My 5: Earle Canfield, Founder, ANSWER

March 11, 2009 by  
Filed under ANSWER, Blog, Front Page, Michigan, My 5, Nepal, Volunteers

BPGL: What are the five most important things we can do to save the planet?

Earle Canfield, founder of American-Nepali Student and Women's Educational Relief

Earle Canfield, founder of American-Nepali Student and Women


  • Total disarmament. Dismantle all war industries and limit armies to simply police forces. This is one of the most wasteful uses of our time, money, and effort.
  • Global education about the importance of observing the natural cycles.
  • Reforestation and strict laws and zoning to maintain the forests.
  • Conversion to renewable and carbon-free energy generation (until nuclear wastes are neither recyclable nor non-war related; e.g., breeder reactors are not acceptable alternatives for the latter reason).
    • As a corollary, this can best be achieved on a home-by-home construct: fuel cells and windmills in every yard or on every roof.
    • As a second corollary, this includes energy of all forms of transportation.
  • Learning mutual respect through our common humanity and “spiritual” connection… That’s the hardest.

Earle Canfield, Founder

American-Nepali Student & Women’s Educational Relief (ANSWER)

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts:

Part I: ANSWER – A Sustainable Future for Low-Caste Children

Part 2: ANSWER – Ending Caste in Nepal with Education and Jobs

ANSWER – Ending Caste in Nepal with Education and Jobs

Education is essential for children to overcome poverty and the caste system. Photo: Anita Elder

Conscientious donors around the world give money to NGOs with the full expectation that their contributions will work toward the benefit of the intended recipients. But, as Earle Canfield, explains in today’s post, the reality is often quite different, with too many NGOs working ultimately for their own sustainability and not delivering “real help.”

Canfield’s NGO, American-Nepali Student & Women’s Educational Relief (ANSWER), is different. “Instead of fostering dependency,” Canfield says, “we empower students.” ANSWER gives “just enough help” to impoverished low-caste families by paying for one child’s private school education. The families, in turn, pay for a small part of their children’s school needs. By requiring a personal investment, ANSWER motivates families to continue the child’s participation through college, whereupon the graduate secures a good-paying job. Education not only breaks the cycle of poverty for the families, it also empowers low-caste students to become part of the new middle class that will overturn Nepal‘s caste system in their lifetime.

This is Part 2 of a two-part interview with ANSWER’s founder, Earle Canfield. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

BPGL: What got you interested in helping children in Nepal?

CANFIELD: I went to Nepal first as a medical volunteer. I worked in a children’s hospital. All I saw was a revolving door of poor people coming in, getting fixed up and being sent out, and no [lasting] good coming of it.

Children in private schools have an opportunity to overcome poverty through education. Photo: Anita Elder

During my first three months there, I went on a medical mission with the crew from a hospital. We went to a remote village where there was a community clinic. It had power; the village did not. The people would have to wait for hours to be seen by a doctor; there were four practitioners and hundreds of children to be seen. So we did some health education.

We put the families in a room, and they didn’t know what was happening. There was all this talk and buzz. We were going to show them some slides. None of them had seen a TV or been to a movie. So we quieted them down, and I ran the projector while a Nepali doctor gave explanations of the slides. We went on with our talk about malaria, until I flashed a slide of a mosquito. At that point, all the excitement died, and there was dead silence in the room. It was like a big weight of gloom and doom had come down on the people.

I asked the doctor who was translating, “What’s going on?”

She said, “They are afraid of that mosquito.”

“Well, they need to be afraid of that mosquito, it’s malarial!”

“You don’t understand, they’re afraid of this mosquito, right here. It’s got a four-foot wingspan.” She smiled, and I got it. She explained everything, and we finished the slide show.

That moment haunted me. As funny as it is, it made me realize that, if I take a microscope, a slide, and some pond water, and show them a germ and say, “That’s what’s making you sick,” they don’t understand. They think it’s that water right there, the water they’re looking at, that’s making them sick. They can’t understand scaling, so they don’t know how small a germ is. They don’t understand large numbers of germs.

