Written by Aw Pey Ling

Pey is currently an intern at Skillseed and a sophomore at NUS where she recently made the switch to major in Sociology. She is passionate about working with young people to unravel the complexities of service learning, inclusive education, and development.

"If you wanted to change a culture in a single generation, how would you do it? 

You would change the way it educates its children."

A MODULE I'm currently taking on Social Entrepreneurship touched on community development and the importance of considering context. We watched a TED talk titled 'Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!' by Ernesto Sirolli and it resonated with the conclusion that I've arrived at after a 9 month journey of working at Skillseed and thinking about OCIP:

The locals will always know better. 

One person in my class asked this question: So what if, what if, the locals simply do not know what's good for them? 

I think that before you make that statement, you have to live with the locals and understand their entire system of living. The struggles that they face in their everyday life, the factors that they take into account when making decisions. Understand their problems. Once you think you've understood enough, start SMALL. Help a person solve his or her problem and if it works, people in the community will naturally come to you. You don't need to set up an organisation and go in there and implement big changes.

So that's about poverty alleviation and NGOs, but what about education? 

Recently at Skillseed we watched this documentary, Schooling the World, and it questions education. Is (western) education the only way out of poverty for developing countries? Is western education another form of colonialism? What is the best way out of poverty for them?

Education can exist in many forms. Education teaches you how to navigate yourself in the system that you're in. Other countries have very different cultures and systems and they simply work differently. So should we teach English to the 'poor' communities? Whats the unintended consequence of that? 

So people go in and impose the Western form of education. The younger generation gets to touch computers, learn english, etc, and start to migrate to the cities. The unintended consequence of this: the erosion of their culture, their way of living and their community. These 'backward' communities will cease to exist decades down the road. People start to think that the Western form of education is the ONLY form of education. One comment in the film by an elderly lady in a community in Ladakh, India stuck with me: I'm not educated, I don't know anything. But they know so many things. From crop cultivation to subsistence living, their cultures are just as complex as ours. There is no  hierarchy of 'good and better'; all cultures are equally complex in their own ways. Just take a look at their elaborate kinship systems. 

I'm not saying that the Western form of education has no merits. It certainly does. All systems have plus and minuses. But I'm saying that like all forms of aid, we should not impose our mindsets on other people and give them the false impression that the only way to go is to head to the cities, find a job, and live in concrete houses. If the people in a community are living a certain way, then we teach them what they need to 'survive in a dangerous world' - a quote that my colleague shared from another film, Sokola Rimba, that tells the story of Saur Marlina Manurung, a pioneer for alternative education for indigenous people in isolated and remote areas in Indonesia*. Eg. Teach them basic math and science in THEIR OWN LANGUAGE so they can trade with the other communities. Don't teach them ENGLISH and indirectly instruct them that the only way to go is West.

Yes. Why didn't I think of this before? Education is also a form of aid given by Western countries, but we need to think about it further, too. 

Man. So interesting. 

* From Wikipedia:

“She initiated the first pilot school in Orang Rimba society (or Suku Kubu), a tribe who live in Bukit Dua Belas National Park, Jambi, Sumatra. The method that she used was half anthropology, meaning that the teaching of reading, writing and counting were conducted while living with her pupils for several months. This system was combined by taking into consideration daily behavior pattern of the respected society.

Once it had been systematically structured, she developed the
Sokola Rimba system. The term "Sokola Rimba" was derived from the local language that is used by Orang Rimba, one of multiple dialects in Melayu languages. The Sokola Rimba system is now used in several remote areas across Indonesia, such as in Halmahera and Flores. The Government of the Republic of Indonesia is planning to adopt this system in order for further development for communitIes that have particular conditions.”