Promoting education has always interested me. The potential of education to transform individuals into self-sufficient, lifelong learners is something I fully believe in. Having considered the idea of promoting education in developing countries, where there are significant needs, I could not resist the call of Timor-Leste and an offer to work on developing capacity within an education system so far from the goal of universal literacy.
I came into Timor-Leste mentally prepared, with the notion that education’s impact is slow to be seen. I knew of course that it would be difficult to garner overnight success for education-development projects, but assumed that the people of Timor-Leste must be aware of education’s potential in opening opportunities. That itself would be a good place to start.
So I went about planning and facilitating training workshops with the expectation that people would be hungry to develop their abilities. Surely, they would jump on the opportunity to learn new and better ways of doing things while expanding their network.
I was in for a surprise! Participants were in fact mostly looking forward to snacks and lunch, the pens and certificates they were given, and the daily subsistence allowance disbursed at the very end of the workshop. They weren’t as excited about the learning, as I had initially hoped. Confronted with the reality of differing expectations and worldviews, I tried to make sense of my place to affect some change, even minimally, in a country not my own.
The old way approaches development planning from the top down. Despite much talk in favor of participatory approaches, this method is probably still a reality at times. Education is about changing minds and changing lives. However, changing minds is a difficult endeavor, let alone changing behaviour. It is not easy to understand why people from another culture think and do things differently.
Often, in an effort to achieve quick consensus and to produce an outcome with the time, money, and resources we’ve poured in, we succumb to the paternalistic tendency of imposing our values on others. Sometimes even unconsciously! For instance, we think about education as an activity conducted within the four walls of a classroom building. As a result, we build more schools to address the issue of low access to education. However, perhaps what is most needed is a lengthier process of engaging the local community to truly understand parents’ constraints in sending their children to school. It is critical to understand local nuances and contexts, as we often oversimplify our approaches to relieve problems of the poor with an outside-in approach.
So, what can be done? Here are a few ideas.
Make a conscious effort to understand cultural differences and our reactionary responses.
We place ourselves in the danger of developing rigid ideas of what is right, what is wrong, how things should work, or should not, and developing stereotypes which can then lead to prejudice. It is hypocritical to only expect others to change according to our value system. Instead, we should also continuously make the adjustment to be considerate.
In the context of my work, training can be something removed from participants’ daily lives. Even a simple concept to us, such as affixing signatures to mark down attendance, is novel and foreign to some folks I have interacted with. If differences can stem from the small things, how much more there can also be differences in more complex concepts which we often take for granted. Our cultural origins and past exposure to different thinking, ideas, people, and places can affect the way we perceive information. It alters our values and openness to opportunities. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I often wrestle with discomfort given the varying levels of receptivity, openness, agreeability, or aggressiveness in daily conduct.
Respect the culture and build trust.
Ultimately, it is a balancing act. While I am experiencing uneasiness, it must also be difficult for the local community with stark contrast to my culture to comprehend me and my way of doing things. To be able to work effectively, respect towards the array of different cultures and languages must be built upon understanding. I have seen the impatient tendency of international volunteers with a preference to come in armed with an idea which they can just introduce and implement, only looking to deliver the kinds of returns they had hoped for, rather than what people genuinely need. Often, implementing what people need is perceived as too time consuming.
Education’s impact in the short term is perhaps limited. However, it can be a catalyst for change in opening pathways if we set our sights further. Education can give people a different worldview and a lens to clearly see, appreciate the options, and to question the current status quo. It can motivate people to be interested in opportunities for a brighter side of life they didn’t know they were interested in.
To accomplish such purposes, it is insufficient to ask for compliance; rather, we must be sensitive towards others’ real needs and genuinely listen. We need to be prepared to learn a lot more from the people we are trying to help. As the famous 13th century Persian poet Rumi so aptly puts it:
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself”.
*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are strictly the author’s and do not represent those of the organisation she works for.