Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for February, 2011

Education in Good Hands

February 28, 2011 By: Kari Category: General No Comments →

Below is a blog post by Andy Brouwer and his reflections on a recent visit to Chrauk Tiek.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Education in Good Hands
by Andy Brouwer

I paid a visit to the the village of Chrauk Tiek this morning, some three hours from Phnom Penh and more than a hour and half into the countryside from the nearest main highway, Route 5. It’s what you’d call getting off the beaten track only because there’s not really any reason for travelers, tourists, expats, or whoever to go there. Unless you are involved with the charitable organization Sustainable Schools International that supports…more.

Push Back

February 24, 2011 By: Kari Category: 2011 February Trip, General No Comments →

The very poor community of Sre Chrap has done something completely stunning.  They said, “No.”

Sre Chrap is a village about 2 km from Chrauk Tiek. The primary school there was built by Lutheran World Services but in the 10 years I have been visiting the area, I have never seen a qualified teacher teaching there. For years, the assigned government teachers did not show up but collected their government salary and hired a local woman with a 4th grade education to do their job for $20 bucks a month. Needless to say, the outcome for students was abysmal and the school often sat empty. Those that had a bicycle traveled to Chrauk Tiek. Because of the overcrowding this caused in our classrooms, we started working with the Sre Chrap community this year to help the community develop their skills and resources to support the school.

This community has really impressed me. They are more poor, more marginalized than the other villages we work in. All the children are very malnourished and most of them don’t attend school regularly. Yet with a little encouragement from Paul, the parents have come together and built a fence and a humble house for the teachers. We helped by suppling some building materials but they did the rest, including offering food to the new government trained teacher who finally showed up this year. This woman is newly married and pregnant and the government sent her to this village with no housing and NO PAY for 6 months. Once she and 3 other trained teachers started showing up consistently, the school committee asked if we could help supplement their salary because the teachers were spending their afternoons foraging for food. We said “yes” but required an accountability system. The students came up with a great solution.

A student council of six 5th and 6th graders was formed to take the attendance of the teachers and submit it to the SSC. The $50 salary bonus they receive from us is based on this attendance record. Still 2 teachers were showing up late for the 7 am start to the school day, so the students decided to deduct 30 minutes of salary (1000 riel) for tardiness of 1 minute or more. Last month $14 was deducted from 2 teachers for tardiness. This month the teachers have not been late once.  With the teachers present everyday, student attendance has tripled.

The community-driven approach is based on two questions we ask the villagers: what is the problem you see at the school? How would you like to solve it? We enable them to pursue their solution with leadership support and financial support. This community is really responding to the message we bring about value of Participation, Communication, Honesty, Trust and Solidarity.

They are using these new skills to deal with a new problem that illustrates the unintended consequences of Aid. Now that the school is doing better, The World Food Program has offered  Take Home Rations to 20 of the poorest families and the school principle is deeply concerned about how they will choose the lucky few because it will create so much jealousy and divide the fragile solidarity of the school supporting committee.   He asked for our help.

Paul being Paul was able to help the people feel safe and speak out their true opinion on the matter. They don’t want a Take Home Ration for 20 people because they see it causing conflict in their community. They want a school breakfast program to benefit all the children equally. We wrote down what their reasons, here’s what they said:

  1. the poorest families are poor because they are lazy and playing cards all day
  2. they do not value education
  3. they will get the rice and stop study
  4. they will get the rice and exchange it for money to buy palm wine
  5. if these people get the benefit, it will make the other poor people who participate in supporting the school jealous
  6. it will breakdown solidarity in the community support of the school
  7. it will make more trouble and problems to solve
  8. they have an opinion to offer school breakfast for the whole school first

The sent the principle back to the World Food Program with the answer:  we don’t want Take Home Rations for a few, we want school breakfast for all. The principle is very nervous about going back to the higher ups with this message. But we told him to say he is there to serve the community, they are his boss, and this is what they want.

Pulling off a WFP school breakfast requires a huge amount of community participation, building a stockroom, a kitchen, supplying kitchen implements and stoves, and volunteers to cook every morning. The WFP supplies none of these necessities. This community is ready to provide it with our support.

Can you imagine the courage it took to push back?  They said NO to a UN program because it isn’t good for their community. At the grassroots level they spoke the truth and are bravely asking the UN to give them something they actually want.

The principle is taking this message up the food chain and I am taking it down. I have an appointment with the World Food program director in Phnom Penh at 2:30 today.

We had a couple visitors come from another NGO come check out what we were doing who left unimpressed. I guess they expected to “see” more. Our progress is not easily visible at a glance. The real and lasting change is not so much in the physical things you see at the school but the experience of change in people’s hearts. Sustainability in our view is about empowering villagers to help themselves. Unfortunately, it appears that one of the biggest factors stacked against them is the Aid community itself who see everything from the top down, generating an attitude in the villagers that there is no reason to participate because the Angka is rich and will do everything for them. Sometimes it feels like I am swimming up stream.

