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SAIH International Programme in Myanmar, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe: Cooperation at Eye Level

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

by Dr Gregor Walter-Drop

In December 2020, Paeradigms completed its evaluation of the 2018-2021 International Programme work of the Norwegian "Studentenes og Akademikernes Internasjonale Hjelpefond (SAIH)". Funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), the SAIH International Programme is comprised of 30 partnerships in the field of formal and informal higher education (HE) in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Colombia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar. The programme focuses on support for indigenous and intercultural higher education, inclusion of marginalised groups (e.g. LGBTQI+ persons), research for an inclusive society, and empowerment for advocacy. Due to Covid-19, the field-phase was carried out using a hybrid approach, combining international advisors with national experts on the ground. The results – presented earlier this month – demonstrated that cooperation at eye level is possible and can work remarkably well.

SAIH commissioned Paeradigms to carry out the mid-term evaluation of its International Programme in April 2020, explicitly requesting the review to be comprehensive and open, allowing for reflections on its current programme approach, which would then feed into the next phase. The evaluation looked at the overall conceptual level and sampled SAIH activity in-depth in three partner countries – Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe. Paeradigms developed an evaluation framework based on the differentiation between (direct) project "output" (intended and unintended), "outcome" and (long-term) "impact" of the activities of SAIH and its partners. In the subsequent review phase, the Paeradigms project team analysed over 400 documents from SAIH's archive covering the overarching framework as well as all the available written documentation of the actual programme work in the selected countries.


The field phase (summer 2020) included a total of 80 interviews. Because of the pandemic-induced travel restrictions, Paeradigms took a hybrid approach combining international with local advisors, who carried out data collection in Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe.

Paeradigms' evaluator Mai Aye Aye Aung (middle) visiting the Naushwang Development Institute in Kachin State, the northernmost state of Myanmar

Interviews were conducted with Norad and SAIH staff as well as representatives of almost all partner organisations in the respective countries. Interviewees ranged from employees, staff and leadership of the partner organisations to students, beneficiaries and Ministry workers. While this "indirect fieldwork" posed significant challenges, the additional local expertise turned out to be a real asset for the evaluation. In November 2020, SAIH and Paeradigms held a (virtual) validation workshop to confirm findings and incorporate feedback into the final evaluation report, delivered in December. Despite the pandemic, Paeradigms stood by its general principles for such evaluation projects: (1) as much topical and regional expertise as possible in the project team drawing on Paeradigms large international network; (2) close cooperation with the client ensuring consensus on function, scope, and range of the evaluation; (3) transparent and open cooperation with the broadest possible set of stakeholders on the ground; (4) academic rigour in methodology and data analysis (including triangulation of results); and (5) maintaining independence and equidistance to ensure objectivity.

Dina Castillo Baltodano (third from left), Paeradigms' evaluator in Nicaragua, at the Project Centre for Technical Environmental and Agroforestry Education of Wawashang (CETAA) which offers comprehensive vocational-technical training that offers access higher


Solidarity principle and results

Looking at the results of the evaluation, certain characteristics stand out that are worth highlighting. SAIH is a rather special type of organisation. Its strong emphasis on solidarity as the basis of its work is noteworthy: "solidarity" is a very different animating principle for such international work than "development". While SAIH (and Norad) feel the tension between these two different concepts, SAIH clearly comes down more strongly on the solidarity side. This has a number of implications:

  • SAIH is strongly normative-driven and covers fields outside the mainstream. The overall goal of their international programme is to support human rights, equitable higher education, and academic freedom. This not only represents a clear normative core, but it is applied to higher education – a field that holds powerful levers for development yet is often overlooked by classical development actors who focus on basic education and TVET.

  • The specific focus on LGBTQI+ and minority rights is commendable and rather unusual, given the controversial nature of these topics in many socio-political contexts. While SAIH could benefit from considering the implications of necessarily becoming an external party to an internal conflict, it certainly does not shy away from these delicate situations.

  • SAIH is very often in it for the long-haul. The organisation may not worry about "exit strategies" and "sustainability" compared to typical development operations, however it remains true to the basic consideration that "solidarity knows no exit". Long-term commitments, in turn, allow for special partnerships.

  • The truly exemplary SAIH partnership model allows for cooperation at eye level and true "ownership" by SAIH's local partners. It does so by heavily investing in building personal ties and trust-based relationships over long periods of time. This clearly pays off in the universal appreciation SAIH enjoys from its partners.

  • SAIH (following Norad) cannot isolate itself from the ideas of "New Public Management" that can lead to applying business lingo in non-economic development contexts (where it is of limited use) and an emphasis on simplistic quantification in monitoring and evaluation (that it is also of limited use). From today's perspective, the ideas that animate these approaches look "aged" rather than "new" and are at odds with the solidarity principle. This, however, is a general statement about the development sector, and SAIH deals with it as well as can be expected due to its progressive partnership model that encourages meaningful outcomes outside of required indicators.

For Paeradigms, evaluating SAIH's International Programme was truly a highlight in an otherwise rather challenging year. It was refreshing to see how international programme work can function (and function well) without patronising overtones and without the frame of "principal-agent relationships". As advisors in the field of HE, one rarely sees this kind of value base, dedication, and universal appreciation by international partners. "Cooperation at eye level" is possible and works remarkably well. This will remain an inspiration for Paeradigms well beyond this assignment.


Dr Gregor Walter-Drop is the Co-Founder of Paeradigms and the Chair of its NGO. Gregor has specialized in International Relations and has published and taught in the fields of globalization, governance, limited statehood and foreign policy analysis.

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