Sunday, April 19, 2009

Lessons from international development for university administrators - and vice versa

This spring, after a hiatus of several years, I have been teaching ‘International Development,’ the core course for graduate students in AU’s International Development program. Last week’s topic was ‘Reforming Development Assistance.’ As a final examination project, class members have been tasked to develop recommendations for improving (or reforming) the US foreign aid program. When a new administration comes to town, foreign aid reform is invariably on the agenda though not necessarily a priority item.

For me, reforming foreign aid is a familiar topic. I wrote about an aspect of the program in my doctoral dissertation and first book, Partners in Development (1969). As I was preparing my class, the phrase ‘everything is different, everything is the same’ came repeatedly to mind. Recently drafted reform proposals point to problems that differ little from ones I highlighted forty years ago.

The heart of the matter is this. Foreign aid serves two very different constituencies, one foreign, the other domestic. The first comprises the poor people and their governments that aid programs are intended to help. The second comprises, primarily, members of Congress, especially House members and senators who are members of key subject-matter and appropriations subcommittees that oversee foreign aid.

There is a disconnect between these two constituencies that perpetually challenges foreign aid administrators and their staffs. Their real ‘bosses’ are not the individuals they serve. Representatives and Senators have many constituencies, the interest groups, businesses, communities, voting blocs in their districts. It is these constituencies they must serve to remain in office. That poor people in Rwanda, Sri Lanka, El Salvador and Haiti have virtually no voice in shaping programs that are intended to shape their lives is hardly surprising. Many of the decades-long problems that foreign aid programs have faced are caused by this disconnect.

To equate problems students can face in negotiating university bureaucracies with those faced by foreign aid recipients may seem to be stretching a point, however from my Anderson Hall vantage point, I am struck by similarities. Knowledge creation and education are seen as a university’s mission. Faculty serve students and often care deeply about them, but are more beholden to external constituencies that judge the quality of their research. Staff members who serve students in a multitude of offices - the registrar, the library, financial aid, the health center, public safety, housing, academic counseling centers and many more - serve students directly but are more directly beholden to their administrative ‘bosses.’ These bosses may have little direct contact with or empathetic understanding of students’ academic or non academic lives. When students face challenges that complex bureaucracies, staffed by imperfect overburdened human beings, inevitably cause, they are often unskilled in communicating concerns in a manner that will motivate staff members to respond positively.

American University, like most universities, makes serious efforts to find out what students want, need and how they are being served. Teaching evaluations are administered in each class at the end of each semester. Administrative units conduct ‘customer surveys.’ The university as a whole administers a nationwide ‘Campus Climate Survey’ each year. Applications, acceptances, retention rates and graduation rates are monitored carefully. At a tuition dependent University such as AU, students are the lifeblood of the institution. Yet disconnects remain and human beings remain fallible. Disconnects and fallibilities can make student’s lives more difficult than we would wish. Responding to those difficulties expeditiously and humanely requires constant vigilance.

Viewing the structural problems with which universities must struggle to meet the needs of our students should provide a lesson in humility for those of us write about development assistance from an academic vantage point. Perhaps we should be more tolerant of our colleagues in the Agency for International Development and like institutions who strive to do good work and maintain their idealism while coping with structural impediments that are far more daunting.

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Blogger Kampuchea Crossings said...

i just twittered about this recently. i work with a bilateral, and there seems a lot of waste (though to be fair there is progress also... slow, but there nonetheless). seems to me that govt-govt and the alignment/harmonisation in the paris declarations are doing more harm and creating more bureaucracy than good.

7:14 PM  

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