Bilateral co-operation in ICT for education in Burundi

Children and young people

Despite the great emphasis on one-to-one ratio of technological devices to users, be it smartphones, tablet, or laptops, the conventional computer lab is still the most common set up for familiarising with computers in a school context in countries with low technological penetration, such as Burundi. Yet most of the research is focused on the technological apparatus, or on the pedagogy of ICTs in the computer lab. In contrast, my ethnographic research focused on the consequences of the introduction of computer labs on the school conceived as an ecosystem in which every actor has its role in the organisation and interacts with both other actors and the environment. I deliberately term such approach as ecological to stress the organic nature of this system, so that when trying to understand it we source our explaining metaphors and analogies in the domain of the living beings, not in mechanistic models inspired by physicalism, as it has been the case for long in the positivism-leaning branches of organisation science and social psychology. Similarly, my research studied the bilateral cooperation project between the Belgian Technical Cooperation agency (BTC) and the Burundian Ministry of Education, which included the computer lab installation in 10 Burundian schools as a subproject. In this larger five-year project in support of Burundian vocational education the longstanding relationships between Belgians — the former colonisers — and Burundians — the former colonised — constituted a very powerful interactional frame that shaped everything happening under its umbrella. Thus both parties held implicit expectations about each other and about ICTs in general and the Computer Labs specifically. Once the labs were installed, mismatches in Belgians’ and Burundians' premises manifested themselves as critical incidents: puzzling mismatches of expectations having significant consequences on the relationships between the actors involved. My research attempted to “reverse engineer” those incidents to unearth the deep seated cultural matrices informing Belgians’ and Burundians' different worldviews to account for the misunderstandings, frictions and conflicts occurred during the project implementation. With regards to ICTs specifically, it emerged how Belgians’ conception of the computer labs was exclusively instrumental: a means to and end — better employability. Burundians, while acknowledging the instrumental value, cared more for the symbolic dimension attached to the labs, which made them feel modern and global — independently from their capacity or willingness to use them. This symbolic value was completely disowned by Belgian aid workers, causing great disappointment and frustration, undermining collaboration and ultimately, negatively impacting the bilateral project outcomes.
In sum, my research calls for developing a greater intercultural sensitivity in development projects, in order to prevent the cumulative straining of the relationships between aid providers and recipients, taking into account the subtler symbolic value of ICTs and the cultural context in which it plays out.