Sunday, October 16, 2011

funding frustrations

Much like teaching a man to fish rather than just giving him a fish, we saw Peace Corps as a way to provide undeveloped and developing nations with human resources rather than monetary resources. When we swore in as volunteers, we also pretty much swore off the use of all the grants/funding opportunities that we were bombarded with during PreService Training. We weren't against helping our community to secure local funds, but we didn't want to bring pretty much guaranteed US funds into our community, we felt that we had a lot to offer without making ourselves sources of easy money.

Forward to the realities of our community. Until 2009, there wasn't a high school in our community. The nearest high school was an hour away by bus. In late 2008, early 2009, the movers and shakers of the community (pretty much one extended family) met with Del Monte who owns and grows bananas on most of the land in the area, and talked them into converting their gymnasium into a high school. So for the 2009 school year (Feb./Mar. - Nov./Dec.) and most of the 2010 school year, classes were held in the gymnasium that was divided into eight classrooms by eight foot tall 1/4 inch plywood. Sometime around October 2010, all of the buildings belonging to Del Monte, about 200 residences and the gymnasium, were without running water. They continued to have classes in the gymnasium, but there weren't bathrooms and lunch had to be prepared off site (our house). With the end of the academic year in sight, the community was willing to stick things out.

Then December arrived, and with it floods. The director of the high school and the school board decided to finish the school year in the structure just outside of town that was being built to serve as the future high school. Final exams were held at the new high school which was four completed classrooms, one of which served as the school office, a classroom with walls, a cement floor and a roof, and bathrooms without doors or toilets. Not the greatest space for a couple hundred teenagers.

After the first of the year, meetings were held with representatives from the Ministerio de Educación Pública and the community was told that they needed to finish the bathrooms and build two more classrooms or there wouldn't be a high school in La Colonia and 300 students would need to find someplace else to go to school. So about ten days before classes were set to begin, the community scrambled to get the bathrooms serviceable and build two more classrooms. It was at this point, when we saw the community working so hard for something so crucial to the future of the community, that we decided that we could at least mention the possibility of writing a grant proposal, after all, it's not very effective to tell kids to stay in school if they don't have a school to stay in. Of course they were receptive to the idea, so sometime in February of this year the process of us battling red tape began. In actuality the community had already been battling red tape for some time.

Usually the Ministerio de Educación Pública provides communities with assistance when it comes to building educational institutes, but for that to happen the land that the institute is built on needs to belong to MEP. Knowing this, our community started the process of transferring the land that the new high school is being built on to MEP well before the flood caused the hurried move to the new site. However, the final step of the process, a judge signing the paperwork that has been sitting on his desk for at least months, if not longer, isn't happening and doesn't appear to be happening anytime soon. So the community is charged with paying for and building their own high school that will (hopefully) one day be turned over to MEP. (I just heard that a school that started this process in 2003 just completed the process this year.)

With the community on board, we contacted our program manager to discuss writing a proposal to CRUSA, a longtime supporter of Peace Corps volunteers' projects. Our project team thought the idea was great and provided us with copies of past proposals for similar projects that were funded. I tweaked an example proposal to fit our community and submitted the first draft (completamente en español) to our program department. Apart from some Spanish fixes, the major changes they suggested were things that I copied exactly from the example proposals. Slightly frustrated, I made the suggested changes and with the addition of some flowery grant language by one of our awesome bosses our proposal was written.

