By Charlotte Ørnemark, Knowledge & Learning, GPSA
A shiny roof reflects the scorching mid-day sun as we approach the newly renovated building. Here, in the only school on the small island of Unisan in the Guimaras Province of the Philippines, some 104 children spend their days from Kindergarten to Grade 6.
Today this remote island in the Pacific Ocean looks like a paradise. But without any electricity or running water, islanders rely on local boats for making the hour-long journey to the bigger island of Guimaras and the closest city Iloilo for necessities or to interact with public officials – and the weather is often harsh.
For us, starting a day and a half earlier in Manila, the journey to get here has involved one flight, two hours by car, two hours by boat, and one stretch of wading through the crystal clear water of the sea. No wonder then that the school was “forgotten” when it came to fixing years of accumulated disrepairs, worsened by the 2013 typhoon that ripped off most of the roof and ceiling covering one of the classrooms. “We had to move our chairs to one side of the room every time it rained,” explains a 9 year-old boy. “Our teacher kept saying sorry and promised that it would be fixed. But it never was.”
In 2013, this was one of the schools visited by CheckMySchool. The initiative was established in 2011 as a joint initiative of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP) and the Philippine Government Department of Education responsible for regulating, monitoring and managing the delivery of public education services. It is currently funded by the Open Society Foundations as part of the Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) at the World Bank. In Guimaras, as in other parts of the country where the initiative has been rolled out, CheckMySchool works with local CSO partners and trained volunteers to validate and double-check official data on school standards in order to make sure limited resources are spent where they are most needed.
As a development practitioner, it is easy to fall in love with an initiative such as CheckMySchool – especially when it leads to the resolution of issues such as on Unisan. It is local problem-solving at its best: tangible, visible, with obvious and immediate benefits, using locally mobilized resources, combining public and civil society efforts. Add some happy children to this image, and it’s any donor’s dream.
In the case of the Unisan school, ANSA-EAP also made a video reportage distributed online which generated some private donations. Coupled with municipal funds for disaster rehabilitation by the Mayor’s office, these resources were enough for the long overdue repairs to be undertaken. In addition to a new roof, this included building a toilet on school grounds.
But it’s easy to be blinded by the reflections of this bright image, just as the glittering sea surrounding the island is seductive when there is no new typhoon on the horizon. Although data is increasingly accessible, and even validated by local actors, competing interests around the use of limited resources often stand in the way of reported issues being resolved.
Getting from official data validation to the resolution of documented problems in schools can be difficult. “We report on the status of our schools every year,” remarks one head teacher. “Sometimes the budget arrives for repairs, sometimes it doesn’t.” This has been one of the key lessons of ANSA-EAP which works closely with the Ministry of Education at the national level, but increasingly also with Provincial and Local Government Units with the aim of resolving a larger share of school issues reported.
Even though the Unisan school repairs can be seen as a symbol of success, it is also evidence of the fact that good and accountable governance in the education system needs further attention. Citizen feedback and independent monitoring fed regularly into local decision-making has proven to help. But to ensure that this happens nation-wide requires bigger, sector-wide transformations and the gradual alignment of interests at both national and local levels.
Some nagging questions remain. Why was the Unisan school not repaired before? Should it really be necessary for external initiatives to intervene for citizen feedback to prompt officials to act? And how can we make sure that no schools are “forgotten” in the future?
Luckily, these are question that both government officials and the CheckMySchool initiative take seriously. As we wade out into the waters again to start our long journey back, I reflect on that. Now, that gives me hope. More so than the impressive school building or the happily waving children.
The idea of institutionalizing a new way of solving problems in the education sector by better use of and access to relevant data combined with regular interactions between local actors is enticing. Solutions to this larger governance problem is definitely less visible than a shiny roof on a local school and requires longer-term support and learning from trial and error.
But it may just be worth the investment.