There’s no way that you can teach health education to illiterate people. It’s just too demanding. And so the best way, the simple way, to do this is to educate the children. With a liberal education, they would have the math, the science, the literacy, the concepts to really grasp the idea. Then they can teach the fundamentals to the parents: “No, Mother, don’t drink that!”

BPGL: So you send children to school. Why not send them to public schools?

Public school children sit on the floor in crowded classrooms. Photo: Anita Elder

Public school children sit on the floor in crowded classrooms. Photo: Anita Elder

CANFIELD: The educational system is built with caste in mind. It reinforces the caste system. Only by paying enough money to go to a private school that teaches in English can you go to college. In the public schools, they teach English in the 3rd or 4th grade, but it’s really directed at being able to read Nepali words in Roman letters, not to learn English. At the end of the 10th grade, everyone who wants to do so will take an exam, and that will determine if their scores are high enough to go to college. But they have to score high in English. About 40% of the students nationwide fail that exam. Most of those who fail are out of the public schools.

Almost all nonprofits will help children in basic education, maybe even up to the 10th grade, but then they drop them. We have taken some of these children, who were sustained but dropped by other organizations, even though they did very well on 10th grade exam, and found spots for them in private colleges. After the 12th grade, the students take another exam, and that will determine whether they are awarded a diploma and/or go on to the university.

BPGL: Is your goal to send students to university?

CANFIELD: The university level is kind of a dead end. The kids want to become engineers, but they’ll never get a job in engineering in this country. The engineering jobs go to foreign contractors. So, even before the 10th grade, we’re discouraging them from going into engineering. Even so, some of the kids want to do it. So, “Okay, you can take the science that leads up to engineering. If you do well enough on the exam and get a scholarship, you’re in. But if you don’t get a job, you can’t come crying back to us. Your decision is made now.” That’s an iron fist in a velvet glove. We try to coddle these students enough so that they can do what we say and understand what we say.

BPGL: When you spoke in Iowa City, you mentioned a club for the high school students. What is the purpose of the club?

CANFIELD: What we do is not only put the kids in good schools — the private, high-caste schools — but we also have what’s called a Social Welfare Club. They meet on Saturdays for three or four hours. We work to educate poor people to the point where they can not only take care of themselves, but they also reach a level of understanding that they’ve been taken care of through the graces of help from outside.

Nepali teens like these participate in Social Welfare Clubs through ANSWER. Photo: Anita Elder

Nepali teens like these participate in Social Welfare Clubs through ANSWER. Photo: Anita Elder

About every other week, we show a movie. For the most part, they are Western-produced movies that have a morality theme. What we’re doing with these films is raising the students’ social consciousness. These are movies like March of the Penguins. One of the things that comes out of that particular movie is that animals have societies too. They have a struggle against the elements to survive, and they handle it by division of labor. The father’s job is to stay home and hatch the egg. The mother’s job is to go out fishing, and she brings home the dinner. Then the children begin to understand that there’s more than one way to look at society. Fathers can do child rearing, and mothers can have careers. We discuss things like that.

These meetings are structured to have discussions. Very few schools in Nepal have discussions; 99.9 percent use rote teaching. You spoon feed the answers, so that when it comes up on the test, you get back the answer. Nothing more than that, just the answer.

All of the kids are extremely shy, and it’s very hard for them to raise their hands. But after a couple of weeks like this, they catch on. They start participating, and they raise their hand. We don’t have an attendance problem on Saturday.

BPGL: Do you see your efforts working?

CANFIELD: I think we will be very successful in producing socially conscious and aware and active students. And that, in a Third World setting, is unheard of. They come out of a subsistence background, and in a subsistence background, you don’t share; not-sharing is a survival skill.

At the Social Welfare Clubs, we instill a sense of the power of sharing. We say, “There are sponsors on the other side of the world that believe so strongly in you and want to help you. You must be committed to helping others, too, because you got help. You couldn’t have done it by yourself.”

I remember asking one class, “Why do you think that people on the other side of the world care enough to help you?” There were interesting responses. I said, “No, it’s not because you are helpless.”

And one little girl said, “Because we’re just like them.”

I responded, “If you’re just like them, what about other poor people? Aren’t they just like you?” The lights went on all over the room. These kids do understand what the purpose is in all of this.

