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The political economy of education services: What are we learning?

On 18-19 October the European Commission is hosting with the CfBT Education Trust an inter-agency seminar on the application of PEA in education in fragile situations.As this seminar gets underway Alex Duncan offers his thoughts on how political economy analysis is relevant to problems of delivering education services in developing countries.

Political economy matters for education outcomes

“There is increasing recognition that blockages for effective reform at the sectoral level (including for delivery, planning and procurement) can be political, and that technical solutions alone may not be enough.”

This finding from a 2009 multi-donor education workshop in Nepal will ring true for many who work in the sector in other countries.Good education professionals have of course always known that political realities create possibilities -- as well as blockages -- for improving quality and widening access: in short being effective involves being politically smart.But the official development agencies until relatively recently did not legitimise that line of thinking in the way they do business.They did not provide the language, the concepts, the human resources, and the space in the programming cycle to undertake the necessary analysis. Much of the reason for the hesitation lay in the sensitivity of the topics with which they had to engage, and their developing country partners, especially governments, often did not welcome it.

This reluctance has changed greatly if unevenly over the past decade.Most of the official agencies since 2001/02, to a greater or lesser extent, have begun to build political economy analysis – though using different terms for it --- into the way they work.They have done so because of the growing recognition that effectiveness demands it.

The analysis in the first few years of the decade began with examining country-level dynamics of what promoted or hindered progressive change; and in more recent years the focus has been on sectors, and on particular operational problems.Among the sectors, education has been a late-comer, but that is now changing.

Case studies – evidence is emerging, but more research is needed

There is a slowly growing number of studies that show the political economy realities affect the prospects for effective intervention in education.

Kwara State in Nigeria is one example.The findings of studies including a 2008 Teacher Assessment were disturbing: most children were not achieving even the most basic levels of literacy, numeracy, and life skills as a result of their schooling; few teachers in the state had a command of how to teach primary school subject content, and few teachers in primary schools met even the minimum level of knowledge of the primary school curriculum.Incentive problems, including in teacher recruitment and training, went a long way to explaining the problems.The results served as a catalyst for reforms that have begun to show promising results.Kwara is now regarded as a leader; and its example is now being followed by other States in Nigeria.

Political economy analysis in Kwara is being used to guide ‘issue-based engagement’, through considering such questions as: whether there is progress with raising the priority of education services in the State, and if so why; what reforms were successful and to what extent these have been institutionalised; whether there has been a shift from patronage-dominated appointments and postings towards merit based recruitment; whether local citizen demand for better performance in the education sector exists.A critical question is how electoral democracy which is slowly becoming rooted in Nigeria can become more effective as a motivator for improved education service provision.

Nepal provides a second example.A recent political economy analysis aimed to understand how political and economic factors affect the implementation of the major national School Sector Reform Plan (2009-15).Some findings were positive: in the wider context of Nepal, exclusion based on caste and ethnicity is decreasing, while the position of girls in public educating has improved.But it also found that the growth of private schooling (while often raising standards because parents see it as an investment, and because of the greater control over teachers’ behaviour) risks increasing class barriers and undermining the commitment of officials to public schooling.Endemic cheating is a severe and growing problem, with the incentives of several stakeholder groups serving to encourage it.

All in all this study generated real insights and valuable recommendations, despite the methodological difficulties, and it shows the practical value of problem-focussed political economy analysis. A useful dimension was a ‘Promising practices’ paper, demonstrating that political economy can be more than the ‘dismal science of constraints’.

Wider reflections for a future agenda

Applying political economy analysis to education is very much work at an early stage.But some core questions, contentions, and directions for future work may be suggested as part of a future agenda, all with the aim of raising the effectiveness of internationally-supported measures to improve the quality of, and access to, education.

Without claiming these are exhaustive, three questions merit attention: how do political processes affect the priority given to education; how do political processes affect resource allocation between and within sectors; and what actions can help shift political incentives in favour of more effective and inclusive service delivery?

Some of the main political economy features of the sector that affect outcomes, and that merit attention, are: questions of public expenditure, and how it is allocated, reflecting different interests, are central; alongside public spending (which itself goes on a mix of public and private goods), there are significant and often growing private contributions; patronage opportunities abound, based on the creation of jobs, award of contracts and preferential access to services; reform is difficult, requiring as it does behavioural change by a large number of dispersed actors; improvements in sector performance require considerable technical capacity; the needs of education service users (who themselves vary in power and influence) are highly variable; education outcomes are often not immediately visible and are difficult to measure; and there is often a significant role for external donors with potentially distorting effects on resource allocation.

Looking forward, how can opportunities be seized, and obstacles overcome?Some suggestions may be made (recognising of course that they will not apply in all cases.)These are to: recognise that patronage logic will only change slowly; work incrementally and with the grain; work with existing incentives, but in a way that generates commitment to reform – e.g. high visibility actions can build confidence, laying the foundations for more systemic measures; build capacity on the supply side to help build public confidence in government’s ability to deliver; use service delivery charters in strengthening expectations; exploit the significant potential to work on the demand side (for instance building awareness amongst service users of the level of service they should expect, and building capacity to advocate for better service delivery); and create arenas for meaningful public engagement on service delivery issues.


Kwara State Nigeria.The teacher needs assessment is contained in David Johnson (2008) ' An Assessment of the Development Needs of Teachers in Kwara State’.Other points were made in ‘Education in Kwara: Is there progress with raising the priority of education services in the State, and if so why?’ Presentation to a seminar in Abuja, May 23rd 2011.Emma Williams, ESSPIN.

Nepal Case Study. A Political Economy Analysis (PEA) of Education in Nepal’, Tejendra Pherali, Alan Smith, Tony Vaux. May 2011

DISCLAIMER: The accuracy and contents of this post are the sole responsibility of the author and do not represent the official position of the European Commission.


last update
15 January 2013

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