Along with the narrative, a proposed budget also needed to be submitted. The community was quick to get a estimate for materials from an area hardware store, but getting numbers for labor costs was a completely different case. The brother of the president of the junta (town council) was listed in our proposal as the contractor so I figured getting information regarding mano de obra would be a snap. After trying to go through the president multiple times, I finally cornered his brother, the contractor, while he was working on a project at the elementary school. He didn't have a number off the top of his head, because he explained to me that different skill levels garner different wages. Of course I was already aware of that, I just wanted a ballpark number to slap on the grant. The proposal was only to cover  materials, so I just needed an idea of the value of labor to show what the community was contributing to the project. Days later, when we were at a friend's house waiting to go rafting, the phone rang. It was another member of the junta, he was at our house to pick up lunch to deliver it to high school and so he used our host mom's phone to call us and tell us labor for the project should be about 2 million colones. With the final piece of the puzzle in place, I submitted our proposal to Peace Corps. They said that everything looked great, but we needed justification for the cost of labor, not just a number in our proposed budget. So, I was back to pestering the junta for an official document showing the estimated cost of manual labor. I had already done most of the work thus far, I really needed to see some initiative from the community for their high school.

The wait for an official estimate was interrupted by Mid Service Training. During MST we were able to talk face to face with our program team about our proposal. First, they said that the amount that a single volunteer could request was now 5 million colones ($10,000), up from 2.5 million ($5,000). We had already requested 5 million as a couple, but this meant that Tarah didn't need to be listed as a co-coordinator of the project and she could write her own proposal to CRUSA for a different project in the future if she wanted to. They also said to be very direct (we were told constantly during PST by the cultural trainer that Costa Rica is a very indirect culture) with the junta about getting the written estimate for labor. Upon arriving back in our community, I went to the junta president's house daily and despite getting root vegetables, fresh eggs and agua de pipa, I could not get him to get me a written estimate. By the end of the week, he said he had made some calls and if I went to the hardware store in Puerto Viejo where we had gotten the original estimate for materials someone could give me a written estimate. Since there aren't English classes in the high school on Friday's I made the trip into town to track down the estimate. At the hardware store, I went to the desk where they make facturas pro formas and everyone said that they didn't deal with mano de obra, only materials and I would need to talk to a contractor. I explained that I was with the high school in La Colonia and still nothing, finally I dropped José Ángel's name and they called over another employee and I explained the situation again and he said labor should be about 1.5 million and they pulled up the original factura pro forma on the computer and tacked on a line item of  mano de obra. Since months had passed since the original estimate was written, prices of materials had fluctuated and the total cost had gone down so the contribution for materials by the community was lower and the new cost of labor was lower too, but fortunately the community contribution still met the mandatory 25%.

The proposal was finally ready to go to Peace Corps for their final approval before being submitted to CRUSA. Of course, by the time that our proposal was done, the Peace Corps staff member that approves and forwards the proposals to CRUSA was on vacation. Thankfully, our program manager  just checked our final proposal and sent it to CRUSA without waiting for Alvaro to return from vacation.

When Alvaro returned to the office, he sent an email to all of Peace Corps Costa Rica, saying that CRUSA is going through some restructuring, including changing the liaison between Peace Corps and CRUSA so things might be a little bumpy for a while; also there was less than $30,000 left to fund projects after squeezing an extra $25,000 out of CRUSA; and the information given out at MST that volunteers could request $10,000 was incorrect. Our hearts sank. We immediately emailed Alvaro and asked if we could change our proposal to make Tarah a co-coordinator of the project again or to request less funds. He responded that we didn't need to worry and that we should be receiving some really good news soon.

So, at the beginning of August, about six months after mentioning the possibility of getting some much needed funding for the construction of the high school, we found out that our proposal had been approved. There was a town meeting scheduled for that night, so I was pretty excited to be able to tell the junta that they were now responsible for managing 5 million colones. I didn't realize at the time, but there were actually two meetings scheduled for that night, though the membership of both of the groups is pretty much the same, I couldn't seem to get all the right people in the same space at the same time, so when things were drawing to a close and I had the president and the treasurer in the same room, I told them that our proposal had finally been approved. They were pretty happy to say the least.

The final step was to go to San José with the president of the junta to sign a couple of documents and CRUSA would deposit the funds into the council's bank account. I setup the meeting through Alvaro for the next Tuesday and the director of the high school agreed to drive us to the city so we wouldn't need to take the bus.

