When the first-world-north goes local : Education and gender in post-revolution Laos

Abstract: This thesis is a study of three global issues – development cooperation, education and gender - and their transformation to local circumstances in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), a landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Combining post-colonial and post-structural perspectives, it sets out to understand how discourses of education and gender in Laos intersect with discourses of education and gender within development cooperation represented by organisations such as the World Bank and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). Through field observations, analysis of national and donor policies on education and gender, and interviews with Lao educationalists, this thesis offers an analysis that shows the complexities arising at the intersection where the first-world-north meets the local in the context of development cooperation. Foucault’s notion of the production and reproduction of discourses through different power-knowledge relations is used to show that the meanings accorded to education and gender within development cooperation, indeed are historically, culturally and contextually constructed. Within development cooperation policy, first-world-north discourses appear to have a hegemonic status in defining education and gender. Thus ‘Education for All’ and ‘Gender Mainstreaming’ become privileged discourses that also take root in Lao national policy-making. Development cooperation further brings with it discourses defining the cooperation itself. Partnership is one such privileged donor discourse. These policy discourses are however interpreted by Lao educationalists that are not influenced by policy alone; rather, contextual discourses also affect how policies are understood and negotiated. It is when these discourses intersect that structures of power and preferential rights of interpretation become visible. The analysis points to how the perspectives of international development cooperation organisations representing the first-world-north are in positions to set the agenda for development cooperation within policy. This position of power can, from a post-colonial perspective, be traced back to how former colonial structures created a privileged position for first-world-north knowledge that still prevails. This is to some extent acknowledged by development cooperation organisations through the emphasis on partnership. However, in the local context, partnership is not experienced as a discourse which has the effects of redistributing power. Partnership is rather transformed into a discourse of superiority and subordination where development cooperation organisations monitor and evaluate and local actors adjust and implement. Lao education officials however express alternative interpretations of partnership that are based on face-to-face collaboration and collective effort. These strategies have closer links to local practices and also reflect contextual discourse-power-knowledge relations which the education officials are well aware of. These strategies of negotiation also extend to the issues of education and gender. Discourses of ‘Education for All’ and ‘Gender Mainstreaming’ are acknowledged among the education officials as policy goals which to some extent also extend into practice. These discourses are however renegotiated to accommodate local circumstances. ‘Education for All’ is thus replaced by the ‘5-pointed star’ which serves as an operationalisation of the concept of ‘learner-centred education’. ‘Gender Mainstreaming’ has to co-exist with local discourses that on the one hand build on patriarchal organisations of society and on the other hand build on local strategies for access which weaken patriarchal structures. The analysis ultimately stresses the importance of incorporating local, contextual knowledge in educational development cooperation processes, both among international and national stakeholders. This process can be supported by a willingness to deconstruct taken-for-granted understandings and value systems; and in doing so, recognising the normative aspects operating both in the areas of education and gender.