Muslim education is a topic in Islam on which a wide range of Muslim scholars, including Ibn Khaldun, Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ghazali, Zanjan and Ibn Miskawayh, have written treatises. Islamic education (madreseh or mosque-college system) has been examined in journals such as The Muslim World and Islamic Culture, as well as in seminal works by George Makdisi, Hussein Nasr, Devin Stewart, and many others. Along with this literature, which is more focused on Islamic education, the educational system as a whole (both Islamic and secular teaching) is analyzed by those who work on development in Muslim countries. In International Development in Practice, Andrea B. Rugh studies the development of the educational systems in Egypt (1979-90), Pakistan (1987-94) and Afghanistan (1998-2002), three projects in which the author personally participated.
Rugh's objective is to show the relationships among local agents, outside experts and donors, as well as to explicate some of the chief constraints and opportunities in developing education in the three cases. As one reads the text, though some variations exist across the cases (e.g., the comprehensiveness of reform in Pakistan, and violence in Afghanistan), similar problems are pervasive. The author singles them out succinctly in the following order: "(1) conflicting political pressures and the lack of political will to see reforms through, (2) failure to define objectives clearly, (3) different expectations about how reform should be implemented, (4) a lack of flexibility in bureaucracies to address problems, and (5) a failure to understand the incentive structures and constraints that motivate managers' behavior" (p. x-xi).
Rugh's approach is "hands-on," rather than "dressed up," depicting projects as they actually happened in the field. Although theoretical debates are not Rugh's primary concern, her accessible, real-case explanations are helpful in making better sense of some familiar theories. For example, she touches upon the differences between Western, individualistic culture and Eastern, communal-based values and highlights the Western emphasis on factors such as gender issues and child centrality. "Where indigenous systems [in Islamic countries] deviate from this model, they are often criticized as being backward or ineffective" (p. 11). Rugh concludes that the importance of local needs and values should not be ignored by the mostly Western donors with their own objectives and ideals. She goes as far as to state that "family decisions about sending [children to school] or limiting children's participation were much more rational than they might otherwise seem in terms of rural needs at the time" (p. 51). As another example, unlike the conventional belief that having conservative and rural parents is the cause of low literacy, especially of girls, several studies have shown that "probably the single most important factor limiting enrollment" is rather the "lack of accessible facilities" (p.18). This is a significant statement, since not too long ago being Muslim was considered by many in the West as the cause of underdevelopment.
Rugh admits that her book does not engage with theoretical debates, which indeed seems unnecessary due to her pragmatic objective. At the outset, she asks, "What are our motivations in 'doing development'?" and then adds that the book cannot answer this and similar questions (p. 3). The questions that she leaves unanswered, such as "'who determines what is ethical'" (p. 8)? are extensively worked on in other fields. More theoretically minded researchers interested in the problem that Rugh tackles practically might be advised to bring a conceptual dimension to this work by visiting arguments developed by ethicists and philosophers, such as Peter Singer, David Miller, Richard Miller, Jan Narveson and Thomas Pogge (cf., Deen Chatterjee, ed., The Ethics of Assistance, 2007). Doing so reinforces the theoretical side of the text.
In addition, there is a shortcoming that can be simply remedied in future editions. The text looks like a very informative and well-organized report on the development of educational systems. Nonetheless, it is a report. That is, the author neatly pinpoints the problems, constraints, opportunities and solutions but avoids laying down any methodological or conceptual framework. Rugh's wise emphasis on the central role of local agents, the documentation of previous studies, the importance of incentives, the availability of facilities, etc., makes it appropriate and even exciting to methodologically advance her research by using interpretive techniques (cf., P. Schwartz-Shea and D. Yanow, Interpretive Research Design, 2012). This is another side of the text that could be improved as well.
Making use of ethical theories and interpretive methodology in conjunction with Rugh's text is worth a try. This is, however, a suggestion for readers who wish to advance Rugh's research, rather than a critique of Rugh for what she has not done. She accomplishes what is promised in the very first lines of International Development in Practice: "The aim of this book is to provide some real-life examples of donor-assisted primary education from the past several decades. It is not a 'how to' book nor is it heavy on theory. Instead it describes what happened in actual projects..." (p. ix).