Occasionally people with vision are able to see clearly enough to change reality.
In the 1970s, a group of academics and professionals in Columbia looked outside of their ivory tower. Gustavo Correa, a former mathematics professor, described what they saw –
“The economic indicators were saying that things were getting better, but you could see that the conditions of the poor people were not improving.” (1)
Although urban areas were prospering, the rural people had been pressurised into selling their land to the huge sugar and coffee companies. Selling the land did give them an initial injection of cash but destroyed their futures. They went from being from self-sufficient farmers to vulnerable contract labourers.
In an effort to deal with this situation these academics set up FUNDAEC – an acronym for Fundación par la Applicacion y Ensenanza de las Ciencias, (the Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences).
The founders of FUNDAEC wanted a new type of development. Rather than superimposing what they thought would work, they let the needs of the people dictate the provision of services.
The primary need identified was knowledge.
“…they need access to scientific knowledge so as to be able to produce new knowledge that is applicable to their own situation, knowledge that works within cultural and technological restrictions that exist at the starting point of development.”(2)
So they started a rural university…
But this was an unusual university. It would not only work on generating and applying the knowledge the rural Columbians needed, it would also involve them in the gathering and production of this knowledge.
“The idea of a rural university is not so much a physical place as a space of learning, a social place, where people can get together and produce and then distribute the kinds of knowledge needed for rural life.” (3)
One of the outcomes of the establishment of this rural university was the development of the “Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial” (SAT).
This programme is a formal but flexible system of secondary education. SAT makes it possible for any individual, even those who live in the most remote rural areas, to have access to a full secondary education. The governments of Columbia, Honduras and Guatemala now recognise and certify this system.
Access to education is the key to participation
“If people don’t have access to knowledge, and in today’s world that means scientific knowledge in particular, then you can have all of the ‘participatory’ meetings you want but you won’t really have participation. Because the people won’t really understand.” (4)
This is a great example of a group of people who made the institutions fit the needs of the people, rather than insisting that the people fit the needs of the institutions.