Experiments and Practices in Participatory Poverty Alleviation — Cases of the "One School, One Village" Project in Shanxi

Written by Liu Lei, (Translated by Yang Yunqin)

Tianjiacha Village is a run-of-themill village in a remote mountainous area in Shilou County, Shanxi Province. The villagers live in poverty. Since the spring of 2008, Zigen, in cooperation with Shilou County government departments at all levels, has been focusing its efforts on broad participation by villagers in a "participatory poverty alleviation" project "with schools as the center and the villages as the basis." Let us review what has happened to the people involved in the project in the last four years since its inception.

The Birth of The Project

In the spring of 2008, Tianjiacha Primary School with its 42 students faced the danger of closure. First, Shilou County's restructuring plan designated it for closure. Second, seven of its classrooms were dilapidated. Third, they lacked an English teacher. And then there were the problems of broken classroom furniture, a poor heating system, and an unvarying curriculum. Under those circumstances, some parents intended to pull out their children and transfer them to schools in the towns, which would naturally add to the families' financial burden. What posed a bigger problem was the possibility that the departure of these children would hasten the closure of the school, and children of poor families that could not afford to send them to the towns would have to drop out of school altogether.
Caught in such a dilemma, the Tianjiacha Village Committee and Tianjiacha Primary School asked Xiaosuan Central School for helping renovate the ramshackle schoolhouse, recruit teachers and staff, and upgrade equipment. At the same time, they also contacted Hao Yanping, Zigen's local project contact person as well as Zigen's offi ce staff in the hope of securing Zigen's assistance. With Hao Yanping, an enthusiastic coordinator, Zigen staff, Xiaosuan Central School, the Tianjiacha Village Committee and Tianjiacha Primary School joined hands and, through onsite visits and multiple rounds of discussions about Tianjiacha School's difficulties and their solutions, launched targeted projects in support of the school and the village.

The First Parents' Meeting

A shared concern of Zigen and Xiaosuan Central School projects for Tianjiacha School was: How much support could the Tianjiacha Village Committee provide to Tianjiacha School under the system of a county-dominated education system? And what did the Tianjiacha villagers think of the future of the school? The declarations of all of the members of the Village Committee were very reassuring. In the subsequent implementation of every project, the Village Committee played an active and effective role. And it was under the leadership of the Village Committee that Zigen and Xiaosuan Central School participated in the fi rst parents' meeting at Tianjiacha School.

The purposes of the parents' meeting were four-fold:

  1. To have parents state their views about the school's status quo.
  2. To have the parents freely propose ways to improve and develop the school.
  3. To learn the reasons why some parents planned to send their children to the towns, and some to keep their children in the village.
  4. In the light of the difficulties the school faced and the parents' proposals, to explore whether the parents would fully participate in the effort to turn Tianjiacha School around into a fun place of learning for children, if Zigen and Xiaosuan Central School could come up with ways to improve and develop the school and provide assistance for the purpose.

The 36 parents who attended the meeting highlighted the problem of the dearth of teachers, apart from other diffi culties and their worries about their children's future education. Zigen, Xiaosuan Central School, the Village Committee and the school representatives responded to the parents' questions and proposals from their own respective angles. Zigen said that in the next three to fi ve years, it would help meet the most basic needs of the school, including teacher recruitment, stipends for needy students, winter heating, renovation of school premises, books, and sports and recreational equipment. Xiaosuan Central School promised to appeal to Shilou County's Education and Sports Bureau for help, and to renovate and maintain the rundown Tianjiacha schoolhouse; the Village Committee indicated that it would vigorously support all the projects of Zigen, the Education Bureau, and the Central School; and the parents voiced their readiness to be actively involved in the building of Tianjiacha Primary School so that their children could attend the nearest school.

The First School Project: The Four Parties Jointly Recruited Substitute Teachers

To address the parents concern about the dearth of teachers when there was a shortage of public-school English teachers, Xiaosuan Central School found, after many attempts, a young woman teacher for Tianjiach School at 6,000 yuan per academic year. However, according to the Shilou County Education and Sports Bureau's standard practice of substitute teacher hiring, Xiaosuan Central School could only pay the teacher 1,500 yuan per year. So Xiaosuan and the Tianjiacha Village Committee turned to Zigen, but Zigen's ceiling was 3,000 yuan per year. Zigen's staff invited Xiaosuan School, the Village Committee and student representatives to a meeting, asking that the remaining 1,500 yuan be borne jointly by the Village Committee and the parents. Resorting to the "One Problem at a Time" approach, the Village Committee obtained the consent of all the parents. With the teacher problem solved, the parents' minds were set at ease. One year later, in order to reduce the burden of the parents and the Village Committee, Zigen and Xiaosuan Central School assumed full responsibility for the substitute teacher's salary.

