Jennifer Otting is a doctoral student in Education Policy Studies with a concentration in Comparative & International Education. CREECA sat down with Jenny to discuss her work examining education policy in “fragile states,” a topic that has led her to conduct research in Kosovo (most recently in summer 2015, with support from a CREECA Graduate Student Summer Fieldwork Award) and will take her to Myanmar (Burma) in summer 2016 to begin her dissertation field work.
Your research focuses on education policy in “fragile states.” How do you define the concept of the “fragile state,” and why is education such a crucial issue in places with state institutions deemed “fragile?”
The fragile state is characterized by a breakdown in the institutions of the state, and the perception by some of the state as illegitimate. There’s a continuum from fragile to failed states. So, efforts are made to keep the fragile from becoming the failed. There’s been a shift since the middle to late nineties in the focus of development in fragile states towards security-based development issues. In my opinion, this emphasis on security in development in part serves Western interests, to ensure that fragile states don’t breed radicalism or dissolve into civil war. I find it interesting that there’s this trajectory of development shifting towards security, and that there’s a lot of money being dumped into that. Kosovo has been a big place for a lot of Western money, like USAID. But at the same time, there are these education reforms in fragile states that are often about “building democracy,” and education is always poised to “build democracy” and “create the democratic citizen.” So, then, how does that work with this security-based approach? To me, there’s an inherent tension between the two projects. I look at this issue at the level of the development agencies and the kind of teacher-training programs they implement.
The development agencies involved in fragile states like Kosovo run the whole gamut, from big multi-lateral ones like World Bank or IMF, bilateral ones like USAID or DfID (the UK-based Department for International Development), international NGOs like Save the Children and FHI 360, to Kosovar national NGOs like the one where I conducted my research. There’s every level of NGO there, and after the war, Kosovo was the main game in town when it came to development work.
There’s really no literature on this, and that’s why I’m excited by it.
How did you decide on Kosovo and Myanmar as case studies for your research on education policy in fragile states?
I had experience looking at these issues in Kosovo, having previously worked at an international development organization there before I started graduate school. I was part of the very institution I now criticize, so I must implicate myself as part of the problem to some degree, because I worked for a big one. I worked for the Council of Europe, and they’re huge. They were running tons of different programs in Kosovo, and I was just this little cog in the wheel, working with primary and secondary school teachers on heritage education, which they were trying to create resources for.
I’ve shifted my dissertation work now to look at education policy in another fragile state, Myanmar. Myanmar and Kosovo are similar in some ways, because they’re both new emerging democracies with major education reforms happening. UW-Madison offers the opportunity for Burmese language training, so that influenced my decision to choose Myanmar as a case study for my dissertation. I’ve also lived in Myanmar before. I was on a teaching fellowship there from 2008 to 2010. When I was there, it was still extremely closed-off and under military dictatorship. They had the elections two weeks after I left, and since then it has been inundated with international NGOs. I’m excited to see how things have changed when I return this summer. I’ve heard it is drastically different.
Tell me about your experience planning your research and living in Kosovo.
I was still working with the Council of Europe even when I was starting my graduate program. And because of that work in Kosovo, I had established relationships with teachers and with NGO workers. One close friend and colleague that I met during that time works at the national NGO that I was based in, so they let me conduct field research there for the summer. So, planning my research was really dependent on connections made through my previous experience in Kosovo.
Because I had made some friends working for the Council of Europe in Kosovo, I actually loved going back. Before my recent trip, I felt like an outsider. I mean, I’m still an outsider, but I was even more of an outsider when I was an NGO person, coming in, working, and then leaving. And obviously that kind of work frames and limits what you see. You get a narrow view from being in the NGO capsule. So I loved being there doing this kind of research for my master’s thesis. It gave me such a deeper appreciation of the people, the place, and the complexities. It was wonderful. I stayed with my friend’s family, and walked their son to school at times, and just watched interactions at a daily level. I hung out a lot at coffee shops, which are a really big thing there. Great coffee culture. So I was pretty wired the whole time I was there [laughs]. But I loved it! You meet people at coffee shops, and that’s where I did my interviews. We’d meet at a coffee shop. It’s just nice and informal.
Has your experience in Kosovo highlighted any areas where more research is needed?
Well, I should go back to follow up on my project. The new curriculum I was examining is being rolled out this next school year in September, so it would be fascinating to see how that gets implemented and how the ministry scales the curriculum up, because they have only implemented it in 90 pilot schools up until now.
It would also be interesting to see how the increasing trend of privatization in schools affects education in Kosovo. Schools there used to all be public, so the country is kind of facing the same trend that you see in other parts of Europe and in North America. It would be useful to study that trend, as well as to ask why privatization is occurring. One of the things I’ve heard over and over from people is a concern that the public schools are an environment where students are too often exposed to a lot of religious extremism from their peers.
Kosovo is a place that’s changing, and it’s a real mix of people. There’s so much development work going on there, and so many international workers coming in for that, especially in Pristina, the capital, where I was based. So, I think there’s a lot you can look at. There are lots of possibilities. And you can travel the entire country in a day, so you can do multi-sited research very easily. I think there are many opportunities for research projects in Kosovo.