My son Grady got sick from not eating in the village because he hates Khmer food. We came PP to get him some medicine and western food to help the situation and will return to the village on Friday. I feel stretched in two directions between my love of the work I am doing and my responsibilities as a mom. I feel entirely grateful to Paul for his innate talent and ability to keep things in hand without me.

Sixty People Showed Up!

February 21, 2011 By: Kari Category: 2011 February Trip, General No Comments →

Bugs are crawling all over my computer.   We’ve had rain the past two days,  the power from the generator just cut off and my screen in the darkness is attracting everything living thing with wings.  This would not bother me so much except that beetles are the size of golf balls and downright nasty in the hair.   Gonna make this quick.

We’ve had a some visitors in our new guest huts for a couple days.   Elizbeth Gullam and her Cambodian colleague, Ken, from Cambodia Tomorrow and Jeanne Sirkin, a donor and SSI board member with her 13 year old Cambodian son Gabe.   Grady is thrilled to have an English speaking playmate.  The villagers are thrilled to have two paying guests whose hut rental fees will contribute almost $300 dollars to the school.   Both huts rented for 2 nights can pay a teacher for a month.  Now thats the income generating sustainability we’re looking for!  It’s never that  simple though, we still have to build the skills necessary to run the business.  That will take some time.

Interestingly, Paul and the teachers have also been experimenting with a pilot micro-loan program.   They started with $500 of their own money, they picked a group of 10 people to make small loans to in $50 increments.  They collect 3% interest and redistribute the money every month.  It’s the cheapest money available in the village and they’ve already grown the bank to $3000 on their own!  No one in the group can get a new loan disbursement until all the money is collected.  Once a year the principle is also collected.   We have an idea that Paul calls Community Prosper Bank, with every $10,000 in the bank we can generate $300 a month – enough to pay a teacher!   If the teachers can help with the book keeping, they can basically generate their own income and help the community prosper at the same time.   Now that’s the solidarity we’re looking for!

All we need now is Trust.   Um, yeah…this is Cambodia… the land of the Khmer Rouge not so long ago….there is no Trust.

That’s why we work on 5 core values:  Participation, Communication, Honesty, Trust and Solidarity.   These are not easy things for war survivors to learn but without them we cannot progress.

The good news is that we’ve made huge progress on step one, Participation; 60 people showed up for the School Supporting Committee meeting!   Holy Cow that’s amazing.  Sure, some of it’s because the white lady is here but alot of it is because Paul has done such a great job of modeling our 5 core values, especially Honesty and Trust.  We have built the foundation of a meaningful relationship with the community.   A lot of people are smiling.  Where does this Hope come from?   Fairness.

Paul starts the meeting with a joke to get everyone’s attention and set a relaxed tone.  Working with illiterate people is a bit like working with first graders, you have to be entertaining, simple and direct.   Paul and I work the meeting in a bilingual melodrama.  To my amazement, no one fell asleep and everyone seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say.   Using corn seeds, each individual person indicated what they will contribute this year and 48 people marked Participation.   Wow, that’s amazing, and a good thing too. We followed that exercise with a  call for volunteers to help host 28 guests from Saudi Arabia next week and 10 women volunteered.   Community ownership is step one in the process.

The next project to tackle is a sewing class.  Paul has to focus his attention on building a teacher house at the secondary school, so getting the sewing porject off the ground is something the community will need to do on its own.   They believe they can do it and so do I.   They decide to hold a meeting to begin planning the sewing class on March 2.  Charuk Tiek School is really running very well.  I see a light at the end of the tunnel, sustainability is not so far off.

The big problem we have now is that secondary school down the road… good lord, what a mess.

A Welcome Fit for a King

February 18, 2011 By: Kari Category: General No Comments →

After 3 hours on a dusty dirt road, we arrived at Chrauk Tiek Primary School. A crowd of children lined the entrance and cheered as we entered. High fives all way way down the row and snappies of all the cute signs made in English for our benefit:  “Welcome Back Kari and Grady”,  “We miss you”, “You are beautiful”,  “Thank you so much for coming back again.” BIG smiles. This is my kind of celebrity. When I first started coming to this village 10 years ago, the children shied away. They were scared of me. Now they are confident!  They swarm around me like bees vying for my attention. It is wonderful to see happy children at school.

All the teachers are smiling too. Their job has become more than a school, its a family.

