Yon Sel Dwet Pa Ka Manje Kalalou “One Cannot Eat Okra with One Finger”
Purport – Work Together (from a Creole proverb)
By Demeter Russafov/Dharma
For decades Haiti has been torn by internal conflicts, social instability, natural and man-made disasters, and a severe and self-perpetuating cycle of economic stagnation. The prolonged crisis has affected the national education system, rendering it incapable of meeting the increased scholastic demand in the country. The government’s ability to support education has been consistently shrinking – today’s public schools in Haiti can accept only 32% of the total student-age population (2002 Report, Ministry of Education). The rest, at least those who can afford it, are absorbed by usually small and unregulated private schools. While the national education policies in theory have set the framework of a fairly innovative and progressive model of education, the reality in most schools is staggering. Learning is mostly linear, repetitious, and devoid of creativity, play, and experiential learning. Instruction in art, science, environment, or sports is rudimentary at best. The quality of instruction suffers from a lack of teacher training, supplies and materials, and from substandard school conditions. Most rural schools consist of nothing more than a few wooden poles and sheets of rusty corrugated steel panels assembled on top of compacted dirt. Kids sit a few too many on old rickety desks, in spaces sizzling with heat and noise.Haiti is not alone in the swelling club of countries where school clocks seem to have stopped ticking. From Latin America to Africa and Asia; millions of school-age children have no access to high-quality progressive education. At a time when many educational systems are heading to a dead end even in the more wealthy neighbouring countries, Neohumanist Education (referred to in this article as NHE) has arrived vibrant with inherent optimism and full of potential for educational innovation. The odd kid on the block, it stands out with its unique integration of introspection and expansiveness, even when compared to other non-conformist educational philosophies like Waldorf and Montessori. As one high-ranking official of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) commented upon visiting the two NHE projects in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, “Everything I have seen I’m impressed with and touched by. I just don’t understand why you have not been more successful in spreading your ideas out there”.
Now that is a very good question, not just for NHE, but also for its “umbrella” organization. Maybe the answer is not apparent to an outsider, for answering tough questions like this is left to those who have committed their lives to establishing a common vision despite all challenges. I heard such an insider once comparing the current state of NHE to a beautiful flower which has not come to full bloom yet. In the process of defining its identity it will inevitably have to shake loose of its fragility and insecurity. As the systems of administration and management gain structure and experience they will also have to increase the efficiency and efficacy of curriculum creation, central coordination, teacher training, and program support. It is very difficult for educational projects to spread wings in the less economically developed parts of the world because they often have to reinvent the wheels, replicating steps that could be standardized. It will be of extreme importance for all NHE educators to put
their heads together, join their energy, and create a coordinated, innovative, and integrated system of standardization of training, materials, and management structures. When (NOT if) we succeed in this endeavour NHE will spread around the world, playing its modest part in planting the seeds for a brighter tomorrow.The sad state of Haitian schools brings to mind the topic of marginalization, or social isolation. In the context of Haiti it describes the state of helpless desperation and lack of any sort of cohesive vision upon which educators can bring their students up. Self-marginalization is one of the greatest threats to the success of most organizations. Lack of synergies with other partners, and disconnection from the real issues plaguing the surrounding communities usually can cause it. The resulting structures are in-bred, with a limited social exposure, scope, and ability to influence the society at large. Common solutions to the inevitable challenges are harder to spot and integrate within the existing programs. Innovative and dynamic at first, the vision loses speed and creativity. Marginalization usually is the direct result of lack of proper leadership, management structures, and cohesive flow. It is often not noticeable to insiders, who might need help from outsiders like the CIDA coordinator mentioned earlier. Is NHE in danger of marginalizing itself, joining a long line of under-achievers? Or is it at the threshold of a new phase, one characterized by coordination, dynamism and systematic consistency reinforcing its projects world-wide and helping it fulfil its tremendous potential.
The Haiti story is unravelling along with many other stories from all over the world in the spinning of a colourful and optimistic NHE vision. The story doesn’t end with the image of bullet-ridden Port-au-Prince school walls, the hungry and searching eyes of Gonaives street kids, and the sadness pervading the silence at dawn. Over the last decade the Ananda Marga projects here have struggled to overcome their marginalization, gradually picking up speed and
dynamism. Over the last year alone AMURT’s projects in Haiti have drawn more than a million and a half dollars of direct grants for various community activities – investing in schools and feeding programs, rehabilitating water systems and salt basins, strengthening local committees, growing and planting thousands of trees, and building new roads, reservoirs, latrines and water filtration systems. The diversity of partners sponsoring these initiatives speaks of the broad alliances the organization is developing. The list of sponsors includes the IDA’s (International Development Agencies) of Lichtenstein, Canada, US, Sweden and Spain, and the UN WFP and FAO. An integrated education project with a committed CIDA grant of half a million dollars has already drawn the strong interest and support of the Ministry of Education and Youth, and has brought about numerous learning and growth opportunities for those involved. AMURT, and consequently the NHE projects it helps run, seem to have won a victory over the threat of marginalization through a unique combination of integrated programs, community orientation and support, and very systematic development and nurturing of diverse and long-lasting partnerships.
If this is happening in Haiti why is it not in other more stable and structured places? Perhaps the answer lies exactly in the lack of stability – when everything is obviously falling apart humans and institutions seem more willing to embrace new and progressive ideas which challenge the status quo systems. The crisis of Haiti clearly demands innovative solutions, and AMURT’s integrated approach for community development stands out in the pool of conventional linear development paradigms. The organization rehabilitates salt mines yet also seeks to reverse the destruction of mangroves along the coastal villages.
