy and strategy development, consultancy in the implementation of national sector policy, support of decentralisation processes and maintenance.
  • Promotion of institutions: building up or strengthening educational institutions in their capacity to develop curricula and teaching aids, examination systems, institutions for teacher education and training, educational research and planning, and improved management.
  • Self-help: supporting active popular participation in the planning and implementation of education programmes and in running schools.
  • Development of competence: education and training of teachers, of employees in sector institutions and school administration, as well as of technical staff.
  • Quality of instruction: consultancy on the introduction of new learning and teaching methods, improvement of work-oriented basic education, science education and environmental education.
  • Improvement of infrastructure: building and equipment programmes for schools, teacher training and education administration institutions.
  • Target group-specific approaches: promotion of basic education for girls and women, basic education for refugees, alternative approaches for those disadvantaged due to their ethnicity, language, religion or race (for instance intercultural bilingual education).

What We Have Learnt

We have by now acquired a body of general experience in promoting education. Providing organisations and national partner organisations have learnt that:

1. Project ‘islands’ must be avoided. Small, locally limited approaches and even model experiments do not make much sense in themselves because education systems always apply nationwide. Only very seldom can locally limited improvements influence the overall system. Even if they may be considered successful in technical educational terms, they actually increase social inequality because they benefit only a few pupils. On the other hand, pilot projects and model experiments are often necessary to facilitate educational innovation. But they must contain a perspective of transferability for the benefit of the entire education system. A prominent example in the field of TC is the development of a complete basic education curriculum in the Qechua and Aymara languages in Peru since1976. The project was implemented in a pilot region in the Departamento (district) of Puno and then successively replicated in other regions with the same languages.

2. Good teaching alone is not enough. Projects limited to the technical/pedagogical level of teaching and ignoring sector institutions, budget issues, education policy and administration are seldom sustainable. Their targeted results are practically never generalised, and often they disappear at the same place where they were generated during the lifetime of the project. An example is the fate of agriculture education in Tanzania. Despite functioning approaches, it could not be sustainably incorporated into the education system.

3. There is no ‘one-factor’ solution. Success can be achieved only with systemic approaches, even where work is mainly focused on the technical educational level. Experience in Indonesia has shown that science education cannot be improved just by providing good science kits. The partner had insisted that the TC be limited to the development and distribution of such kits. Only when the partner realised that this would not raise learning performance, were advanced training for teachers and development of textbooks added to the package. Similar experiences were gained in Rwanda with improving the teaching of life skills. In the 1980s, the Rwandan partner insisted that only equipment was needed. When they noticed that it was not being used, they agreed to advanced teacher training as an additional component. This goes with the nature of the learning process – in and out of school. Learning happens in a process organised by a teacher and uses various ‘production factors’: the knowledge and process skills of the teacher, the information provided by teaching aids and infrastructural conditions. They are interdependent – one can hardly replace the other. Teaching aids can be no substitute for the competence of a teacher, and the less so if the pupils’ ability to learn autonomously is weak. A competent teacher can compensate for a lack of teaching aids and inadequate quality up to a certain point. However, if there are none at all, the teaching and learning process changes its character. It will run differently and mostly much less efficiently.

4. No one can get around going to school. Non-formal education is not an alternative to formal school education.4 As a second chance, it can supplement formal schooling, for example for such target groups as teenagers and adults who have never been to school, drop-outs and child workers, but even then it should have a clearly defined connection to the formal education system to enable transition and the opportunity to take recognised examinations.
The most spectacular failure in this regard was the ‘ruralisation’ of education in Burkina Faso in the early 1970s. Parents rejected a well thought-out curriculum concept because they considered this model of basic education a dead-end street. There was no link to the formal system, no transition and no equivalency of school-leaving qualifications. For the parents, the relevance of the learning content alone was insufficient.
Experience with major literacy programmes is also sobering. Reports from India say fewer than 10 of 94 expected literacy training centres were functioning.5 Positive results were achieved in German development cooperation with functional adult education. These include literacy projects for industrial workers in Egypt, training of Afghan women refugees in family healthcare, training of rural women in Senegal linked to income-generating measures as well as training for elected rural community representatives to introduce them to their new function and tasks.

5. You learn only what you understand. This is meant in a very basic sense. In many developing countries, especially in the former colonies of European powers, school learning begins in a foreign tongue from a completely alien language region. The most important insights about this can be summarised in four points. First, experts agree that teaching children to read and write should start in a language they understand, either their mother tongue or a regional lingua franca. This has also been proved by a TC project in Niger. At a later date, the country’s official language may then also become the classroom language. However, in teaching terms, the transition to the official language is difficult to manage. Second, there is often political opposition to the introduction of local languages in classrooms, sometimes as a result of the policy of the former colonial power, sometimes due to the business interests of textbook publishers in Europe. France only a few years ago gave up such resistance in its former colonies. Third, there is also opposition within developing countries’ societies which has to do with the prestige of their former colonial language, its value in seeking a job and fear of a loss of advantages. Fourth, without changing the language used to teach, basic education can be neither effective nor efficient. Language difficulties result in higher dropout and repeater rates that cannot be reduced.

German development cooperation has earned a sound reputation in this field. It was and is active in Latin America (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala), in sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Senegal and Chad) and in Asia (Pakistan, Sri Lanka). In this field, it is a world leader.

