Eritrea, located in the Horn of Africa, gained its independence in 1991. Years of war left Eritrea without even the most basic educational resources.
The majority of school children sit on stones in makeshift or tree-shade shelter classrooms, uncomfortably writing on bits of paper on their laps. Many students have to walk up to two hours through mountainous terrain to reach the school in a neighboring village. Against these odds, children and their families are striving to gain knowledge.
It is Mercy Corps' goal to act as a catalyst to turn these aspirations into reality.
Mercy Corps, in partial coordination with CARE and Vision Eritrea, provides grants to schools through complementary programs funded by USDA and the UK Community Fund.
The purpose of the school grants is to build Eritrean society's confidence in its schools by improving the standard of education. To do this, Mercy Corps uses the most local of resources - the parents.
While the grants enable critical school improvements such as building temporary classrooms and purchasing desks, they are also an opportunity to support community participation in education by involving PTAs and the broader community in the grant application process, thus creating stronger schools.
While some schools are awarded grants due to their extreme level of need, another pool of grant money is accessed through a competitive process in order to award stronger schools for their level of organization.
Regardless of which grant schools receive, community participation is key. This is accomplished using a "workshop to community" training strategy. Initially, three male and three female members of the community participate alongside teachers and school administrators in a school grant workshop.
Project staff explain concepts of school-community mobilization and outreach, rates of contribution, problem identification, planning, appraisal, record-keeping, accountability, proposal writing, monitoring and evaluation. These workshops provide the skill base for the school and community to manage school projects in the future.
After the workshop, the broader community participates in a series of large community meetings that create Grant Working Groups. During the community meetings a briefing about the workshops is given by field staff, principles of community mobilization are explained, prioritization of needs is discussed, and a forty percent community contribution principle is clarified.
When a project is chosen, tasks are assigned to groups and individuals. Finally, a step-by-step approach is used to explain how to fill in the proposal submission form as a group. Within ten days of the initial meetings the proposals have to be submitted to Mercy Corps.
The low literacy level in Eritrea presents a challenge for community participation, particularly in the management of school projects. Mercy Corps is looking into new ways to adapt the information in workshops for a highly interested, but highly illiterate group of people.
One solution is hiring staff that can operate in many languages, including Tigre, Arabic, Tigrigna, Bilen, Saho and English. Other options include hiring staff to produce more dynamic teaching aides like role-play and theater, cassette-based proposals, and wooden cover image books.
Ultimately though, the main way to overcome this challenge seems to lie in increasing the amount of technical assistance to communities along the project development continuum. Involving women is another challenge.
Because there are not many women currently participating in PTAs, the program has also relied on active women from other sectors of the community. Traditional norms also present challenges for women and men to participate in a group forum.
Separation of the sexes is generally not an option at the project implementation stage because the group has to come together in order to take decisions. Instead, there are activities for each of the sexes, though within the same workshop.
The advantages of community participation are obvious. They include increasing communication between parents and teachers, thereby giving parents the opportunity to become more aware of what goes on in the school and serving to raise the value of education for the whole community.
The school grants program depends on strong community support and encouraging community participation in education. The community is accepting our program and ready to participate and contribute with us.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Bridge, a Civil Society newsletter published by Mercy Corps.]