“Around the world, people are rethinking their ways of working: whether due to the increasingly incandescent disaster that is human-driven climate change or the more recent outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). This is an opportunity to develop and implement better ways of working and deliver greater, more sustainable impact that decolonises existing power relations.”
‘Climate change – rethinking the way we work’ by Rachel Bowden with Juliette Myers and Anise Waljee, EENET, 15 March 2020
Rethinking who the experts are
Three years have passed since we published the blog entry quoted above. The COVID-19 pandemic became an opportunity for EENET to radically change the way it worked. For almost two years all our work was done remotely, through online meetings, emails, and text messaging. The change that excited us was the increased opportunity to work with, support and mentor local expertise.
EENET has always been committed to supporting education stakeholders, consultants, advocates and trainers within the countries where we work to become more experienced and skilled. We used to ask donors and clients for budgets and timelines that would enable our international consultants to work alongside and mentor national counterparts, with the longer-term ambition of reducing or removing the need for international consultants in many activities. But some clients and funders did not want to pay for the extra cost or take the extra time, preferring only to fund the international consultants’ costs and leaving it to ‘someone else’ to support national expert capacity building.
When COVID-19 stopped all international travel, suddenly the vital importance of national consultants, advocates and trainers could not be ignored. We invested a lot of energy (and client/donor funds) into quickly developing ways to remotely support and mentor a range of personnel in countries where we were involved in projects so that they could carry out work previously done by visiting international consultants. Of course, it would have been easier if we had been able to work consistently on this process over a long period before the pandemic, rather than it being an emergency measure.
Discussions around power relationships and institutional inequality in humanitarian and development work are not new. The discourse received impetus in May 2020 when the killing of George Floyd by US police spotlighted institutional racism around the world. And the pandemic offered an unusual opportunity to interrupt further the balance of power among experts in development and humanitarian work. But where are we heading now?
International consultants can travel again, and NGO and government budgets are squeezed by economic crises. What will happen if clients/donors revert to the pre-2020 routine of employing international consultants and strive to avoid the extra cost and time often needed to simultaneously intensively mentor local expertise? What if they choose only to work with the (usually less expensive) national consultants, advocates and trainers who were fast-tracked into new roles during the pandemic but refuse to take (financial) responsibility for further professional development for them?
EENET calls on donors and NGOs to value the (perhaps unplanned and unintended) progress of interrupting the reliance on international consultants and find ways to keep investing in challenging the balance of power among inclusive education experts.
Rethinking our environmental impact
The pandemic made it much easier for EENET to move towards its environmental policy ambitions – stopping harmful international travel was easy when no travel was allowed! In 2022, travel fully resumed and projects expected international consultants to return to in-person work. This reignited dilemmas for EENET around how we move towards reducing our carbon footprint.
We are also challenged to rethink EENET’s core networking and information-sharing activities. Since we were established in 1997, we have prioritised providing hard-copy materials to education stakeholders considered ‘hardest to reach’. Free printed materials for those without internet access is something we still passionately support. But how do we square that with the environmental impact of printing and sending materials around the globe? And how do we afford it now that printing and international postage and courier costs are soaring? But if we don’t maintain hard-copy distribution, how can we reach our important offline audience, because EENET cannot single-handedly fix the digital divide?
We haven’t got all the answers! But here are some steps we have taken:
Localised printing (i.e., funding partners or cost sharing with partners in certain countries to print and distribute copies of Enabling Education Review). The printing is not necessarily cheaper, but we save money on international shipping and reduce our environmental impact. The downside is that this passes an extra workload to the selected partners who must get quotes, supervise the printing process and then distribute the copies. It also means we do intensive distribution in a few countries rather than dispersing copies across many countries.
USB flashdrives. We have distributed hundreds of flashdrives containing our video training packages, all editions of Enabling Education Review, and dozens of other inclusive education guides, training packages and posters. In a tiny package, we can distribute an entire library which the recipient can access without needing the internet. The recipient still needs a computer or tablet, of course. The downside is that flashdrives can be subject to customs duties on arrival, although we try to pre-pay duty wherever the option exists, and flashdrives often get ‘lost’ in the postal system.
Hand-delivery. We have always ensured that consultants carry as many EENET materials as possible when they visit a project. These days paying for a little excess luggage on a flight can be cheaper than sending a large package by post or courier. If you are based in the UK, visit education projects in other countries, and would like to take some free EENET materials to distribute to your partners/colleagues, please contact us to make arrangements.
Constant reflection and action for change
During our AGM in 2022, we discussed how to continue reducing our carbon footprint, how to question assumptions around international consultants’ travel to projects, and how to push for change. We recognised that change will be incremental, and probably there will be steps forward and back. But the climate crisis and the urgent need to challenge unequal power relations in development and humanitarian work mean EENET will continue to reflect critically on everything we do and will remain committed to having difficult conversations with donors and clients.
Annette Rebentisch and Ingrid Lewis, EENET