BPGL: Doesn’t it cost more to support a college student? How do you manage to continue supporting them?

CANFIELD: College is more expensive, but it’s only for a couple of years, so we put part of the commitment onto the families. We say, “You have to pay a certain percentage. We usually try to get a third of the cost of college from the family. If they still can’t do it, those children borrow from the college fund. And if they borrow from the college fund, they pay it back, so that other children can borrow from the college fund.

Everything we do is thought out pretty carefully in terms of sustainability, empowerment, and political/personal will.

BPGL: What else do the kids do in the Social Welfare Clubs to get involved in the community?

CANFIELD: We might go up to the children’s hospital and visit with patients there, or go to the old folks’ home and talk with the people. There’s only one government nursing home for the elderly in Kathmandu. We take our kids there, so they can socialize with the older people and find out their stories. These are people who don’t have relatives, who have been left alone to support themselves and were living and sleeping on the streets.

In the cities, poor families live in 8' x 8' rooms. Photo: Anita Elder

In the cities, poor families often live in 8' x 8' rooms. Photo: Anita Elder

One time, we had a mother who was having a very difficult time at home. It was in Kathmandu in one of these little, 8 x 8-foot, one-room bunkers. It was a ground-floor apartment, and the floor was damp. There was mildew growing up on the walls. When you walked into it, it smelled like your worst science experiment. So I got the children together. The girls went to the well and fetched the water. We took the bedding off the bed. The girls helped the mother do the laundry.

When we took the bed up, the bottom of the mattress was all moldy and wet. And that’s where all of this was coming from. We put that out in the sun and sun-bleached the mold. The boys and I bleached the floor, the walls, the ceiling.

Afterward, we went to a momo [a Tibetan ravioli dumpling] shop, and talked about it. I asked, “Did we do good?”

The kids said, “We should feel good about what we did.”

“Was it sustainable?”

They said, “Oh, yes. The place is very nice.”

“Well, do you think we’ll have to come back and do it all over again?”

“No, not for a long time,” they said.

I asked, “Have we solved the problem?” Then I told them about the mattress, because they didn’t really understand the biology of mold. And I said, “What we did is, we put it out in the air. The air and the sun will dry it out, and the mold won’t grow. But if you put it back on the damp floor (with the seepage through the thin layer of concrete), the mold will just come back.

ANSWER families must contribute to their student's uniform costs. Photo: Anita Elder

Then the kids were a little bit downcast. I said, “There are solutions to problems. What are the solutions to this problem?”

They know about beds being elevated off the floor, so we discussed that. I said, “Well, what are we going to do?”

“Oh, let’s buy them a bed.”

“Do you think buying things for people is going to solve their problems? When we send you to school, do we pay for everything?”

“No. Father pays for our sandals or tennis shoes.”

What I could have had them do is go out and make the money to pay for it. But it’s very hard for children to make money. So I said, “Why don’t we put up half the money, and have the father, who is a painter, put up the other half?”

The husband wasn’t going to buy a bed. We went back and talked to the mother, and the mother explained to the father that they could sleep on a bed again for the first time, and they’d only have to pay half of it. So when she presented it that way, they agreed, and that solved the problem. It was a very good mini lesson on development, on how to help. You don’t just provide aid. You have to give instruction and get them invested.

BPGL: Do you serve an equal number of boys and girls?

CANFIELD: We have two-thirds as many girls as boys, because the literacy rate — or the school occupancy rate, if you will — is two-thirds boys. The literacy rate is twice as high for boys as it is for girls. We in the West are savvy enough to know that we want to help girls more than boys, and the girls play a leading role in educating the family and providing health care to the family. So, no question, that money is well spent on girls. But we feel the necessity of educating boys, as well — even if it’s a third instead of two-thirds, which is to say it’s two to one in favor of the girls — because if you educate just girls and leave out the boys, then the boys will have no role models to follow.

