“In the rural areas we are always in permanent crisis”

Tell us about your first nine months as Fe y Alegría, Guatemala, Director

It has been like landing in a parachute. But above all it has been a time of intense negotiation, dialogue, finding common views, getting to know the different actors working in Fe y Alegría, school teachers and directors and the Ministry of Education. One of the critical points has been the signing of their contracts. When I arrived, the continuation of Fe y Alegría Guatemala was not clear, so work was not been carried out and people were greatly discouraged. We have given them confidence and have been working hard in a dialogue with all parties concerned, mainly the Ministry of Education and the trade unions.

Where do you stand at present?

We are going through a re-launching period. The most important is that schools have continued to work. There are 47 schools in Guatemala, many in the rural areas, where teachers have a strong vocation, totally dedicated, sometimes they walk for one hour to reach a bilingual school. Work has been our guarantee since it has not been interrupted. We have tried to inject motivation and hope, since our motivation is greater than the conflict that had arisen. Behind the schools, there are more than 12.500 students, boys and girls, many of them at social and health risk, we have had malnutrition problems...This helped us not to give up. In this struggle there have been moments we have felt like being in a tunnel, the dark night as St. John of the Cross would say, but in the darkness there are always rays of light that help us to move on. We have moved on and I might say that we have ended the year successfully.

Which is the current education policy of the Government of Guatemala and how does it affect the 47 Fe y Alegría schools?

We have a social democrat government, that is addressing social policy as a justice problem more than an assistance problem as was handled by the former conservative government. Although they are also using it as an election tool since they are working on the next elections in 2011. In Guatemala there is no tradition of strong and consolidated parties; instead politicians make up their own parties in election times. The Ministry of Education has supported, at the end of 2008, a very interesting measure, the Equality Law for universal education. This is very good and fits in clearly with Fe y Alegría policies since we also offer public education, with non government management, but our schools are not private... It is public education and therefore we have to work in the same condition as the State schools but we are allowed our own pedagogy, our own style.

We firmly believe that our schools should be community centers, therefore we have to articulate the different agents involved: students, teachers and parents. This is a process of co-management in education. In each school we have a parents association, they are called APAMCES, with legal and directive structure where we try to develop social promotion. The participation of parents is essential for this purpose.

How has universal education been carried out?

A big effort has been made in order to increase school enrolment. In this context, in the Fe y Alegría schools we are expecting a 12-15% increase, especially in the rural areas that are very abandoned: native areas where children go through difficult situations of poverty and malnutrition and many of these children have to work. The task of having these children in school is important, but not only to have them in school but to have them learn.

We also work to prevent school dropout, especially among girls, since many twelve year olds are forced out of school to take care of their brothers and sisters, do household chores, collect wood etc. The gratuity and universal policy has been accompanied by a policy of family motivation: through the programme " My family is making progress" the government distributes a financial bonus of around 20 Euros a month so that the family may take their children to school. This is also done in other countries of Central America. In Guatemala, these funds are managed by the First Lady, who seems to be candidate in the next elections.

How does malnutrition affect school results?

It affects greatly. Hungry children do not have a normal physical development, they come to school feeling sleepy with no energy or motivation...Therefore it affects their learning capacity and development.

What direct effects on the students has the nutrition programme directed to 2.300 children that Fe y Alegría has begun, supported by Entreculturas?

It has a double effect. First of all, it stops malnutrition. We give them a biscuit with a nutrition boost and a vitamin juice with 30% of the daily energy needed. This is an incentive, since "I go to school because I can eat" and not only to learn. So it does have a double effect: giving a greater capacity for physical development and making them go to school with motivation.

How is the world financial crisis affecting you?

It is affecting us at a macroeconomic level, where bank loans are difficult to obtain, but in the lives of the poorest it does not affect because they are always in crisis, in the rural areas globalization reach is scarce; they feel it more in the urban marginal areas where there are no jobs, as in Spain. But in the rural areas they are always in crisis. Here, maybe a family cannot go on holiday, but in rural areas nobody ever goes on holiday. We live in a permanent crisis. In Guatemala we have many business firms that should have a social and historic responsibility. This is not easy to regulate but measures as the participation of Guatemalan capital and a decent salary, social benefits for the people etc. would help.

Which improvements have been made in Fe y Alegría Guatemala?

We have improved quality education greatly; in learning methods, teacher training and ICTS, we have more and better classrooms and we are also improving Fe y Alegría advocacy with State policies. In fact Fe y Alegría has contributed to the national basic curriculum that regulates education in Guatemala and in the Institutional Education Programmes, PEIs, so that each school may have its education programme. We want the State education to benefit from the improvements and strong points of Fe y Alegría, the State is not a competitor, we should be allies in an ultimate objective to improve education: a quality education for all as Father Velaz, Fe y Alegría founder used to say "We should not give a poor education to the poor". On the contrary, the poor might need the best education.