The thirteen students in the class at the American University of Cairo were mid-career professionals working on graduate degrees in education. We had spent two hours discussing my book of case studies in education assistance when one student raised her hand: “Look, we intend to reform Egypt’s education system. Can you please just give us the steps we need to follow?”

Of course I answered that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed, even as I was thinking to myself that it was much more likely a practitioner would get it right than a policy maker with little knowledge of the field. So I told them that the easy part would be identifying Egypt’s needs and proposing solutions. The hard part would be convincing those with resources to provide the right conditions and finding the bureaucrats who could overcome local barriers.

The book, International Development in Practice: Education Assistance in Egypt. Pakistan and Afghanistan (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012), was written to give career professionals and graduate students a sense of the challenges a development expert meets in the field. Current literature unfortunately provides little opportunity to learn from past experience. It mainly offers theoretical analyses of development approaches, examples of failed projects with few ideas for improvement, and project reports written glowingly to ensure future funding and jobs for the authors. The “lessons learned” sections of these reports reveal little that is useful for future work and as a result each generation of professionals ends up repeating the same mistakes.

The book simulates the experiences of practitioners by first raising the issues of educational development, then providing brief examples of how education problems were addressed in a variety of countries, and finally by describing in detailed case studies how practitioners tackled actual education problems in the field. The cases show candidly the opportunities and unexpected obstacles in carrying out donor-funded projects. The projects – in Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan – were some of the most important in the last several decades, and because they had a clear beginning and end it is possible to assess the extent of their impact.

But to return to the student’s question:  what the book reveals is the obvious point that education systems are composed of parts that are interconnected and need to be addressed comprehensively, or else there may be consequences, as the Egypt case demonstrates. Even when the intention is to address the system as a whole, as in the Pakistan case, there needs to be political will from local authorities and donors to carry through on the development goals. These obvious points being made, there are also drivers to education reform that at very low cost almost invariably lead to improvements in program quality and participation if educators only choose to install them. These drivers are common-sense mechanisms that for bureaucratic reasons are surprisingly difficult to implement.  They can be implemented at low cost and without external involvement using the existing institutional structures and personnel in most countries. These drivers include defining clear learning objectives/skills, backing them up with supportive instructional materials that help teachers teach them, creating exams that specifically test them, and finally giving credit to those who demonstrate attainment of the skills regardless of where they were acquired. Most developing countries give credit only for learning that takes place in formal programs under specified conditions for buildings, teacher qualifications, and numbers of hours spent in classrooms.

The AUC graduate students who were themselves administrators, teachers, and educators could implement these simple measures themselves if they could overcome the bureaucratic hurdles and influence decision-makers. In Egypt, however, they will face officials who occupy positions through seniority in the civil service and not from any initiative to improve the education sector. They will find the practice of “private lessons” that encourages teachers to teach outside the classroom rather than during school hours in order to earn a living wage. They will encounter a system of rote learning that is easier for teachers to perpetuate than converting their theoretical training into “creative teaching” in the classroom. These are just a few of the problems the AUC students will face before even starting to implement the drivers of reform. And along the way they will meet those who will genuinely disagree about whether these are the “right types of reform” and may place even more obstacles in their way.

In addition to these issues, the book looks at the roles of participant-developers, both insiders and outsiders, and shows how even within these larger categories there are disagreements about what roles they should assume. The book describes the unforeseen obstacles that made it almost impossible to move forward in some instances, yet shows also how some of these impediments were “creatively” removed. It suggests that sustainability can sometimes be achieved pragmatically by instilling routines that are automatically followed by bureaucrats. It presses for the usefulness of formative monitoring that tracks and corrects results throughout projects rather than waiting for summative evaluations at the end, when it is already too late. And perhaps most of all, it calls for clarity of purpose in supporting education programs so projects don’t fall victim to changing political interests, as happened in two of these cases. When development activities are abruptly cast aside, not only are resources and efforts wasted but local enthusiasm for reform wanes and makes it much more difficult to mobilize interest the next time.

Donor assistance programs are currently undergoing thorough review and there seems little likelihood that past approaches or levels of assistance will continue as before. The danger is however that if piece-meal approaches – such as training workshops – turn out to be the alternative, they are unlikely to produce the kinds of comprehensive reform needed in many of these countries. Policy makers need to look carefully at past efforts to see that costs need not be high nor require expensive foreign consultants to produce meaningful results. The critical point is that interventions must be mutually reinforcing across the system or they are likely to fail.  Many development specialists would go further and say that the more basic issue is not what pieces to provide but whether assistance should be offered at all.  Their argument is that, among other negatives, external assistance discourages country officials from solving their own problems.

The Egyptians in the AUC class are an encouraging sign of the enthusiasm and knowledge that local educators can bring to education reform. It may take time to remove the intractable obstacles that now exist but one can’t help believing that they are better equipped in the long run to make the reforms that will be necessary with or without assistance.