Boys must not be overlooked; they need good role models. Photo: Anita Elder

It’s very important to provide the stimulus for the boys to improve, as well. Too often, it is the case that the women take care of the home, the families, the babies and so forth, and the men provide the work. But when there’s no work to be had, what happens to the men? There’s very little alcoholism with women in Nepal, but something like 30 or 40 percent of the men are alcoholics in Nepal. It’s very important that boys are not left behind. That’s why we don’t exclusively support girls. I think that is a shortcoming of many nonprofits that are strictly about girls’ education. Granted that girls have been left behind, but you’re going to have angry men, if you don’t do something for them; they’re going to rise up and keep the women under burkas and not let them out of the house. I’m speaking of Afghanistan, of course, but the sentiments are universal, I’m sure.

BPGL: Do you have more groups planned for children of other ages?

CANFIELD: By doing this for several years now, almost all the schools in the Kathmandu Valley feed into the schools where we do the Social Welfare Clubs. Now it’s time, as we get older students in college and high school, to take the next step, to have an Alumni Club. They will take control of what kind of social welfare they want to commit to.

We’re going to start that this year, because we have 40 or 50 college students now and a dozen graduates. The nucleus will be our nursing and health science students. We have a lot of those, and they’re graduating. They have greater social consciousness. They are respected by the others, because they have landed good-paying jobs. When we form this club, the other college kids will be coming in and getting a peek at what they’re doing. They know that when they graduate, they can participate, too.

Ultimately there will be enough graduates so that some of them can start sponsoring children as well. They can participate in other community activities — whatever they opt for. These things are designed to address empowerment and will and sustainability.

Slowly and surely, the board and the organization will be taken over by our own children. That’s probably about 10 years away. Ten years, for a nonprofit organization, is not a long time at all.

ANSWER supports students in 120 schools across Nepal. Map: ANSWER

ANSWER supports students in 120 schools across Nepal. Map: Courtesy of ANSWER

We now have approximately 500 kids enrolled in about 120 schools. At our present rate of growth, in ten years, we will have produced probably about 700 graduates. We’ll be sending out over 100 graduates a year. We’re talking about hundreds of a new kind of populace. These are low-caste children who have grown up with good educations, running their own businesses and having good jobs. These children will form a new social middle class. Education has always played a big role in overturning the caste society. Once the low castes become richer and more powerful, you replace the caste society with a socio-economic class society. This has occurred in feudal societies in the West and in Japan.

BPGL: I understand that Nepal has thousands of relief agencies. Are they making progress?

CANFIELD: Here are the statistics: There are approximately 40,000 nonprofit organizations in Nepal. Yet there are only 4,000 villages and towns and cities. Why is it, with 10 nonprofit organizations for every village, that there is an overall diminishing return, that the country gets poorer and poorer every year?

If we were all working together, we could save Nepal. It’s a country a little bit larger than Iowa. It’s 100 x 500 miles. Nepalis know, and people in the Third World know, that many NGOs are just self profiteering organizations, that the people who benefit are the ones who work for the organization. They may install a hydroelectric facility somewhere, a local village-run thing, but who’s going to maintain it? The country has dams, and the inspector comes in and signs off. They don’t do the inspection, they just sign off. So eventually, the turbine breaks down, and Kathmandu is without lights.


With only a public education, the future is not very promising for this lower caste Nepali boy. Photo: Anita Elder

People in the Third World know that many nonprofits are self-serving. In Nepal and, I wouldn’t be surprised, in other parts of the world, nonprofits are called the “NGO Mafia.” I even see that printed in the newspapers over there. So, when we founded ANSWER, I told my country director, Som, that there was no way we were going to be part of the mafia, that we needed to make sure that everything was volunteer. And that was when it was just him and me.

As we have evolved, we’ve added a very few salaried staff. We probably pay 1/3 of what other NGOs pay and maybe even less than that, so we needed to find people who did it for the love of what they were doing, rather than for the salary.

Som started as a volunteer, because I wasn’t going to pay him. He wanted to go to school, so I paid for his education, and he got a master’s degree in hospital administration. When you start up an organization, it’s very important how you lay out the framework, because that carries on and on. So our staff is way underpaid, and they willingly work.

Ball, our other person in the office, is also in school. He gets minimal salary with a minimal stipend for education, but it all helps. That’s to keep the costs down so that our fundraisers can make enough money to support the organization, the administration. And in doing that, the sponsors can be reassured that all the money is going just for the education of that child, be it uniforms or books and tuition and so forth.

