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Over the last 20 years education policies and programmes in Cambodia, as in many other developing countries, have been driven by the global 'Education for All' campaign. The result has been a rapid increase in the primary education enrolment rate. However, despite many efforts to accommodate this rapid expansion, the increasing number of children enrolling in schools has not always translated into them completing their primary education. Against this background the paper argues that the role of the teacher is fundamental to keeping children in school and in helping them to progress further in the education system. In other words, without teachers' active participation and commitment as crucial front-line agents who coordinate educational interventions through direct and daily contact with children, fulfilling the goals of 'Education for All' in Cambodia will take far longer. By considering current practices in teaching, the paper suggests both initial and in-service teacher training and education should place more emphasis on strategies to raise the commitment of the teaching profession.
Key words: EFA; Cambodia; teacher education; teacher training; quality education
Over the past 20 years 'Education for All' (EFA) has become something of a national and international catchphrase in education policy circles. As a result, considerable efforts have been made to improve children's access to, and attainment of, primary or basic level education in many developing countries. In many of these, this has been with substantial financial and technical assistance from EFA lead agencies including UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and other bilateral and multilateral development partners. However, in what UNESCO (2010) has called a 'lost decade' (p.54) following the World Declaration on Education for all in 1990 (UNICEF, 1990), the global number of out-of-school children in primary education stagnated at around 100 million although, in more recent years, there has been progress in reducing this figure to 72 million (UNESCO, 2010).
However, this figure cannot be entirely relied upon. This is because, as it is now widely recognized, official national statistics based on administrative data - i.e., that reported by schools via local education offices to Ministries of Education - are often inaccurate. For instance, according to the global EFA Monitoring Report 2010, data from household surveys in 29 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia show that around 50% fewer children were in school than what the administrative data suggested (UNESCO, 2010). Indeed one explanation for this disparity, that administrative data shows enrolment rates whereas household surveys tend to record actual attendance, does not justify the use of administrative data: it should be common sense that attendance at, rather than being enrolled in but not attending, school is what counts as a school education taking place.
Since 2000 more attention has been paid to the significance of educational quality in EFA campaigns (UNESCO, 2005). However, the 2010 global EFA Monitoring Report still stressed the need to widen access and called for stronger commitments by governments to reach girls and other marginalized groups. But this discursive emphasis on reaching 'out-of-school' children inevitably draws policy-makers attention away from children who are enrolled in school but who risk being disenchanted by the experience, not attending very much, or dropping-out. Given that high repetition and dropout rates, and trailing completion rates, often lie behind increasing enrolment rates in many countries, achieving universal primary education appears to be even more elusive than was imagined when EFA was first conceived twenty years ago and when its targets for achievement by 2015 were revised ten years later.
When EFA was launched in 1990 by various UN agencies it was in the wake of several successful 1980s global child health campaigns (UNICEF, 2006). But if it was felt that similar achievements could be made quickly in the education sector, this suggests that the nature of what education both means and involves was underestimated or misunderstood. Achieving universal education is a different exercise from many health campaigns. For example, vaccination targets can be accomplished through relatively brief encounters between health workers and children, so that once health workers can identify and reach those children who have not yet had vaccinations, their mission is accomplished. However, achieving a successful school education is often very different: it is achieved by almost daily interactions between teachers and children, usually over several years, and is made more complicated by being dependent on various mitigating factors both inside and outside schools.
Perhaps what has been missing in EFA campaigns so far has been the active mobilization and development of teachers as key agents to foster their active and conscious participation in the EFA movement. Despite being the very first and major contact of children during their school education, relatively little attention has been paid to their significance in achieving the EFA's goals. Furthermore teachers' roles are important, not just for raising the quality of their schooling, but in improving children's access to schools, since how well children are taught, and how much they learn, are likely to have a crucial impact upon the length and value of their schooling experience (UNESCO, 2005). To explore this idea further, this paper discusses the issues involved using examples from Cambodia by reviewing previous studies and education statistics collected, and observations made, in that country.
Quality education and the role of teachers
Views about what defines 'quality' in education, i.e. its criteria and standards, are by no means unified. UNESCO (2005) observes that, at the level of international debate and action, three principles to guide and inform educational content and processes are widely shared. These are the needs for: more relevance; greater equity in access and outcome; and the proper observance of individual rights. However while, for the past ten years or so, there has been a consensus on the imperative to improve the quality of education, continuing debates about what these principles mean, and on how best to achieve them, have meant that few specific examples of quality improvement measures have emerged. As a result, while there has been much mention of quality in education, the policies suggested or taken so far have not gone beyond conventional calls for more and better trained teachers, improved textbooks available to all learners, pedagogical renewal and more welcoming learning environments.
Another problem is that some policy-makers and researchers think that there are potential trade-offs between the EFA goal of widening access to primary and basic education and the quality of the school education provided in the process. For example, the World Bank (2002) warned that the success in achieving EFA goals could undermine the quality of education that was offered. Likewise, in their study of Cambodia, Marshall et al (2009) found that at grade three, where enrolment rates were close to being universal, around two-thirds of students were classified as 'non-proficient' in language and mathematics tests, whereas at grade six, where enrolment rates were significantly lower, only one in four students were so classified. Hence they argued that, as the system got closer to universal primary completion, the average grade six achievement profiles could begin to resemble those at grade three.
However, even if school attendance could literally be forced upon all children, without sufficient educational quality to overcome high repetition and dropout rates and achieve almost universal completion levels, EFA goals cannot be met. If reaching an international level of average achievement in language, maths and science subjects is an indicator of a 'quality'education, achieving it in many developing countries is a rather daunting task. But, if the above mentioned and broad principles of quality education - more relevance, greater equity of access and outcome and proper observance of individual rights - inform policy-making, it could be more actively pursued in all economic circumstances.
The international literature on school improvement argues that teachers are the most important element in determining the quality of a national education system or, at the very least, a critical part of it (Gopinathan, 2006; Zeichner and Ndimande, 2008). However, in the EFA context, teachers are often regarded as a variable for educational policies to manipulate, rather than as active agents for participating in, and promoting, the cause. As Samoff (1999) observed, in countries where a large percentage of teachers lack the required levels of formal education, strategies for improving education often involve efforts to regiment or bypass them. In relation to this tendency for teachers to be sidelined in the main debates about achieving EFA, Tomasevski (2004) argued that education strategies tended to prioritize learning by emphasizing the relevance of the contents of education for students and child-centred learning process, while the practices of teaching attracted far less attention.
Indeed research on educational reform and the implementation of change in many countries has repeatedly found that despite numerous attempts by policy makers to introduce all kinds of changes in classroom practices, teachers have often been very successful in ignoring such efforts (Zeichner and Ndimande, 2008). Providing a hint of a clue to the cause of this problem, Craig et al (1998) indicated that, using from successful examples in countries such as Guatemala and Columbia, where education reformers showed respect for their abilities and the realities they face in their classrooms, teachers' active involvement and empowerment in the reform process of their schools, classrooms and teaching were possible. In this process, teachers' minimal levels of education and training did not deter them from changing the classroom environment and improving the achievement of their students.
This suggests that helping teachers to take a more active role, instead of treating them only as an means to improve educational 'quality', may be a more viable alternative strategy. Gopinathan (2006) observes that socio-economic development cannot be achieved without teachers who recognize, understand, and draw upon the local. In countries like Cambodia, teachers who recognize how national and local circumstances impact on the educational obstacles faced by their pupils and who realize the significance of their roles in breaking the cycles of educational and social disadvantage could make an important difference. Conventionally, where one locates the teacher quality problem - whether it is a supply/demand issue or a preparation issue - shapes the nature of policy and practice recommendations (Liston et al, 2008). Hence the kind of teacher education and training that allows trainees and teachers to consider broader societal and long-term issues and be conscious of their agency in making the required changes goes beyond conventional and limited solutions to the 'quality' problem by improving values and understandings regarding the teacher's roles in schools.
Progress towards the EFA and teachers in Cambodia
According to the official statistics produced by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MOEYS), over the twenty years of the EFA campaign Cambodia has achieved a substantial expansion in its rates of primary and lower secondary education, which are those levels of education specified as 'basic' and compulsory by the country's Education Law (Kingdom of Cambodia, 2007). The number of primary school students increased from 947,317 in the 1979/80 academic year - the first year after the demise of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1978 - to 2,311,107 in 2007/08 (see Table 1). In particular over the first ten years of the EFA campaign between 1989/90 and 1999/00 which was also the first decade of full-scale international development assistance provided to the country, the number of primary school students increased by about one million, which was some 70% growth in enrolment rates. Over the following eight years, this enrolment rate increased from 85.5 % in 1999/00 to 93.3 % by 2007/08, showing slower increases in later years (see Table 2).
Table 1 Numbers of schools, classes, students and staff in Cambodia
Source: MOEYS (2008); staff* includes both teaching and non-teaching staff
However, behind these high enrolment rates, low completion rates raise concerns over the actual size of this educational expansion. For example, in 2004/5 when the primary education enrolment was the highest on record at 95.1% (see Table 2), MOEYS reported that the primary education completion rate was only 46.77% (MOEYS, 2005a). This indicates that the primary education retention rate is very low and that nearly half of the children who are initially enrolled gradually drop out before they reach grade six. In particular, the dropout rates at the primary education level have been similarly high in all grades, at levels of around 10-15%, and have not changed much over the past several years (see Table 3). Furthermore, as even MOEYS (2006a) observes, although there are no standardized measures of overall educational quality, there is a general perception that pupil achievement is low.
