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A rigorous review of the political economy of education systems in developing countries

What do we want to know?

This review pulls together essential literature from various disciplinary and interdisciplinary traditions and provides a conceptual framework to analyse political economy issues in education research. As well as reviewing the existing literature, key research gaps are also identified. It is organised along five key themes:

  1. Roles and responsibilities: Who are the key stakeholders with an interest in the sector? What are the interests and incentives faced by different players? Has this varied over time?
  2. Rent-seeking and patronage politics: How significant is the extent of rent-seeking and patronage politics in the education sector, and where is it most prevalent? What does the research tell us about the impact of such behaviour on education reform and school outcomes?
  3. Decision-making and the process of influence: Who are all the participants in the decision-making process regarding education policies of different types? What is the identity of all those who exert indirect pressure on the decision-making process? What are the direct and indirect mechanisms available to different power groups to exercise their power? What are the implications of this power play for educational outcomes?
  4. Implementation issues: To what extent are policy reforms implemented and what are the factors that facilitate and impede implementation?
  5. Driving forces: What political and economic conditions drive or inhibit education reform, both in its formulation and implementation?

Who wants to know and why?

This rigorous review was one of two reviews on political economy commissioned by DFID to provide a stocktake of the quantity and quality of existing evidence in research on the political economy of education systems in developing countries to enable advisors and Ministers to formulate policies based on causal linkages supported by strong evidence. It aimed to: (i) review existing evidence on the review topic to inform programme design and policy making undertaken by the DfID, other agencies and researchers; and (ii) identify critical evidence gaps to guide the development of future research programmes.

What did we find?

  • Some stakeholder groups (e.g. teachers compared to parents) have greater political power due to their ability to influence electoral outcomes and organise an effective collective voice to put forward their demands. 
  • Rent-seeking and patronage politics are found to be rife in educational setups in developing countries. The literature finds elite capture common in several educational decisions. 
  • At the macro level, international agencies are shown to be playing an increasingly important role in educational decision-making and the inter-country differences in outcomes have been attributed to institutional factors rather than differences in resources.
  • Implementation of educational policies have been shown by the evidence to be  hindered by a low state capacity, poor administration, poor delivery system, poor community information, and corruption/ leakages. However, underlying these is likely to be some political economy constraints, some lack of political will or some vested interests. The literature identifies several drivers of change including political will, regime type and openness to democracy.
  • The evidence is limited but, the review provides some positive examples of effective practice where reforms have been successfully implemented.

What are the conclusions?

The literature on the political economy of education in developing countries is under-developed in geographical scope, robustness of methods utilised and in theoretical richness. Where theoretical frameworks exist, they have not been well utilized in the reviewed applied literature. Where research does exist, the findings are very context specific and non-generalizable. Work examining the causal effect of political interests and power play on educational outcomes is virtually non-existent. A review of the evidence indicates a clear need to identify the extent of teachers’ and teachers’ unions political participation in different country contexts and its role in educational outcomes as well as how unions engage with other stakeholders. There is a need for future work to develop more conceptual clarity and more nuanced political theories about change

How did we get these results?

The review began through extensive electronic searches of bibliographical databases, key journals, and organizational websites based on search terms that had been identified by experts in the field.  These searches were then supplemented by manual searches as well as referee-guided investigations to ensure the incorporation of grey literature. This resulted in 485 citations being identified. Stringent inclusion and exclusion criteria were then used to screen the evidence base resulting in 64 studies that were assessed to be medium-high quality and that were then included for final review. All studies deemed to be of ‘low’ quality were excluded from analysis. 

The EPPI-Centre reference number for this report is 2203.

Kingdon GG, Little A, Aslam M, Rawal S, Moe T, Patrinos H, Beteille T, Banerji R, Parton B and Sharma SK (2014) A rigorous review of the political economy of education systems in developing countries. Final Report. Education Rigorous Literature Review. London: Department for International Development.

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