While in Paris for Convergences 2015 some weeks ago, I took the opportunity to meet Christian Raymond and Monique Pauly, respectively President and Director of Development of the association Partenaires.
Let’s go back to a few months before, when I was in Dhaka for five weeks to attend a training programme at Grameen Bank and to visit BRAC. As all other trainees and interns, I had initially decided to stay at Grand Prince Hotel, in Mirpur 1, at a quite convenient walking distance to the bank headquarters (and a walking distance in such an over-crowded city as Dhaka is something one really appreciates). However, when Cristopher told me about a “shelter” close-by where I could rent a room, I immediately decided to leave the brown-furnished hotel and move there. At the end of the day, better to give my dollars to a shelter.
19 days in the Shelter
My first “meeting” with Maer Achol was with the Director, Miss Kakoli, a young bengali woman in charge of the structure since 5 years. And my second meeting was with Arnaud, a French guy who’s volunteering there since August 2011, who came to pick me up in front of Grameen Bank with a small cute baby, the Shelter guardian’s daughter, on his shoulders.
It’s hard to summarize in a post my time there. Maybe I could describe a “typical” day in the Shelter, but there is not really such thing as a typical day there – everyday I spent quite a few times talking with Arnaud, and everyday he was dealing/struggling with some unexpected event.
Let’s start then with some numbers. Out of the 220 children studying everyday in this structure, 65 resident children come from different backgrounds: some are orphans, some have been rescued from the street (and not only for the girls this often means having experienced sexual abuses), while others keep regular contacts with their families.
Children wake up quite early in the morning (6 to 6.30), time for shower and breakfast, and are then ready for starting classes at 9 am. During the day they have a snack and then lunch, another snack (usually fruits) and finally dinner. Children follow the standard Bangla diet: spiced meat or fish, a huge portion of rice and some vegetables on the side at lunch and dinner – two years ago the older girls attended a cooking training and sometimes they cook as well. After school, children most of the time play and shout in the small front yard, and occasionally they go outside to play football.
Older adolescents are allowed to work part-time outside. In this case, 70% of their income is put by Maer Achol in a savings account, that they will access once they leave the structure. Boys and girls receive a sewing training, which prepare them for a possible future job. Occasionally the older girls perform some small sweing work for external clients, and in this case they receive a percentage of the money as well. Partenaires is now looking more and more for funds to train the adolescents and prepare them for the life out of the shelter.
My (quite short) experience
While staying at Maer Achol, I had to spend most of my daily hours outside it, visiting Grameen sister companies, or doing some research work, so unfortunately I didn’t have the possibility to get involved in a specific and systematic activity with the children. It was a really nice good morning to have them shouting my name when I went out of my room to go to the Bank, or see them coming with me to buy water to show the way and protect me (I even had my personal bodyguard), or when they tried to teach me a strange game with mango seeds: I had to launch the seed inside a circle but I never managed to do it. I was sleeping in the women’s floor (separated from the two other floors by a gate closed at night), and the small girls, especially Maria, could not resist opening my door and looking around with curious eyes (although for their safety they are not allowed to enter guests’ rooms).
Probably the main impact that this experience had over me was to make me realise that the scale of a project doesn’t really matter. I mean, one is tempted to think always in a big big scale, and to consider a project successful only when it reaches thousands of people. Well, while there I realised the huge value of making a real difference in the lives of even 10 people, or 5, or 1. This has been for me a quite important change of perspective, which is also having an impact on my current choices and projects. For this I’m really grateful to these children.
What is money needed for?
The main infrastructure works have been done, or have already been funded. Partenaires recently bought a new apartment close-by the shelter, for the older boys. The space has one room for an employee (soon Arnaud), two rooms for the boys plus a really small one for the guard, and a kitchen. In the living room there will be 7 computers offered by several donors so that adolescents will receive there IT training.
Arnaud’s project to build a space dedicated to sport activities on the roof of the Shelter has been funded by DECATHLON (Oxylane) and the German Embassy recently renewed the water tanks (short parenthesis: in Dhaka, water arrives only twice a day, so it must be stored. However, if electricity is down at the time when the water is supposed to arrive, the valves can’t open… and then no water until next service. Tricky, isn’t it?). While I was there, the European Commission office in Dhaka committed to donate second-hand air conditioning systems and other equipment. In other words, they are quite equipped on this side.