Our program directer, Paul, beams with pride as he shows me all the improvements. A new thatch hut to house the preschool class and library hour outdoors where it’s cool. Big thanks to our Minnesota Cambodian-American supporters who donated that!  It’s getting much use. New flowers and shade trees planted everywhere. A shady vine canopy over the water well. A new mechanical room and generator, donated by another visitor, providing electricity and lights in the classrooms! 100 dragon fruit trees growing 4 to 10 feet tall, in two years they hope to sell the fruit to generate income. An expanded playground with monkey bars and chin up bars. CLEAN restrooms! A new underground pipe system to deliver water from the water tanks and fill the clay pot cisterns around the school yard and irrigate the plants.

Behind the school, on our land by the river, the new guest huts are nearing completion. They are fantastic. The carpenters are still mounting the doors and window shutters as they move our stuff in, including the 4 queen mattresses we brought strapped on the roof of our van. The huts will be good income generators for the school to host our volunteers, sponsors and adventurous travels. They are comfortable, clean and cool. You can swing on hammock under your thatch roof porch and listen to the children laughing all day until sunset.

All of the other schools in the area have barren school yards that are horribly hot. You never see children playing in them but our schoolyard is never with out  children.

It’ a pretty cool feeling to look at the fruit of your labor and say: Yes, this is good. The difficulties over the years have nearly beaten me down to the point of giving up. Paul Chuk came to SSI at just the right time. We are now manifesting community solidarity, empowerment and a sustainable system that was my a dream. It has been worth it.

Tomorrow I visit the secondary school down the road, and that is another story…. The challenges start all over. Whenever I hear my inner voice saying, “I’m getting too old for this,” I remind myself that Paul is 60. If he is willing to stay, I am willing to continue. Together we are building the human resources from this community to replace us, but it will take a long time. One could have a worse outcome for their life’s work.

The Questions That Plague Me

February 14, 2011 By: Kari Category: 2011 February Trip, General No Comments →

Today’s eating adventure  – honey bee larvae! A lady came round with a large plate of honeycomb filled with the baby bees and dripping with honey.   No, I didn’t eat it, I don’t do bugs, adults or their offspring.  But my travel companions, Paul and Kong and 10-year-old Noah had some, telling me it was juicy and delicious.  I dared Grady to try it but he refused.  He wouldn’t even take 20 bucks to eat a fried tarantula.    It does strike me as odd that people starve in Cambodia when anything living is considered a food source. I’m sure bee larvae is quite nutritious.

We were in Kampong Speu for the day visiting our 3 scholarship students living at our pilot high school student center.  We had the opportunity to visit the orphanage in Kampong Speu, supported in part by a small NGO called Cambodia Tomorrow that is run by some friends of mine.  We were there to check out the English class to see if we can collaborate by giving our rural kids on scholarship access to a good English class.

I was very impressed with the English class.  They have a nice building with 2 classrooms completely decked out with top notch learning materials and two good quality English teachers, Mr. Poch and Mr. Thinearng.   I am excited that our scholarship students are invited to study here, and a little surprised that there are only 6 or 7 students in each class. Every child in this country yearns to learn English.  These are the lucky ones, they’re orphans with western support.   But what about the rural kids?  It sure looks like a better deal to be an orphan here than to be toiling in the countryside with your family. Most orphans in this country have at least one living parent and other living family members.  They may not be good care providers but children are rarely alone in this world.

After the class, I talked with the teachers.  They have excellent teaching skills and English skills which is rare in this country; I needle around for their story.   Sure enough, they are government teachers, assigned to a secondary school in a rural village about 60 kilometers away.   Their government salary of $80 per month for 12 hours of teaching is not enough to live on, so they don’t show up.   Instead they sell their salary to a local, unqualified person who they pay 40 bucks to take their place.   They have no idea if that person is showing up.    Cambodia Tomorrow pays them $300 for 25 hours of teaching per week, which they can live on, so the basic economics of the situation prevails and masses of rural kids loose and the situation perpetuates.

It seems kind of pathetic that the Cambodian government can’t come up with $300 a month to pay their teachers a living wage.   The UN has declared that Cambodia will not meet the millennium development goal of primary education for all by 2015.  How come all those PhD’s at the UN can’t figure out that there is a very simple solution  – pay the teachers more!   If every teacher in this country were paid $300 per month, the education problem would be solved in 3 years.    Bill Gates and Warren Buffet could fix it with their spare change.  Why must we let this pathetic struggle continue?

We do-gooders in the NGO community have to think about the unintended consequences of our actions.  We all have our focus and are doing what is best to progress our own mission, but how does this fit into the bigger picture of what needs to change?   Are we a part of the problem?

These are the questions that plague me and help me shape SSI’s approach.  We have basically told our communities to forget the government.   They don’t care.  We must find a way that the community can support teachers with a living wage on their own.   And the teachers must be local kids who care about that community, with the qualifications to give the knowledge that Mr. Poch and Mr. Thinearng give the handful of kids in the orphanage to an entire generation in their village.   If that doesn’t change, nothing will.