Multilingual and Multicultural Education

May 5, 2011 in Wycliffe, Mark, Culture, Language

Education, and the role of charities and other organisations in trying to provide education in poorer countries, has been in focus lately because of the Three Cups of Tea scandal. Schooling the World has a fascinating post asking some difficult questions as to the benefits and dangers of bringing education (if by education we mean a traditional western-style schooling) to indigenous communities around the world.

The reality is that there are few better ways to condemn a child to a life of poverty than to confine her in a bad school, and a very high percentage of schools in low-income areas are and will remain bad schools.  Many NGO’s as well as international programs like “Education for All” are focused on the body count, on getting more and more children into classrooms.  What happens to those kids in those classrooms is harder to quantify or to track.  One thing that seems clear is that an awful lot of them learn very little. …

The bottom line is that the modern school is no silver bullet, but an extremely problematic institution which has proven highly resistant to fundamental reform, and there is very little objective research on its impact on traditional societies. When we intervene to radically alter the way another culture raises and educates its children, we trigger a complex cascade of changes that will completely reshape that culture in a single generation.  To assume that those changes will all be good is to adopt a blind cultural superiority that we can ill afford.  A clearer view of the real impacts of school projects would require well-funded and well-executed research which looks objectively at both positive and negative effects, not reports which mine the data to bolster an a priori assumption that the impact of schooling is always good.   And until we have a clearer view, we should all – NGO’s, development agencies, rock stars, corporate billionaires and bestselling authors included – think long and hard about the principle, “First, do no harm.” Read more

I believe that education is an important part of development work and coming alongside people who are struggling to escape poverty. But we must be very careful not to confuse education with a one-size-fits-all Western schooling system, counting bodies through the conveyor belt as an indicator of success and progress.

I firmly believe that education must be done in culturally appropriate ways, with input from community leaders as well as from outside educators, and vitally that it must be done at least initially in the mother-tongue of the child. This is why one of the focuses of SIL International, a partner organisation of Wycliffe who we are working with, is to come alongside communities and governments to help them develop multilingual education programs that are appropriate for minority language communities.

The above post finishes with the example of the Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan, for whom a school building was built but is not being used. Rather than decrying the fact that children are not in school, the author points out that in fact Kyrgyz children are being educated, but not in a traditional school.

Greg Mortenson’s second book, Stones Into Schools, revolves around his efforts to build a school for Kyrgyz nomads in Afghanistan.  He built the school, and it stands empty, never having been used.   Many development people, including Mortenson, would tut about this, and try to find ways to convince the Kyrgyz people of the importance of education for their children’s futures.  But to me, this empty school is a small sign of hope.  I mean, Greg.  Hello.  They’re nomads. Should they give up their horses and their high mountain valleys and their yurts and sit in a classroom for years so at the end they can look for work hauling bricks or driving trucks in Kandahar or Kabul? As it turns out, the New York Times reports that Kyrgyz parents want their children to learn to read and write; it’s just that they also want them to herd sheep.  Mortenson’s representative in the region was frustrated by this: “The Kyrgyz only care about sheep and yaks…They say if we have sheep and yaks, we have success in life.”  Hmm.  Perhaps the Kyrgyz don’t understand the value of education.  Or perhaps they still have a sense of what’s real and what’s not in this world.  Sheep are definitely real; “big dreams” may not be.  The Afghan government, to its credit, seemed to recognize this, and sent teachers to teach the children at home in their yurts.  Apparently it’s working out quite well.  I just hope the Kyrgyz remain unschooled enough to continue to be able to tell fact from fiction. Read more

You can find out more about SIL’s work in literacy and education on their website, and also take a look at a blog of Matt and Liz, friends of ours who are preparing to work with the Ugandan government, helping them to develop education programs in appropriate languages and cultural settings for minority language communities in Uganda.

Hand writing

Three Cups of Tea: Is life really that simple?

April 19, 2011 in Mark, Mission

There has been a lot of controversy over the last few days about the book Three Cups of Tea, an account of an American man who spent time in Pakistan, founded schools, wrote a book about his experiences and formed a charity to continue to promote education in Pakistan. The problem is that certain aspects of the book would apparently fit better on the fiction shelf of a bookshop…

Over the last few days there have been a large number of blog posts written on the subject, claiming multiple failings and bad practice on the part of the charity. While I don’t know enough about the situation to comment on the specific claims, I was particularly struck by a post from Saundra on her excellent blog Good Intentions are not enough about her biggest concern.

Whether it’s TOMS A Day Without Shoes or CAI’s Pennies for Peace, schools and teachers are using what are essentially commercials for a charitable product to teach children about the larger world and philanthropy. As is the case with most commercials, these “awareness raising activities” often distort or over-simplify the problems faced in ways that benefit their own organization.

This is extremely worrying as the children brought up on these myths and misconceptions are going to turn into businessmen, philanthropists, and law makers. How will the decisions they make be impacted by a distorted view of what the world is like and how to really help? (see The Live Aid Legacy)

Following the success of A Day Without Dignity, there was interest in creating a Smart Aid curriculum for use by schools and service learning clubs. This scandal brings that need into even greater relief. We need to start providing very real information to students so that they don’t get swept up in hero worship the next time a feel-good story and easy solution is presented to them. Read more

Unfortunately Western culture likes things to be simple and straightforward. When people give to charity they like to feel that they have done something significant, so when an organisation promises that your small donation can help to build a school, or give a mosquito net and save a life, this is very attractive. But this simplistic approach to fundraising, awareness raising and volunteer recruitment causes multiple problems:

