57th DPI/NGO WFWPI Workshop

September 10, 2004 - New York
By: Bonnie Berry

Role of NGOs in Overcoming Poverty through Education

WFWPI partnered with International Relief Friendship Foundation and the Religious Youth Service to sponsor a Midday Workshop at the NGO/DPI Conference. The panel was held in Conference Room B at UN Headquarters, NYC with a standing room only crowd in attendance. Panelists were Mrs. Erina Rutangye, Chairwoman of WFWP Uganda, Rev. John Gehring, Executive Director of Religious Youth Service, Dr. Kathy Winings, Vice President of IRFF International Board of Directors, Dr. P.C. Lunia, Chairman, Golden India Foundation. Mrs. Motoko Sugiyama, Director of WFWPI UN Office was moderator.

Mrs. Rutangye, the first to speak, gave great credit to Uganda's President for his openness and his proactive approach to facing the nation's problems. She then outlined the many very practical projects that WFWP has instigated. Two primary schools have been founded in Western Uganda, serving 520 students who are either orphaned or from very poor families.

On the secondary level, Kizinda Parents Vocational School offers both formal and vocational training to over 500 students. All graduates last year passed national exams, with 25% passing the highest level exam. Vocational programs include carpentry, sewing, agriculture, construction and environmental management. Peace High School was founded to assist disadvantaged girl children in the following categories: girls escaping from Female Genital Circumcision, orphaned by AIDS, returned girl soldiers, those traumatized or orphaned by the Northern Ugandan war, gifted girls from extremely poor families who can't afford school tuition. WFWP has also sponsored a number of post high school students both for vocational training and college studies.

"Each of the panelists had a unique perspective and presentation of best practices that clearly stimulated the listeners regarding possibilities that could be undertaken to advance the Millennium Development Goals."

Adult literacy, life and development skills for women, community health education (ABC approach to AIDS, with emphasis on Abstinence and Being Faithful, as well as basic hygiene) have also been conducted extensively. In addition, education against Female Genital Circumcision has been held. Education on family values and relationships have been held, as well as matching women in sisterhood ceremonies to promote support systems for facing problems, and family education on poverty eradication has also been implemented. One of the most inspiring successes for WFWP Uganda has been a result of a small grant from UNDP. This project aimed to help 400 displaced families in Mbale district of Eastern Uganda living on very steep degraded land prone to erosion and landslides. The families have been taught intercropping of seasonal and perennial crops and agro forestry, including coffee on each acre sized family plot. Family income was predicted to increase from $200 annual to $1200 annual. Instead, real income per family has increased to $2000. Soil and water management, compost making, water harvesting, health and hygiene, family values and HIV/AIDS avoidance skills are also taught. WF Uganda has concretized a development framework for transforming poor families to families with hope. Their vision is to advance the number of families raised out of poverty each year.

Rev. John Gehring, reminded us that war and the threat of war is a major obstacle to overcoming poverty and achieving basic ambitions in life. Within each great religion we can find the motivation to forgive, love and unite with those who have wronged us. However, Rev. Gehring pointed out that when the religious impulse is manipulated for political or economic gain, it can cut like a sword. The majority of conflict hot spots have some connection to religious tension. He suggested that if poverty is to be overcome, and education is to play a leading role, then deep cooperation must occur among adherents of different religions. Religious Youth Service was founded in 1985 to fulfill the motto, "World Peace through interreligious action". Since then RYS has offered over 130 service projects in 47 nations. Young adults of all religions and cultures are invited to come together to live, work and share together while providing service to communities in need. John informed us that service projects are often tied to education, health or environmental needs such as building, repairing schools and clinics or reforestation work. He emphasized that though the physical work of the volunteer is important, just as, or more important is the group effort to create the culturally, religiously diverse community of good will. This pattern of cooperation illustrates what is possible to the leaders of today.

John shared an example of the ripple effect that these activities can have within a community. He spoke of Das Marinas, a very poor community in the Philippines, where Christians lived on one side of a stream and Muslims on the other. Though these communities were not openly hostile to one another, there were undercurrents of distrust. RYS brought 40 young people from 16 nations, and each major religion to help construct a bridge across the stream. A local Technical school and other local NGOs lent support. As work progressed, slowly children in the respective communities were drawn to the activity, then their mothers. Within the week, many of the men in the community were pitching in. At the ribbon cutting, the Governor and the local Imam and Bishop stood together to cut the ribbon to open the "International Bridge of Love". It was evident that the love and sacrifice offered by the youth helped forge a bond between the two communities, demonstrating that this type of cooperation can be a powerful force in generating social change. Rev. Gehring challenged other NGOs to support and develop this type of "education of the heart".