Then what is money needed for? To cover the running costs, which by including only food for all children and wages for around 25 staff in Dhaka already sum up to 5000 Euro per month, plus an average of 3000 Euro for all the rest. Total: 8000 Euro per month. I think there is a precise reason why the big projects, such as last year acquiring the new building for more than 50,000 Euro, are relatively easier to fund, while there are difficulties to cover running costs: sponsors rather finance an expensive construction project that they can show in pictures than “invisible” costs more difficult to check and “justify”…
I find important to remark that all people working from Paris are volunteers, except one guy who has been recently hired full time. Monique for example, with whom I had a little bit more time to chat after Christian had left us to pick up his train to Lyon, got involved with Partenaires short after she retired from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and went back to France after years far away. The French office costed in 2011 less than 10,000 Euro, which is extremely low – 4.6% of total expenses.
Last year Maer Achol‘s expenses were more than 120,000. Out of this money, around 50,000 Euro are ensured by private donors and sponsors, as the French Embassy of Dhaka. Monique is constantly applying for funds by fundations and entreprises.
How to help?
- Donation box: putting a donation box in your school or university, in your workplace or in the bar where you have breakfast every morning is a quite simple action and not time consuming at all, except the time to deposit the box and to get it back after a few weeks! The donation box should preferably be transparent (it seems to work better like that), and it would be useful to put on the side a set of flyers explaining what Partenaires are and do. If you are interested, please contact me for details!
- Donations: you could decide, otherwise, to make a donation to Maer Achol. It could be a single donation, or you could decide to become a sponsor, by donating either 15 or 30 Euro per month. If you are a French resident, that’s even more interesting, as you can deduct any donation from your income tax, so that instead of the 30 Euro that they will receive, you’ll actually pay 7.50 Euro only. Please check with your country if you can claim tax benefits from your donation!
- Your IT skills: Maer Achol website requires some improvement. If you’re one of these IT-skilled persons, you can help so!
- Volunteering: how could volunteering be out of my list? As children need to have fixed reference points, Partenaires only consider applications of people who commit to stay there for at least three months. However, if you have some useful and particular skill, you have the opportunity to contribute for a shorter period, for example if you are a teacher and you’d like to train their teachers (there is actually a very sensitive point, and one where your contribution could be amazing), or if you’re an artist and you’d like to teach the children how to play an instrument, or to model clay. All children speak at least a basic English, and communicating with them is not at all a problem in any case.
- If you are a SOAS student: I’ll be putting soon a donation box in the JCR shop, put in there those small coins that bother you in your pocket! And before Christmas I’ll be selling some handicraft products: would you your friends not be happy to receive something directly from Myanmar??
Clik here to see the Reportage TF1 about Maer Achol (in French)
Last but not least: Active Projects in Myanmar and Moldova
Even if I don’t have direct experience about these other projects, I’d like to mention here the fact that Partenaires also criated other two active projects.
In Myanmar, where they are one of the few NGO on place, they are completing an important sanitation project in an impoverished suburb of Yangon. They have drilled wells, provided drinking water and installed toilet facilities in about 100 schools where they have also been promoting healthcare and Aids prevention for schoolchildren, teachers and parents. They also contribute to the education of destitute children whose families cannot afford to send them to government schools, why they attend free monastic schools. They have even built a new school in Tat Oo to accommodate children who were previously taught outdoors, and a dispensary in Chauk. In May 2008 in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis, which caused 140,000 fatalities and left 2. 4 millions homeless, Partenaires enabled 5,000 children to go back to school: they repaired classrooms, bought school supplies and paid school fees. Together with NGO Solidarités, they contributed to several projects to alleviate the dire consequences of the cyclone. They rebuilt houses, provided better sanitation, drained polluted ponds, distributed food and bought boats and fishing gear. 20,000 victims benefited from their help.
In Moldova, Partenaires focuses on boarding schools. In the last decad,e of the 20th century 20% of the country workforce had to emigrate to Western Europe or Russia in order to survive, leaving their children behind – to the care of grandmothers or neighbours. A lot of these children are sent to state boarding schools where orphans, abandoned children, petty criminals and mentally handicapped youths live together. Partners NGO intervens here to mitigate the consequences of emigration as much as possible. They conduct vocational training programmes for teenagers which include either carpentry, bakery, tailoring or hair styling. They have also set up a training farm and introduced beekeeping.
For more information about these projects, please contact email@example.com.
Photos: Arnaud Gastaut