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Dzingai Mutumbuka
Episode 116th July 2021 • The RISE Podcast • Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE)
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In this first RISE Podcast episode, Marla Spivack (Research Manager of RISE and a Research Fellow with the Building State Capability Programme at Harvard University) speaks to Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka.

During the episode, Dr. Mutumbuka shares insights from his fascinating career as a leader in education. He talks about the importance of purpose and priorities in education, the challenges that ministers face, and the ways in which government and development partners can work better together to produce results for children.

Episode Notes

Links:

Guest biography

Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka served as the first Minister of Education and Culture of Zimbabwe upon its independence (1980-1988), and later as Minister of Higher Education (1988-1989). He later spent nearly two decades at the World Bank in various leadership roles in the human development and education sectors. Since then, he has held various leadership positions, including chair of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and board member of both UNESCO's International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP) and the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Programme. Dr. Mutumbuka is presently chair of the RISE Delivery Board.

Attribution

RISE is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Programme is implemented through a partnership between Oxford Policy Management and the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.

The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford supports the production of the RISE Podcast.

Transcripts

episode Intro (jingle starts):

Hello and welcome to the RISE Podcast series, where we aim to explore the stories behind education research and practice as part of the multi-country Research on Improving Systems of Education endeavour funded by UK Aid, Australian Aid, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Marla Spivack, Episode Intro:

Hello, and welcome to the first episode of the RISE podcast. My name is Marla Spivack and I'm the Research Manager of the RISE programme and a research fellow with the Building State Capability programme at the Harvard Kennedy School. Today I'm going to be speaking with Dr. Dzingai Mutumbuka, who served as the First Minister of Education and Culture of Zimbabwe upon its independence. He later spent almost two decades as a leader in the human development and education sectors at the World Bank. Since then, he's held various leadership positions including serving as chair of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, and on the board of UNESCO's International Institute for Education Planning, among many others. At RISE, we're very fortunate to benefit from Dr. Mutumbuka's guidance in his role as chair of our delivery board. In this episode, he shares many insights from his career as a leader in education, talks about the importance of purpose and priorities in education systems, the challenges that ministers face, and how government and development partners can work better together to produce results for children.

(jingle ends, fades out)

Marla Spivack, Host:

Dzingai Mutumbuka, thank you so much for being here today to join us on the RISE podcast, we're really excited to have you.

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

I'm happy to be here.

Marla Spivack, Host:

So I'd love to go through this conversation almost in chronological order of your career, because over the course of your career, you've worn so many different hats in different aspects of education systems, and thinking about education systems in developing countries. So I thought maybe we could go back almost to the beginning of your career when you were actually the First Minister of Education of Zimbabwe when it became an independent country. And I'm sure there were just immense challenges to overcome in that role. And I was wondering, from your perspective, as you took that on, what were some of the priorities that you had coming into that role.

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

Well, you're asking me to go back 41 years ago. So if my memory is a bit fuzzy, please excuse me. When I was appointed Minister of Education, the country was coming out of a very difficult environment. In which, there had been very destructive civil war, for over 10 years. A lot of the rural infrastructure, including schools and clinics were destroyed. The communities were polarised because clearly civil war creates polarisation. Also, the education system was segregated between what was then called European education, African education, Coloured and Asian education, although Coloured and Asian education was very tiny. When I looked at the challenges that the country was facing, apart from the political polarisation and the distrust, there were huge needs in education, whether it was teachers, infrastructure, management of the system, metrics, instructional materials, the list goes on and on. So I sat back and reflected, and really wondered whether I'd been dealt a very, very bad hand. The temptation, as always, was to rush in and just start doing some things. But as I paused and reflected on the challenges, I decided that I needed time, time to study the challenges, time to prioritise what had to come first, and why. And it became clear to me that the first step was trying to win the hearts and minds of the different stakeholders in education.

