What we can learn about policy circulation by using non-western case studies

Europe of Knowledge |

University of Burundi. Photo from http://www.ub.edu.bi/

Olivier Provini

The main focus of the paper ‘Transnational circulations of university reforms: the policy-making of the LMD in Burundi’ is to question public policy processes in so-called “fragile” states. Indeed, my research deals with policy analysis in non-western contexts with a special focus on African case studies. Analysing public action in the majority of African contexts raises a certain number of questions given that analytical frameworks are mostly based on empirical and sectorial experiences from studies conducted in North America and Europe. Moreover, institutional and social capacities in Africa are sometimes so low that the very concepts of the state or policies could be problematic. The category of “fragile” states would question several results of the literature on policy science, especially on policy transfer studies. In “fragile” states, the policy process would be delegated to external agents, who would implement internationally manufactured and projected models into national and local policy sectors. The specific aim of my research is to discuss the relation between the dependence of international aid and the circulation of public policies. Therefore, I use the empirical example of the implementation of the European higher education model LMD (“Licence-Master-Doctorate”) at the University of Burundi in Africa.


What is the LMD model at the University of Burundi about?

Since 2007, the Burundian higher education sector has been involved in a reform process which is financed by the French cooperation. Through the implementation of the PARES programme (“Projet d’Appui au Renforcement de l’Enseignement Supérieur”), the Burundian government, with the assistance of the French donors, has organised a new tertiary system, which has been widely destructured through the Burundian civil war (1993-2006). The aim of the French cooperation and the Burundian government has been to implement the LMD reform throughout the whole territory including the private institutions in order to improve the recognition of the university community. The reform is structured into several steps: i) the creation of a steering group to supervise the reform; ii) an overview of the situation of the sector after the civil war; iii) and an audit of the university curricula and different classes to develop new programmes at the University of Burundi. The making of new curricula and classes for the University of Burundi is achieved by imitating the programmes offered in European universities, where most of the Burundian experts, lecturers and professors have pursued their university education. A Burundian expert explains this copy-and-paste practice:

“First, there is the task of doing literature research. Which means, for instance, at the Faculty of Law [of the University of Burundi], we use the example of the Faculty of Law of [the French University of] Nanterre. And we study the structure of the organisation of the teaching units, the included teaching elements, and after that, depending on the needs and the priorities of the country, we then see which courses we have to adjust and which one we pick. That is the way we proceed. We do not invent the wheel which is turning”[i].


How can policy-makers (re)negotiate the policy process in Burundi?

The making of the university curricula and classes implicates discussions on numerous technical aspects, which are widely depoliticised in Burundi. Given this technical nature of the policy, experts play a major role in the reform process which can also explain the top-down circulation of the external engineering. Nevertheless, some elements of the LMD reform aggregate critical challenges, which involve political stakeholders and issues. In the paper, I show that the transfer of the LMD model in Burundi presents an opportunity for political and academic stakeholders to reshape the system of elite formation and to reconsider the delicate balance between Hutu and Tutsi in the administration, which is one of the core questions of the higher education system in the Burundian post-conflict situation.


For instance, the debates on the Law on Higher Education of November 2011 question the norms regulating the appointment process within the university administration regarding the ethnic balance between Hutu and Tutsi occupying higher positions of political responsibility or in the public administration. During an interview, one of the policy makers reveals that the debates in the Burundian Parliament are essentially related to the issue of the appointments of Deans based on ethnic criteria rather than on technical aspects of the implementation of the LMD in the private and public institutions:

“The law was not well understood by the Assembly. I have to say that our Parliament is not like yours, the quality of debates is very poor [he is laughing]! […]. We could see that the tendency was rather to consider only political aspects rather than academic and scientific aspects. The debates were related, for instance, to the appointment of Deans, it was rather that: of which ethnicity and of which political party must the Deans come from?”[ii].


What are the impacts for the theoretical debate?

The case study of the LMD reform in Burundi reveals several insights to the theoretical debate:

First, the empirical study of the circulation of the LMD reform highlights two contrasting results. When focussing on the technical aspects of the reform, like the establishment of the curricula offered at the University of Burundi, we observe a top-down transfer. The local administrators of the institution imitate, copy and paste the programmes offered in European universities. However, by shifting the focus on the voting process of the Law of November 2011, my paper highlights new and diverging results. The transfer of the LMD model in Burundi presents an opportunity for political and academic stakeholders to transform the system of elite formation and power-sharing between Hutu and Tutsi, which constitutes one of the core question of the higher education system in the Burundian post-conflict situation.


Second, the study confirms broader results of the scientific literature on policy transfers in Western contexts about the (re)negotiation of policy models. Even in a “fragile” state, which heavily depends on the financial support of donors and international organizations, policy circulations are shaped by bargaining and compromising between international, national and local actors.


Finally, we can discuss, through the theoretical framework of policy analysis, the adjectives describing and categorizing the capacities and attributes of states (as “fragile”, “failed”, “ghost”, “neopatrimonial”, “liberal” or “developing”). By using concepts of policy analysis, this paper questions the category and the nature of “fragile” states. I demonstrate to what extent policy analysis highlights the multifaceted nature of the state rather than restricting its shape to one characteristic.



This blog post is based on the paper “Transnational circulations of university reforms: the policy-making of the LMD in Burundi”. This paper won the 2017 Award of Excellent Paper from an Emerging Scholar from the ECPR Standing Group ‘Politics of Higher Education, Research and Innovation’. The paper was presented at the International Conference on Public Policy in Singapore in 2017.


Olivier Provini is an Assistant Professor of political science at the University of La Reunion (France) and an affiliate member of the Legal Research Center (CRJ, University of La Reunion). In his PhD he dealt with the circulation of higher education reforms in East Africa, by comparing reform processes in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. His scientific interest lies in public policy analysis, state building and higher education reforms. He currently coordinates the research programme “Making public policies in Africa” (FAPPA) at Sciences Po Bordeaux (France). He is the editor of a special issue dealing with public policies in Africa published in the French review “Gouvernement et action publique. He has also published a comparative study on the marketization of higher education reforms in Kenya and Tanzania in the journal Higher Education.


[i] Interview with a Burundian expert (27/03/2013, Bujumbura).

[ii] Interview with a policy maker (27/03/2013, Bujumbura).