Uno a Uno 

Assessing the impact of a low-cost education initiative

Ecuador-based Uno a Uno is one of many not-for-profit, low-cost organisations making a difference to children’s education around the world. But what they wanted to know in 2023 was just how much impact they were having. Brian Ambrosio reports.

Ecuador

Ecuador is a small but culturally rich Andean country in South America. Famous for its natural diversity, it is the home of the Galapagos islands. Recently, however, Ecuador has been in the news for the wrong reasons, with violence erupting and the country being used as corridor for drug trafficking between Columbia and Peru, largely through Ecuador’s ports. The new government is working hard to clamp down on this, and so far, there are positive signs, but there is still a long way to go.

Captivating murals are common in Ecuador.

There are other problems, Ecuador has a large foreign debt, a poverty rate estimated at 25% of the population and approximately one third of the population does not have access to clean water.

The minimum wage is $460 per month, but many people do not have a full-time job and have to survive on much less. Despite all of these challenges, there is still a calmness in many parts of the country. Ecuadorians are warm, friendly people celebrating festivals and carnivals throughout the year with enthusiasm and spirit.

 

Inti Rayme is a traditional indigenous ceremony
Cotacachi

Cotacachi, 2 hours north of the capital, Quito, is in a stunning setting wedged between 2 dormant volcanoes. At 2,400m above sea level and a climate that is described as Spring / Autumn all year round, it has a serenity and calmness. There is a high indigenous population in the area, and it also draws a proportionally high level of expat retirees and digital nomads.

Cotacachi Volcano with Cotacachi in the foreground

 

When Pierre Etienne Banville and Candace Cho Banville, from Canada, completed a microfinance internship in Cotacachi in 2014, they fell in love with the community and its smart, spirited people. Listening to the people, they also realised that Cotacachi faced challenges, which could not be properly addressed by the community itself unless people had improved access to better educational opportunities where they actually lived.

Seeing the potential of Cotacachi’s people, Pierre Etienne and Candace worked with the community to explore the issues. The outcome was Uno a Uno a new organisation, which it was hoped, would empower the community through the power of education. The name is significant: Uno a Uno (‘One on One’) is an organisation that would focus on personalising the education experience of as many children as possible.

What do they do?

Uno a Uno is ‘Not for Profit’ that relies on donors to keep its costs low, enabling a wide range of the Cotacachi community to have the opportunity to participate in an educational enrichment programme.  It employs three full time Ecuadorians and has up to sixteen volunteer teachers, both local and international, who support the organisation.

It provides a range of classes for the Cotacachi community including English and ‘homework help’ for school-aged students as well as English classes for adults who want to improve their language skills for their job or business.

Learning English is particularly important in Cotacachi, which has become a popular spot for Gringo (westerner) retirees and digital nomads, as well as international tourists. Acquiring English skills gives greatly enhanced access to a growing service sector that is responding to new needs and opportunities.

Uno a Uno has also had flexibility to pivot to provide specific support for student needs.  During Covid and also during some more recent local industrial action, schools closed but have been able to offer online classes. Because many students did not have access to the internet at home, Uno a Uno provided innovative ways to support student access to their school online.

How are they going?

Projects like Uno e Uno are set up all over the world. However, the difference that they make even if really well organised and set up on the basis of equity and mutual respect, is not always clear.

People thought that the Uno a Uno was ‘making a difference’ but there was no properly researched evidence to show this was really the case. In 2023 the organisation undertook a comprehensive ‘Measuring Impact Project’ involving various stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, alumni, leaders and founders) through a variety of surveys and interviews. The data was triangulated to identify trends, both favorable and some that showed that there were areas for improvement. Overall stakeholders overwhelmingly praised Uno a Uno’s contribution to education in Cotacachi.

Some consistent themes came up including:

  • Uno a Uno creates a safe learning environment, where students can express themselves, ask questions and trying things even if they make a mistake, because they feel safe to do so.
  • Uno a Uno students develop their confidence in their English skills and in themselves.
  • There was consistent feedback about classes being fun and interesting.
  • The teachers at Uno a Uno were considered kind and helpful and created a positive learning experience.

Uno a Uno’s impact against its Vision and Mission themes was also evident, in particular;

  • Transforming lives: consistent stories came from alumni who have passed through the program.  There were many stories showing how Uno a Uno has had an impact on people many years after they finish their classes.
  • Empowering students: One of the ongoing themes that came through from all stakeholders is that Uno a Uno builds confidence. Students also indicated that they felt it refreshing that they could talk about work, learn from their friends and ask questions more confidently.
The strategic importance of  the research

The research has clearly shown there are significant areas for further development. Project leaders now know that they need to identify strategies to use summative and formative assessment data to identify success more precisely, which in turn will inform further development. This is now a priority. However, what Uno a Uno already has is a well-organised set of qualitative evidence, some of which is extremely powerful. Yarina, for example, is an alumna who has benefited greatly from the program. She had an informal education upbringing with little access to English. When Yarina’s father started looking for a school for her to learn English, most schools were too expensive.

Yarina explained:

“I am so thankful to Uno a Uno. It was cheap enough for us to be able to afford. 

“Uno a Uno was like winning the lottery for me.”

“Uno a Uno is very important, as many people need to learn English, but do not have a lot of money.”

Yarina has been learning through Uno a Uno for 5 years now and has been able to develop her English skills to the point she is now an English-speaking tourist guide in the local area. Her goal is to be a tourist guide across the country.

“The only reason I have a job as a tourist guide is because of Uno a Uno.”

Yarina’s story was repeated many times over during this measuring impact project. It demonstrates the long-term benefits of Uno a Uno and how a small, humble education NGO can have a significant impact on people’s lives.

The importance for fundraising

This collection of new data is vital for Uno a Uno for another strategic reason. Having been able to demonstrate the organisation’s positive impact, there is now a solid foundation for showing how donations have changed lives for the better: campaigns for further fundraising can point very clearly to improved educational outcomes as a direct result of the work Uno a Uno has undertaken. As a result, the future for this NGO looks very bright indeed.

 

Brian Ambrosio is a Senior Education Consultant for Consilium Education and lives in Cotacachi, Ecuador. He is a board member for Uno a Uno. His work with Uno a Uno is part of the Consilium Education CSR work.

For more information about Uno a Uno: https://www.unoaunoecuador.com/

 

Our thanks to Brian for the wonderful images of Cotacachi, Equador and to Uno a Uno for their kind permission to use the selected photographs.