Dignitas Project: supporting community schools in Nairobi’s Mathare slum

Picture an urban slum in a developing country. Walk around a bit. Think about what’s missing. We can move from the concrete up to the more abstract: there’s little in the way of pavement, proper drainage, government services, employment opportunities, secure property rights. It’s easy for outsiders to conclude that there are massive needs. There must be little local capacity to deal with them.

It takes more creativity to see the positive capacity in slums. These communities are home to bustling economies, active social organizations, and practical (if sometimes illegal) solutions to the provision of public services like electricity or water. Residents work hard under harsh conditions to build better lives for themselves and their families. These capacities could be an incredible base for building further assets.

This second perspective — starting with the positive capacities — was why I became interested in an organization called the Dignitas Project. It works in Mathare, a slum community of about 500,000 residents located just a few kilometers northeast of downtown Nairobi. Dignitas works in education, but rather than building or running schools, their staff provides training and support to existing education leaders in the community. Last week I visited the Dignitas Project’s office and tagged along with their staff for a day. Here’s what I learned.

1. Mathare’s community-based schools

Caso Upendo, one of Dignitas Project’s new partner schools

A vast majority of students in Mathare attend informal schools — or, as Dignitas prefers to call them, community-based schools. A mapping project the organization conducted two years ago found 75 of these schools, serving over 18,000 students. In contrast, there are only 3 government schools in Mathare.

In general, the community schools are crowded and lack proper facilities or learning materials. They follow the Kenya national curriculum, but instructional quality varies. Many teachers have little or no formal training, while others are government-certified but may be waiting for a position at a government school to open. Turnover is high. Teachers might earn up to 3500 Ksh (about US$40) per month, or they might not get paid at all. Schools vary in size as well: some have two dozen teachers serving as many as 800 students, while others have just one or two teachers, and may be little more than day care centers. School fees are typically around 250-400 Ksh (about US$3-5) per month.

The education prospects for Mathare’s children are bleak, but community members are clearly interested in improving the situation.

2. The Dignitas Leadership Institute Program: understanding community needs, and meeting them with outside resources

The core of Dignitas’ work with community-based schools is the Leadership Institute Program. Dignitas recruits and selects teachers, principals, and community leaders for a year-long fellowship that includes intensive training between school terms, as well as on-site professional development and coaching throughout the year. Before describing the Leadership Institute in detail, let’s talk about the genesis of the idea.

Understanding community needs…

Most NGOs justify their programs in simple terms: “We saw need X, we address it with program Y. It’s just so obvious!” Sometimes things really are that simple. But we should never assume that they are.

Dignitas didn’t assume things were simple. Its work was preceded by a participatory needs assessment that dove deep to understand the community. Over the course of two weeks in July 2008, twelve community facilitators ran 60 focus groups and 47 key informant interviews with school headmasters, teachers, students, parents, and other community organizations and leaders. The resulting report included findings and details on the methodology (it’s available here).

When I visited the Dignitas office, I told co-founder and executive director Tiffany Cheng that it was rare to see a small organization conduct such a rigorous analysis and then share the results publicly. She was a little surprised at the idea that this was a radical thing to do. Honestly, I’m surprised as well. More organizations should follow Cheng’s lead.

…and meeting them…

The assessment pointed to several opportunities for change: establishing learning communities for teachers; promoting enrollment by addressing student needs; educating parents and improving school-community relations; coordinating with government and civil society organizations to improve education; and supporting promising leaders within Mathare.

In 2009, Dignitas started to meet these needs. They piloted the Leadership Institute with 22 teachers from 5 schools. In each year since the pilot, they have expanded the pool. At the end of 2010, Dignitas visited 45 schools to discuss the program, of which 30 applied and only 15 were selected. Schools have to meet several criteria to ensure a minimum level of capacity and transparency. For example, schools must have multiple teachers, be registered with the government in some way (typically as a community-based organization or a self-help group), have bank accounts in the school’s name (not the headmaster’s), and have a formal school management committee (or at least commit to creating one).

Once schools are selected, then individual teachers apply. Dignitas typically works with 5 or 6 fellows from each school, including teachers, headmasters and members of school management committees. This ensures the institute has deeper impact on the school and helps build the capacity of the institution, rather than just individual teachers.

Dignitas continues to expand. Following the recently completed application process, they will have 19 partner schools this year (including 14 who they had already worked with) and 103 fellows. According to Cheng, the major constraint on expansion is the number of schools that are ready for the program — though of course Dignitas has its own resource constraints. For schools that don’t make the cut, Dignitas provides feedback so they can make improvements and reapply in subsequent years, which several have done.

…with outside resources

Dignitas’ founders and board members tapped their personal networks to get the organization off the ground. This seems fairly typical for small start-up NGOs and social enterprises. However, they quickly found broader support, including from local donors. A fundraiser in Nairobi in December 2010 raised enough in donations to cover the majority of the program’s costs, much of it from Kenyan business leaders who see the value in investing in their communities.