04:25 And to think of what was happening in the country 40 years ago, the Whites were very worried that the new minister, youthful, as they called me: "the youthful Minister of Education”, was here to destroy their system of education, and their way of life. The Blacks felt that it was their time to get the kind of quality education that Whites were getting, which they were not getting. Teachers were very apprehensive. There was really paralysis in the society. So what I decided to do was something very unusual. I decided to spend six months studying the problem and really getting to the heart of the concerns and the wish lists of the different stakeholders. So I talked to everybody who mattered. You have no idea how many meetings I had, hundreds and hundreds of meetings. Initially always segregated: black teachers, white teachers, black headmasters, white headmasters, black students, white students, black parents, white parents, industrialists, trade unions. But one thing that I did, which turns out to have been very smart, was that there was a lot of expectations of seeing immediate movement in education. So I went to the Prime Minister Robert Mugabe then, and I told him, these were the steps I was going to take. And this proved prescient, because whenever he was asked “nothing is happening in education”, he always told people “I know what the minister is doing”. So I kept him informed, so that I had this back.

r or five years from then, by:

Marla Spivack, Host:

Wow, Dzingai, that's such an unbelievable story to hear you recount what those challenges were like, it makes me wonder about what were some of the concerns that were being raised in all of those many, many meetings that you had, and especially about some of the stakeholders we don't think of as commonly when we talk about education systems. So we talk a lot about teachers, and we talk about parents. But it makes me wonder what were the concerns of those trade groups? What were the concerns of those, the business community, the industrialists, I think, is what you called them. Because those are some of the folks who maybe aren't at the top of our list when we think of as education stakeholders, but I noted that you thought they were important as well.

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

To me, I wanted their buy-in for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to know from them, what kind of graduates they expected the education and training system to throw out so that they were available, and good products for the world of work. And it's interesting that repeatedly, they told me that they were interested in people with good communication skills, people with good problem solving abilities, meaning science, math, etc, etc. But they underlined the importance of values, because they wanted workers who would be disciplined, who would have a good work ethic. And that's where the whole concept of knowledge, skills and values largely came from. The second reason why I wanted the business community to be involved is that I did not have enough money to build all the schools that I needed. And I wanted a compact with them to see if they could help in building some of the secondary schools that I did. Interestingly, they agreed to do it on condition that the contribution or donation they made to education would be taken off the top of their profits. This meant that I had to do negotiations with the Ministry of Finance, so that for those who contributed to construction of schools, they would take it off of their profits. So these two things were important for the industrialists. And it was what you might call a win-win. Today we talk about private public partnerships. This is an example of good private public partnerships. I also talked to parents, because parents are important, big stakeholders, and particularly white parents in Zimbabwe. They really were concerned that I was going to destroy their education system. I insisted to them to have faith in me. I even told them that I had a doctorate in chemistry from a UK University. And I'd come from a very poor background. And I wanted the same opportunity for bright young Africans, and they understood that. I also told them that the schools their children attend, the high quality of education that they are enjoying is a good benchmark that we can use to raise the quality of black education. So by focusing on quality, particularly quality of teachers, quality of instruction, quality of focus on task, we also "killed several birds". People talk about girls' education. People talk about equity, particularly for children coming from poor backgrounds. We killed this almost "in one stone", because when we universalized primary education, and made it of high quality, it meant that, girls, we did not talk about girls, because they had access. We did not talk about the poor, because they had access, but we ensured that the quality of education was not compromised.

Marla Spivack, Host:

Hmm. I know that a lot of systems as they expand to Universal Access, that quality issue really comes in, particularly because sometimes they have to add so many teachers to the workforce at the same time. And so it's difficult to actually find, you know, teachers who are qualified and get them trained to be of the calibre that's needed to deliver that quality education. So were there any strategies that you used as you moved to universal access to actually, you know, it's one thing to say we want to have high quality teachers, it's another thing to actually find those individuals and train them to become teachers. Were there any strategies that you used to make that possible?

