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Pupils at the ORT-SEN kindergarten

Fostering development with dignity

By Stefan Bialoguski, February 24th, 2011

Some of the children who paraded in front of Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade for the country's 50th anniversary of independence had more than just the excitement of the day to make them smile.

As pupils at the ORT-SEN kindergarten, they are enjoying an immeasurably better start in life than most of their neighbours in the capital Dakar's impoverished district of Hann Village.

It is not uncommon for small children to be left unattended in the streets or in their ramshackle homes, their parents unable to afford the private care which is all that is available until they are seven years old and eligible for a place at a state primary school. But for these children in their brightly coloured uniforms and pristine white gloves waving at the crowds from their "Train of Integration", symbolising faith in the unity of Senegal's people, there is food, love and a safe, nurturing environment for the equivalent of only Euro 5 (USD 7) a month.

Now, World ORT is working to renovate and expand the Santé Environnement Nutrition (SEN) (Health, Environment, Nutrition) project it set up with European Union backing 14 years ago.

The success of the original centre in Hann Bel Air led to the setting up of satellite projects in four other poor parts of Dakar. The result is eight pre-school centres catering for 800 children, a medical clinic, mother-and-child education and health programme, and workshops where those who have undergone vocational training can generate incomes for themselves and for the running of ORT-SEN.

"The problem now is that while ORT-SEN is self-sustaining it can't make enough money to make the changes necessary for it to handle the increased demand for its services," said Daniel Kahn, Head of World ORT's International Cooperation office in Geneva.

More than USD 200,000 is needed to, among other things, double the capacity and improve the quality of the kindergartens, to strengthen and broaden the health and nutrition programmes, to buy ultrasound and other pre-natal equipment, and to recruit and train staff.

"With this relatively small investment, we would create within a year the showcase for our capabilities in a modern, comprehensive urban programme led by the local community, and supported and guided by ORT professionals, Mr Kahn said.

Local people's appreciation for ORT-SEN's services has long been made clear and it has only grown with the demand, putting its staff under increasing pressure.

"Parents want to enrol their children but capacity is limited and so we're very often forced to reject children in spite of ourselves," said the headmistress of ORT-SEN Hann Village, Loty Gaye. "As the saying goes, 'You can't make bricks without straw.'"

The economy of this mainly Muslim West African country of 12 million has grown healthily over the past 15 years. But infant mortality, unemployment, illiteracy and poverty rates are still high and life expectancy about 20 years less than in Europe.

So the provision of such a practical resource in the heart of the community it serves - cutting out transport costs and dangers for parents and children while ensuring responsiveness to changing needs - is a proven boon for those who have not yet enjoyed many of the benefits of the country's progress.

Higher professional standards by service providers, the building of new classrooms, the teaching of new, money-making vocational skills, the processing of locally grown food for business and to enhance nutrition, the installation of a new library and ITC facility are within the reach of thousands of families currently scrambling to make a living.

Some of the children who proudly paraded at last year's independence day have already moved on to primary school. But many of them do not want to break the bond they have with ORT-SEN.

"Very often you can see our former pupils come down to the school gate to watch those who are now enjoying our services," said Mrs Gaye. "They are still committed to their old school. Extending our centres would allow us to keep children in a warm, safe environment where they are already well integrated, and maximise their chances of success at school."

World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer said the ORT-SEN project was emblematic of ORT's approach.

"We gave a community the physical and professional means by which it could foster development and it has sustained the services itself," Mr Singer said. "We are an enabling, not a patronising, organisation and it's gratifying to see the success of a project which certainly impressed me when I visited it a decade ago. It would be a privilege for any organisation to help fund the expansion of something which allows people to improve their lives while maintaining their dignity."

World ORT International Cooperation has implemented more than 350 non-sectarian projects in 98 countries to the benefit of more than two million people since its establishment in 1960. ORT IC's work has received support - and praise - from major organisations such as the World Bank, Hewlett-Packard, the United States Agency for International Development, the Coca-Cola Foundation, the United Nations and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

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