Surya Karki is the Founder of The Diyalo Foundation, a nonprofit driving community-led development throughout Nepal focused on providing holistic, child-centered education. The Diyalo approach links educational programming with initiatives in agriculture and energy in which farming is incorporated into teaching and access to sustainable energy is provided in schools as a basis for long-term community development. Diyalo partners with local governments and works to improve the public sector service delivery of education throughout Nepal. Surya is also the Country Director and Co-Founder of United World Schools Nepal where he oversees the operations of primary schools in the Sankhuwasabha and Gulmi districts. On this week’s feature of GroundBreakers’ Portraits of a GroundBreaker Series, our discussion with Surya ranged from the importance of education in his own life to the child-centered construction of Diyalo’s schools.
What motivated you to start the Diyalo Foundation?
I was born into a poor family and was raised by a single mother. I am what I am today because of my education and had opportunities through the high quality of my education. What motivates me every day is the future of the children in the village I am from and other villages around Nepal that are currently living my past. Their future could be different if they have access to high quality education that not only focuses on memorizing information but also nurturing passion and creating opportunity.
I tell a lot of communities about my past and background and what I’ve experienced. I have lived their present in my past and my story creates an immediate connection. I’m not coming to communities as a politician and am simply there for the good of their children. I am a living example of what education and access to different forms of knowledge and decision making can provide.
I established Diyalo in 2014 with the aim to build and run schools in rural Nepal starting in my home district. These community schools are benefiting children who are living my past of not having hope for a certain future. Before I went to school in my village, my view of the future was getting married at 16 and having four children by 20. I would have gone abroad to work in one of the Gulf countries to earn a living and support my family. The purpose of Diyalo is to cater to children in a holistic way by focusing on agriculture and sustainable energy in addition to our primary work of advancing education centered around the child.
“… every project is a collaboration and we say that we are partners and not donors. We are not the experts. We say that we know what we do, we have the resources, and we have support from around the world. But we also say we’re not here to stay forever — we are here to accelerate what the government wants to get done and what we know how to do.”
What challenges have you faced in leading Diyalo?
The biggest challenge is that we’re working in rural areas. Not every village has access to proper roads and geography is one of the biggest challenges. We work in very secluded areas where there are a very few to no social ventures or nonprofits working. The government has given little to no attention to provide education in these areas. We work with children who have either never been to school, are the first generation going to school, or have been to school but have only experienced dysfunctional government schools.
Building the school is also a challenge because we have specific designs for the schools. We build them to be earthquake-resistant, child-centric, safe, and spacious with plenty of sunlight in the classrooms. There are only so many materials and so many people with the skills required to build such structures. We usually have to use materials approved by the government and have them transported from nearest cities which are a 13 to 14 hour drive.
Another major challenge is convincing the government that they should co-invest with us. We do require them to invest with us though we invest the larger amount at the beginning.In running the schools, the government provides us with a certain number of teachers but we don’t always know if they’re qualified or not. We don’t have jurisdiction over who gets selected but we normally do require the government to send us prior information about the teacher. The government rarely sends us enough teachers so we always have to hire teachers from the local community. Finding qualified local young people to teach at our schools is a challenge because when young people are educated they often don’t stay in the village. Even when we do find good teachers there is a challenge in getting kids to come to school every day.
We’ve worked out solutions to most of these challenges and we continue to adapt and change. We started a teaching fellowship where we select young people from different colleges who are energetic and wanting to make a change. Through a selection process, we vet these students who are from urban areas and place them in rural areas for two years. They live there and are provided with a stipend and living accommodations. Through provided trainings, they work with the local community, local government structure, and government teachers to change the current style of governance, administration, and teaching style in the schools in their communities. We also mobilize young people from the district and connect them with the teaching fellows so that they have support in driving change in the local school system and implementing their innovative ideas.
“I was born into a poor family and was raised by a single mother. I am what I am today because of my education and had opportunities through the high quality of my education. What motivates me every day is the future of the children in the village I am from and other villages around Nepal that are currently living my past.”
How do you leverage partnerships with local governments to improve the service delivery of education?
When I speak with the government, I always stress that the current service provision is not enough. I don’t say they are wrong, but I do always try to find a way that we can cooperate with each other for more complete service provision. There’s usually a hesitancy because I’m not seen as old enough or experienced enough for their standards. They’re usually hesitant to negotiate or even talk.
Over the past few years we have become the go-to partner for local governments because we have transformed how everything is done from construction to teaching. For example, when I go to the government, I tell them that we can build a school for a fifth of the current cost. With less money we can build a more spacious and child friendly school. A seven to eight classroom school serving around 200 children costs an average of $30,000. If the government or any other NGO tried to build the same structure, it would be around four times our the cost.
We have cut down costs but we have not compromised quality. Lots of research and stakeholder involvement goes into our construction process. When we start construction, the local community digs the foundation for the building in addition to providing the land where the school will be constructed. They also provide us the wood that we use in the school. They don’t provide anything monetary but they are giving us their time and resources through their labor. We’ve brought this model to our partnerships with the government and tell them how we involve every stakeholder in the community.
It was very difficult when we started and was tough trying to seek the government’s help. I found people of like mind in the local government and local community and because I was 23 at the time, no one thought that someone at that age would be able to truly accomplish anything. The first school got built but it was very hard to negotiate with the local government. As the first model got shown, and the community started coming closer to the whole idea and vision, we slowly got buy-in from the government. The second school was a partial collaboration and then the third school was a total collaboration.
Now, every project is a collaboration and we say that we are partners and not donors. We are not the experts. We say that we know what we do, we have the resources, and we have support from around the world. But we also say we’re not here to stay forever — we are here to accelerate what the government wants to get done and what we know how to do. We’ve told every local government that we work with that we are staying in each school for a maximum of 10 years. The plan is by the fifth year to have a model established in every school and then over the next five years the school will be a functioning system. In our agreement with the government, their investment starts to increase in the fifth year and ours starts to decrease. By the seventh year, the government’s investment is around 90% and the school’s operation is taken over by the local government. By the tenth year, everything is funded and operated by the government and this is the time when we exit.