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

Very good question. I already told you that as I looked at the various challenges, teachers were priority number one. What it meant was, I needed to train high-quality teachers in the minimum time available. So what I did was to devise a new system of training for primary school teachers, which we call the Zimbabwe Integrated Teacher Education Course. It ran parallel to the existing system, similar to what is called the Dual System in Germany. So the students went to college for foundational courses for a whole year, in what I used to call “the baptism of fire and water”. We pumped as much theory as possible in that one year. During the next year, the teachers were deployed to schools, always in numbers, or two or three at a school, and they continued their teacher education, while they were also teaching classes. And they got a small allowance, which was an incentive for them. During the third year, they went back to college, again to advance their teacher education skills. And during the fourth year, they spent two terms out of the three back in their schools. And in the third one, they came back to college to do their final assessment examinations. It became very clear that this was a superior way of training teachers than for them to go through teacher training college for three years straight with a minimum practical training. And so eventually, all primary teachers colleges started training teachers like this, up to this day. Secondary school teachers are a bit difficult, because content is also important in their case. So I needed a different approach there. US Aid offered to build 40 Secondary Schools for us. As part of the Lancaster House agreement when we negotiated independence. US AID said they could not be seen to buy white farmers land, but they will give us money to invest in anything. And education became a beneficiary of that. So a US AID team came to Harare. And said they were authorised to build 40 Secondary Schools for us. So I said to them, I don't want 40 secondary schools, I want hundreds of secondary schools. So give me the equivalent of that money. And I will build a huge teacher training college to train teachers. They said no, we cannot do that. Then I told them, well, the meeting is over.

an go. And it was shocking in:

Marla Spivack, Host:

It sounds like you were creating partnerships that were serving your interests and serving Zimbabwean interests, and not just taking what the donors were suggesting to you, as it arrived, but actually saying, okay, that's your idea, but this is actually what I need.

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

100% correct. Up front I made it clear that anybody who wanted to support us, had to support our agenda. And if you did not support our agenda, we wanted to part as friends and we didn't take your money. At that time, I have to say that Zimbabwe was also investing a lot of money in education. I remember an IMF delegation came to Zimbabwe, and met with Mugabe and the Minister of Finance and said "Zimbabwe is spending too much money on education". And Mugabe said to them, I was not there, but I was told by the Minister of Finance, Mugabe said them, "it's our money, we never borrowed a penny, in order to finance education it's too important for us to borrow money to finance education, that's our responsibility". So in a sense, I was lucky because I really had 150% support from the Prime Minister, and also from the Minister of Finance. I remember an occasion when we were talking in cabinet. And some ministers said, "the Ministry of Education is getting too big a share". And I remember the Minister of Finance saying, "at least they are using it efficiently, you can see results, whereas other sectors are wasting money". So to me, it's extremely important that you talk about efficiency and about results. Because education is an investment. But you need to demonstrate results.

Marla Spivack, Host:

Sometimes I wonder I don't know if this is if if you share this concern that in other developing countries, particularly in Africa, but also in Asia, that because there aren't results coming from the education sector, it's difficult for them to have that kind of support and buy-in from the Ministry of Finance from the executive authority in their country, whether it's the legislature, the the president's office, but that buy in, it sounds like, you know, maybe initially you were just keeping the president informed about your plans, but then you were demonstrating results, the Minister of Finance knew he was going to see results from you. So then that actually makes it easy to continue having resources but what about for countries that aren't showing results? Now? How do they get that buy-in? And how do they get that investment from the Ministry of Finance or from the President?

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

My view is that whatever country you are in, you need to start by setting very clear priorities, clear goals. And you start with the low hanging fruit, start by achieving something that demonstrates that you are using the resources efficiently and more resources will be made available. Part of the challenge clearly because I'm on this ministerial leadership programme at Harvard. Part of the problem is that the people become ministers are clueless as what they're supposed to do. And therefore they spend money in things that I've little pay off. Many of them just want to cut ribbons, to open one or two schools, a school block. But that issue of going to school is good. But that's not education. You need to learn. So it's a two step process. One is to participate. But another one is to participate so that you actually gain knowledge, and skills and values.

