“How” matters

The following guest blog by Scott Fifer was written for How Matters, a great website and resource for how to give more effective and compassionate international aid.

When local leaders say, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’

A guest post by Scott Fifer


Giving impoverished kids in rural areas—who currently have no schooling—the chance to go to boarding schools a couple hours away.  Laying down a concrete floor in a makeshift school where kids currently sit and study on dirt.  Bringing in qualified teachers from outside to help improve education in remote villages.

Clearly, all good ideas.  Seemingly, all good ideas.  So did the local community want funding to execute them?  “Gracias, pero no.”  Thanks but no thanks.

As Founder and Executive Director of GO Campaign, I have worked hard to create an international grantmaking organization that prides itself on listening to local leaders on the ground.  We want to fund their ideas about how to best help children in their community; we don’t want to fund our ideas.

But at the same time, it’s our responsibility as grantor and steward of public donations to make sure that the funds support youth efficiently, effectively, and economically. (If you start seeing “three E’s” on t-shirts at conferences, tell me. I may have just stumbled upon a catchphrase.)

Moreover, sometimes the people on the ground may not know exactly what they want from us and they seek our suggestions. After having made over 75 grants to nearly 50 local heroes in over 20 countries, we like to think we have a few good ideas once in a while.  So when I was in Guerrero, Mexico last year, I was spouting off seemingly terrific ideas on how GO Campaign might help improve upon the deplorable lack of education for children in rural communities.

And each idea was met with resistance from the man to whom I wanted to direct our funds.

Abel Barrera Hernández is a human rights activist in Guerrero, Mexico.  He and his team of lawyers at Tlachinollan Centro de Derechos Humanos de La Montaña risk their lives to champion the rights and dignity of the indigenous people of Mexico – people routinely denied basic human rights by the government.  I learned about Abel when Kerry Kennedy and her team at the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights asked me to join their delegation to Mexico.  While RFK builds the capacity of Tlachinollan and helps give a voice to expose human rights violations against indigenous people, the RFK Center is not in the business of helping children and youth. Kerry knew GO Campaign could be an answer to at least some of the children’s needs in these villages, where the levels of poverty are extremely low.

Seeing the conditions of the education system, or rather the lack thereof, in these villages was a sobering sight.  When our hosts pointed to one school in Juquila, I had to ask them to repeat themselves. I wondered if it was, in fact, a school. All I saw was a chicken coop.  No desks, no chairs, no books – just dirt surrounded by chicken wire. At least it has a roof, unlike the school down the road that was destroyed by a recent earthquake, though it hadn’t had a teacher since February.

In the village of Nuevo Zaragoza, conditions were only mildly better. A wooden shack with a dirt floor served as the community school.  At least students here had desks and chairs. However, there was only one teacher for all 12 grades, so she can only spend a couple hours per day with each class.

By law, the Mexican government is supposed to provide these things—like teachers and decent school facilities. Unfortunately serving indigenous people is not at the top of many Mexican politicians’ lists.

Driving the long and unforgiving roads between these rural villages in the mountains and valleys of Guerrero, Abel and I put our heads together.  How could GO Campaign best help him help the children in these communities?  I heard villagers say they wished the schools had floors instead of dirt.  How about we provide funds to build a floor?  Laborers from the local community could be hired and they could use local materials.

Abel said they would love that, but…it’s the duty of the Mexican government to provide proper schools to all of its citizens. If the community lets the government off the hook, what kind of message does that send?  Then he added, what if the floor gets built but the government comes to inspect it and doesn’t like it?  Then suddenly that school will not be considered an official school and it could lose any chance it has at getting a teacher.

The floor could ultimately make life more difficult instead of helping.  Yes, they want the floor, but they don’t want it from us.

I offered, okay, well how about giving scholarships to the kids? Wouldn’t the next best alternative be sending them to boarding schools a couple hours down the mountain where they can get a great education, but still be close to home? Abel let me know that this was another bad idea.  Removing the kids from their village, even only for school months and even though not far away, could be detrimental to their native culture. These villages all have their own traditions and removing them from their family and community cuts against Abel’s perspective that the indigenous cultures must be preserved above all. He said they would stop using their local language at these other schools.  I questioned whether the opportunity for a good education outweighed the loss of tribal culture, but Abel held firm.  Preserving cultural identity was equally important to him as providing good education.  Both were necessary, but never one at the expense of the other.

How about finding ways to attract better teachers?  This was not an easy task in these beautiful, but harsh mountains where there is often no electricity. But together I was sure we could come up with a plan.  Again, Abel said, not a good idea.  Any teachers from outside would not speak the local language, and teaching in only Spanish would undermine their rich cultural traditions.

Admittedly, part of me wanted to say to Abel, the hell with the cultural traditions, and to hell with the government! These kids need an education. These kids want and need books and desks and chairs and a floor.  But that part of me shut up (mostly).  My years of grantmaking have taught me to know that I don’t know it all. And if a respected leader and human rights champion is telling me my well-intentioned ideas don’t fly with him, then I gotta figure he knows more than I do.  Any idea we fund has to be an idea borne from and supported by community members.  So if the community believes in Abel, I believe in Abel.

By the end of our drive, which included being illegally detained on the side of the road by Mexican authorities (for no particular reason, as is the apparent norm in Mexico), we had indeed found common ground and had come up with a plan.  In Neuvo Zaragoza, we would build a nearby “community center” with a floor.  The kids could go there and have classes in a safe and healthy environment.  Meanwhile, the official school could still petition the government to provide the floor it is their duty to provide.  And we’ll try to source some didactic education materials to keep the kids engaged in the greater part of the day when they have no teacher.  The same could be done in Juquila with the building that was destroyed by the earthquake, and the kids would no longer need to study in the chicken coop.

We further brainstormed that we might create a culturally-appropriate human rights course to bring into existing schools in the region that Abel’s organization, Tlachinollan, could pilot.  Despite our different ideas about books and floors and teachers, Abel and I completely agreed that if the next generation is not raised to understand and demand their basic human rights, there is little hope for the future of indigenous peoples.

By the time I boarded the plane back home, I was happily surprised that together, Tlachinollan, the RFK Center, and GO Campaign had found a plan of action. For GO Campaign’s part, we did it by listening. (And indeed up to this minute our plan there continues to change and evolve as the teams from RFK, Tlachinollan and GO Campaign continue to assess the needs of the children, and we are indeed repairing and building some schools and the communities are very excited.)

So the lesson? Don’t go in to a community with solutions.  Rather, come out of a community with solutions.  It’s not about the funding you’re offering.  It’s very much about how the ideas are formed and about how the support is delivered.

I knew all that before going to Mexico, but it’s a lesson I have to learn again and again. It’s a lesson that is taught to me differently, in every village, in every country, by every local hero.  It used to worry me, but now I realize it’s a constant gift. The day I go into a village and don’t learn this lesson, then I’ll be worried.

To learn more about GO Campaign’s ‘Right to Education’ project in Guerrero, Mexico, see: