Our Global Programmes Director, Peter Campling, shares an update on our response to COVID-19 and the challenges of coordinating a rapid response to the current pandemic. 

Things were looking good at the start of the year. We had over 200 schools in operation, serving remote and marginalised communities in Nepal, Myanmar and Cambodia and we were progressing quickly to the important milestone of enrolling 50,000 previously out-of-school children. We were also developing the quality and sustainability of our programmes. To cap it all, UWS had just won the prestigious WISE award for our work in development education. At the end of February, I returned from visiting all three countries feeling very positive about our programmes, our people and our long term prospects.  

How quickly things can change!   

What is the current situation?

As I write this, all of our schools are closed and our central staff in Myanmar, Cambodia and Nepal are in various states of lockdown and unable to visit the communities they serve or procure and transport the materials needed. The 700+ government teachers who work in UWS schools have left the communities and gone back to their families. 

Worst of all, there is a growing fear that Covid-19 is taking a hold in each country and is starting to spread towards our communities. No one doubts the devastating impact the virus could have in such remote and impoverished settings, with limited access to health care and support structures. 

What does this mean for our work?

By the middle of March, it had become clear that we were facing two significant new challenges. First of all, how to maintain an education programme across three countries, with no schools or government teachers. Secondly – and in the short-term, more critically -  how to refocus our operations to best support our communities at this dangerous time. In effect, we needed to adapt our infrastructure, facilities and operational model from our focus on education to a new focus on health. To add to the challenge, we needed to do this in a matter of days and weeks, not months.   

The potential in times of emergencies for well-intentioned but ineffective ‘aid’, or worse still harmful ‘aid’, is well documented. Before making things better, we had to be sure that we weren’t doing anything that could unwittingly make things worse. We needed to avoid trying to do too much or acting too differently. The challenge was to keep within our area of expertise and operational scope, whilst offering as much safe, practical support as we were able to. 

Fortunately, it is at the heart of our model to work in close partnership with local communities and local authorities. From the outset, members of the community work alongside our team to build our schools and participate in School Support Committees. We also recruit, train and employ community teachers - local people who speak the local language as well as the national language and understand the local customs. Thanks to our School Support Committees and community teachers we have a direct line to our communities even in times of lockdown and travel restrictions.

How are we supporting communities?

Given this, it is clear that we have the potential to make a real difference in a health crisis. An intense period of planning followed, between our UK programmes team and our teams in Nepal, Myanmar and Cambodia. We also consulted with specialists in the fields of WASH and health education. The outcome is that we are now working across all the 226 communities we have partnered with (with a combined population of over 150,000 people) on three Covid-19 initiatives. 

  1. Upgrading our WASH (water, sanitation & hygiene) facilities to align with the latest World Health Organisation guidelines around coronavirus. 
  2. Launching an awareness campaign to provide life-saving information about the viruses and prevent the spread of misinformation. This includes information about good hygiene practices and social distancing. As well as regular telephone calls, we are using social media and regional radio channels to amplify this message and reach as many people as possible. 
  3. A distance and virtual educational programme, that will continue while schools are closed.

We launched our Covid-19 Emergency Appeal on 7th April to support these programmes and ensure we can continue this work for as long as our partner communities need support. Please consider supporting our appeal to stand in solidarity with those in need around the world. 

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