Marla Spivack, Host:

Yeah, that's such a great segue to the next question that I wanted to ask you about, which is about the foundational skills and foundational learning agenda. It's something that you and I have written about together, and you've spoken at past RISE events about very passionately, the need for a focus on foundational skills. So I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, and especially, you know, in the context of COVID, and the school closures that have been happening, and now hopefully the return to school in most parts of the world. Why do you think it is that foundational skills are so often neglected in the agenda for education leaders, and what do we need to do to get them back on the top of the agenda?

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

To start with, I think that to build strong foundational skills is a very difficult job; it's not easy. And in many countries, ministries of education, do not deploy the best and the brightest and the most capable teachers to lay that foundation. And perhaps because of my science training. It was very obvious for me at the beginning that if you want to build a house, they survival of that house depends on the foundation. If the foundation is very strong, you can have a storm and the house will still stand. Even if it destroys the roof and the windows. If the foundation is strong, the foundation will remain and you can continue to build it. So it's the same in education. It's no different. So what I did in my case was that I told the people that I wanted, because we did not have enough money, I said, "every dollar we spend in education must yield dividends, must produce results". So how do you do that? You make sure that in the first two or three grades of education, you deploy the best, the most efficient teachers that you can have. And we rewarded them, because they were patient, they were able to lay the foundation. In our case, by the time a kid was in grade three, almost without exception, they were able to read and to write. So I would say that if you are really thinking about reconstructing an education system, on the shadows of COVID, it is extremely important to lay the foundation. If the foundation was not there, now you have an opportunity to start again.

27:49 People should look at the crisis in education, the fact that there was very little learning, and they tried to see how they can use that, in order to build a solid education system. Education is based on adding knowledge to more knowledge. But if you don't have any knowledge, what are you adding to? So it's obvious that without foundational skills, you're not adding anything. We really need to stop the current systems where the overwhelming majority of students in developing countries spend seven years without being able to write a sentence. That represents for me, the greatest waste of resources, that is imaginable. So for me, COVID provides a unique opportunity, a unique opportunity for people to go back to the base. We need to start anew. We need to emphasise learning, we need to emphasise building foundational skills on which we can add additional knowledge. So for me, COVID, it's a two edged sword. On the one hand, it's sad, it has really had devastating impacts on health and education and the economies of people. But it's also an opportunity for us to sit back, start anew, and rebuild not on the basis of ideas we had before, on new ideas, on versatile ways of achieving progress. You know, I'm on the board of Teach for All. And it's interesting, the kinds of innovations that young people have made. Young teachers in Pakistan, in Nigeria, are found ways of teaching their students how to use the family mobile phone to continue their learning. I think the problem with humans is that when we have a crisis, we are willing to do all sorts of interesting things to overcome the crisis. When the crisis passes, we go back to the bad old ways. So I would plead that let's build on some of the enormously interesting innovations that we have seen play out during COVID, and build on that in order to improve learning among the most needy in this world.

Marla Spivack, Host:

I hope so, you mentioned a little bit earlier just in passing that you're a member of the advisory board of the Harvard ministerial leadership programme. And if I understand correctly what that is it's a group of ministers who convene at Harvard University, and it's a collaboration between the Kennedy School and I think also the School of Education and the School of Public Health to bring together the different sector ministers for discussions and to get advice and leadership development. And, you know, I was reflecting one of the things that came through very strongly as you were speaking about your agenda when you were Minister of Education in Zimbabwe was on this word 'priority'. And the thing about priority is, the more things you add to the list of your priorities, the less and less and less it's a list of priorities, and the more it's just a list of things. So I'm wondering, in your discussions with the ministers when they meet in the Ministerial Leadership Conference, do you think that they have priorities in the sense that they can say, what's my one priority? Or do they have more lists that are very long? And what are some of the things that are on their lists?

