In my recent article I tried to outline the context within which United World Schools were trying to establish new primary schools in rural Northeast Cambodia.
Throughout my time supporting the charity, it was frequently commented that the building of the schools, was in fact many respects the easy part. I’m not certain I agree; securing any charitable funds is increasingly hard in this day and age with so many places competing for funds, and the geographical location of these villages often meant organising logistics was particularly troublesome, but I completely understand the rationale underpinning the comment. Because the goal of the charity was not simply to provide schools to villages unable to obtain them, but to ensure that the right schools were developed in those places, and that they were then supported effectively and thus sustained.
Driving to one of the villages one day, an illustration of this complexity stood starkly in the form of a newly established school built by another NGO. This building; bright, well-built and standing proud amid a small village having been finished the previous year, sadly was empty and went unused. Despite securing the funding for this new school, insufficient planning and organisation had gone into embedding the school into the village and the lives of the community there.
Numerous commentators down the years have continually highlighted the many complexities of working in developing countries, not just Cambodia, and these appear to relate as frequently to implementation as they do to funding. From what I was told, the school we passed was simply built too quickly, rushed into an area where there wasn’t a sufficiently stable local population to sustain it, using mechanisms to support teachers that just were not robust enough. In short, after an initial burst of motivation and attention, the project lost its direction, its engine and ultimately its momentum.
Writing about such issues from an outsider’s perspective of course only ever makes these elements seem all the more straightforward and logical, yet of course the opposite is very much the case. Their complexity and the need for thorough analysis appears though to very much underpin the work of UWS in this region, having turned down the opportunity to build new schools in certain areas because they have not satisfied key criteria the charity has developed over time. Reading this from afar this may of course seem illogical – surely a charity’s aim should be to introduce any schools into the area, regardless of where they area and to enable every student to attend?
Whilst I appreciate that perspective, having worked closely with the team and having worked for charities myself previously, I understand why UWS needs to be particularly focused in its work. They know their strengths as well as what is needed to successfully maintain a school and so endeavour to keep that as the focus of their work. Being a really active, small, young charity they don’t yet have the flexibility, capacity or resources to offer everything to anyone, nor arguably should they, when their work there is to support and add capacity to the national government.
Similarly, they have also spent considerable time working on what is needed to effectively sustain these schools within the villages themselves: recruiting community teachers to work alongside those appointed by the government, sharing resources and training on a regular basis through their educational team who head off to these remote locations on their motorbikes each day and establishing a School Support Committee in each village with responsibilities for maintaining the progress of the school within the community.
These components are all parts of a longer-term vision, which recognises the strength of their model is for the schools in time to be owned and led by the villagers themselves. But this process takes time, ensuring the school is successfully embedded into the village, that villagers understand the steps needed to sustain a working school, and that they have adapted to these new approaches such that it can then sustain itself with them at the helm. So, yes, perhaps building the school is the easy part…
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