education is more than a building

No more cups of any kind, number 3s, or beverage references. Let’s talk about root causes.

“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”

To build on this wonderful old adage (which was all too easy to add before writing anything original): If you give a community a school; they have a nice building until it decays. If you invest in an education system; they will have education for generations.

In a recent response to the Greg Mortenson controversy Rebecca Winthrop, Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institute, gave a thoughtful response and criticism of Mortenson’s engagement methods on providing education.

As I had written yesterday, my biggest take away from the book was the idea that it is necessary to build relationships and community connections before entering into any international project. However, Mortenson may not have followed his own advice. Like many development critics, I don’t see the benefit of building a school structure without engaging teachers and education systems. There are many accounts of corporations and notably oil companies that have built schools for communities where they exploited resources – but those structures remain empty. A school is no good if there are no teachers or if the local education system is not consulted or included in the process.

This has been noted to be an all too common problem in development projects and one that I saw firsthand during my experience in Nicaragua. The US based non-profit that I worked for utilizes the same method as Mortenson’s CAI: increasing education by building schools. During my trip to Nicaragua the organization was actually building a concrete school structure next to an existing wood school. Granted this old structure wasn’t the most amazing, but the root cause of the lack of education opportunities in this community was not due to a lack of a school building, rather it was a lack of dedicated teachers and adequate training among other issues.

The Nicaraguan education system didn’t have much influence in rural communities. There was no accountability to the community school or to any educational body for that matter. Some teachers choose to come whenever they pleased and others had never been given any formal or informal teacher training  even though they displayed incredible dedication.

We need to address structures that perpetuate the problems that we see if our work is going to have a real impact for those we seek to help. By asking communities what solutions  work best, we can change the way “development” has been done in the past and focus on our own accountability.

Recommended articles:

Three Cups of Deceit” by Jon Krakauer (on Byliner)

Three Cups of BS” by Alanna Shaikh (on Foreign Policy)

Photo credit: James Warden / S&S (from Empty Schools, Dashed Hopes Stars & Stripes)

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1 Comment

  1. For me, it goes even further…

    “If you give me a fish, you have fed me for a day.
    If you teach me to fish, then you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline seized for development.
    But if you teach me to organize, then whatever the challenge, I can join together with my peers and we will fashion our own solution.”

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