The Challenging Pathway to Immediate Impact

Michael Parr
Edited by Keith M. Moore

The Building Agribusiness Capacity in East Timor (BACET) project targeted making an immediate impact on people’s lives. The original objectives were to quickly improve the employability of youth for the recovering, newly independent economy and introduce business concepts and market-orientation to curriculum at existing agricultural high schools.   Under post-conflict conditions, immediate impact was crucial.  This required immediate investment in infrastructure at the schools and, although recognized as important, institutional change was seen as a long-term objective outside the parameters of the project, which was originally only two years in duration. Impacts on the educational system were considered a side effect and a longer-term effort.Which target his the sustainability bull's eye? Two targets with sustainability as the bull's eye and three arrows, employable youth, curricular changes, and teacher training.

Two levels of challenges were identified in the course of implementing the project. The first involved creating the immediate conditions to produce agribusiness employees and entrepreneurs. The second challenge involved transforming the existing teaching staff in order to achieve the first.

The BACET project design involved three basic steps: (1) evaluate teacher capacities and select a few promising individuals; (2) develop a curriculum they could teach; and (3) teach them to teach. Year one focused on building adequate school infrastructure. Year two involved delivering a program based on an Indonesian model curriculum. Year three involved adapting/overhauling the curriculum based on learnings in the first years and training teachers.  Years four and five involved—more teacher training—and improving and building the course for continuity.

BACET began by examining the capacity of agricultural vocational technical schools. Funding was minimal, but the schools did have land for agriculture. Basic materials could be supplied as part of the project. The training institutes were staffed with teachers of varying qualities inherited from the Indonesian regime and new recruits. None had ever been trained in the science of how people learn, they lacked teaching fundamentals, and most had only a high school education. It was quickly realized that the teachers lacked the requisite knowledge, attitudes, and practices to teach business skills, modern farming techniques, and soft skills. Traditional teaching practices involved the teacher writing the lecture on the blackboard while the students copied it down. Field experience was primarily about labor not testing ideas and learning.

The project introduced more active teaching methods and classroom instruction was re-organized. Teachers were encouraged to use demonstrations where students themselves could try the new ideas and technologies. Soft skills were emphasized. Practical experiences were gained by using the schools’ agricultural lands to create farm businesses run by groups of students.

Achieving Short-Term Objectives Required Institutional Changes

Implementation of these changes required changes in the curriculum, incentive systems, as well as new skills and recognition for teachers.

A third major challenge quickly became apparent: teachers were not prepared to develop or adapt curricula for these new learning activities. A short-term solution was developed: the project introduced a new curricula and the teachers were trained in new pedagogical practices. However, training without some form of certification is not marketable. It was necessary to put processes in place to formalize diplomas at the national level. Degrees are valued in Timor, so the agribusiness program needed national accreditation.

Complicating this matter was the fact that while training institutes existed and were staffed (in part from the time of the Indonesian regime), they were not considered a component of the national education system. Vocational technical schools were administered within their specific ministries (agriculture, public works, etc.). Consequently, they did not take part in the educational reforms the country was implementing. Approval of curriculum changes and accreditation involved politics at the national level.

Another challenge arose in using the schools’ agricultural lands for active learning projects. The teachers saw themselves as teachers, a respected profession. However, the land resources of these institutions was the basis for augmenting their meager incomes. Teachers considered use of the school’s agricultural production resources as part of their benefit package. It was necessary to negotiate with them to redefine the incentive structure so that those resources could be used for students’ learning.

Training to provide the job skills needed for entrepreneurship and employment in the new economy was the priority objective. Creating the conditions to achieve this impact involved considerable change in the institutional practices of the agricultural technical schools. If these changes were to go beyond providing a few project cohorts of agribusiness trained graduates, institutional change would be necessary. Unfortunately, BACET began the project with short-term objectives and associated results indicators; there was no model or resources for sustainable, context-specific institutional transformation. Nevertheless, institutional capacity was growing and challenges were necessarily being addressed from early on as the opportunities arose.

The sustainability questions are:

  • How do you set the stage for institutional transformation while achieving short-term objectives of producing entrepreneurs and employable youth through the implementation of an agribusiness education project?
  • In designing projects, do you aim for the short-term target (producing employable youth) and in so doing hit some long-term targets (changing incentive systems, accrediting teacher training)? Or do you aim for the long-term targets and in so doing hit some short-term targets?