Kids Educational Engagement Project (KEEP), initially a group of community members seeking to protect children from Ebola and ensure their education continued during the crisis
ActionAid Liberia, who supported KEEP
‘Community champions’ who could work in their communities to build trust and deliver home-schooling kits
The use of local contacts and networks to raise funds in Liberia and from the diaspora
A response that came from within affected communities, driven by the needs community members could see and using locally available resources, that thus was timely, relevant and accepted
Support from an INGO that was prepared to fund an unregistered community initiative
When Ebola broke out in Liberia in 2014, the initial response of the authorities - and many Liberians – was denial. As Brenda Brewer-Moore, the founder and Executive Director of Kids Educational Engagement Project (KEEP), based in Liberia’s capital Monrovia, puts it, “When people you knew started dying and doctors began dying in July, everyone began to understand. The government could no longer cover it up and declared a national emergency.” People understood that stopping Ebola meant preventing transmission. That implied preventing people from coming into contact with those infected. One obvious response was to close all public schools to protect children. However, the result was that children lost access to education. With no clear picture of how long the crisis would continue, they faced an indefinite suspension of schooling.
At the time, Brenda saw children idle in her community: “Because they were just roaming around, they seemed very vulnerable because anybody could touch them. They would get infected and take that back to their families, and the whole community would be affected. One strategy we could apply was to keep the kids home and get their parents to do a couple of hours of lessons at home. That is how we started doing home-schooling kits.” The kits protected children from exposure to Ebola and allowed them to continue their education. They contained pencils, erasers, crayons, worksheets and other materials. Brenda found worksheets online that aligned with the Liberian curriculum and started in her own community, distributing kits to 75 children living nearby. However, she soon realised that she would need support to continue providing the kits. “I made a call for action on my Facebook page,” she says. “Many of the people connected to me on social media saw this as a safe way to help to end this crisis. At this time, we were finding bodies on the streets. Hospitals didn’t have enough beds. Patients were staying outside the gates and getting turned away. People were dying in their homes and families were afraid to touch them or move the body, since we were told they were more infectious when they were dead.... When I said I was supporting home-schooling people were happy that this was a way they could be a part of the response. … We started going from community to community, giving out the kits.… After a week our team would go back to see if parents had used the kits. We used this as an opportunity to do a lot of awareness raising about Ebola.”
“Every community that wanted us to come had to have a ‘community champion’, somebody who lives in the community who would invite us,” Brenda explains. “In the time of Ebola, strangers were not welcome in communities. Many established checkpoints where people would have to get out of their car and identify themselves before entering, as a way of keeping the community safe. The champion would take ownership of the project. They would organise a team in the community to go from house to house to monitor the children, demonstrating the possibilities of local approaches. We had about 25 volunteers, and it got a lot of attention… We didn’t have the resources, because we were still working full-time.… So we would give the packets and lesson plans and encourage people in communities to make copies and replicate what we were doing.” If the families worked with the children and they completed the lessons, they would receive a new set. The model depended on it being led by people who were known and trusted in their communities.
“It grew from there,” Brenda explains. “People started supporting us with a lot of school supplies. People also donated cash.” Starting from 17 communities in Montserrado county, in which Monrovia sits, they expanded such that by December, when Ebola outbreaks were still occurring and schools were still closed, they had reached 3,000 children.
Tenneh Barjebo, Registrar of the New Life Christian Academy, talks of how during the time of Ebola, children sat at home for months and forgot what they had learnt at school. Brenda came to the school, supporting Ebola awareness and bringing supplies for home-schooling. Teachers joined in the initial distribution and followed up by using the materials with the children. Tenneh reports that “The home study really helped some of them pick up when they came back to school. People were focusing on the virus, not on teaching the kids. It was successful because parents showed willingness for their children to learn and the teachers offered their services voluntarily. Everyone wanted the kids to do well.” This emphasises the importance of a community-based approach. Evelyn Tahn, principal of the Love a Child Orphanage describes how Brenda supported them during the Ebola time. “Brenda educated us. She came to teach us what we needed to do, like washing our hands.… She also brought materials for the children while we were inside – because at that time we were not having classes. We are still using some of these materials.” Evelyn recalls how ‘Ma’ Rebecca Brooks-Wreh, the founder of the orphanage, talked of how Brenda came and said, “Ma Rebecca, since the schools closed I have been tutoring children at home. I have come to assess how many kids you have here, and to bring something so that they can learn to read and keep themselves going until school can open.”
Tenneh continues “(Brenda) came back the next day with education kits and distributed these to the children. How many people did that? Can you imagine, she did this in the Ebola time. She went everywhere, when people were dying, to help kids to read.… We would use the materials, among ourselves without the teachers, but led by the bigger girls.... When the school reopened it had a big impact.”
