We recognize that many of the projects we have taken on in the past, and even some of the programs we are still doing now, are not “sustainable”. In next month’s newsletter, we will look at how we at PEPY define that over-used-and-not-often-attained concept. We will highlight which of our programs we think are the most “sustainable” based on what we have learned over the past four years of implementing PEPY programs and which are the least, and why. We will also examine what changes we are making in some of our actions to make our programs “more sustainable” and in which areas we think “sustainability” is a poorly-defined goal.
All that next month… for now, we wanted to highlight a bit of the history of PEPY and the path we have been on as we worked to continually improve our impact. When we first started PEPY, our organization didn’t exist apart from the fundraising we did for other groups’ programs. We funded the first PEPY-backed school through an organization that builds schools all around Cambodia (in partnership with the World Bank, though we didn’t understand those logistics at the time). We funded much more than our original goal in that first year, and eventually co-funded the construction an additional school as well as started an English and computer program, as that was the next step our partner was willing to facilitate.
What we found when we showed up to see the school we had spent a year funding to build was that it looked like the building might not have been needed after all. The rooms were empty, or half empty, very few teachers were in sight, there were not nearly enough students to fill all of the classes (as our funding provided a new 5-classroom building added to an already existing 7 classrooms). The only class where the teacher showed up regularly was the English/Computer course we had funded. The teacher also happened to be the first college educated person almost anyone in the village had met.
Very quickly, dreams changed from “shop keeper” to “English teacher”, from “finishing grade 6” to “finishing grade 12 and then going to school in Phnom Penh like our English teacher did.” Soon kids were reading in English, writing their names, and sounding out English words on the board. It wasn’t until we decided to try to find a way to do baseline tests of the education levels at the school that we realized that many of the kids who seemed the brightest in English class couldn’t even write their names in Khmer. No one had taught them—or at least they hadn’t had the right techniques, taken the time needed, or found a way to deal with the diversity of levels within their classroom to help the majority of students learn to read.
We soon realized that we were doing a huge “disservice to these students” by helping them learn English before they could learn Khmer, quoting Doug Beacom, a volunteer in Cambodia the time. We also realized we had supported development techniques we no longer believed in: coming in with ideas strictly from the outside, deciding what the “needs” in an area are by limited observations or statistics, and taking action without working with the local communities involved. You might be thinking, “You mean neither PEPY nor the group you worked with ASKED if a school or English program was wanted?” Sure, someone probably asked, but we have learned that asking, when you hold the purse strings, is never enough. The answer will almost always be whatever is perceived to be the right answer to keep the purse strings around. Plus, who wouldn’t want a new school building or English classes when the option was on the table? That doesn’t mean that those things were priorities or actually verbalized “needs” in the area.
We asked ourselves: What use is a $50,000 investment in a school, if students are still not being educated? We looked around at what other groups in the area were doing and tried to find programs that were building the capacity of teachers, not just building schools. We found some great programs, like KAPE, but most of them were working in areas far from Siem Reap. Although we surely weren’t qualified to be making decisions about education in rural Cambodia, we knew that the programs we had been exposed to in the area could be improved upon. We knew we had the opportunity to bring in more funds for education, but didn’t want to build more buildings before we felt confident that the building was housing improved educational opportunities. We would need the power to hire local staff and make our own decisions, so we registered PEPY as its own NGO in Cambodia, and decided to focus more on Khmer Literacy. We began hiring local staff, not merely from Cambodia, but from the areas in which we were working, as we learned that the urban/rural divide was nearly as insurmountable a chasm in some cases as the foreign/local divide.
We recognized that there were barriers to the opportunity to access schools, and began perhaps our least “sustainable” program, the Bike-to-School Program (BTSP). Rather than focusing solely on the more long term and arduous process of building up school programs to the point where education is at a high enough quality that would garnish increased outside demand for the programs, we grew impatient and wanted to make sure that the kids in the village could access school NOW, so we started the BTSP. We recognized that students needed to “earn” the bike, but our efforts to make that seem to be the case meant we kept the bike as a carrot for 6th grade completion, even though the majority of students were being lost way before that point.
We saw that new schools and bikes and more student attendance did not increase the level of education being offered at the school, and that investing in teachers was the key area we needed to focus on. We debated what support we should give to government teachers. When would we be undermining the responsibilities of the government and when would we be asking too much of people not paid enough to commit to doing their jobs full time? We began looking for any teacher training opportunities we could find, but found that it was much easier to find “Origami Training Classes” (not joking!) than early literacy classes and much easier to find funders to build schools than it was to find programs designed to help teachers improve. We hired more of our own staff and began to design our own training programs while at the same time grabbing any opportunities we could find for outside training.
Many ideas still came from “the outside”, and many still do. We had internal debates about when that was ok, and when it wasn’t. Some of us thought it was ok to bring in new concepts like starting a “literacy camp” when the idea of a summer camp was a foreign concept, while others advocated community-led decision making and research methods like PRAs (Participatory Rural Appraisals) rather than surveys. We tried both. We hired a Cambodian manager for our programs, and she brought her own ideas for sustainability, focusing on developing the capacity of the community’s young leaders. She brought us the Child-to-Child program, which she had been trained in many years prior and conducted our first PRAs. We began to learn what the community thought of our programs, how they really ranked their own needs, and what ideas they had for the improvements they wanted to be a part of.
We began to see change, incrementally. A library program and later a literacy program began to change how children viewed books and how the classrooms were used during free time. Teachers began to request that PEPY conduct training on this or that rather than the requests for radios, tvs, and teacher laptops we had previously heard. Teachers started coming to school more often, in many cases nearly twice as often, and students stayed in school longer.
And yet, we were still giving stuff away with limited accountability or investment from the community and making many decisions without community involvement. It’s hard to be patient. Our programs seemed to have diverged down two paths, the “invest in the now and see results soon: in this class, in this person, in THIS generation” path, and the “don’t do, teach; don’t give, inspire: incremental change will happen” path. In many ways, we are still moving along both of these paths, something we will discuss further next month in this series.
Next month we will look more critically at the design of our programs and answer the question: What is PEPY doing now, and how “sustainable” do we think those programs are? In the meantime, thanks for YOUR part in the learning outlined above. Thank you for teaching us, supporting us, and allowing us to change and adapt our programs as we find new and better ways to improve the opportunities for rural communities to provide high quality education to their students. And thanks for continuing to push us to learn more and be more responsible. One of the best lessons we have learned over the last four years has been that we can ALWAYS do things better, and that when we become complacent and think “it’s good enough” we lose our ability to strive for great changes. For our part in this newsletter, we will continue to strive to keep you informed about our work and provide a more critical look at the decisions we are making, if you will promise to keep reading. See you next month!
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