Education is key to combating illiteracy, but if poverty is to be eradicated, it must form part of a much larger puzzle.

"A long-term and systematic approach that involves people, academia, business, and the public sector is required to create the core of well-developed societies. Consequently, Dispurse’s efforts to eradicate illiteracy are in symbiosis with other societal developments and a variety of networks. We believe that people can escape poverty once they have reasonable levels of health, safety, comfort, and quality of life. And the key to achieving this is literacy,” says Håkan Silfverlin, head of Dispurse’s operations in Peru.

We take the opportunity to meet Håkan over a cup of coffee in Gothenburg in conjunction with one of his rare visits to Sweden. Håkan Silfverlin has been living and working in Peru and South America generally for the last 12 years. Since 2016 he has lead Dispurse’s extensive efforts to eradicate poverty in Peru through innovative teaching materials (Focus) and modern technology. His target is ambitious – for Dispurse to reach 25,000 students in 2018.

How do you define poverty?

“That’s a question that can be answered in countless ways. In Sweden, we describe people who earn less than 50% of the median salary as poor, while Peru defines poverty as not having food for the day. Quite a big difference, right? You also have to remember that poverty can’t or shouldn’t always be measured in terms of money. In remote parts of Peru, as in many other countries in the world, everyday life is often based on an economy of bartering goods and services, which means that although many people may not have money, they still live quite well by swapping their crops or their crafts for other goods and services. Meanwhile, the 50% of the median wage in a rich country is perhaps enough for these people to be classified as stable middle class in a country that is less advanced in its development.”

What knowledge does an adult in Peru need to escape poverty?

“Our starting point is actually Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What an adult need to enable them first of all to secure access to food and shelter is knowledge, such as how to cultivate their field better and how best to sell their produce. In some areas where we work, more than 40% of children are chronically malnourished, often because of parental ignorance about nutrition and not because food is in short supply. We are therefore working with functional literacy, which, together with the Peruvian agricultural agency, will help our users to get started growing new crops using new farming methods. We’re also working to provide recipes and nutritional advice in co-operation with Peruvian government programmes. Money alone doesn’t necessarily help people escape poverty. Nor does literacy alone. People quickly fall back into poverty if they can’t see the benefit of learning. That’s why we’re working with the Focus system, inspired by the Swedish Symbiocity concept (www.symbiocity.se) to help create a functioning society. Helping people to produce, sell, and eat better is a very important start, but it’s not enough to really break the cycle of poverty. What’s also needed is the bolstering of society’s institutions, which is clearly a major challenge in a young democracy like Peru.”

What are the challenges with regard to the social structure?

“In terms of surface area Peru is a relatively large country which, with regard to governance, is divided into the province of Lima and 25 regions divided into 196 provinces, which are in turn divided into 1,869 districts. Each district is governed by a local mayor. These 25 regions vary enormously. Peru is an incredibly diverse country with 80% of the world’s biospheres, with wasteland along the coast, then the high and dramatic mountains of the Andes followed by a jungle where you’ll find the source of the Amazon river. Some municipalities have been blessed with great wealth while others have only been blighted with challenges. Furthermore, Peru has more than 50 recognised languages and a wealth of cultures, ranging from the cosmopolitan parts of Lima to never-before-contacted natives in the jungle. One consequence of this is that the local mayors govern to the best of their ability but perhaps don’t always know how to build a sustainable society. A few weeks ago, I met a really talented mayor who left school in second grade. His big challenge was to complete the project plans in order to request government money for the municipality’s new water and drainage systems. The form is designed for those who have a doctorate in plumbing technology, so there were some huge gaps to fill.

Another challenge is gender inequality. Far more women than men are illiterate. There are several reasons for this, but I’ll focus on two of the underlying ways of thinking: 1) Why educate women if they’re still only going to take care of the house and the animals? 2) It’s too dangerous to make girls walk between two and four hours each way to and from school. They could be raped or abducted (unfortunately true). Our work on literacy has a special focus on adult women and so is pivotal for helping to promote gender equality in society. We have some very good qualitative results in this aspect of our work.”

How does Dispurse actually help?

“We help by making things easier. We help people to see that the future can be built from the individual level upwards, not just from government and congress level downwards. We begin with literacy as a starting point and also help mayors and their teams to dream about what they would actually like their villages and municipalities to be like. We then help to find a way to achieve this dream society by way of a variety of education solutions that can be implemented by a range of stakeholders, including the municipalities themselves. Of course, our own solution, Focus, is a very important tool for helping many people to assimilate knowledge that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to get.

We work directly with literacy in co-operation with municipalities and schools, and we’re currently in the midst of some very interesting discussions with the Peruvian school’s agency to see how it can use Focus as one of its standard tools for literacy. We’re also working closely with the Peruvian ministry for social inclusion and their maternity and social programmes.”

Dispurse is now operating in three of the six most vulnerable regions, right?

“That’s right. Peru has 26 regions and we’re now working in three of the six most vulnerable. All up in the mountains. We’ve chosen to prioritise the most vulnerable regions on the basis that they have the highest percentage of illiteracy, which means statistically that they have other problems such as a lack of adequate nutrition. However, we’re seeing that by being able to read, write, and count on a day-to-day basis, many people are quickly able to experience small but important improvements. This could be being paid correctly for your produce at market or understanding whether to sign a contract or not.”

Co-operation with the Peruvian ministry of education

“It’s pleasing to see that our work is receiving more and more attention. Last autumn we were contacted by Minedu, Ministerio de Educación del Perú. They have shown great interest in our app Focus, and we’re now planning joint evaluation projects in four regions in 2018.”

How might this affect Dispurse’s operations?
“This could have a very positive impact on our efforts to eradicate poverty through education. If all goes well with the pilot projects, each type of education could be elevated to become an official element of Peruvian curricula for adults, which would accelerate the technification of adult education throughout Peru.”

How is the impact of Dispurse’s work validated?

“Since last spring the largest private university in Peru, La Universidad Catolica (pUCP) has been conducting an ongoing validation process to evaluate whether Focus provides the corresponding foundation skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. We’re expecting this validation to be presented in early 2018.”

That sounds very exciting! Good luck Håkan! We’ll speak again soon!

“Thanks! I promise to check in with you more frequently from now on!”

 

Håkan Silfverlin

We welcome your support!

And you will be helping people to read, write and do arithmetic!