What a difference a donor’s expectations make. In our Sindhupolchowk field work, we found three school building projects that illustrate the stark outcomes of donor expectations. As we sat with principals and school management committees under the community gathering tree, the stories we heard sounded too strange to be true, except we were looking at the evidence.
At the first school, a village boy went to a wealthy country in Europe to work at a hotel. A European man took him under his wing, treating him as his own son. Wanting to help the village from which the boy had come, the European donated money to the building of a school in the boy’s mountain village.
The problem was that the village had no masons, no one who knew construction, let alone someone who knew how to build schools safely. The villagers took the money and built the best school they could. Wanting it to be a good school, they decided to try building really thick stone walls and added an extra thick and heavy concrete floor and roof. The school was brightly painted in blue and white and the whole community was so proud of it. . . . until it completely collapsed in the earthquake. Hundreds of the village’s children would have died if the earthquake had come on any day but Saturday.
At the second school, the principal wanted a new school building and, much like the first village, found a wealthy European man to fund it. The donor, however, came to the community and understood the community needed technical support. He searched around and found a NSET, the National Society for Earthquake Technology. NSET agreed to design a safe school and to train the community in the safer construction methods. They sent a master mason to live on site and teach local masons the techniques. The community finished the school and when the earthquake struck, the school was unscathed. The school building was one of the few places families could shelter after their homes collapsed and parents were confident their children were safe at school.
Years later, at the same school, the principal wanted to expand and found a new donor. This time, the donor gave funds only enough to build a stone school. In fact, the donor wanted to community to build exactly that – a stone school much like those he had seen in the high villages of the Himalayas. The principal wanted a school that would last. He organized the community and raised enough funds and volunteers to build a small reinforced concrete school block instead. It took longer, and when the donor came to see why, he was angry that a stone school was not being prepared. Only after much negotiation, was the school management committee able to convince the donor that the stone school was what the donor needed, not what their children needed. The earthquake damaged the school’s infill walls, but with repairs, it will be usable. All the stone houses in the village collapsed.
The lessons coming out of this study are both simple and profoundly humbling. Yes, community need to be involved in their school construction. But they need appropriate support so they can build the safe schools their children need.
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