Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO/President
I'm in Ecuador this week, accompanying a colleague and one of our long-time donors (over 25 years contributing to Plan). Ecuador is a beautiful and diverse country of 14 million. Its territory includes the coast, the Andes, and the Amazon. Ecuador is also complex socially; it is home to 21 indigenous groups speaking 15 different languages, including Spanish.
The country is well endowed with natural resources, including a variety of climates that allow a broad range of agricultural activities (most of the roses that come into the US are from here) and, more recently, oil. Improved finances, in part due to its export growth, have allowed the government of Ecuador (GOE) to invest aggressively in improving its infrastructure (critical to Ecuador's competitiveness): a brand new airport in its capital, Quito, is opening in 93 days - as the big lit sign outside the old airport reminds us; roads are being expanded and paved at an impressive rate; the railroad is being resurrected. It is also investing in improving access to water, schools, housing even in poor squatter communities (though some argue that these investments pale by comparison).
Bottom line, Ecuador is much better off than most of the countries where Plan works. With income per capita well over $7000, Ecuador is a middle income country. The government has the resources to care for its citizens, and its children. So what is Plan doing here? Should Plan be here?
Let me address this question by looking at our work in two neighboring communities in Maca (in the province of Cotopaxi, Latacunga canton, in the Andes south of Quito). The GOE's efforts to improve infrastructure and access to services have largely by-passed these communities. The nice, newly paved road that now connects major urban centers in the province quickly turns into a very narrow, stone road to take you the last several miles into these isolated indigenous communities. Infant morbidity and mortality rates are well above national averages, as are illiteracy rates, and child labor dates. School completion rates are, on the other hand, well below the national norms.
A recent census of the schools in the region revealed serious deficiencies in terms of access to infrastructure, governance, and quality of teaching. In rural communities, children lack access to early childhood education (schools tend to start in grade 2) and high school (most schools go from 2nd to 7th grade). Those schools that do exist lack access to basic equipment. Too many schools in the province received grades of C and D, based on an evaluation of the state of the infrastructure, availability of basic classroom equipment, teacher numbers and quality, and participation rate of children, parents and teachers in school decision-making (the GOE enshrines participation in school governance). Learning outcomes are equally dismal. Children attending schools in the indigenous, primarily Quichua-speaking rural communities in Cotopaxi scored 50% lower than the national averages in both math and verbal skills.
Faced with these short-comings, Plan has been working with parents, teachers, school administrators, and the children in the region to improve school access and quality. Plan is not doing this by providing "things" but by working closely with the communities to improve governance structures that already existed but were not being used effectively (such as parent-teacher committees, and performance-based teacher evaluations that the GOE had already put in place). Plan also introduced methodologies to improve the dialogue between parents, administrators, and teachers in the identification on priorities and the development of appropriate curriculum. The dialogue with administrators has led to improved responsiveness of the local authorities to the community, and improved accountability of teachers and administrators to children, parents and teachers. Finally, Plan worked with local authorities and renowned academic institutions in the country to help disseminate new reading and comprehension skills pedagogical methods that were better suited to the needs of these indigenous-language communities.
The value added of Plan, in other words, has not been in the "stuff" it provides to these communities - that lack so much - but in its role strengthening governance and accountability by facilitating dialogue, self-awareness, teacher and student empowerment processes. Much of what Plan has accomplished (and results in terms of improved infrastructure cases and learning outcomes are visible) has been by helping students, teachers and parents discover that the power to change things is with them. Plan has helped give a voice to communities that had otherwise been invisible, isolated geographically, culturally and linguistically. In a country relatively rich with resources, where the government can provide, this is the power of Plan's role. And this role would not be possible if Plan did not enjoy the deep trust of these communities, a trust that has been built through years of working at the grassroots level in partnership with these communities.
But this approach also has its limitations. And this is where the tale of the two schools comes in. We visited two schools in Maca with which Plan was working. One was clearly much better equipped than the other. One was making plans for introducing new courses in computing and the other lacked even the most basic access to books. One community was not richer than another (a picture of the larger school, celebrating the end of the school year is below). A key difference was the vision, the energy and the organization skills of the administrator. And therein is a key limitation. Plan can facilitate but it cannot dictate. It can help create momentum for change where the elements, the skills and the will, are there. It cannot and should not be deciding for the community and it is limited in how much it can do for communities that for a variety of reasons do not want to help themselves.
It is useful to remember this as we pat ourselves on the back for all we have accomplished. We need to be realistic and humble as we think through and design programs. And we need to be honest with our donors. We are able to do a lot with the resources our donors entrust to Plan. But we are at best supporting actors, not the stars of the show. It is also worth remembering that facilitating is by definition a much longer term process than simply doing things for, or delivering services directly to, the communities. But I am convinced the results are infinitely more sustainable and have a larger impact. Finally, it is all made possible by long-term donors like Laura, my traveling companion this week. It is their "patient capital" that make this approach and our work possible.