I am not salaried, I’m a volunteer. I do this from my own savings. I pay for my own transportation, everything. I’m self supporting. The administration is self supporting, and the children are supported entirely by the funds of the sponsors. We’re a 501c3, so that makes it deductible, too.

BPGL: This will sound like an insensitive question, but do you have a succession plan for when you pass on someday far in the future, to make sure your work will carry on in the US?

ANSWER's students of today are its leaders of tomorrow. Photo: Anita Elder

ANSWER's students will become part of a new middle class, toppling the caste system that constrains them today. Photo: Anita Elder

CANFIELD: The whole idea is to have the Nepalis to support their own children, isn’t it? As more of the children come on and take over the office, and the Alumni Club starts supporting their own students, then there’s no need for an office in Grand Rapids. They can fly on their own.

I used to think our mission would be done as soon as there was universal education in Nepal. But it won’t be done. You can just proclaim universal education, but unless schools are accessible, it won’t happen. Unless people have enough money and time — and motivation — to send their children to school, it’s not going to happen. It comes down to a problem of the caste system. I see our end goal not as trying to establish universal education so much as toppling the caste system.

We need to establish a level playing field — through education — to get out of that feudal society way of doing things and thinking, and create a society based on socio-economic class. ANSWER has a role to play. Let’s get to where the students’ own initiative can reap rewards, and they are not limited by birth. I feel that in a decade or two, at the most, we will be near the “tipping point.” Our growth and the impact of these socially aware children, both in quantity and quality, will be phenomenal.

Publisher’s Note: To find out more about sponsoring an ANSWER student for only $5 a week, contact Earle Canfield at .

Part I: ANSWER – A Sustainable Future for Low-Caste Children

Part 2: ANSWER – Ending Caste in Nepal with Education and Jobs (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

ANSWER — A Sustainable Future for Low-Caste Children

Canfield (right) with ANSWER students, teachers, and visitors. Photo: Anita Elder

“We could see the end of the caste system in Nepal in our lifetime,” said Earle Canfield, addressing an attentive audience in Iowa City this past Sunday. Canfield had come to talk about an NGO he started in Nepal eight years before. American-Nepali Student and Women’s Educational Relief (ANSWER) “places low-caste Nepalese children whose families cannot afford to pay for an education in private, high-caste schools,” according to Canfield.

Several members of the audience are ANSWER sponsors, committing to pay $5 a week to support a child’s education. Unlike many nonprofits that provide assistance to children in developing countries, ANSWER puts every single penny of a sponsor’s donation to work directly helping that person’s sponsored child. Joe and I were moved to hear Canfield speak about the work ANSWER is doing to help Nepal’s forgotten children, the impoverished, low-caste untouchables, earn their high school and college diplomas, then go on to jobs that will help them become productive members of Nepal’s emerging middle class.

We asked Canfield to spend time with us by phone, explaining how ANSWER achieves its ambitious goals. What we found was surprising and refreshing. ANSWER’s story inspires more than just hope; it inspires confidence. This is the first of a two-part interview. — Julia Wasson

CANFIELD: There are two points that I think are important when it comes to any kind of development work. One student put it this way, “These countries do not need aid, they just need help.” We all know what aid is: Aid is throwing money down the toilet. Help is getting them on their feet. There’s a basic paradox that derives out of this: If you help them, you foster dependency. But you have to help them enough, or it’s futile.

Education is a good example. If you teach someone to read in the Third World, but they can’t afford the textbooks, and they can’t afford the newspapers [it doesn’t help them]. You have to understand, they do not get Better Homes and Gardens and Time Magazine delivered to their door.

This is subsistence level. And everything they get is to provide them with subsistence. So, basic education, adult literacy, education through high school is not enough. That doesn’t help anyone. That just makes them literate, but unemployed. They don’t have the skills to get a good job. If you’re going to provide them with education, it has to be enough education and enough training.

Photo: Anita Elder

The low-caste Nepali people live at a subsistence level. Photo: Anita Elder

BPGL: How do you get people who have no education engaged enough to make your work successful?

CANFIELD: Only a few people on the top of each organization really understand the principles of development work. There are three things you need:

  1. Empowerment.
  2. Political or personal will. They have to have the will; they have to be motivated.
  3. Sustainability.

