Published: July 5th 2005July 5th 2005
Okay, this is for my family and friends who want to know exactly what I am doing in the Philippines. What the heck am I doing in the Philippines, anyway? Well, I am working with Engineers Without Borders (EWB, www.ewb.ca if you want to check it out) on a project called SCALA (shared computer access locally and abroad, at www.scala.ewb.ca or http://proxy.dswd.gov.ph/scala). It is an ITC (information technology communication) project designed to give out of school youth (OSY) both computer and life skills training so that they can either go back to school or get a job. OSYs are between the ages of 18 and 24 who have dropped out of school because they can’t afford to pay the tuition or because they’ve had to start working to support their families (usually in very poorly paid jobs). Since 2000, 15 SCALA centers have been successfully implemented in various different regions of the Philippines.
So what do the OSY learn in the SCALA centers? They complete about 3 months of computer and life skills training at the center and then complete another 3 months of on-the-job training (that hopefully turns into employment after the 3 months is up) in the local community. The computer skills modules involve learning programs such as Word, Excel, Frontpage, Access, the Internet, and Powerpoint. Life skills training involves modules such as conflict management, budgeting, and leadership skills.
So who do we work with? We work in conjunction with a Filipino government department called the DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development), because it is very important to work with local partners. They are well acquainted with the problems facing the local youth and they have the resources to be able to utilize a SCALA center to its greatest potential. Most development projects fail because the volunteers either don’t have a local partner to guide the project or they just try to force their (western) ideas of development on the partner or people in the communities they are working in. So it is vital that local people are involved (and that we listen to them!) to ensure that the project is a success. The DSWD is also responsible for the maintenance of the computers and the continuance of the project once the Canadian volunteers are gone.
So why a computer center? Well, we hope that an IT project has huge potential for the human development of Filipino youth. Since the Philippines is just breaking into the computer and internet world, the OSYs can provide needed resources in this new employment sector. This means they can get jobs working for government offices, internet cafes or other local businesses, schools, or anywhere basic computer skills are needed. But also, it is hoped that the project will spur an interest in the OSY to return to school if they so desire.
So how many of us are there? There are four Canadian EWB volunteers (not necessarily engineering students) that are in the Philippines for the summer. Me, Amy (from Calgary), Ginny (from Waterloo), and Neha (from Vancouver). And then there’s Sarah, who is the national coordinator for the SCALA project, and she lives in Manila (and has for about the last year). So each Canadian volunteer is helping to set up a SCALA center in two different communities this summer, spending about 6 weeks in each. In order to do this effectively, each Canadian is paired up with a Filipino partner. This Filipino partner is a center manager from another SCALA center in a nearby region, and obviously has experience with the set up and running of a SCALA center.
So what do we do? In addition to helping actually set up the computers and train the trainers who will be teaching the OSYs, the volunteers motivate, orient, and promote the project. We get people excited about the project, tell as many people and organizations as we are able about the project, and we make sure that the right people have all of the pertninent information available to them so they can develop a great center. And we also provide 15 computers for each center, although we would like to find computers from within the Philippines or Asia in the future, because it is very expensive to ship computers all the way from Canada! Each volunteer selected to participate from Canada this year had to fundraise computers before they came to the Philippines, so I am very thankful that I had a lot of help from my rockin’ Saskatchewan EWB chapter!
So what’s the plan for the future? To ensure sustainability of the project far into the future, we would like to take EWB out of the loop altogether. Part of the goal of this summer is to shift the responsibility of implementing the SCALA centers in other communities to the shoulders of the Filipinos. This makes all sorts of sense, of course, because the Filipinos know the culture, the language, and the social and political environment that make them the most appropriate people to be spearheading the project. So with each center that we set up, we are trying to ensure that the Filipino partner we’re working with is then able to go on and start up other centers and train other Filipinos on their own (or with minimal help from the Canadians).
So what have been my main difficulties so far? This relinquishing of the leadership role has been a huge struggle for me. I am used to organizing things and I normally just tell people what to do or go ahead and do things myself, rather than allowing others to come up with their own ideas or make their own decisions. So I’ve had to take a huge step back and ask myself (almost every time before I speak, so I can keep the goal in mind!) what is needed of me. And it’s definitely not to tell people what they should be doing! Rather, the DSWD and my Filipino partner tell me how the center should be implemented and run and I help give them ideas/guidance on how they can achieve that goal. My rule of thumb thus far has been to remain silent (especially in meetings) unless I am sure that what I say is really going to help the project. For anyone that knows me, it’s a completely different role that I have played in any of my other life endeavours, and infinitely more difficult! I am definitely not used to letting someone else take on the leadership role! I think I am achieving some success with it, but the first steps are the hardest they say! I’m not saying that I haven’t made any mistakes, but at least I am learning from them, and it definitely has been a learning experience thus far! For some reason, I had the idea in my head that to be a good development worker, I always had to be doing something. But the idea of development is to empower people to do things for themselves, not doing it for them, which is a good thing for me to keep in mind at all times and some great parting words!