The First Village Project: The Village Folk Dancers’ Supplies

"Participatory poverty alleviation," to quote a saying, means that all the projects must "originate from the masses and return to the masses." In other words, the local people must identify the problems, come up with ways to address them, and join in the effort to solve them. This is what Zigen has been doing all along. All of Zigen's assistance projects have been proposed by the locals who also recommended ways to solve the problems. Zigen's role was to join the local communities in identifying the problems, coming up with the most effective ideas for addressing them, engaging in the implementation of the projects, evaluating the projects, and taking stock of the experience of rural sustainable development and modalities to solve the problems.

A typical example of "participatory poverty alleviation" is the founding of the Tianjiacha Village Dancers, and Zigen's assistance for the dance group's supplies. During the Spring Festival of 2009, some migrant workers from the village who had come back for the holidays found the place "cheerless" and lamented that the tradition of "merry-making" on festive occasions had vanished. So they proposed to restore the village dance group for a hearty celebration of the New Year. Other villagers also volunteered to join the group. With the Village Committee acting as the organizer, the Tianjiacha Village Folk Dancers started up again but, having long abandoned the tradition of New Year merry-making, the dance group was in dire need of supplies, such as gongs, drums, and costumes. With project manager Hao Yanping as a coordinator, the Village Committee applied to Zigen for funding to purchase supplies for the dance group. Zigen responded promptly. With Zigen's support, three villagers went to the city of Luliang before the third day of the lunar New Year and returned to the village the same night, laden with gongs, drums and costumes. From the fourth day to the fi fteenth day of the fi rst month of the lunar year, the dancers paid New Year calls to every household, delighting the villagers, offering them good wishes, and fi lling that remote village with joy.

Renovation of The Rundown Schoolhouse: Vigorous Support from The Shilou County Education and Sports Bureau

Since the first parents' meeting in 2008, Zigen's involvement with projects in Tianjiacha included recruitment of substitute teachers, providing stipends to needy students, replacement of classroom furniture, supplying books and sports goods, and offering courses on native culture. Tianjiacha Primary School's chances for survival began to look good. But the seven dilapidated classrooms remained in sad disrepair, and that was the thorniest problem for the school.

As a renovation project would involve a signifi cant amount of funds, neither Zigen nor the Village Committee was able to solve the problem on short notice. So Zigen suggested that Xiaosuan School, the Village Committee and Tianjiacha School jointly apply to the Shilou County Education ad Sports Bureau for help, with Zigen playing a supporting role. Tian Baoping, a native of the village who worked at the bureau, embraced this proposal. By this time, the Education and Sports Bureau had appointed him as the contact person for Zigen's projects. With him in charge, the County Education and Sports Bureau put in more than 200,000 yuan for the renovation of the seven classrooms in the summer of 2010. Zigen contributed 30,000 yuan. The parents put in labor and fi xed four other classrooms with leaking roofs.

The renovation of the dilapidated classrooms kept Tianjiacha Primary School on the Education and Sports Bureau's list of rural schools to preserve in its restructuring plan and, by September 2011, the school had evolved into a regular rural school up to all general standards.

Schoolhouse Renovation: Mobilizing the Whole Village

After the schoolhouse was renovated in the summer of 2010 with support from the County Education and Sports Bureau, the infrastructure of Tianjiacha Primary School remained in need of improvement: the heating system was inadequate, the school campus was dusty on a fine day and muddy after rain. The lavatories needed fi xing, the front gate had collapsed, water supply was unreliable, the campus was devoid of greenery, and the classrooms and offi ces lacked window guards. All these problems prevented the school from becoming an up-to-standard regular rural primary school and a fun place of learning for children. If the renovation was to be left at the mercy of market forces, engagement of an external construction team would cost about 70,000 yuan. With the help of Xiaosuan Central School, the Village Committee and the school applied to Zigen for help and promised that the Village Committee and the villagers would all pitch in, putting in money and labor according to ability, to reduce the cost to a minimum. When installing the heating system, more than 20 parents put in labor and the Village Committee provided some water pipes. When building the campus, more than 80 parents put in labor, and student volunteers carried soil and bricks, and removed unwanted stones. The Village Committee contributed 1,000 bricks and, again using the "One Issue at a Time" approach, mobilized 4,600 yuan from the entire village. Lastly, Zigen put up nearly 40,000 yuan, thus saving more than 30,000 yuan.