In terms of sustainability, first, every aspect of the program has to be sustainable. One, financially, ANSWER has to be sustainable. Two, it has to be sustainable for the school. Three, it has to be sustainable for the family. If taking a child away from the fields or taking them away from begging on the street puts a financial crimp on the family, you can’t help that family. It’s not going to work.

We’ve tried a number of ways to get around things like that. We’ve said, “We will pay you to bring your child to school.” And if we give them money, they just go and drink it. So then we tried, “We will pay you in palm oil.” Then they’d go and sell it on the black market. We’ve tried things like that; sometimes they’re successful, sometimes they’re not.

This student's family had to help pay for her uniform. Photo: Anita Elder

To create the political will, we have them invest in part of the package. The tuition may be half the cost. All the various fees and the uniforms and tutoring, and whatever else, is the other half. There’s usually a package that includes two uniforms, two sets of shoes, and so forth. If they’re very, very poor, they only have to buy the canvas shoes, and we buy the black leather shoes. If they’re better off, they’ll buy the canvas shoes and the book bag, and so forth. We do it according to each family’s needs. Shoes have to be bought every year, the book bag may last two years. If the families aren’t financially vested in their children’s education, there’s a bigger chance that it won’t succeed.

BPGL: How do you choose the children who will be in the ANSWER program?

CANFIELD: When we first got started, I relied on my director, who is a Nepali, to choose the children. I thought we were very successful, they all stayed in school for a year or two. But many of them were irregular, and it finally caught up with them and they dropped out.

We have three criteria for selection:

  1. The families have to be poor. That’s easy; 99% of them are poor.
  2. The child has to be motivated; he wants to go to school. We say, “He’s bright.” By “bright,” that means he’s motivated.
  3. The parents have to be motivated. If the parents aren’t going to get them ready for school in the morning and clean their uniforms, or they pull the children out of school for whatever reason, it’s not going to work.

We talked to the families very, very sternly. Even so, we had maybe 20% drop out the first couple of years. Now the principal goes out into the community and finds students. He’s motivated to do that. He actually supports them through the first year. But after that, the principals have a free ride; our sponsors will pay for the children’s education.

A young student from the ANSWER program. Photo: Anita Elder

We employ the principles of empowerment. The principals will do the initial screening, and take responsibility for becoming invested in the child. So we have good information to run on — the students’ performance records and attendance records and so on.

And, of course, it’s “their” child. They selected that child. Using those principles and being creative and coming up with ways to manage a program, you can really cut down attrition and have people develop responsibilities. And that’s the name of the game in the Third World.

The principal recommends the students to us. We have to be very careful and make it clear to the principals that no kind of favoritism be shown. Some of the principals are likely to select children from the community, who happen to belong to their teachers, because they are underpaid, and they are poor and they have too many children, and so forth. We make it very clear to them — but some of them try to slide them by anyhow — that nepotism is not something that we permit.

The upshot is that there’s a little educational process here for the teachers, because everything in the Third World is all nepotistic. You take care of your own. When you’re in a subsistence situation, it’s personal survival, family survival, and so forth. So what happens is, we have to spend time educating the teachers.

They make a selection and we carefully screen them. If I’m not there with my director, then the country director does that screening and refers the child on to me. I do the final selection. It’s really a three-layer filter. In doing that, we come up with very carefully selected children that are not prone to drop out.

BPGL: What are the guidelines you use?

CANFIELD: You have to understand a lot about the grading system. I’m now a master at reading report cards. [Laughs.] I’ve read about 10,000 report cards at this point. The principals and teachers are pretty hard pressed to slip anything by.

What we would call a B-, we felt, initially, that was enough, because we’re dealing with low-caste, impoverished children. Now that we’ve got them enrolled in school, and we can see how their performance is, we’ve increased that to an A-.

Children and their parents, ready for a day at school. Photo: Anita Elder

Children and their parents, ready for a day at school. Photo: Anita Elder

But you have to also understand that in the lower grades, the private schools have three levels of preschool, nursery, lower kindergarten, and upper kindergarten. So the kids can start at about three and a half years of age.

