IIEP at 60: The Greatest Adventure of All

10 July 2023

This article is by Gudmund Hernes, former IIEP Director from 1999-2006.

A brute fact about the world is that most resources are unevenly distributed. Some countries are richly endowed, with fields for agriculture, coastal waters for fisheries, or ore inside mountains that can be mined and melted into metals. Other nations are arid or subject to punishing cold or heat. Hence, inhabitants can be favored by the gifts of nature, or disadvantaged by the penury of their environment. Numerous individuals in many countries face deadly infections and watch their children suffer from malnourishment. Worst of all, whole communities are caught in the vicious circle of poverty, disease, unemployment, and deficient education – and, therefore, locked in permanent dependence. Any textbook in physical or economic geography will tell you that countries vary widely in the natural resources available to them. Indeed, the geographical location of your birth is the single most important predictor of your chances in life: tell me where you were born, and I will tell you your future. Geography is destiny.

Should this make you into a fatalist, indeed a pessimist? Is there anything that could make up for the lack of ore, harsh climate or arid land or endemic disease? To answer, we have to take another look at the resources at hand. Basically, all countries have three types of resources.  

Some are depletable, like oil or coal: once they are tapped, they are gone forever. Then there are the resources that are renewable, like the hydroelectric power that we will always return as long as the rain keeps falling. Such resources will always be available.  The third kind of resources are cultivable – by design and effort can they be augmented, and they are always subject to improvement. The tilling of land is an example – the green revolution is a case in point.  

But the most important of the cultivable resources, are in fact, people. Indeed, there is no other resource that can be turned into so many diverse uses as humans. They can become Sherpas and scientists, engineers, dancers and dyers, midwives and mechanics. Any list of occupations is a list of possibilities of human potential.

Furthermore, it is the cultivable, multitalented beings that humans are, that determine what can be made of the other two types of resources: the depletable and the renewable, for example by engineers. What can be gained from nature's gifts, depends on how humans manage them, which in turn depends on how they develop themselves. And how they should develop is not constant, because humans also transform their societies, and hence in a dialectical fashion have to adapt to the societies they have made and continuously reconstruct.

But, as I have already said, there is bad news: it is a fact of life that the gifts of nature are unevenly distributed.  

The good news is that there is one resource that is the same for all people – the people themselves.  

Wherever there are humans, there is an equal amount of potential for talent. But here we face what could be called the paradox of development: The most equally distributed resource – human talent – is at the same time the most unequally developed resource.

However, countries poor in land or resources can transcend these constraints. Countries with a small landmass and meager natural resources can be compensated by the personal skills of their peoples – and by their social organization. Some manage to do well through what they make out of themselves, and what they produce for and exchange with people of other countries. Conversely, many countries are trapped in poverty, not because their natural resources are poor but because the talent of their people is unschooled.

The overriding challenge of development, therefore, is to ensure that the abilities that reside in each individual and in the population at large are nurtured and developed.  

This challenge of development is, first and foremost, a challenge for educational policy. The tool which can break the vicious circle of poverty, marginalization, illness, and alienation – all the things that make for personal frustration, destitute lives, and political aggression – is education. This is the case not only for developing countries but for all countries.

Indeed, education is the nexus between all other dimensions of development.

The challenge for educational policy, therefore, is not just a question of elevating the attainments of a favored few, but of better identifying the talents and training the skills of everyone. 

Indeed, this is an optimistic message. All countries have educational systems that can be improved. With enthusiasm, effort, and reforms, a comprehensive heightening of quality can be realized. What is desired, is within reach.

More than that: the heightening of quality can go hand in hand with the goal of equality of opportunity, independent of gender or geographic, ethnic, or social background – equality of opportunity is actually a precondition for getting enough skills out of the talents of a country’s population.

No country is so rich that it can afford to squander the talents of anyone. And the talents are not just those of the mind, such as knowledge and understanding, but also physical skills and dexterity, as well as occupational competence and attitudes such as drive and responsibility, compassion and curiosity.

The key problem is that in many countries there are numerous conditions that can hold individuals back from reaching the level their talents can take them. Poverty, clearly, is one of them – the schools that do not exist, the teachers that are not trained, the family chores children and youth – especially girls – must take on to eke out a living and which keep them out of school. Discrimination is undoubtedly another condition that can hold people back, whether its cause is race, class or ethnicity. And gender, of course – in this 21st century with its enormous problems, no country can afford to lose the talents of half its population.  

The school is a third hampering condition. Schools can be organized in such a way that they do not embrace, but rather exclude youngsters – as can be seen in ghettos all over the world.

Teaching can be organized in such a way that it hinders, rather than promotes education, as can scarcity of trained teachers. And the whole education system can be beset by corruption distorting inputs as well as outputs. Children can be held back from education in so many ways.

The crux of the problem, therefore, is that different countries possess widely differing capacities to design and deliver the education needed to develop the talents of their people. The capacity to draw up coherent plans for education systems, the capacity to implement them and make them work, and the capacity to monitor them and check that no child is held back or left behind.

This is what IIEP has been about – in its training programs, its research, and its support for the planning of education sector development. That is, to help build and strengthen the institutional framework by which education is managed, schooling is organized, and progress is supervised. At the core of IIEP’s mission has been to devise effective strategies for change, to correct shortcomings, and to identify problems about which something can be done with the resources at hand.

For 60 years, IIEP has pursued a three-pronged approach to capacity building. The first has focused on persons: to train planners and managers in skills to analyze, communicate, implement, and evaluate. The second has focused on organizations: to make institutions work by improving administrative routines, organizational culture, and leadership. The third has focused on the broader social, political, and economic setting: to help mold an enabling environment so that the skills of managers are fully used, resources are matched with goals, and the results of students improved.

Engaging in this activity is never easy and often frustrating, because of the entrenched gaps between the promise and the realities, or the deep-rooted divides between the haves and the have-nots. 

But inequities are not inevitable. Social divides are not destiny. Trends can be reversed.  Education can be put at the heart of the development agenda. The fact that the task is not easy, is what turns it into a real challenge that can give meaning not just to the work of planning and implementation, but to a whole life. This task is also immensely rewarding: to give one child, many children, all children, the chance to discover their own talents – to discover everything that is in them and turn that discovery into reality.  

This is what educational planning is about. This is what IIEP’s programme is about. Education for all is the greatest adventure of all.