Educational projects: what do we pay attention to?

By Sylvia Ortega-Azurduy

Project Officer at Wilde Ganzen.

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Wilde Ganzen is known for building schools. Not that we build them ourselves, but we have raised money for countless education projects over the years. How do we know if this is useful? And does anything ever go wrong? 

Education is essential for the development of both a child and society. A child who goes to school creates opportunities for the future and gains knowledge that can be passed on to future generations. Millions of children worldwide cannot go to school, so it is not surprising that Wilde Ganzen has been supporting education projects for almost 65 years now. 

Whereas we used to invest mainly in bricks and furniture, today we look much more at the quality of education. More and more money is spent on training of teachers, inclusion of girls as well as children with disabilities. In doing so, we encourage the passing on of knowledge. 

What is the best solution? 

But how do you know whether all these investments actually create more knowledge? This is something I think about every day. Sometimes, I even lie awake at night. I have been a Project Advisor at Wilde Ganzen for more than 20 years and am specialised in educational projects. Evaluating such projects is sometimes complicated. You can look at the construction of a school based on photos. However, a building with chairs does not yet indicate the quality of education.  

Sometimes, children still cannot write their own names after primary school. We can by no means visit every project personally, even though we have work trips every year. Hence, we always conversate with the local partner and the Dutch foundation. We look at the needs and involvement of the community. Are the parents behind it? Does the local government cooperate? Is a piece of land available? Together, we look for the best solution. 

Afterwards, we ask questions about the number of girls going to school, the progress of children, the training that teachers attend, and which methods are used. This approach ensures many successful projects. 

An example of a project that kept me awake at night was the construction of a large school in Haiti. Our project partners came up with the idea for a very large school, but I was not immediately enthusiastic. We encourage people’s passion, but also try to keep a clear head. The situation in Haiti is chaotic. Is such a big school really the best solution? 

In this case, parents were hardly involved. They often cannot read or write themselves and work all day to put bread on the table. We reluctantly agreed to the first phase. I only really saw the importance when I visited the school myself in 2016. The building is sustainable, there are solar panels on the roof, there are good teachers and the parents themselves asked for literacy classes in the evenings. This investment worked out well and we are proud of that. 

It doesn’t always work out 

But it also goes wrong sometimes. No project goes according to plan. I now know most of the pitfalls, but I also dare to admit that sometimes things go wrong. I think we should tell people about that too. Learning from it turns it into a successful failure. For instance, we received a request for improving education in a region in Cambodia. Khmer Rouge policies here had had disastrous effects on the education system. Children could not attend a school without a uniform, the roof leaked, and lessons were substandard due to untrained teachers. 

So, we invested in that. During my visit, I saw the uniforms and the repaired roof, but the training did not deliver the desired results and a cost report was missing. We stopped our support. In retrospect, we should have invested more in the local partner and local community involvement. If a good plan for that comes along, we can co-finance again. 

Good education, whose job is it anyway? 

Donors sometimes rightly ask whether education is not the primary task of the government. Why should we pay for it? We also think the government should provide it. Unfortunately, education is not a priority for some governments. Where possible, we demand that the (local) government pay teachers’ salaries. In India, Kenya and Nepal, for instance, this is perfectly possible. 

More importantly, we consider community involvement in maintaining toilets and sanitary facilities and a parents’ committee to ensure the quality of education. By asking many questions, learning from mistakes and above all listening to what people want themselves, children all over the world gain access to education thanks to Wilde Ganzen. Girls who can go to school for the first time, children in refugee camps who can go back to school and young people with disabilities who learn a trade with a little extra help. That’s what we do it for!