Sometimes, if they come in with a six-year-old, they’ll want to stick the child back in nursery school to show us how good their marks are. Also, if they put a child in nursery school, that’s one more year we’ll have to pay for in the end. It’s always a challenge to try to see things analytically and what’s really happened in the big scope of things.

We also have to watch out for grade inflation. They might be a B student, and they’ve inflated him up to an A-. Like I say, I’m an expert in reading these report cards now. I can see if Basket Weaving is an A+ and Math is a C-, and if you have enough basket weaving classes, you can bring that C- up to an A- average. All in all, after doing this for eight years, we’re pretty good at it.

BPGL: What do you consider to be enough education? Is a high school education sufficient to get a job that will help the graduates support their families?

CANFIELD: In the Third World, having enough education mostly means they have to have a college education …  at least 12 years. Many of the schools use the European system, which ends in 10th grade. College is at least two more years, and the university is at least three or four more years on top of that.

If you send them to the university, you feed them right into the brain drain. Those jobs are usually over specialized with more training than they need. Everyone takes that route, so there’s more competition for fewer jobs.

Education at private schools provides a sustainable future for low-caste children. Photo: Anita Elder

Education at private schools provides a sustainable future for low-caste children. Photo: Anita Elder

If you take them up through high school and provide them with two or three years of vocational or professional training — such as lab technicians, pharmacists, animal husbandry, agricultural specialists — if you provide them with those kind of jobs that are available in the Third World, they fit it like a cup of tea.

But if you turn them into university professors in botany, when there are only two or three schools that have botany departments, what good is it? They’ll never get a job [in their own country].

BPGL: What you’re doing is helping the children build a better future, which is different from a lot of aid programs that focus only on feeding kids and helping them survive in the moment.

CANFIELD: There are two kinds of aid: Relief aid and development aid. In relief aid, you just keep people alive. Development aid is what I’m talking about. In development aid, the paradox is, you need to help them enough, but you have to be leery of fostering dependency.

So, what we try to do — it’s heartless for sure — is to make them work for their education. We make it easy for them to get an education, but more difficult for them to survive. We take a child out of the field, or the mothers have to spend more time washing uniforms, and so forth, getting the children ready and off to school. Illiterate people do not understand the commitment that it takes to educate a child. Most likely they’ve never been to school themselves. Or, if they’ve ever been to school, they were never regular, and they never progressed very far.

Their idea of education is, if you can learn to plow a field in a week, you can certainly learn to read in a week. So when [education] goes on for 10 or 12 years, they have no comprehension.

The parents receive the report cards, and they can’t read them. They have no idea what 60 percent means. They don’t understand the subject matter. They never had mathematics. They never had ecology. So the parents do not reward the children, because they don’t understand the grading system, they don’t understand the courses. There are all kinds of built-in problems that come with any kind of help you try to provide. The biggest one is fostering dependency. The parents have to have a strong understanding of the commitment that it takes beforehand and of what the responsibilities are.

That also goes for the schools and the principals. We tell them, “We expect the kids to come to school, and if they don’t come to school, you’re not going to get paid. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the parents bring the children to school.”

A Nepali farming village. Photo: Anita Elder

A Nepali farming village perched high on a hill. Photo: Anita Elder

BPGL: What is life like for a child from the lower caste?

CANFIELD: Nepal is one of the five poorest countries in the world. Ninety-five percent of the personal earnings come from agriculture. They are heavily invested in agriculture. The poor are poor because they’re subsistence farmers.

The farmhouses all have mudpack floors; the clay will pack down. They’re usually mud and wattle houses. They’re framed in wood, and then they’re plastered with mud. The only lights that are inside are what the windows provide, and there’s no glass in the windows. There are shutters, so at night they may have a fire going in the kitchen to keep them warm while they’re there. Then they run upstairs and cuddle together under blankets.

At school, the children have to have shoes. Out in the village, it’s zoris or flip flops; if it’s a public school, that’s all that’s required. At the private schools, they require actual shoes, tennis shoes or leather shoes.

There’s very little light. If they’re lucky, they’ll have electricity, because some NGO has placed a small generator in the river for the houses. When we think of a village, we think of a road going through and a small town. But these are huts on the hillside, and each hut has farmland around it. It’s nothing that’s sequestered together to form a municipal unit.