  • It is demeaning to the people who are being “helped”. If we really think that things are so bad and the solutions are so simple, then people and their governments must be pretty helpless, or ignorant, or bad, not to do anything. Are we really so superior to these ignorant people that a well-intentioned unskilled worker from the West can go and help these governments to solve their problems?
  • It perpetuates bad practice in aid and development. It is easy to build schools, but who will teach in them? Who will train the teachers? What language will the children be taught in? If it is in a minority language, who will develop the curriculum? It is easy to send mosquito nets or t-shirts to Africa, but what about the local traders who will be put out of business when the market is swamped? Where will people buy mosquito nets from in 5 years when you have lost interest and there are no local suppliers any more?
  • It takes away funding from organisations that are doing good work. Most people when faced with the choice of apparently saving a life, or feeding a family on the one hand, or providing specific expertise to a government wanting to develop an education curriculum in minority languages on the other, would choose the first. It seems to make more of an impact. It seems to be more “bang for your buck”. But what is the real situation, and which will give more benefit in the long-term?
  • It makes the giver feel good and hero-izes the individual charity but ignores the many partnerships that are necessary in order to make real and lasting progress in development work. The next generation in the West grow up wanting to give to and work for charities that achieve apparently remarkable things on their own, not realising that time-consuming and often frustrating partnerships are an integral part of the very long and slow process of addressing complex problems.

As we and our colleagues try to raise funds for our charity and development work these are questions that we need to be continually asking ourselves. Do we present things simplistically? Do we demean the people we are trying to help, by emphasising our role and caricaturing them and their situation? Or are we honest about how we play just a small part, coming alongside local people to contribute our skills to theirs, trying to take small steps together to address what are often very complex issues?

Working together

It’s not about you!

January 11, 2011 in Mark, Bible translation, Mission, Theology

Our human tendency is often to think about ourselves a lot more than we think about other people. Unfortunately this can be true in international development (of which the work of language development and Bible translation that we support is a part) just as much as (or more than) in other parts of life.

Crystal Hayling at the Center for Effective Philanthropy tells the story of a family who traveled to Cambodia to work in a rural village, which the parents hoped would help their children to understand poverty and their responsibility to help others in difficult situations.

When planning the trip, she explained, her kids had immediately dismissed Habitat for Humanity and other “traditional” groups because they wanted an authentic, personal experience. Prior to the trip, they’d gone online and researched places they could go and things they could do.  They’d found a small village that was building a library and some houses and that needed materials and books. “Perfect,” she thought. Emails were exchanged, arrangements were made.

But, she then went on to explain, the trip had all but been ruined by the fact that when they arrived the locals took the books and materials they’d brought and proceeded to build the structures themselves. Her kids, who had planned what they wanted to do and how they would direct the building process, were sidelined by locals who took over and did all the work themselves. Her kids were invited to participate, but they weren’t allowed to lead “their” projects. The goal of the trip, she complained, had been for her kids to feel how they could make a difference and this experience hadn’t provided that at all. “Overall, it left a bad taste in their mouths for future volunteer work,” she concluded. Read more

Crystal then wants to shout “It’s not about you!”

Unfortunately when we’re consciously trying to help others, maybe even more so than when we’re not, there is always a temptation to want to feel that “I have made a difference”. When the emphasis should be on “making a difference”, all too often it is on “I”. Rather than being glad to see progress being made, and privileged to have played a small part in it, we become frustrated that our plans haven’t worked, or that we didn’t play the key role that we (and our donors) expected.

Jesus called his disciples to leave their homes, families and livelihoods to follow him, but then after giving up so much…

…his disciples began arguing about which of them was the greatest. But Jesus knew their thoughts, so he brought a little child to his side. Then he said to them, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.” Luke 9:46-48

I think this is a vital reminder for all of us that however “good” and “important” the work that we’re doing, and however much we think we’re helping people, it really shouldn’t be about us. As soon as we start thinking about ourselves, what we’ve achieved, or how important and needed we are, our contribution is really no more than a patronising facade.

May we be content to be the least, so that we can genuinely serve those we’re supposed to be helping.

Lyndsey, Jayne and children in Burkina Faso

Lyndsey, Jayne and three children on our Wycliffe Engage trip to Burkina Faso last year. I should point out that they and the rest of the team were excellent examples of servant-hearted mission as they spent time with our hosts.

Web 2.0 and Accountability

April 18, 2009 in Mark, Africa, Justice

I was fascinated to read this perspective from Alanna at Blood and Milk of how the internet and Web 2.0 changes the way NGO’s relate to communities they work with.

In our interconnected world, you can’t hide from the communities you work with. That’s a good thing. It’s much easier to treat people with respect when you know that they’re watching you. Transparency is part of accountability, whether or not that transparency is voluntary. I think that’s part of development 2.0. We’re not just going somewhere and learning the local situation so we can do our work; they are looking right back at us, and they’ve got the tools to disseminate their views. read more

I think one of the reasons Web 2.0 is so important in an international development context is that it increases transparency. It is very difficult to talk condescendingly about “going to help the poor people” when you know that they are able to hear every word you’re saying.

For a long time development work has been presented from the perspective of the rich man generously giving of his time and money to help the poor man. This fits nicely with the ethnocentric worldview of the west, and so is a profitable marketing strategy to raise funds and recruits.

But it’s not the truth. True development is certainly not about rich people going and doing favours for poor people. It’s about rich and poor humbly working together in partnership – both genuinely accountable to each other, with the local community taking ultimate responsibility.

Thanks to increasing internet access through computers and mobile phones, information coming from NGO’s in the 21st Century has the potential to be read by anyone in the world. If an NGO wants to continue partnering with a local community, they must make sure that their communications reflect the reality of the situation rather than merely playing along to the narrative that the donors want to hear.

There has long been accountability between NGO’s and major donors. Now the open flow of information made possible by the internet brings all partners to the same table, and ensures the NGO is accountable not just to those with money, but much more importantly to the communities they are serving.