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

That's a very good question. I am on the advisory board. But I also sit on the faculty in the ministers come. Basically, what the ministerial leadership programme is attempting to do is to make ministers excellent managers. As you probably know, there is no school that teaches ministers to be ministers, people are just appointed, and the closest thing to teaching ministers is the programme at Harvard. What we do is that we pass them through a workshop, where they've started by asking the question: "what legacy Are you going to leave behind?" Because if you are going to be in a profession, you want to leave a legacy behind. So what legacy is that? How aligned is that to the priorities of the country, the priorities of the ministry. At the beginning, they are all over the place. By the second or third day, they are narrowing it. When it's very vague, like I want to improve the quality of education: we say it's meaningless, because that's what everybody's supposed to do. And the whole world who becomes Secretary or Minister of Education, that's their primary goal. But what does it mean to improve the quality of education? So we force them to narrow it down. And we force them to have only one thing that they have to do. No ifs, no buts. So we teach them how to set priorities. We teach them how to negotiate for resources, both with the president and with the Minister of Finance and Planning, and other colleagues in Cabinet. And we also train them, particularly on how to execute. We asked them: "How do you execute? What are the key pillars that you need to execute". We also tell them that negotiations are very important, because education is so pervasive that everybody wants a stake in it. We also try to teach them, I have seen this, when I was chairman of ADEA, that many ministers waste a lot of time in useless meetings, meetings that produce absolutely no results at all. So we teach them, that time is precious, that time cannot be wasted. We also teach them that they should reserve time to think and to reflect. When I was Minister of Education, there were two days a week that there would be no meetings, I would have zero meetings, one day was to think to reflect and sometimes to visit schools. Another day was to meet with senior officials in the ministry, sometimes with an agenda but often we did not have an agenda and to brainstorm and really to say: "Where are we going? What can we do better? What do we need to do? How can we build on that? Where are the challenges coming?" So that's what we have been doing. Some of the ministers have done exceptionally well as a result of the experience. But I have to say, even the weakest minister, when we have followed them up, they've made some improvements.

Marla Spivack, Host:

That's really interesting to hear about and interesting to think this point that it's the kind of job that no one thinks to train you for, you're just appointed. I wanted to shift gears a little bit we've been talking about sort of one part of your Your career when you were on the minister and government side of the table. But there was a whole other part of your career when you were actually on the other side, on the donor side, and you were working for the World Bank. I'm sure we could have a long conversation about your experiences at the Bank. And I'm sure you have many interesting stories you could tell us. But since time is limited, I wanted to instead, you know, kind of ask you about how the fact that you've been in both of those roles, one in the government and one, you know, at the Bank as the donor, how your experience in government shaped your approach when you were working for the bank? And you know, maybe what's one thing that you wished that donors understood better about how change really happens?

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

My experience is often that people from development agencies don't always understand the pressures under which ministers work. They always think that you can solve a problem by doing x, y, z. They don't take the time, really to try and understand to put themselves in the shoes or boots of the minister. And I think that they don't communicate well. When we talk about communication skills, we often spend time talking about people who write well, and people who speak effectively. But in my experience at the Bank, the key communication skill, that development agency representatives often miss is listening. We we pretend to listen, but we don't actually hear what the people are saying. We go with preconceived ideas, and we also suffer from stupid models. I can tell you, I've seen projects, some agencies and I don't want to name them here, where you see a project done in Ghana being the same project being proposed for Guyana, with probably just the name of the country changing. This copycatting is not really helpful. So I will say that people from the World Bank and other organisations really need to be prepared to listen and to work with the people and be certain not to impose conditionalities. One thing I hope I've been able to do at the World Bank was to convince ministers, that they are not beggars. Yes, poverty is a terrible thing. And that the most important word that any minister must know, the most important word is to say no. And to explain why they are saying no.

Marla Spivack, Host:

That's what you did when USAID was wanting to build the schools.