The organization’s approach has also garnered attention from those with even deeper pockets: USAID. Last year, Dignitas started partnering with Education for Marginalized Children in Kenya (EMACK), a program funded by USAID and managed by the Aga Khan Foundation. EMACK has only recently started working in informal settlements, so the Dignitas partnership has really shaped their work. One component of the program is a “whole school approach” to help teachers, parents, and other stakeholders create school development plans.

You may have noticed that the previous paragraph had more acronyms than the entire rest of this post combined. Welcome to the world of development. Cheng says she didn’t know much about this world when she started — and that was a good thing. The new partnership has come with typical donor requirements, which have helped the organization to strengthen its financial reporting and other systems, while Dignitas’ other fundraising has allowed it to keep a focus on the community’s interests.

3. Caso Upendo and the Dignitas school rubric

The day I visited Dignitas, their staff went out to visit one of their new partner schools. I tagged along and tried to stay out of the way. The school we visited is called Caso Upendo. It’s in one of the nicer parts of Mathare, where some government development funds have been used to improve the roads and other infrastructure. (Pictured above.)

Dignitas program director Martina Amoth holds an impromtpu coaching session during a school visit

The purpose of the visit was to administer Dignitas’ school rubric. This is a multi-page tool that’s used to assess a partner’s institutional capacities and development. Dignitas drew from other sources to craft something appropriate for their partners and aligned with their strategic plan.

The rubric contains five categories: systems and operations, like finances; culture and climate; pedagogy; student support, such as non-academic activities and psycho-social services; and engagement with families and other stakeholders. Each category has several sub-topics. Early each school year, Dignitas staff visit a partner unannounced to observe teachers, meet with the headmaster, and then make qualitative assessments of the school’s level of proficiency in each category.

This was Dignitas’ second visit to Caso Upendo. An interview with Mr. Victor, the head teacher, yielded some new insight into how teachers are managed, motivated, and developed. Dignitas staff also sat in on classes to observe instruction, and interviewed teachers. One teacher at Caso Upendo, Mr. Geoffrey, was previously at another Dignitas partner school. Dignitas program director Martina Amoth held an impromptu coaching session with him between classes, giving him feedback on his lesson plans. (Pictured left.)

After the visit, the Dignitas team gathered in their conference room to compare notes and assign ratings in the rubric. This information will guide the training and support that Dignitas provides Caso Upendo as it joins the Leadership Institute later this year. The rubric will also be used to track the school’s progress. Evaluating institutional development is always complicated, and this tool helps Dignitas make more nuanced and careful assessments.

4. Schools as local institutions

Although Dignitas focuses on schools, the impact is broader than education. Schools are local institutions that improve communities in many ways, and provide an entry point for other services. For example, Dignitas and its partner schools have worked with various organizations to provide clean water, connect the schools with feeding programs, educate children and their families on health issues, and offer vaccinations and deworming.

The Leadership Institute Program has also led to a certain amount of networking between schools, so that education leaders from across Mathare meet one another. This is especially important in a place where ethnic conflict lines flared into violence after the 2007 presidential election, and could do so again in the future. Cheng has been cognizant of the need to work with schools all across the community.

Dignitas is committed to working in Mathare, and isn’t planning to expand into other communities anytime soon. Community change takes a long time. It requires patience. Dignitas is working to transform institutions, which also means transforming behaviors and attitudes. You can’t just provide a few workshops and then move on to the next school. You have to build relationships over years.

5. Advice for others

Cheng strikes me as a very candid and reflective leader. When I asked about lessons she’s learned that I could share with readers, she had an answer ready. Her advice related as much to attitudes as specific practices: you have to really believe in the work you’re doing, you have to be creative, and you have to be relentless. All of these are vital for spotting and seizing the opportunities to move forward.

She seemed to speak from experience when she said that you sometimes have to climb 14 flights of stairs because the city council elevators are broken, and then wait for hours to get a meeting, or to convince someone to let you use a free photocopier because you don’t have the funds for you own. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride, or put a check on your impatience, or navigate the rhythms of a work culture you don’t quite understand, because that’s what it takes to get the work done.

My big takeaway from the time I spent with Dignitas is that there’s no contradiction between saying that local capacity exists, and that outside resources can support local actors. The tricky part lies in how outsiders provide that support without overwhelming or undermining local capacity. Dignitas seems to strike that balance well.


Full disclosure: Dignitas Project did not compensate me in any way for blogging about them, with the exception of a great lunch and some tasty mango. I connected with the organization through fellow blogger/tweeter Eugenia Lee, who works for Dignitas. Many thanks to Tiffany Cheng and her wonderful staff for letting me see a little piece of their world. 


Also published on Medium.