Decolonising education unions’ development cooperation projects

published 3 November 2023 updated 17 June 2024

How to avoid unbalanced relationships between unions engaged in development cooperation (DC) projects? This is the key question DC partners belonging to Education International (EI) member organisations set upon answering during an online meeting held on 20 October. Participants gave examples of projects they were involved in, concrete measures they took to 'decolonise' cooperation work, and positive impact they observed.

The meeting was organised by the Capacity Building and Solidarity unit of EI around the assertion that decolonisation is about “changing structures and changing narratives, innovating in our practice. It invites us to reflect on who we are and raise questions around where we come from in our histories, including our union history and our colonial history.”

South Africa: South-South partnerships can be facilitated by decolonising DC projects

Paul Komane of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) explained that in their last Congress in 2019, they debated around the theme of decolonisation, “claiming our right to have our human dignity and safety protected and respected in pursuit of a decolonised quality public education.”

He also stressed that SADTU believes that “as a continent, we need to initiate and fund partnerships between our unions, and the decolonisation approach provides an opportunity for critical engagement.” This change in perspective is a new framework that SADTU has adopted in its solidarity and DC work with the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), the Lesotho Association of Teachers (LAT), the Zambia National Union of Teachers (ZNUT) and the Organizaçao Nacional dos Professores (ONP)/Mozambique. Komane reminded of the principles on which SADTU’s cooperation work is based, namely equality, mutual respect, appreciation, commitment, ownership and accountability. “We say that the higher accountability is, the higher the commitment of recipient organisations to the goals of a DC project is.”

Norway: A new understanding of power and responsibility

Reminding DC Café participants that Norway was both a coloniser and a colonised country before becoming independent in 1905, Ole Otterstad of the Union of Education Norway (UEN) underlined that this knowledge “is interesting for our historical understanding of ourselves and others.”

He added that his union when engaging in DC projects considers: “the power balance when we engage in cooperation with other organisations. We always engage when our partners express the wish, so it is not parachuting down ideas. It needs to be a shared will.”

Highlighting that “our DC work and projects are long-term projects, to be able to build trust and mutual respect,” he said: “We focus on sustainability and organisational development. We put the emphasis on the partners’ own contributions, so that it is not a one-way cooperation. It is not UEN making all the decisions, it is a group of people discussing ideas, instead of one side having ideas and moving forward into implementation.”

Canada: Cooperation projects are solidarity projects

Presenting on the Centrale des Syndicats du Québec (CSQ) work Luc Allaire explained that “we can define international cooperation as ‘collaborative initiatives between two or more entities’,” noting that “practices have evolved significantly over recent decades, and current reflections on the decolonisation of the DC sector, in particular anti-racism, will bring further transformations in years to come.”

Although international solidarity is a form of international cooperation, it also represents a form of mutual aid based more on the establishment of egalitarian relationships between partners and rooted in the principles of equity, self-determination, reciprocity and social justice, he stressed.

He then gave the example of CSQ DC work in Colombia, where the objectives of the project ‘Schools as territory of peace’ done with the Federación Colombiana de Educadores (FECODE) were to support teachers by consolidating 33 educational circles, one per municipality selected.

“After about 60 years of war, they are trying to build peace in the country. During a mission in October in the north of Colombia where on of the indigenous nations lives, I visited a school where each classroom elects a mediator among the students. This mediator, called a putchipu, is an expert in conflict resolution. This is a for me a good example of what decolonising cooperation projects can be,” Allaire reported. “They mixed the Wayuu cultural heritage with the objectives of the project Schools as territory of peace, because the work of the mediator is to find ways to resolve conflicts without violence.”

Research on the deconstruction of power dynamics

Researcher Gabriela Bonilla, who is leading research on decolonising education and the deconstruction of power dynamics commissioned by EI, also informed that this study represents a follow-up to the resolution on decolonising education adopted at the 8th EI World Congress held in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2019.

“We are reviewing literature, have a participatory approach and are sampling some cases from EI member organisations to produce a document on how a colonial influence can be found in the very design of public policy”, she underlined. “We are trying to figure out how much of the power dynamics in the classroom reproduce the idea of colonial hierarchy,” she added. Surveyed education unions are all focusing on pedagogical transformation because pedagogy is what is keeping racism a central problem in education, Bonilla further reported.

EI African region: Taking the lead on decolonising

EI Africa Regional Office Director Dennis Sinyolo also informed that the 10th EI Africa Regional Conference, to be held 19-24 November in Johannesburg, South Africa, will tackle the topic of decolonisation, “so it will be another opportunity to carry on this conversation.”

He concluded: “We are supporting and strongly encouraging South-South cooperation, like the one the SADTU representative presented, and we therefore want more member organisations to be able to support other member organisations in the global South. I believe in the long run all of us would benefit from it.”