At the CRUSA offices, José Ángel was super excited and chatty as usual. I could sense that the CRUSA representative really just wanted us to sign the forms and be on our way, but she smiled politely as she listened to José Ángel talk about all the big development plans the community has. Of course there was a hiccup. There was a problem with the bank account number that we had submitted with the proposal so we needed to fix that and fax a letter with the correct number before the end of the week. Usually CRUSA makes its deposits on Thursday afternoons, but since that Monday was a holiday, we had until Friday. When we got back to Colonia, I started the process of preparing a letter with the correct information.

The information that we were sent home with said that we needed to submit a special form which we could request via email, so I requested that form and was told that no form was needed, just a simple letter with the account number, amount of the transfer and José Ángel's signature. So I wrote a letter, had José Ángel sign it, faxed it and waited.

José Ángel is super nice, but he is in his fifties and is taking classes to complete his sixth grade education, so he doesn't really understand direct transfers. He went to the bank to confirm that everything was in order with the account. When he got back, I asked how things went, and I understood that the transfer had gone through so I was relieved. I emailed CRUSA and asked if they needed anything else from us before the final report. They said that they weren't able to get the transfer to go through. I went back so José Ángel's house and finally saw some bank documents with the account numbers and a balance that definitely didn't reflect 5 million colones having been deposited. I compared the numbers on the document with the those on the blank check and saw that the two documents had numbers with zeroes in different places, at last the puzzle was solved. I scanned the new document, changed the letter and emailed everything to CRUSA again. No luck. The different account number that I had discovered was not the account number used for transfers. At this point, I realized I needed to go to the bank with José Ángel  to get to the bottom of things.

We went to the bank with all the documents that we had and waited in line to meet with a bank representative. When we finally got to the desk, I explained the situation, how the bank document and the check had different numbers so I thought that the other account number on the check, the one that we needed, might also be incorrect. The bank representative told me that they were just zeroes, so they didn't matter. I wanted to ask if there was a difference between 10 mil ($20) and 100 mil ($200) since the only difference was a zero, but I didn't. José Ángel asked to get both of the account numbers, and the bank charged him $1, not 500 colones, but a US dollar. I was shocked that they couldn't give him the account information for free and even more shocked that their fees were dollars. Once we had the information, I asked if there was someone at the bank CRUSA could call if they were still having problems with the transfer, she told me there wasn't and we were on our way.

Since it was Thursday, when we got back to Colonia from the bank, I rushed to get things scanned and updated to hopefully get things submitted before CRUSA did its weekly transactions and since we were going on vacation the following week. I sent a message saying that I had been to the bank and everything should be in order and I didn't know what else we could do on our end. Thankfully everything worked out and shortly thereafter I received an email showing that 5 million colones had successfully been transferred into the junta's bank account.  ¡Por fin!

With the money in the hands of the junta it was now time to work on spending it. During vacation in July, the junta had taken advantage of an empty school to start construction, so some of the the funds were earmarked for that. The rest of the funds would be used to complete the classroom that was started and build the dining hall/kitchen. In a meeting with the school director and the junta it was announced that MEP was not allowing any infrastructure projects to happen. We could not spend the money that we had finally received.

After a couple of weeks of not knowing if we could build or if we could make infrastructural improvements or if we couldn't do anything, the school director said he had news and that there would be a meeting that night. The big news at the meeting was that he was being transferred to another high school. He also said that we had permission to build since the project was more than 2.5 million colones. He went on to suggest that the money be transferred from the town's junta to school's junta because then there would be more checks and balances in place.

We decided to not to move the money, since everyone on both juntas (pretty much the same people) understood how the money was to be used and I was keeping close tabs on everything. There were also concerns that if the money was in the account of the school's junta, MEP might be able to get their hands on it.

Before we were able to break ground, MEP sent engineers to all of the schools in the country to check and take photos of current infrastructure. MEP then said that if even a nail were added, legal action would be taken against the school. Since we still had almost 4 million colones to spend and more importantly a huge need to complete the new classroom and build a dining hall/kitchen, we kept after MEP.

