FUNDAEC: Not a typical development foundation

CALI, Colombia - It is often said that some of the best new ideas come from outsiders. Because they are not hemmed in by the traditions of a particular field of study, they feel free to strike out in new directions.

The success of the SAT program would seem to prove that adage: the founders of FUNDAEC were not education professionals or even development specialists. Instead, the foundation was started by a small group that included of two physicists, a mathematician, a biologist and a medical doctor.

Concerned about the effects of industrialization and modernization on the rural populations of Colombia, a group of professors at the University of Valle here founded FUNDAEC in 1974 with the aim of searching for new methods and tools by which the region might be appropriately developed.

The foundation's name tells much about its purpose and approach. FUNDAEC stands for the "Fundación par la Applicacion y Ensenanza de las Ciencias," or, in English, the "Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences."

"A number of us at the University of Valle were very concerned that the prevailing concept of development, the process of industrialization then occurring in the country, was not appropriate," said Gustavo Correa, a former mathematics professor who was one of FUNDEAC's founders and its current director. "The economic indicators were saying that things were getting better, but you could see that the conditions of the poor people were not improving."

Although urban areas like Cali were indeed prospering, Dr. Correa said, people in the countryside were pressured into selling their land to sugar cane and coffee companies. The process put cash in their pockets at first but ultimately reduced them from small-scale but self-sufficient farmers to impoverished contract laborers subject to the vagaries of international markets.

A New Concept of Development

"The idea of FUNDAEC was that we need to have a new concept of development based on the participation of people, and that development has to be based on the processes of life - like how farmers are actually producing things, not the experiments of an agricultural station - and on the needs of rural society itself," said Dr. Correa.

"In order to achieve genuine participation, people must have access to knowledge. If people don't have acces to knowledge, and in today's world that means scientific knowledge, then you can have all of the 'participatory' meetings you want but you won't really have participation." 

— Gustavo Correa, director of FUNDAEC

"In order to achieve genuine participation, we realized, people must have access to knowledge. 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.

"And, second, 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," said Dr. Correa.

In order to implement this idea, the founders of FUNDAEC came up with the concept of starting a "rural university." In their minds, it was to be a new sort of institution of higher learning for Latin America that would generate and apply the kinds of knowledge needed by the rural people and which would also involve them in the gathering and production of that knowledge. It would do this in a framework of positive values aimed at resisting the forces of social disintegration in the countryside.

"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," said Dr. Correa, noting that the SAT program was precisely the sort of new "knowledge" that FUNDAEC's founders had intended for the rural university to generate.

Not limited to any location, the Rural University over the years has had at various stages of development different campuses for different programs. Today, for example, the University Center for Rural Well-being (Centro Universitario Bienestar Rural) occupies a small campus in Puerto Tejada, a small town about 30 kilometers south of Cali. The University also has programs at two other sites, bringing to more than 460 the total enrollment.

The institution has been accredited by the Government to grant degrees in a single, unique field: "Rural Education." The degree program at the university and the SAT program are intimately linked. Only graduates of the program are empowered to train tutors for the SAT program.

Ms. Otero a graduate

Ms. Dora Alicia Otero, for example, who introduced the SAT program to District 034 in Jamundi (see main story), is a recent graduate of the university. And she believes that it is the university's method - which emphasizes the importance of service to the community above all else and, accordingly, requires students to work in their own communities on development projects - that has enabled her to succeed as a woman working in a rural area.

"As a woman, I received education at the rural university that has enabled me to value myself much more," said Ms. Otero, who is now in the process of forming a small NGO that will become the provider of SAT through the municipality of Jamundi. "For example, the whole moral leadership course was a central feature in my training."

That course emphasizes the importance of ethical values like trustworthiness, honesty and humility as essential components of development work.

"The rural teacher really has to be a moral leader," said Ms. Otero. "You have to be very sincere with the people with whom you work, because rural communities are very sensitive to the treatment that they receive. This is something I learned at the Rural University. People are very tired of all the lies they have heard over the years . So when you promise something, and if you accomplish it, the community won't let you down. But if you tell even one lie, you've lost everything. The community won't trust you again."

In addition to the SAT program, FUNDAEC's new approach to rural development has spawned two other projects: a "Solidarity Production System," which works to organize farmers into small credit groups, and a small agro-industrial training center, which seeks to apply FUNDAEC's concept of knowledge generation and distribution to the small-scale processing of agricultural products.

Although it is not a religious institution, most of FUNDAEC's projects operate along Bahá'í principles, said Dr. Correa, who, like some of FUNDAEC's founders and its current directors, is a Bahá'í. "We don't teach the Bahá'í Faith within the University," said Dr. Correa. "But we do quote Bahá'u'lláh. And the concept of education, of development, of the identity of the human being - everything stems from the principles of the Faith."