Computer Lab Attempt #1

This last month has been absolutely jam-packed for me. I’ve been running all around Kakata with my friends at TED Liberia trying set up a computer lab program at the local public school. Unfortunately it didn’t work out in the end, but it was an amazing learning experience. It’s the first time I’ve really been a part of a start-up!

A few posts back, I mentioned my involvement with Techno-Education Liberia, a local, Liberian-run NGO here in Kakata. TED Liberia has a vision to build and manage computer labs in Liberian schools.  The group approached me in December to ask for my help in planning and organizing a computer training program at Lango Lippaye, the local public school here in Kakata.

TED Liberia has attempted to run programs at this school in the past, but found that it was challenging to make the program sustainable — they spent a significant amount of their own money and worked many unpaid hours keep the program running.

So I joined this team of three Liberians as an advisor and helped them create a budget, business plan and strategy to make the lab self-sufficient. This was a super valuable learning experience for me. I’d never done something like it before! A large component of the plan was generating awareness and interest in the program. We went on the local radio with the principal of the school to announce the program, and also went from classroom to classroom to invite students and their parents to an informative meeting that weekend. We passed around an interest sign-up sheet, and in a week visited 1,545 students and collected 1,182 phone numbers (combined total of students and their parents)!

Then, on the morning before our meeting that weekend, we sent a mass text out to all the students and parents to remind them to come. The response was amazing. I had warned my friend that if we used his phone number he would get a lot of calls, but he told me to not worry, so we did… and his phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I was dying of laughter as he desperately tried to answer all the calls. (In future mass texts we would prank other members of the group by listing their number as the contact and making them field the calls… good times).

Most of the calls were from people who hadn’t read the text and just thought it was a missed call — so I wasn’t sure how effective it actually was. But when I arrived early at the school for the meeting, some students walked by and told me they had received the text and would be back for the meeting. I was so excited to see signs that our outreach was working! And then people started showing up for the meeting… and kept showing up, packing the classroom until we had a significant group sitting outside the door. In all, we had over 120 people attending. At one point, I asked people in the room to raise their hand if they received the text. It looked like about 80% of the people in the room had. I was absolutely dumbfounded. The text worked!

To put this in perspective, you need to understand how difficult it can be to get large groups of people to show up to meetings in Liberia. When I first came here as Peace Corps Volunteer, I was confused when people would talk about how a meeting was “successful” — as far as I could tell, it just meant that the meeting happened. To me, the fact that a meeting happened wasn’t really noteworthy. I mean, how hard could it be to get a bunch of people in the same room at the same time? Turns out, it’s really hard in a culture that has a relaxed concept of time and unreliable communication. Somehow churches are able to do it, but I think that’s only possible because their meetings occur regularly and become habit. For me, this was the first time I’ve seen such a significant turn-out in an educational context. I think a big part of the massive turnout was because of the community’s interest in learning computer skills, but I like to think the mass text played a significant role too.

The problems began when we started finalizing our agreement with the school. Everything had started out as a familial/informal agreement with the school administration, as is common in Liberia. But when I came on board and helped generate so much interest, things started to get complicated. We tried to create a Memorandum of Understanding with the school so that we could explicitly agree on our responsibilities and goals, but after over a week and a half of negotiations, we were unfortunately unable to come to an agreement, and decided to let the project go for now.

Even though the computer program fell through this semester, I am so thankful to have had this experience. Yes, it’s unfortunate that we were unable to come to an agreement, but at least we found that out sooner rather than later. Imagine if we had started the program, and these disagreements emerged while the program was running and students were depending on us! Our team did an excellent job this last month, and it was an honor to work with such passionate and dedicated human beings. Each member of the group worked hard and had something essential to contribute to the conversation and effort. Finding groups like these in Liberia gives me so much hope for the long-term prospects of this country!

Finally, I want to note how wonderful it was to not be running under some grant or organization that was pressuring the computer lab to happen at all costs. From my observations of the developing world, it’s common for NGOs to force their projects to succeed under artificial circumstances (usually by throwing money at the problem). This type of success not only makes projects completely unsustainable, but can also cripple future efforts by warping people’s expectations. Projects need the freedom to fail in order to preserve the natural economic and social ecosystem of the host country. Unfortunately, grants and funding are awarded to NGOs for “successes” and lost in failures, which creates a perverse incentive to manufacture success rather than actually solving problems in sustainable ways.

Since I spent so much time with TED Liberia during the past month, I’m going to take a little break before I help the group in their next venture. In the meantime, I’m hoping to allocate more of my time towards my literacy and education interests!

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2 Responses to Computer Lab Attempt #1

  1. It’s a long ways from 1965 where high-tech involved having a blackboard. But getting people to a meeting in Liberia rings a bell. 🙂 –Curt

  2. Steve Aamold says:

    Great report and good insight into how best to approach new projects and ideas in Liberia. I can appreciate your observation that many NGO’s proceed with a mandate to succeed at any cost without enough sensitivity to how a project or program will succeed in the long run to the benefit of those being served. I’m looking forward to returning to Monrovia and serving with the PBCC/VisionTrust team at the Project #3, Coca Cola School in April. I did give a couple bags full of computer and electronic stuff to your Dad a few weeks ago, hopefully for delivery to you relatively soon. I won’t be able to include the stuff in my luggage in April due to all the other stuff our team needs to bring with us. Blessings to you.

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