In the cities, the houses are made of concrete pillars with bricks running between them to make the walls. They usually have glass in the windows. The electricity provided is only to the extent of having a light bulb. They have one room. The toilet is a hole in the ground. Oftentimes no one has maintained it. So, it’s a disaster zone. These are in the slum areas.

The water is brought in from city wells. People do their laundry around the city wells. During the dry season, there are so many people now, and because there are so many roads and concrete buildings, the water doesn’t seep through. It runs off and doesn’t maintain the water table. Early summer, late spring, many of the wells go dry. Children have to walk a mile or two to find a well to get a bucket of water. They’re only carrying a bucket or two back to the family every day. If children are at school, they’re not around to do that until evening. They have just enough water to cook their rice and to drink. Those are the basic problems.

BPGL: With barely enough water, how do children keep clean for school?

Families may have to walk a long way to wash their clothes. Photo: Anita Elder

Families may have to walk a long way to wash their clothes. Photo: Anita Elder

CANFIELD: The schools require children to have clean uniforms, but this presents a problem for the lower-caste families. They don’t have water to launder their uniforms. They may have to walk a long way to get to the well where they can wash their clothes. Then, by the time they get back to their homes, the dust has made the uniforms dirty again. We’ve had to work with the principals to help them understand that our students’ uniforms may not be quite as clean as those of the upper-caste children.

BPGL: What are their homes like?

CANFIELD: The rooms in the slums have a bare concrete floor and brick walls, which are also bare. Some people like to put up wallpaper, which is like a newspaper stuck on the wall right above the kerosene stove. You can see that the paper has caught fire. They have a one burner kerosene stove, the ceiling is blackened from the smoke that the kerosene gives off.

They often have a window, but not necessarily. The door doesn’t latch, but it’s secured with a padlock. A room is typically 8 by 8, or 64 sq ft. It will accommodate mother and father and a couple of kids, and they all sleep in the same bed. If the kids get too big, then they’re sleeping down on the floor. Or another cot is brought in, and there’s no room on the floor. Between the big bed and the little cot, they usually have to sit up next to each other. There’s not room to walk or for the door to open. So, the housing does not lend itself to homework. These kids usually have their chores to do. The kids are always respectful because they’re from traditional families, and they demand that. There’s not a discipline problem in school.

BPGL: But there are many homeless children in Nepal. What is life like for the street children?

CANFIELD: A large number of children have come into the city and are homeless. There are gangs now that are beginning to form and rowdy children that are begging on the street. Prostitution is illegal, but it’s conducted anyhow. There’s child prostitution there. The only children that we can help are the ones that have families and are grounded. If they are homeless, the only way to help them is to disperse them into boarding schools that are bolted, where they cannot run away.

A city street in Kathmandu. Photo: Anita Elder

I know of a couple of people who started boarding schools like that away from the city. The kids would run away, and this woman would chase them down and bring them back. And bring them back. And bring them back. It was a full-time job. After about a year, the kids started to appreciate the comforts of home. She had crossed the line. She was fostering dependency. In order to stay there, the kids would want to watch TV and be fed. They were never stellar students. They grew up feeling entitled. I have worked with several groups like that trying to help them. It’s an interesting phenomenon in the Third World.

ANSWER requires family units [to support the children in their education]. But in Nepal, marriages don’t survive. They have a very high divorce rate. Divorces are expensive and a legal hassle, so the man or woman will just leave the family. The children become a handicap to the remaining parent. Not only do they have to provide for them, but no one else wants other people’s children. So that’s where the abandoned children come from, children who are installed in orphanages.

The parents oftentimes are around, they just don’t want to have anything to do with their children. So there are a lot of abandoned children. But if they go to orphanages, you can help them. You can give them education. You can install them in structure.

But more times than not, the orphanages will take advantage of the children, send them out into the street to beg to bring in money to support the house mother or the house parents. They may or may not get an education. If they get an education at all, they’ll be lucky to get a public education. And the public education is not enough help. They may learn to read, but they won’t be able to do anything more than beg.

Part I: ANSWER – A Sustainable Future for Low-Caste Children (Top of Page)

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)