The trend, these days, in funding developing world projects is to apply market based principles to development projects in the hopes of supporting underserved entrepreneurs and others to gain enough financial independence to pull themselves out of poverty. Sustainability, they call it. If you do not mention this word in a project proposal, grant application, or request for investment, you can hardly expect to receive funding or support.
With a background in economics and entrepreneurship I naturally favor market based solutions to environmental and social challenges, when applicable. However, there are times when ‘sustainability’ – as defined by financial independence – is not an option.
My involvement at Kechene School/ IEICA[i] over the past year has forced me to ask myself, time and again, ‘How can this school become self-sustaining?’ Unfortunately, I have failed to develop a groundbreaking new theory that proposes exactly how a school in an extremely poor community becomes sustainable.
Some schools in the developing world, that serve the middle or lower-middle class, are able to charge school fees. The fees allow these schools to, even if initially funded via donor support, eventually become self supporting entities with no dependence on donations, grants or further investment. The key to that model, however, is the fact that these schools serve the middle and lower middle class market. These children’s parents or guardians are not rich or even close to it. With the little income they do earn however, and the high value they place on their children’s education, they are able to pay their school fees.
Unfortunately, paying school fees is not an option for the children at Kechene School / IEICA. These kids all come from destitute families in the local neighborhood. The families struggle to feed, clothe and bathe their children, much less cover their school fees.
I have pondered, from time to time, the effectiveness of working with the children’s parents and family members to begin some sort of income generating activities. The thought being that, if the families begin to generate enough income themselves, they will eventually be able to pay their children’s school fees. As I thought through the challenges and opportunities therein, I realized that working on income-generating activities with family members is simply too much of an undertaking for the organization at this point in time.
The main focus of the school, as it should be, is caring for and educating its students in the hopes of providing them a sufficient foundation from which to begin to contribute to the development of their native land. In the future the school could possibly serve as a base from which to launch community engagement projects such as issuing micro-finance loans in conjunction with developing income generating activities, providing health and hygiene awareness and conducting classes on the utilization of drip irrigation for vegetable cultivation. All of these activities would foster a more sustainable community, one that could afford to pay its children’s school fees. For the foreseeable future, however, the prudent thing to do is to focus all available resources on the top priorities at IEICA – mainly, educating and caring for the students as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Sustainability is a lofty and only sometimes applicable and attainable goal. In the field of education amongst the underserved rural and urban poor of the developing world, sustainability may well be a goal only for the long-term horizon.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
[i] There has been some local confusion over my referring to Initiative Ethiopia International Children’s Association (as it is officially registered) as ‘Kechene School’ due to similarly named projects in the area. Henceforth, I will be referring to Kechene School more frequently as ‘IEICA.’