RYS has been active in areas facing religious tension and violence such as India, Northern Ireland, former Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Southern Thailand, Northern Uganda, the River State in Nigeria and Philippines. RYS has also worked to promote healing with indigenous populations in Australia, New Zealand, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay, Samoa, Tonga, Bangladesh, India and Thailand.

In conclusion, Rev. Gehring said, "For poverty to be eradicated, we will need to have peace. For peace to take root we will need to have justice. For justice to be established we will need to be governed by love. The religious community and NGOs can play a major role in promoting a culture of peace. The culture of peace emerges when we educate the heart to have the capability of healing and helping. Education will play a major role in eradicating poverty and establishing a just society when it provides both the external skills to function in our society and the internal skills to build trusting relationships."

IRFF's Dr. Kathy Winings gave a brief overview of successful programs in Zambia and Cameroon, among others that emphasize a combination of micro-enterprise, micro-financing and educational programs that cover core curriculum, vocational, computer training and capacity building. Rather than give a complete inventory of projects, she introduced us to what she referred to as service learning, utilized by IRFF for the past 15 years. Dr. Winings defines service learning as, "A method through which one learns and develops through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs and that provide structured reflection time for the participant to think, talk or write about their experience. The activity becomes the catalyst for learning, growth and enhanced development which comes through the reflection process." She went on to clarify that the reflection process is what sets service learning apart from conventional volunteer programs. She has come to expect enhanced character formation, heightened learning, a stronger sense of citizenship and deepening family and social relationships, as well as strengthening of self esteem through effective service learning programs. Dr. Winings indicated that service learning addresses some of the intangibles on the way to advancing the Millennium Development Goals, such as unhealthy attitudes toward self, community, life and the future (i.e. hopelessness, powerlessness, despair, anger, lack of respect for others and resentment). She contends that policy changes, more money and more schools cannot change these attitudes, but service learning does have the power to integrate cognitive and moral learning, bringing the heart and mind into a new synthesis. Also, service learning gives the opportunity for those in an academic environment to apply the theories they are learning to actual situations, giving the student the opportunity to serve, reflect, feel and relate all at once. This process empowers those in difficulty to envision their own solutions, what they have to contribute and how they may impact and be impacted by help from beyond their communities, putting them on equal footing with those who come to "help". Dr. Winings did not claim that service learning is a panacea, but called it a useful tool for NGOs and civil society to utilize. In concluding, she quoted a service learning participant who said, "The purpose of life, above all, is to matter, to count, to stand for something, to make a difference that you lived at all." Her observation is that participants in service learning do indeed come to realize that they can make a difference.

The final panelist, Dr. P.C. Lunia presented a number of proposals for the UN Organization in the arena of specific educational program presented either online or by DVD, on a very broad scale. He stressed the two areas of employment generation and education as being key to poverty eradication, emphasizing that education is primary. Dr. Lunia praised NGOs for their voluntary motive and ability to work with less formality, less bureaucracy and more result orientation than governments. He went on to suggest that, because of this, perhaps NGOs should be entrusted with the job of poverty eradication through education. Dr. Lunia proposed four projects that he estimated to cost a total of $2 billion.

The first suggestion was for a Free Virtual University sponsored by the UN and providing online education in approximately 500 different areas. He sited the increasing costs of college education and the statistical proof of the connection between higher education and prosperity.

The second proposal was for interactive DVDs to be created and distributed freely in twenty different languages on different trades, skills and jobs using the guidance of experts in the respective fields. His concept is to put training for certain jobs such as repair and maintenance of TVs, radios, tractors, cars, scooter, electrical equipment and hundreds of other things used daily on these DVDs so that people could teach themselves these trades by using the DVDs. An alternative to the DVD is to broadcast these training programs on a special UN sponsored program.

His third proposal involved researching the best quality sources of 800 different fruits, vegetables, legumes and herbal products, and distribute the seeds of these top quality products to farmers worldwide by NGOs, giving poor farmers the opportunity to choose from the best, and grow suitable cash crops. He recommended the preparation of an interactive DVD on each of the crops with information needed to procure, grow and harvest the crops. Dr. Lunia suggested making this instructional information available on a web portal and/or international TV channel also.

Finally, Dr. Lunia recommended the creation of an international TV channel that disseminates the knowledge and secrets of the "great thinkers" of the world to train people for meditation and happiness. Dr. Lunia did not share how he arrived at his budget estimates, but certainly if these programs were implemented, they could have the power to improve the well being of untold numbers of people in the world.

The discussion following the panelists' presentations was spirited and excited as many were sincerely inspired by the testimony of successes presented. Attendees involved in their own service work appreciated the definition of "service learning" and affirmed their own experience of the power of the reflection process to transform, following service action. Each of the panelists had a unique perspective and presentation of best practices that clearly stimulated the listeners regarding possibilities that could be undertaken to advance the Millennium Development Goals.