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Toilets and community capacity development

Kyrgyzstan, April 5, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Katherine Hollis/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps staff teaches school administrators and students how to use and maintain the new toilet system. Photo: Katherine Hollis/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Katherine Hollis/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Two of the new urine-diverting toilets made possible by Mercy Corps' Food for Education Program. Photo: Katherine Hollis/Mercy Corps

I arrived on a typical school day to what seemed an empty school. That was because everyone was in the bathroom!

Mercy Corps Kyrgyzstan’s Food for Education (FFE) Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), works to improve educational conditions in Kyrgyzstan by providing schools with supplemental foodstuffs and matching funds to build new or repair facilities or purchase furnishings and equipment.

I was able to visit a school located about an hour west of Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, which built a new outhouse financed one of our grants. This bathroom facility used technology that was something new for both the school and for Mercy Corps. The school first applied for a grant to construct a new pit-toilet outhouse, but found that all the school grounds lie on a high water table, and any new outhouse would have the same problems with terrible moisture and smells as the old one. So, based on advice from FFE staff, the school made the decision to have urine-diverting toilets installed.

I arrived on a typical school day to what seemed an empty school. That was because everyone was in the bathroom! Actually, the school was closed, as the faculty, staff and a student-leader group were attending a training being held on how to properly use the new toilet system, and how to train an entire school on how to use them.

The training was run by a Mercy Corps staff in conjunction with the organization that Mercy Corps partnered with for the technical building expertise of the bathrooms. As the group watched a detailed demo on how to use and clean the toilets, a staff member commented on how low the walls to each stall were — everyone could see right over them. As folks turned to my colleague to inquire if Mercy Corps would provide more grant money to fix these issues, others immediately spoke up that this was their project and figuring out how to take care of problems was their responsibility.

This was a perfect example of the capacity development that our FFE program incorporates into programming — the school community is responsible for all aspects of the project, from applying to Mercy Corps for the matching grant to fund the project, to budgeting, hiring of the building contractor, and oversight of the construction. Mercy Corps provides skills training and support throughout but, ultimately, FFE puts the ownership of the project in the hands of the beneficiaries, who can then use these new skills to address other needs.

The head of school, who oversaw the project, said that she not only learned about budgeting through working with Mercy Corps, but also learned how to look for funding for future needs from the government or other organizations. She said that the school already has plans to undertake two other needed repair projects now that they know how to do so.

The training marked the successful finalization of the school’s project, and this school community’s pride and ownership over their work was palpable the day I spent with them.