Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Working to exit

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO/President

This week I am in the Dominican Republic, where I lived and worked in the late 80s. A lot has changed, much very positive. Per capita income is over $3,500 a year, literacy rates among youth are over 95% and well of 90% of communities, urban and rural, have access to safe water.

Plan International is celebrating its 25th anniversary in the Dominican Republic this year. While much progress has been made in the last quarter century, there are persistent pockets of poverty, primarily in the southwest of the country. And the recent influx of Haitians across the border after the earthquake in that neighboring country has taxed already overburdened social services in that region to a breaking point. So there is no question that much work remains to be done. But it doesn't need to all be done by Plan. Our approach in the DR is very specifically designed to enable Plan to exit. The Dominican Republic illustrates well how Plan is adapting its approach as the country develops.

One of the new buzzwords in international development is "local capacity building." In my view, this all too often just efforts to get local organizations "ready" to implement the development agendas of external actors. Real capacity building means enhancing the local voice and local imaginations, facilitating the expansion of their priorities and supporting their efforts to address their development agenda. Plan in the Dominican Republic is doing just that, and as we do so, we essentially work ourselves out of a job.

Our programs focus on strengthening community structures, such as community management committees, so that they effectively take the lead in identifying needs, prioritizing initiatives and designing approaches. We also build the capacity of local authorities to respond and support community initiatives. For an organization like Plan, which has been delivering services directly to communities for decades, this is a real sea change. It means trusting local judgment, supporting what the community wants to do, and how they want to do it, and playing second fiddle to local leadership and community agendas.

It is instructive to see how we work to support local efforts to address one of the country's most serious challenges: the poor quality of education. Kids attend school (access is not a problem) but they aren't learning; repeating grades is much too common which then leads to increasing drop out rates. There are many reasons for this, including teacher training, outdated curricula, insufficiently involved parents, lack of access to modern technologies.

But at a basic level, this is a governance issue. It is about monitoring learning outcomes, and holding local schools and local authorities accountable for improving services. And the communities understand it. The communities have organized themselves, and advocated with the schools administrators and municipal authorities to create learning spaces, where students struggling in school can get tutoring, and parents can receive guidance in how to help their children focus more effectively in school. The centers are manned by students receiving their university degree in teaching. These student teachers who serve as tutors report to the committees, the parent, and the school. In schools where this is being implemented, drop out and grade repeating have dropped to virtually zero. The idea of learning spaces was developed with Plan but hatched and given life by the community organizers. They got the municipality and the Ministry of Education to buy into the concept. Results are being evaluated, and methodologies now shared with and replicated in other communities. Discussions are underway to support a nationwide initiative around e concept of learning spaces.

Likewise, Plan and their communities are now working on a new concept around early childhood development, helping to establish early childhood development centers, in partnership (again) with the school and municipal government authorities. These centers teach parents (often done so by volunteers and other parents complemented by technical experts) about nutrition, hygiene, parenting. They give pre-school children a leg up before they start primary school, introducing them to numbers, letters, hygiene, nutrition, and games (we underestimate how dearth of opportunities to play affects development). The children who attend these centers do better in primary school, and help improve learning outcomes and reduce grade repeating and drop out rates.

For readers living in countries like the US, such a programs seem ridiculously obvious and simple to implement. For these communities they represent major triumphs of what is possible if parents, students and local authorities come together. In both cases, Plan's participation is focused, providing specific technical experts as required by the community to support them with program design, with proposal preparation and with monitoring and evaluation so they continue to learn and refine. We have gone from leading the efforts to supporting them. If we do more of this, we will be out of a job here.

And that it a good thing.

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