Its programs build water systems and also plant community forests to prevent the dropping of the water table. Its volunteer and professional staff resolve inter-village conflicts which have destroyed water supply to neighbouring communities by restarting the abandoned local school, building a swimming pool, beginning a solar ovens program managed by women, and offering teenagers a daily karate course. They start an innovative community radio station / solar power micro-credit program using scrap PV material from the Czech Republic to decrease the isolation of the region and its dependence on fossil fuel and charcoal. As one volunteer from Italy comments, “What inspires me to work with AMURT is the optimism with which it integrates all of its community projects, always starting from the bottom up, always focusing on those whom it serves.”In countries like Haiti where AMURT and NHE go hand in hand, the influx of development aid inevitably affects the educational initiatives of Ananda Marga. However, the integration of programs and management structures of NHE is inherently present in its holistic philosophy even without the extra relief its “big brother” agency can offer. Here are a few simple tips to take your vision for a well-financed and integrated NHE project from an idea to reality:
Define Vision and Identity
Create opportunities for debates. Involve diverse groups of participants. Interactive and team-building visioning exercises encourage people to develop a keen interest in and identity with the project. Use the small cards method, guiding the participants to put ideas and issues on little pieces of paper, one per piece, then splitting the ideas in groups and drawing together a comprehensive and concise vision. Use this visioning process together with the SWOT method to assess the organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.
Get the system in place
It was probably OK not to balance your family check book when you were on your own; however running an organization requires very careful administrative procedures. Probably the most important step is to create an organizational Manual for Administrative Procedures. The document outlines the detailed steps for every single financial and procedural transaction of the organization. It is crucial in obtaining the trust of the donors, and more importantly it will help create a project management structure which will address issues such as purchasing of materials, payroll, accounting, and administration.
Think Out of the Box
Be creative; Experiment, Push the Limit, Take risks, Don’t miss on any opportunity out there.
In Haiti a school rooftop accommodated a garden started with a few used tires, the experience helped create a wide school-to-home organic gardening concept now funded by CIDA and studied by the Ministry of Education.
Define a modest but independent office space. Decorate it, bring colour and plants, and organize the files and documents. Create business cards, brochures, T-shirts, stickers and logos. Print the vision of the organization, design a website, post regular e-mail updates of program activities. One of AMURT’s education partners in Haiti is DEFI, a French NGO consisting of 4 young people working from an attic space with walls covered with children’s drawings and crafts, reminder whiteboards, and inspirational quotes next to shelves of neatly organized folders. Don’t judge the scope of their work by the casual simplicity of their office environment. They have started from scratch an applied science education program and spread it to more than 800 schools, with the ambitious but realistic goal of covering the entire country.
Network, form collaborative relationships, create contacts with potential partners such as community groups, GOs, NGOs, UN, and IDAs. Do not even for a second allow a sense of inferiority to prevent you from knocking on any door. Keep your new contacts updated with e-mail reports, photos, e-letters, and regular invitations to cultural events. Try to think of these partnerships as friendships, even if they represent a financial contract. Your objective is not merely to find finances for your projects, but also to learn from others’ experiences, and facilitate a process of coordination and cooperation among others with similar vision. Your sincerity and idealism are your greatest allies, and already put you in a leadership position. A dynamic and community oriented approach can often break an impasse, and open doors to rewarding and mutually beneficial partnerships. In Haiti the national karate association became one of AMURT’s most active allies, and this synergy ensured the popularity and participation of the youth in an otherwise controversial community initiative.
Increase your operational scope. Set high goals and standards. Seek broad alliances. Maybe your project can add a community outreach extension such as a women’s program, a youth after-school activity, an Internet center, a special interests club, or an urban tree nursery and reforestation initiative. Feel the pulse of the local community, and tailor all your programs accordingly. Pay attention to particularly harsh problems such as AIDS, sexual exploitation, violence, and prostitution. The community focus of your projects will allow you to access a wider and more diverse pool of grants and
contacts. The universal aspect of your ideology will inherently serve as a uniting forum for diverse groups and ideas.
Start Broad, Pinpoint Gradually
The diversification and broad scope of the project goals and activities are extremely important especially during the first stages of the project. Keep in mind that the project goals should not necessary stay fixed, but could be flexible and able to adjust to local conditions. With the increase of your knowledge and experience gradually pinpoint the project objectives, always consulting both donors and beneficiaries.
Initially AMURT’s proposal to CIDA included the rehabilitation and curriculum support of 2 NHE schools and 5 regular schools in the NW. The local communities petitioned the organization to instead open and manage a secondary school. After prolonged needs assessment which included visioning forums and input from both government and sponsor consultants AMURT amended the project goals. The project concentrated on setting up 3 model NHE schools one of which would serve as a teacher-training and professional education centre. All things considered, at the end the proposal financed a NHE project of large scope without originally having such an objective. The initial broad focus and community orientation of the project proposal was crucial in gaining the trust of both the funding agency and the local population.And always remember that the success of any project will be determined by the degree of your ingenuity, persistence, and constant ideation on the broad purpose of your mission.
AMURT is currently in the process of translating from French and publishing on line all documents and manuals associated with its Haiti projects. Please contact the author at for more information. www.vssnet.org/Haiti.htm