As the value of social enterprises gains traction across Australia, more businesses are asking how their work can affect positive change across the world. While the desire to help is a fundamental first step, a respectful and sustainable approach is paramount.
Here Susan Biggs, Chief Executive Officer of Adara Development (formerly The ISIS Foundation), shares the Adara Group’s valuable insights and working philosophies, which have been honed and practiced across the world, across the decades.
At Adara, our development philosophy focuses on working hand-in-hand with the community and listening to what they say. It can take a long time, but it’s worth it. We don’t just go in and decide what needs to be done. We talk to people.
It’s a very important principle. And it means we get to speak to the people who are typically voiceless in their communities, including the dalit, or ‘untouchable castes’, those who come from single parent families, kids with disabilities, and children who are really the poorest of the poor.
We find out where the help is needed and that’s where we go. That’s what we do.
The Yalbang model
Adara Development has partnered with the Himalayan Children Society to improve education in one of the most remote parts of Nepal. The Yalbang School in Humla, Nepal, operates in an area that has an incredibly low socioeconomic status. It’s become the best school in the district by far and it’s now being used as a model to improve other schools.
We particularly encouraged girls to attend the Yalbang School. When we came to Humla, only 33% of girls could read and write compared to 62% of boys. We’ve been on a campaign since then to increase female attendance at Yalbang School. It’s a large school for the area – with three hundred kids – and currently 65% of those are girls. That’s a huge difference from the district average.
Yalbang is a boarding school, so it started out with one hostel where the kids lived during term time. Without it, most kids have to walk hours or even days to get to school. The school built another hostel so there are now two: one for boys and one for girls. That’s made a huge difference – parents are more comfortable sending their girls to live in a hostel of their own, where they’re not staying with boys. The increase in female attendance since then has been amazing.
Advantaging the disadvantaged
We’re also able to help some of the poorest kids come to the school. Their parents can’t afford uniforms and school books, so they often just send the boys. But for the poorest of the poor, we’ll pay for their books and their uniforms, and we’ll provide a subsidy for food.
The Humla District is made up of a whole lot of small villages. We know we can’t work with every village in the detail and depth required, so we work with specific ones – and add one or two more each year.
Turning teaching around
One of the biggest issues in Nepali education is that some teachers don’t turn up. Instead, they pay somebody corrupt to sign the forms, which say they’ve been at work. Then they get their salary, and go back to Kathmandu. The kids are left without teachers.
We worked with the management committee and the government to upscale their capacity, and we provided the funds to employ extra teachers. We said to the management committee, “You can have control of your own teachers, and we’ll pay for them.” So we pay for extra teachers to turn up to that school. The Yalbang School has more teachers than other local schools.
We’ve also made sure we’re working very closely with the founder of the school, who is a fantastic man of integrity. He stamps out any corruption and makes sure the teachers turn up and work as hard as they should. In that respect, we’ve helped to raise the bar.
Collaborating with the government
Importantly, though, we don’t hire the staff. We facilitate the government and management committee to do so. In some cases, the government has taken over the employment of those extra teachers altogether. That’s the ideal scenario. That way, we don’t have to be there forever and the change becomes sustainable.
We have twelve Nepalese locals on our staff – and most of them were born in Humla. Our program manager, for example, comes from Humla. He understands the community, its people, and he is simply fabulous when working with the government. It’s so much better to help the Nepalese work with their own government than to bring Westerners in to do the same thing.
That’s the ideal scenario. That way, we don’t have to be there forever and the change becomes sustainable.
We’re also sticklers for governance. So we go against the grain to insist that all of our jobs are advertised, that people apply for the jobs, that interviews are carried out, and that references are checked. That’s no mean feat. Our country director, who comes from Kathmandu, would get regular phone calls from different political parties, who said, “I’ve got a friend/cousin/nephew/son who needs a job.” He had to change his phone number and leave town for a few weeks. He even received death threats.
This is the difficult thing about development. If you want to stick by your principles, you will get pushed back because it’s not the way things are done. But we felt very strongly that we had to set the precedent. We would say, “This is what we do. It is totally merit based. If your brother wants to apply, absolutely tell him to apply. We’ll look at his application in the same way as we look at every other application. We will make sure that the best person gets the job.” We had to keep repeating those messages.
In the end we survived and nobody was hurt. Importantly, the community respects us too. They know the people who got the job are the best people – and they’re local people.
Adara Development’s (formerly The ISIS Foundation) objective is to work side by side with communities and children in remote areas in Nepal and Uganda, improving their lives through health, education and other community development projects. Since 1998, they have grown to provide services each year to more than 30,000 people in poverty.
The Adara Group have had a wide range of financial supporters over the years. From inception to the end of December 2013, Adara Development had received about A$22.8 million (US$19.1 million) in donations.
Written by Thread Publishing (threadpublishing.com). Connecting the world one story at a time to bring humanity back into business. © 2014
Photo credit: Adara Group, Jonathon Torgovnik