6. The best basic education is a good general education. Time and again, attempts have been made to enhance the relevance of basic education by adding elements of vocational training. UNESCO propagated the ruralisation of basic education in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was rejected, as the example of Burkina Faso shows. German development cooperation has promoted such approaches in Cameroon, Kenya, Peru und Rwanda, partly with considerable funds. It is currently promoting such a project in China, with prospects of sustainable success. The experiences in this field can be summarised as follows. First, the practical components added to the general subjects overtax primary school teachers. Second, well-qualified secondary school teachers are ‘poached’ (Peru). Third, the budget can finance neither investment nor running costs. Other sources of income are unreliable. Fourth, at the examination stage these added practical subjects count for less than general education subjects and, in cases of doubt, they are ignored.

7. Relevance to real life is possible. In Rwanda, the subject ‘Vocational Training and Technology’ was set up, which, if need be, could be taught without tools, working materials and workshops, but still prepare young people for work. The approach of incorporating vocational training and technical instruction into the general curriculum in China has a chance because, and so long as, it corresponds to the prevailing ideology. Healthcare and environmental education, integrated in subjects such as general knowledge and science education, will increase the relevance of these subjects. Many projects in Africa address the issue of HIV/AIDS in basic education.

8. Teaching basic science is a way to the future.
Many politicians acknowledge the significance of basic science for economic development. Such teaching has far-reaching cultural implications if it casts doubt on handed-down knowledge of the world and things as they are and instils a systematic questioning attitude. Science education is particularly difficult to improve; there is often a lack of everything – qualified teachers, appropriate teaching aids and a concept of knowledge that shifts from facts learnt by rote to an understanding of their contexts. If one wishes to improve it, a systemic approach must be selected. Cooperative projects in which FC and TC are combined are particularly successful in this field. The current Science Education Quality Improvement Project (SEQIP) in Indonesia is a good example.

9. Simultaneous intervention at several levels and the combination of as many instruments as possible is the most effective approach. Series evaluation has shown that sound work in the educational sector, promotion of institutions, development of competence and political consultancy as well as a combination of FC and TC have achieved the best results. The large-scale cooperative project in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province illustrates this and international experience confirms it as well. The BMZ’s strong emphasis on favourable framework conditions and political consultancy is without doubt well justified. But it must not result in neglecting the ‘technical level’. The development banks in particular tend to lean inthis direction, although they too are gradually beginning to change their approach.6

10. Only participation at all levels creates identification with projects and responsibility. The effectiveness of projects and programmes can be improved by embedding them in coherent national development and sector strategies that are supported and implemented jointly by the partner country and the donor community. The future development of basic education should be driven forward by sector strategies that are developed by the respective country and conform to its priorities.
Nothing is more difficult than developing strategy. Experts usually dominate it. In Yemen, a highly participatory process was got underway, advised and backed up with TC. Participation by education authority officials and representatives of civil society is – still – unusual. Yemen is no exception. The innovative approach not only achieves highly interesting results, which are now being reworked and supplemented by proven experts, it also generates a high level of identification, including among the decision-makers in the education ministry and in civil society.


In what ways can these experiences be used? It is clear that the days of small or large individual projects are ending. Programme building is underway, and German development cooperation expects eight programmes to be running next year in basic education alone. Many of them are joint TC/FC projects. The integration of bilateral development cooperation in countrywide sector development programmes together with other donors is the future trend. Theories and proposals for processes and instruments are being worked on.

Pilot approaches, which have often formed the focus of projects, should be set up only for demonstration purposes. They are, however, essential for this. Approaches that have been successful elsewhere must also prove their usefulness under different conditions.

Large-scale bilateral and multilateral sector programmes frequently involve the combination of all instruments of FC, TC and the secondment of personnel.

The discussions in the context of the G8 process have emphasised the significance of long-term, reliable promotion. The World Bank’s decisions and its ‘fast-track countries’ initiative (speedy promotion of scrutinised 10-year development plans) are heading in this direction. The countries need dependable financing pledges for that. The looming change from very short-term development loans (the multilateral banks’ standard term is three to four years) is recognition of reality. Political consultancy and development of organisations take longer, among other things because people must change their attitudes in a long-term and enduring manner. Experience with SWAps indicates planning phases of five to seven years. Such run-up times must be shortened.

The outline and detailed planning of comprehensive education development programmes must take account of the experiences gained. There is an urgent need for ‘knowledge management’ here. Existing knowledge is neither systematically processed nor easily accessible. The OXFAM Report has made a beginning and demonstrably is based on very extensive sources. But that is not enough. The local variants of the main experiences must be made available to decision-makers and planners by using all the potential of the new media.

Most of the international innovations in basic education have already been incorporated in German development cooperation projects in one form or another. A consultancy offer will be developed in the near future to promote greater use of new information and communications technology (ICT) as a strategic innovation in the education sector.

We see a future need for consultancy in the following areas: management of the education sector, financial planning of education systems, pre-school education, teaching in multigrade schools (where one teacher takes several different classes), and trans-sectoral fields such as education and human rights, and education and promotion of democracy.


1 E-mail information from the World Bank Education Advisory Service, 2002

2 BMZ Series Evaluation “Erfolgsaussichten von Grundbildungsvorhaben” (“Prospects of Success in  Basic Education Projects“), Bonn 2001

3 Kevon Watkins: The OXFAM Education Report, Bath 2000

4 OXFAM, p. 100

5 OXFAM, p. 307

6 OXFAM, p. 248