Even though the villagers profusely thanked Zigen for its efforts and contributions for the all-round development of Tianjiacha School, we must also acknowledge the efforts of the Village Committee and the villagers. It was the good interactions between the Village Committee and the villagers, the school and the villagers, and between the Village Committee and the school that brought new life to Tianjiacha Primary School.

Three Visits of a Medical Team Providing Free Medical Service: Cooperation among The Village, The School, and The Clinics

With Zigen making the arrangements, students of the Shanxi College of Chinese Medicine visited Tianjiacha Village in May, July and October of 2011. Using acupuncture, massage, cupping and other eco-friendly therapies, they treated some common ailments of the villagers and taught them traditional ways of maintaining health and preventing illnesses. In the meantime, again with Zigen's help, the Women's Federation and Communist Youth Committee of Shilou County also got in on the action and, with cooperation from the Village Committee, made arrangements for the students' room and board. The doctors and nurses of the health clinics of Xiaosuan Town and Tianjiacha Village also came, bringing their medical equipment, thus expanding the scope of the free medical service. The teachers and students of the school circulated around the village, spreading news of the free medical service, and drew posters to help the college students impart traditional medical knowledge and applicable technology to the villagers. Planting Walnut Trees: Villagers buying saplings and planting the trees themselves.

With the advancement of the projects in Tianjiacha Village and the primary school, Zigen's staff built trust with the Village Committee and the villagers. Bearing in mind the villagers' with to develop cash crops to improve their livelihood, Zigen launched a project at the end of 2011 to plant walnut trees on 1,000 acres of land.

Before the project got off the ground, Zigen staff and the Village Committee held three committee meetings and two villagers meetings, ad focused the discussion on three questions: 1. Whether planting walnut trees was necessary and feasible. 2. How to solve technical diffi culties in the planting process. 3. How to ensure a "bumper crop." At Zigen's suggestion, the Village Committee and the villagers sent ten people to the nursery to dig out saplings and transport them back to the village, rather than leaving the purchasing and the planting to the government, as before. That same day, they bought high-quality saplings at a saving of more than 4,000 yuan. Zigen also engaged "self-taught experts" on walnut tree planting to train the villagers on planting as well as on managing the trees in autumn and winter, and to teach them ways to fertilize, irrigate and prune the walnut trees, prevent tree diseases and insect pests, and to deep-till the soil. At the same time, Zigen also suggested that the villagers explore possibilities of establishing a walnut tree cooperative.

Culture building at the village: Wide participation, public service, and low cost In order to enliven the cultural ambience of the village, to promote the development and building of rural culture as well as advancing the inheritance of rural culture, Zigen did not stop at supporting the Tianjiacha Village Folk Dancers but continued to support rural culture enthusiasts in their campaign to teach rural culture at Tianjiacha School, and the Village Committee to organize folk dance parties and merry-making on New Year's Day and on June 1. Zigen has also acted as a catalyst for free showing of movies at the village by the Shilou County Culture Bureau.

Another activity worthy of mention is the "Culture for the Villagers" campaign launched by Zigen in cooperation with the Women's Committee of the Association of Petitioners for the Renewal of Old Revolutionary Base Areas of Shilou County. Supported by the Culture Center of the Seniors' Evergreen Song and Dance Group of the Association performed in Tianjiacha Village on a voluntary and pro bono basis. The Village Folk Dancers and rural culture enthusiasts joined in the performances. The students also put on fi ne pieces. This is a case of true interactions between town and village, and village and school.

One School for Every Village: Building a platform for "participatory poverty alleviation"

In conclusion, Zigen has built a platform for "participatory poverty alleviation" through the multiple "One School for Every Village" projects it has developed over years of practice. The projects, covering the fields of education, medical care, rural culture, economic development, and cooperation mechanisms, also lead to effective reorganization of the public forces and resources for the local rural culture and brought about interactions between town and village, village and school, and among the villagers. The different projects also promote one another and form a whole, leading to the development of the entire village.