During our recent regional workshop in Laos, we participants (19 of us) visited a state training centre for young professionals in agriculture and forestry that has being receiving Swiss support for some time. The SURAFCO project (Support the Reform of the Northern Agriculture and Forestry College) is implemented by Helvetas on behalf of SDC, the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development, and is now in its sixth year. The project includes the construction of new classrooms and dormitories, teacher training, an overhaul of the curriculum, and career counselling. The college seems used to visitors; indeed, they also have the Director General of SDC, Manuel Sager, visiting them next month. As far as we were concerned, it was the way that SURAFCO integrates gender and social equity into its activities that was of particular interest.
By way of background, the college (NAFC) is one of five run by the Lao government, and is the only one to focus on upland hill agriculture in the North of the country. This is where Laos’s diverse ethnic groups are concentrated – groups that have been historically marginalised from development efforts. It is generally felt that women and men professionals who are themselves members of such communities will be more effective in working with them than outsiders who are unaware of specific local customs, and who only speak the national Lao language. Thus the NAFC is taking pro-active steps to encourage ethnic applicants, particularly women, and to ensure that they feel welcome and comfortable at the college. We were told of a variety of ways in which this is being done.
The three main languages of the North – Lao, Hmong and Khmu – have been used in a campaign drive promoting the college on national and regional television and radio, as well as in school visits conducted by a recruitment team. In addition, two scholarship programmes, one run by the State (a quota system), and one offered by interested private companies, provide would-be students from poor families enough to cover the cost of their tuition, board and food. In just one year, from 2010 to 2011, women’s enrollment increased from 13% to 30%, and now remains around that level.
Addressing needs on campus
Potential, current and former students, teachers and parents were questioned on the needs and concerns of students. Their suggestions led to the following steps being taken.
- Improved accommodation: although this was in any case planned, the new dormitories offer both women and men – separately – better and safer conditions, with greater privacy and hygienic facilities than previously provided. This is a clear attraction. All students are residential, as this ensures that they can focus on campus life without being required to contribute to family chores.
- Income generation: opportunities are provided for students to earn some money whilst also learning a skill. Activities include mushroom cultivation, processing bamboo shoots into a snack, artisanal paper-making, and the manufacture of compost and bio-fertilizer.
- Social club: A student Environment Group offers students the opportunities to conduct various environmental activities together at the same time as fostering mutual support.
- College radio: Students run their own radio station in three languages, disseminating information related to their studies as well as chatting about life on campus.
Teachers and teaching
All college teachers have received training in awareness of gender and social inclusion, and are expected to practice this in their work. Beyond this, we were told that affirmative action in staff recruitment has seen an increase in the number of teachers of ethnic origin, whilst special support to women teachers in the form of on-campus child care, on-the-job training and study tours has resulted in much better staff retention.
So what did the workshop participants think? Of course we were impressed by the infrastructure and activities. The students we met seemed happy, bright and motivated. The main thing that some of us wondered was whether it would be easy for a student from an ethnic minority, particularly a girl, to express her feelings if she had any problems. Did all the teachers have sensitivity in this respect? Having achieved a greater ethnic mix of students and teachers, perhaps the college needs to reassess its interpretation of gender and ethnic equality. A little less stress on everyone being the same, and a little more on celebrating diversity – with the appreciation of difference that this entails. Be this a fair comment or not, the NAFC remains a very stimulating and interesting place to visit.