One Thursday morning when I was at high school for English classes, our host dad the janitor/secretary/assistant director/liaison to MEP/... said that we had a meeting at MEP's regional office and we would be leaving in about half an hour. I rushed home, told Tarah, grabbed a quick lunch, and we met our ride to the office. The meeting wasn't with who I thought it was going to be with, but our questions were finally answered. We were told that MEP was only allowing construction projects to be carried out if they were overseen by one of MEP's engineers or architects who would need to be paid 10% of the project cost. It's not in our budget to pay someone to not do anything but give a thumbs up. We were given a list of pre-approved maintenance/improvement projects that we could do as long as each aspect didn't cost more than 2 million colones. Because the new classroom already had its walls and roof, we would be able to finish it, as well as finish three other classrooms that aren't any more than walls, cement floors and a roof. I almost lost it in the meeting, my voice got very shaky, it's just so frustrating, when we have the money, we have skilled labor, and we have over 300 students that deserve a high school instead of a construction site; why won't MEP just let the community help it's youth?

We will be able to do these projects as long as CRUSA approves our request to reallocate the funds for improvements instead of new construction. As soon as I got the final word that we couldn't build a dining hall/kitchen, I started the process of amending our original proposal, with it being Friday, I wanted to get as much done before the weekend as possible. I emailed Alvaro to get his input and he thought it shouldn't be a problem and sent a simple form for me to fill out. I filled out the form, sent it back, and headed out to the high school to take measurements and make a new materials list. I got back to the house about 15 minutes before the bus left for Puerto Viejo, and emailed Alvaro to tell him I was going to get a new estimate for materials and would try to email it before the close of business. I grabbed my paperwork, bus fare, and an apple and hopped on the bus. About a third of the way to Puerto Viejo, I realized I didn't have my wallet, which meant I didn't have money for the bus back to town, awesome.

I went to the hardware store, and the guy at the factura pro forma desk was super helpful and patient. I left with an estimate that nearly equaled what we had left in CRUSA money, however it didn't add up to the total of the original budget, but that was okay because I still needed to get estimates for windows and doors. With the new factura pro forma in my book bag, I started the nine mile walk/jog/run under the afternoon sun back to Colonia. Luckily about a mile in, someone offered me a ride to within a mile and half of town. When I got home, I did some math to figure out materials for windows and sent Tarah to the local hardware store to see if they had the materials and could make a factura pro forma. While I ate lunch, Tarah got numbers, but not a printed copy, because the store's printer wasn't working. Fortunately, I was able to pick up a printed copy the next morning.

We sent everything to Alvaro on Monday morning and waited and waited and waited and then remembered that it was Columbus Day, so the Peace Corps office was closed. The next day we had a message from Alvaro that said so far so good, we just needed a receipt that showed the value of the mano de obra for the construction of the new classroom and a estimate for the doors. As luck would have it, the guy that can provide both of those things was out of town for the week, Monday is a Costa Rican holiday, and Tarah and have to go to San José from Tuesday to Friday this week. I have left a note for the new director of the high school to see if he can track down an estimate for doors, he said that he knows someone, and I'll try to get a receipt for the mano de obra before we leave bright and early Tuesday morning.

At every bump along the way, I just have to remind myself that all of this is worth it, because it's for the kids.

Hopefully soon there will be follow up post here saying we've been approved and showing photos of the improved classrooms.

Gymnasium serving as a temporary high school
The current high school, minus the three uncompleted classrooms that are where that pile of gravel is
The other three classrooms (the third one now has a roof and half a floor)


aaron wk said...

What a ridonkulous situation. Kudos for fighting through all that 'pura vida'. It will serve the community for decades.

Ken Ferrell said...

Anytime you're in Puerto without wallet you can call me and I'll find you and throw you some cash :) Anytime, for real.