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

Correct. They ended up being my closest friends, simply because I was able to say to them: "no, let's do it like this". So I think that the real risk here is that people think because we are poor. I know for a fact that I once had a very big fight, for lack of a better expression with the Minister of Education in Malawi. "You are saying no, I can't go to the president and say, we won't accept this". I said, I said "Why?" I said "you should learn to say no, if something is not helpful to you. You're not just to really here to beg". He said: "Well, you know, we're a poor country". I said, "Yes, you're a poor country. That's even the more reason why you should make sure that the little money you get really gets used properly". So that's part of my experience. I think also that the world has changed quite a bit. Because I think now, people from development agencies, from universities, other think tanks have been interacting with people from the developing countries, and I think there is less imposition now. There's more willingness to really work closely together to collaborate. But I think we're not yet there.

Marla Spivack, Host:

It's really interesting to hear you reflect that, Dzingai, about the role of governments as partners to donors, because usually I think we talk about it at least in the development community, as you know, donors as the partner to government, what can the donors do? How can the donors be a better partner? And what you're encouraging us to do is to think about it from the other almost in the opposite way, how can the government use the donors to get what they want? Not so that the donor is imposing their agenda?

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

Correct. And I think the better prepared, the people who are feeling the pain, and where the pain is, the better development partners can help them. And I'm using this metaphor, because if you really have a huge headache, the doctor says: "Oh, yes, I'm some stuff for your stomach ache". The prescription is wrong, you are the one who is suffering. So you should say: "please doctor, I don't have any stomach ache, I have a splitting headache, help me". And I think the doctor will then be able to actually give you the right medicine.

Marla Spivack, Host:

So I want to fast forward again, through your career and come to today. And I'm sure we're skipping over a lot of things. But these days, you've recently become the chair of the RISE delivery board. And so I know that at least for the past few months, you've been thinking a lot about the way that research programmes, programmes like rise can be part of creating change in policy, and of course specifically in education. So I was just wondering, how do you think that policymakers and you know government officials engage with research and what researchers you know, like the the team at RISE, who want to have impact on policy, you know, what should we be doing differently or do more, do less so that our research can be more impactful?

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

I think that the relationship between research and implementing of relevant programmes is really like, it's two things that you cannot separate. It's so critical that people who are having problems in education, appeal to researchers for solutions. So the way I see the research work at RISE, it is so critical, that we really are soul mates with the people who are implementing programmes in different ministries. I see this as a continuum, we identify a challenge, we analyse it, we prioritise solutions, based on the impact that they will have, not just because it's nice. It is important to identify what will really move the needle, the maximum. And I think that is the way researchers and implementers need to be able to work together.

Marla Spivack, Host:

Wise words, Dzingai. We're coming to the end of our time, and I'm sure we could have another hour even more of really rich discussion. But I want to conclude with the question that we ask every guest on the RISE podcast, which is what is one thing that you wish that everyone knew about education systems.

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

One thing I learned about education, both as Minister of Education, and also when I was working at the World Bank, is that, in large part, because we all have been to school. We all think that we know education. And we can tell people in the practice of education, what they are doing wrong, and what they should do. Education, in my little experience, is very, very complicated. And those who engage in it should really have the humility to appreciate that it's not as easy as they think. And to have the patience to seek out solutions from people who are best placed to provide remedies on the basis of critical research and analysis and on best practices around the world. I also think that the best way for a minister to benefit is to bring global knowledge to their challenges, but to solve the problem locally. Knowledge should come from the universe of what the world knows about education, but the solutions should be local.

Marla Spivack, Host:

I think that's the perfect note to end a RISE podcast on: "knowledge can be global, but solutions can be local". We should put that on a bumper sticker. Dzingai Mutumbuka, chairman of the RISE delivery board, former Minister of Education of Zimbabwe and many other titles and accolades. Thank you so much for being with us on the RISE podcast and we're looking forward to many more discussions together.

Dzingai Mutumbuka, Guest:

Thank you very much. Please, please keep up the good work.

episode outro (jingle starts):

Thank you for listening to our podcast today. And if you liked it, be sure to check out our research at riseprogramme.org or follow us on social media at RISEProgramme. You can find links to the research mentioned and other work shared under the description for this podcast episode. The RISE podcast is brought to you by the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Programme through support from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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