YIFAN POWERS is a first-year International Development student from Boston. After graduating from Boston University, she served as an Americorps VISTA in the District of Columbia and later worked in communications and tax policy at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. She loves her DC neighborhood of Park View, traveling, and noodle soup.  

Brian Levy, author of the newly released The Politics and Governance of Basic Education: A Tale of Two South African Provinces and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, spoke at the IDEV Roundtable series on how to apply a governance-focused lens to educational system development. Below, SAIS Perspectives presents an overview of his discussion and an interview that delves further into some of the issues raised. 

A Learning Crisis

Despite the global community making immense strides in school access over the past decades, many countries are still struggling with a learning crisis: access, it turns out, does not necessarily equate to successful learning outcomes. The data demonstrating the lags in educational quality are stunning: the percentage of Grade 2 students who cannot read a single word in India is around 83% and in Ghana, Zambia, and Peru, respectively, the numbers are around 82%, 55%, and 50%.   

A Canary in the Coal Mine: Case Studies from South Africa

To study this crisis and possible solutions, Levy zooms in on South Africa, specifically two regions—the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape. Learning outcomes in the Western Cape are substantially higher than in the Eastern Cape, due to their different histories as well as bureaucratic capabilities. But when Levy looked at what made a school successful or unsuccessful in both regions, he found a common, key entry point – community participation. High-performing Western Cape schools with charismatic principals, even with a strong bureaucracy, rapidly deteriorated when the principals left if the community failed to create a proper succession process and engage with the school. In the Eastern Cape, a relatively high-performing school stayed high-performing because of community organization, as they were able to collectively act to remove an absent principal despite the local bureaucracy’s objections. And when Levy compared the Western Cape with similar districts in Kenya, he notes that “notwithstanding the fact the Western Cape has more than four times the level of resources of student and controlling for a wide variety of exogenous variables,” the Kenyan schools reliably outperformed the Western Cape schools. Why? The answer lies again with community investment, as there is a deeply ingrained belief in participation and high expectations in Kenya when it comes to schools.

This community investment in the running of schools, or what Levy calls participatory governance, made a meaningful impact on schools in Kenya, the Western Cape, and the Eastern Cape, despite their different bureaucratic contexts.

“All for Education”

Despite our collectively held preoccupation with hierarchical solutions to problems, then, a possible entry point to the learning crisis issue is participatory governance, or governance on the horizontal level. Levy characterizes this as a shift from the traditional “education for all” approach to thinking of “all for education.” Though it may seem simple, ideas can be powerful—and working to evoke people’s sense of agency can help to shift governance from predatory to developmental.


Perspectives: What prompted you to look at education through the governance lens?

BL: First, let me answer a precursor to your question: Why education? I’m not a specialist, but I looked at the South African context and I saw that improving the quality and learning outcomes of education was central to the future of the country. Given my longstanding immersion in research on the politics and governance of development,   and given that I was now spending time in the country, I wanted to explore whether a governance lens  would be helpful in addressing this key issue. Indeed, it increasingly seemed to me that a lot of the discourse on education seemed locked into a preoccupation with proximate causes rather than underlying ones. The classic metaphor in the aid world is that when you have a hammer, you see nails everywhere. You can’t affect change without understanding the organizations that work on those issues, and the political contexts within which they work. Yet these were not being systematically addressed in the education sphere with cutting edge practice.  

Perspectives: Does participatory governance always have to mean involvement at a local level, like school governing bodies? Can it “trickle-up” to higher levels of the bureaucracy? 

BL: I would like to think that it could filter up the chain, but a theme which has become much more central to my thinking is the power of ideas. When an idea takes hold, it can have a huge impact. So rather than only focusing on how participation can percolate up, I also increasingly am focusing more broadly  on  how the individual and society interact. And here, the big idea is that evocation of agency can happen not only at micro levels, but   at all levels of society. If all of us in different spaces get the evocation of “all for education,” then there will be changes to the day-to-day operations of the system – within the bureaucracy, and more broadly.

Perspectives: Does the participatory governance idea have relevance in other countries? Or does it really depend on the context of each individual country?

BL: I am the last person to say that context doesn’t matter. But, having said that, I do think that there are some systems that are indeed able to combine a top-down approach to education with participatory governance. If we look across the world today, we can see a large number of places where there are roughly three different versions of dysfunction occurring. One is a fragmented system due to political fragmentation in the country. Another is a system trapped in patronage politics. And a third is a country trapped in process compliance. I think in all three of those milieus, a focus on empowering agency at all levels is critical.

SAIS Perspectives is grateful to Brian Levy for taking the time to speak with us, and to the International Development program for organizing the Development Roundtable.  To read about other Development Roundtable events, click here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Shiva, from Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.