Sustainability and New Models: Lessons Learned

Posted on: May 26, 2009 Posted by: Manin Oem Comments: 0

Sustainability and New Models: Lessons Learned

When we began working at Chanleas Dai in 2005, we did so without background knowledge about the area, and without a plan that aimed at sustainable, community-driven programs.  We made many mistakes, always intending to “do good” but lacking the understanding of what that really meant.  What we quickly realized was that intending to do good does not always lead to positive end results, especially in international development where there are no standards, oversight, or regulations to ensure that best practices are being followed.  Though our English, Computer, Bike-to-School, and Literacy programs have been very successful in many ways, we recognize that there is very little sustainable about these programs.  If PEPY closed its doors tomorrow, we would have helped a great many individuals, built six schools, and provided jobs and training for hundreds.  Is that enough?  Or should our goal be to create a change that is less about numbers and more about lasting impact?  What we are aiming for now is facilitating changes in education that outlast our organization, and can become self-sustaining programs run by the communities within which they are located. 

Sustainability is a question that plagues any responsible NGO that is trying to work themselves out of a job.  What’s the exit strategy and how can you make sure that your influence doesn’t end when the money stops?  We’ve been busy learning over the past several years, networking with others that we see are making sustainable impacts, and trying to learn as much as we can from models that work.  Some of the lessons have been obvious, and easy to see in Chanleas Dai: infrastructure matters, but training, resources, and investment in individuals matters more.  Systems matter, community engagement matters, root causes such as health, disease, and food security matter.   Relationships and participatory decision-making matters.  Trust matters.

Other lessons have come through networking, through seeing innovative models which have been developed both here and across the globe.  The models we like best are those which rely on community engagement, perhaps provide capital costs, and then offer training and support. We’d like to share some of these models in more detail; because they embody values we respect and believe in.  We’re also looking to pull from parts of each of these models in our future work.

Through the process of working with our Child Clubs, Eco-clubs, and school construction projects, we’ve been slowly forming relationships with the six primary schools of Chanleas Dai Commune and the communities surrounding them.  In the next school year, we’d like to strengthen these relationships and expand our work to several other primary schools in Chanleas Dai, however we know we’d like to start and continue any primary school program in a very different way than we begun at Chanleas Dai.  These models have been what we’ve been learning about, and discussing for any further expansion of PEPY programs.  Though they are quite different, they all focus on capacity building, the provision of needed resources, and strong elements of participation and local ownership.

Income Generation for Ongoing Projects

READ Global in Nepal builds community libraries.  Before a community can apply, they must first put together a proposal for an income generating project that will pay the costs of sustaining the librarian’s salary and basic maintenance to the library.  Some have market stalls they rent out underneath the library, others have a garden outside, selling the produce to pay the librarian’s salary.  Only when the community can sustain the library and has a bank account, committee, and several months of seed funding does READ provide the construction costs, books, and training.  After providing seed funding, assistance with project management, and help starting the income generating project, READ steps back in an advisory and monitoring role.

Capacity Building and Community Mobilization

Schools for Children of Cambodia (SCC)’s Primary School Development Program works in four schools in Siem Reap.  The PSDP Modelis a holistic approach to identifying a community’s primary and preschool education needs, focused on mobilizing community members toimplement school development plans of their own making.  Instead of supplementing teacher salaries, providing their own  supplementary classes, or bringing all of their own ideas into the schools, SCC works on a three year long process developing School Support Committees to be their own agents of change within the schools.  They work together to create a school plan, develop and lead community workshops, coordinate extra training opportunities through the Ministry of Education and local NGOs, and provide resources in partnership with community donations.  One-time needs like school construction or kindergarten resources are provided, but only after the plan has been created, including a community contribution (finances, labor, etc.) to supplement SCC’s financial support.

After three years, SCC’s goal is that the School Support Committee has the capacity to plan, monitor, and implement projects within the school, with the experience to problem-solve when they encounter roadblocks.

Training, Training, and more Training

Caring for Cambodia works in several schools in Siem Reap.  The first time we walked into their primary school, I felt like a kid in a candy store.  It’s an ideal version of a Cambodian school.  Beautiful, welcoming, and child-friendly, with present teachers,adequate resources, shelves full of books, and well-trained staff.  CFC focuses on training, with a skilled teacher trainer on-site nearly everyday working with teachers individually to build their capacity.  Their trainer uses Ministry standards of “Child-Friendly Schools”, working within the Khmer educational system to provide individualized support to help teachers recognize their potential.  The program focuses not only on training teachers, but also developing a mentor system by which the training can continue once the trainer leaves.

No model is perfect, and I’m sure READ, SCC, and CFC have their own challenges and questions about the sustainability of their programs.  We’re also still learning, still asking questions, and still working on creating the best fit for PEPY to make our programs sustainable.

Will that be a three-year primary school development program in all six schools of Chanleas Dai?  Investing in the high school or junior high and bringing skilled work to Kralanh through partnerships or a for-profit venture?  Is it creating a system of teacher trainers and mentor teachers?  Is it a small-scale community-based organization running on income generating projects?  Many or all of the above?  We don’t quite know yet, but we want all of you out there to know that it’s always in our minds.    

A priority to us is working with our team and the community to work out the most sustainable way we can find to make a difference in education in Chanleas Dai, including an exit strategy for our programs to ensure that their impacts will be around longer than we will be.