As Ovington et al (2003) described in their research in Siem Reap, despite substantial dropout rates, many schools reported that they had 'no problem' with this and where only a small number of schools recognized it as a problem, they explained it as being due to seasonal variations in attendance and, in some areas, as due to migration. While these defensive and/or uncritical attitudes from schools might reflect the fact that their management and teaching staff do not contribute to reducing the number of children who dropout, it is interesting to ask whether these attitudes have also been maintained, if not reinforced, by treating teachers as mainly an object to train, monitor and assess rather than mobilizing and involving them as active agents to identify and address the educational obstacles in their localities.
Table 2 Basic education net enrolment rates in Cambodia in 1999/00 and 2007/08
Source: MOEYS (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005c, 2006b, 2007a, 2008)
Table 3 Dropout rates in basic education in Cambodia
Source: MOEYS (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005c, 2006b, 2007a)
During the early and middle of 1990s, the Cambodian government and its major donors invested millions of dollars in interventions to address factors on the educational provision side such as the distribution of textbooks, building infrastructure and teacher training. After these operations, when participation and progression rates at the primary level were felt to have stagnated, a new wave of educational reforms were introduced from 2000 onwards which shifted the main character of policy interventions to better addressing the factors relating to children's personal and family characteristics (so-called 'demand side' factors) such as their poverty. The interventions that emerged from this new line of policy thinking included school breakfast programs to address the impact of morning hunger on classroom attention and scholarships for needy children - mainly in lower secondary schools requiring higher schooling costs at first and later expanded into primary level - with priorities for girls and ethnic minority children. However, several years into this new type of educational interventions, student flow rates, especially dropout rates, have seen little improvement (see Table 3 and Table 4).
Table 4 Repetition rates in basic education in Cambodia
Source: MOEYS (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005c, 2006b, 2007a)
Tables 2, 3 & 4 should be presented in another way for each comparision.
The current Education Strategic Plan for 2006-2010 aims to reduce repetition and drop-out levels in all grades of basic education, with the priority for improvements being the grade 1-6 primary level. This is to be achieved by an improved and more relevant school curriculum, expanded and more effective remedial classes during the school year, and periodic and continuous student assessment and standards monitoring (MOEYS, 2005a). However, in all of these measures, teachers remain largely invisible and, where seen at all, are only considered as a technical medium through which to deliver higher 'quality'. Furthermore, and in a continuation of the trend described above, teachers are, in general, not seen as having sufficient capacity or competence to fully deliver the required reforms.
Table 5 Education levels of primary education teachers in 1999/00, 2004/05 and 2007/08
Primary school teachers
Level of Education
Source: calculation with data from MOEYS (2000; 2005c; 2008)
The low education levels of most Cambodia teachers are usually ascribed to the period of the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1978 when, it is estimated, at least 1.5 million people are reported to have lost their lives, including 75 percent of teachers, 96 percent of university students and 67 percent of all primary and secondary school pupils (Benveniste et al, 2008). Hence, when the new Cambodian government came to power in 1979, it had to reconstruct the entire national education system and resort to employing teachers with low levels of education based on the principle of 'those who have more education will teach those with less' (Bunlay et al, 2010). They say this legacy continues even today. But does only this explain Cambodia's relative level of education attainment - or it is just another excuse for underachieved policy reforms.
Primary school teachers in Cambodia receive a two-year full-time training at one of 18 Provincial Teacher Training Centres. The entry requirement for these Centres is normally an upper-secondary education of grade 12 with an exception of grade 9 education for placements in remote areas. However, and in reality, in the 2007/08 academic year only around 75 % of primary school teachers only had a lower-secondary level education of grade 9 or less (see Table 5). Nevertheless, most teachers currently in service appear to have received some sort of pedagogical training. For example, in 2007/08, of 46921 primary school teachers, all but 669 people were recorded to have had some pedagogical training and of this 669, 42 were in urban areas, 591 in rural areas and 36 in remote areas. This was in comparison to, in 1999/00, when 1648 out of 43751 teachers were reported to have not had any pedagogical training - 275 in urban areas, 1,292 in rural areas and 81 in remote areas.
However, and perversely, the shortage of teachers and, consequently, the need for the mass recruitment of new teachers, at around 10% of total teachers annually, does not help raise average education levels of teachers. This is because it fails to allow potential candidates the time to obtain more education before applying for places. For example, between 2006 and 2010, MOEYS plans to recruit annually 5,000 new trainees as teacher training college recruits, of which at least 30% are to come from rural/remote and disadvantaged groups such as ethnic minorities, in order to respond to the difficulties to place and retain teachers despite growing demands in these areas (MOEYS, 2005b). While other alternatives currently do not appear to exist, recruiting new teachers and teachers with less education will continue to maintain disadvantageous school conditions in rural and remote areas.