ActionAid, an international NGO, heard about KEEP’s work in communities near Monrovia and wanted to replicate the approach in the communities where they were working. ActionAid used a rights-based approach, meaning that the intervention was not only protective, but ensured children’s right to education. The ActionAid support allowed the work to spread to other counties and in particular to underserved communities, in some cases where they didn’t even have schools. They tried to find a teacher to act as a champion and lead sessions with groups of children, particularly where communities had seen no or only a few cases of Ebola. In some communities, families were quarantined for 21 days after a death in the family, so children would have to stay home. They were targeted to receive the home-schooling materials. Ultimately, the initiative reached over 7000 children in seven months in more than 70 communities in Liberia.
Lessons for localisation
The KEEP initiative has many lessons for localisation. Brenda’s spontaneous response, driven by passion to support her community, has led to her running an NGO that engages with the global humanitarian sector. She is now in an excellent position to reflect on informal local efforts to respond to needs and how they can inform global practice.
Brenda understands localisation to mean ownership of a problem and the response to it. It requires people to ask, “How can we respond to it, without necessarily seeking support from elsewhere? How can we solve our own problems?” This is true both of national authorities and communities. When disaster occurs, many wait for others to react, rather than asking what they can do to solve it themselves.
Localised action is effective when it is timely, accepted and relevant. “Most times when people come to respond, they do not understand the cultural context,” Brenda says. “They respond in a ‘one size fits all’ way, and so sometimes that aid is not effective.… The story of Ebola only began to change when communities took ownership and said that they would fix it. We got to a stage where we realised a lot of the INGOs were leaving, they were scaling down, people were afraid, companies were shutting down. We looked around and said ‘we only have ourselves’. We started seeing a lot of involvement of religious leaders and of community leaders saying ‘don’t touch the dead, don’t bathe the dead’. When their own leaders, including Muslim religious leaders, gave advice, it was different than when a foreigner said it.… If we want to change the story of Liberia, we have to do it ourselves.”
A localised understanding of capacity seeks how best to solve a problem using local resources, as KEEP did during the Ebola crisis. “I knew how to organise people. I knew how to get people on board to respond to an educational need that I saw, even though I didn’t have an office or a degree in education. Capacity isn’t always about an external standard, we should look at other ways of defining capacity.” This articulates the power relations in the humanitarian sector, where capacity-building is defined as something international agencies do to local actors. The idea that international actors may need capacity to be built is rarely considered. Brenda continues, “We have different definitions of sustainability, accountability and capacity. We taught ActionAid how to mobilise the community, in terms of getting a community champion and the community accepting us to come in: this was not a strategy they were using.” This demonstrates both the importance of local knowledge and how local actors learn. It also shows that local actors have a role to play in teaching internationals how they have to work to be effective: an example of capacity building from local to international.
Donors and INGOs assess the capacity of potential local partners to limit their risk. As a result, this is typically a checklist of potential hazards, rather than opportunities. But, as Brenda says: “There is no opportunity for a local NGO to assess an INGO.” This raises the question of who is accountable to whom. KEEP understood accountability as being a downward accountability to the communities with whom they work, rather than exclusively upward to donors. Brenda explains that in the beginning she would never have met those standards. “The international accountability standards, mostly around financial accountability, would have prevented their funding our initial response.… It was just me having an idea and a passion. But if I am able to demonstrate now that I can meet those standards, why are they still passing money through other organisations and not giving it directly to us and holding us accountable?” Brenda suggests that a way to localise accountability would be to have local organisations vouch for their peers as part of a local certification process based on global standards. We could show you five local organisations that meet those standards.”
KEEP’s initial Ebola response work was funded through informal local contacts. “We started fundraising – but would not have used that word – and were able to raise $15,000 in Liberia,” Brenda reports. “We were very transparent about what we were doing. We posted online reports of our work.” After two months of raising money internally, Brenda’s cousin in the US started a GoFundMe page that targeted the Liberian diaspora in the US. Brenda noted donations in a notebook and published these online. This reflected her intuitive understanding that accountability means being transparent to her community. She was not aware at that time of the accountability demands of institutional donors. When ActionAid became involved, KEEP was not registered so ActionAid could not write a cheque directly to Brenda, as most donors had been doing. However, ActionAid was still able to fund the young unregistered organisation.
KEEP still raises 80% of its funds locally, in Liberia. “One of the strengths of our organisation is being able to raise our own core funding,” says Odell, KEEP’s Administrative Coordinator. “It gives us the leverage to advance our own vision and mission. If we are dependent on donor funding, we will just be implementing other people’s visions. KEEP is pushing hard on local fundraising.… We go from company to company selling our story and persuading them to help us.” . This demonstrates that even in low income contexts, the private sector can support humanitarian action. The quality of such donations is high and they will often address specific requests – to build or renovate a reading room, for example – but are typically not constrained by the donor. Odell continues, “We are one of few local organisations that actively fundraise locally to address our core objectives. We will do projects with INGOs but will work hard to ensure that they align with things we want to do.”
KEEP has declined projects from INGOs that are outside their core work. This is something many other local NGOs would struggle to do, because the need to keep the money coming in is so great.
Produced with the support of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation