For the past two decades, non-profit organisation Mekong Plus has focused most of its efforts on empowering rural communities in Vietnam and Cambodia through a wide range of projects including micro-financing, infrastructure development and sustainable agriculture. But perhaps its most endearing effort comes in the form of improving access to education.
“During our meetings with the villagers, they said their top priority is education and access to school for all children,” Bernard Kervyn, founding director of Mekong Plus, emphasised.
During more ‘normal’ times, the Mekong Plus’ scholarship programme focused on providing scholarships of between VND500,000 (~US$20) and VND1,000,000 (~US$40) to underprivileged students in both primary and high school. A solidarity run is organised annually where entire rural communities, including school children, educators and their families, join a charity marathon which ends with participants contributing any sum of money. The last run in 2019 before the advent of the COVID-19 saw a total fund of more than US$40,000 raised through the unity of 125,000 villagers.
“It might seem like a small amount of money [in the developed world], [but] more than 2% of schoolchildren in the region have benefitted from the fund,” Bernard explained, noting that lowering school drop-out rates is a core goal of Mekong Plus.
COVID-19 threatens education in the Mekong Delta
Unfortunately, several of Mekong Plus’ ongoing education-focused efforts in the region have been handicapped due to COVID-19. One of the greatest impacts of the pandemic? Schools in Cambodia have been closed since March 2020.
With poverty and lack of stable internet a major hurdle in much of the country, bringing textbooks to the hands of Cambodian children has become Mekong Plus’ latest resolve.
“Smartphones are expensive in Cambodia, [and] many parents are not keen on children using them,” Bernard shared, noting how addiction to video games is a rising problem in the country.
In Vietnam, the situation is decidedly more diverse. Different provinces and even districts operate pandemic-control measures with differing strategies. Even in some high-vaccinated localities, local authorities have chosen the path of risk control—schools continue to be closed and teachers turning to online classes using zoom.
Funding smartphones to bring children closer to school
With more than 50% of children having no access to any smart device, Mekong Plus has witnessed a sharp drop in school attendance in all regions.
To help school children access smartphones, Mekong Plus launched a micro-credit programme that provides a loan of up to VND3,000,000 (~US$130) for families to purchase smartphones and subscribe to internet services.
Mekong Plus collects old smartphones to allow poor students to learn online
“Since July, the cost of smartphones, even cheap second hand phones, has increased due to logistics challenges. We considered collecting used phones in Europe, but we could not send them to Vietnam due to regulations [on electronics],” Bernard added.
“We used to provide bicycles for children to travel long distances to school but this has changed completely!” He exclaimed.
Training vital in connecting the dots
The impact of the pandemic stretches beyond paralysing education, with most families unable to leave home for work due to strict social distancing rules. As such, Mekong Plus has also embarked on providing food support to families hit hardest.
With Mekong Plus and its volunteers unable to reach most of its beneficiaries, a phone communication programme has been launched to assure that the non-profit organisation is aware of the challenges faced by the underprivileged.
“We send more than 1000 messages daily to continue training and provide technical support,” Bernard elaborated.
With Mekong Plus assisting thousands of families through its microcredit programme, which forms the backbone of its sister programmes including livestock and mushroom farming, staying in touch with its beneficiaries is vital to fixing problems before they spiral into larger losses.
More than often not, a single photo sent from a tech-savvy farmer can help Mekong Plus and its team solve a problem that may otherwise have required a physical visit.
Additional efforts such as training parents to monitor children through apps such as Google Family Link also relieves them from the stress and freedom that smart devices may be exploited by children to indulge in games.
Bernard notes that every dark cloud has a silver lining.
“Before [the pandemic], a big expense of education in Vietnam was additional evening ‘cram’ classes. We have now discovered that good websites might even help families save in the future!”
How you can help Mekong Plus
As the pandemic is slowly being tamed in the region, Mekong Plus hopes to return to working on its celebrated array of education-focused efforts, including oral health and gender education programmes that it believes has supplemented the effort of educators in Vietnam.
“In 2020, we may not have been able to organise a large scale solidarity run, but at least the children could do it in the school playground,” Bernard mentioned while explaining how Mekong Plus is working closely with local authorities to make newly planned activities such as a community clean-up drive for school children in Bình Thuận province possible when social distancing measures are relaxed in the near future.
If you live in Vietnam or Cambodia, Mekong Plus is grateful for any contributions of used smart devices that will ensure continued education to underprivileged children.