Understanding education in humanitarian situations: A critical realist approach

30 November, 2017
Time: 17.00-19.00
Room: Jeffrey Hall
UCL Institute of Education (20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL)

Power and Myth of Evidence: Educational Marginalisation of Children in Cross-Line Areas of Syria

Tomoya Sonada, Education Specialist at UNICEF Syria

The concept of ‘an evidence base’ has gained considerable purchase as a standard approach to today’s international aid policy and practice. The use of empirical data that are observable and measurable is meant to enhance rationality and de-politicisation in decision-making processes. It is widely embraced for audit culture and managerial accountability within development and humanitarian contexts.

In reality, however, the delivery of scientifically rational and impartial humanitarian aid, including education, is far from easy. In a real-world context, government authorities, aid agencies, donors and other actors weave across and within the messy political webs, where different forms of power and micro-politics permeate the process of evidence generation and decision making. The interplay between power and knowledge constructs particular ‘discourses’ of evidence that establish certain facts as true and others as false. The underlying discourses or the regime of truth influence the way aid professionals see and know educational needs and priorities, thereby shaping decisions about who is in and who is out of aid entitlements. As such, evidence-informed decision making, albeit seemingly rational and accountable, can also serve to downplay and exclude particular groups from opportunities and agendas, and even symbolise their marginality and exclusion as legitimate.

Drawing on the case of education sector in Syria, my doctoral research aims to unpack what power relations come into play in the generation and application of evidence and how they form the implicit patterns of legitimisation of marginality of the most vulnerable. From a critical realist perspective, my research attempts to see the real world as differentiated and stratified, and seeks to unravel the enduring generative mechanisms – or underlying discourses – that reproduce educational marginalisation of children in opposition-controlled cross-line areas of Syria.

The deployment of critical realism enables me to question the epistemology of empirical realism and actualism that takes observable and measurable entities at face value, a predominant methodology that permeates current aid policies and practices in Syria. Indeed, educational needs and gaps are often assessed by measurable indicators, evaluated with predetermined standards and grouped into a certain category that is amenable to programmatic decisions about interventions and resource allocation. The everyday aid practice mirrors Bhaskar’s account of ‘epistemic fallacy’. Moreover, whereas UN agencies, NGOs and donors often pursue and demonstrate measurable and quantifiable results – or what they did – for managerial accountability, they tend to obscure unobservable elements – that is, what they did not do. The absence of inaction, which is called ‘ontological monovalence’ in Bhaskar’s terms, can possibly result in a pattern to maintain the status quo of aid disparities in Syria. My research attempts to explore the Bhaskarian/Foucauldian viewpoints in order to understand different forms of hegemonic power that lie behind evidence generation and use. It problematizes the ongoing aid practice and calls for critical reflexivity by aid practitioners, including myself, for more just and transformative aid practice in Syria.

Education and Conflict: A Critical Realist approach

Dima Khazem, University College London

Critical Realism, as an ontology and epistemology, provides valuable concepts and methdodolgies for researching education and conflict. This paper employs critical realist concepts of ‘absence’, ‘the four-planar social being’ (Bhaskar, 1993) and ‘judgemental rationality’ to suggest different approaches to understanding education and conflict with implications for policy makers, researchers and practitioners.

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