Table 6 Education levels of primary and secondary teachers by area in 2007/08
Primary school teachers
Secondary school teachers
Level of Education
Source: MOEYS (2008)
This is because international studies show that well-qualified teachers with a certain length of teaching experience are better able to produce better academic achievements from their students. For example, Akiba et al (2007) found in their analysis of international mathematics and science study data from 46 countries that the best performing countries had higher percentage of students taught by teachers who had met their country's criteria for full certification - regardless of what these criteria were - had majored in mathematics or mathematics education, and had at least three years of teaching experience. However, Cambodian teachers who meet all of these exemplary criteria are by far a minority. But the main problem seems to be that, even when teachers have relatively better qualifications, they are more likely to be placed in urban areas than in rural ones where the majority of Cambodian children live and are also around twice more likely to drop out of school as urban children.
In most countries significant variations exist in student's access to qualified teachers. For example, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2006) found in their analysis of 13 southern and eastern African countries that a higher percentage of students in isolated and rural areas were taught by teachers with less than three years experience than those in small towns and large cities. Likewise, in some countries such as Namibia and Tanzania, teachers in rural and isolated areas scored lower in academic tests than those in city schools. In Cambodia, one reason for this is that better-qualified teachers actively seek to avoid being placed in rural and, most especially, remote areas - sometimes by resorting to bribery (Kim, 2007). In response, with the government policy toward the recruitment of new teachers from such areas being to send them back there, for the time being, the percentage of relatively inexperienced and less qualified teachers in these disadvantaged areas may continue to be higher. Considering that the intervention most strongly associated with reducing student drop-out rates and improving student progression and achievement is teacher development, and especially as in-service teacher training is one of the most cost-effective interventions (Benveniste et al, 2008), training opportunities should be arranged with priority for teachers working in rural and remote areas.
Low motivation of teachers and teacher training
Teachers are significant in delivering and realizing any form of educational reform. But partly as a result of their unreliable performance - seen mainly to be caused by their low levels of motivation and qualifications - has made it difficult to conceive of them as active agents of reform rather than as mere policy objects for achieving them. For example, while Kim (2007) reported the recognition of education policy-makers in Cambodia of the difference that teachers could make through their daily interactions with children, for example, in dealing with the family and personal factors which obstruct their school attendance, she also found that these experts were also very conscious of a big gap between this ideal type of teachers and what was currently observed of many Cambodian teachers.
Although school education for the first nine years of Cambodian basic education is free, teachers often charge informal fees to students (often in different names) and their absence from classrooms has often been witnessed. Teachers' collection of such informal fees, and their absenteeism, are not unique to Cambodia as these are reported in other developing countries (Härmä, 2010). So, providing a typical example, Kim (2007) reports on a school visit to a district near Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, where a few classrooms were without teachers and a group of grade 1 children out in the school grounds responded that they would just wait until their teacher appeared. CESSP (2006) also found, in their survey of 150 lower secondary schools in 16 provinces in Cambodia, that 16 per cent of teachers were absent on the day of the data collection visits. This malpractice of teachers is also emphasized in relation to their placements. In particular, people in remote communities perceived that teachers raised and educated in towns found it difficult to understand family life in their communities and were more likely to be absent and casual about their teaching responsibilities (Ovington et al, 2003). And while Marshall et al's (2009) study in Cambodia showed that student absences from primary school were negatively associated with their academic achievement - 62 points lower when more than four absences were recorded, this impact of student absence is limited to individual students. Teachers' absences have a far greater impact in that they have the negative consequences for the entire class of children.
In the Education Strategic Plan for 2006-2010, the Cambodian government has set the target of abolishing the informal payments charged to students in primary and lower secondary education by the end of 2008 (MOEYS, 2005a). However there are, as yet, no formal structures in place to monitor the practice or implement its abolition. Furthermore, some policy-makers, including those from international agencies, think that the widespread practice of charging fees is inevitable because teachers need to top-up their low salaries, and so do not consider it as a form of corruption (Kim, 2007). Finally, MOEYS officials tend to maintain that, and despite the evidence, it is committed by only a small minority of teachers and it is a matter for their personal responsibility (NEP & VSO, 2008).
From the teachers' point of view, 213 Cambodian teachers interviewed by NEP & VSO (2008) mentioned that their biggest cause of dissatisfaction was their inadequate salary and this was followed, in order, by corruption and nepotism, poor leadership, their poor living conditions, bad student behaviour and their working environment. And they attributed the responsibility for their dissatisfaction to MOEYS (27%), their schools (24%), provincial office of education (15%) and themselves (14%). It has been calculated that it is possible to raise mean teacher salaries by 40 percent with no requirement for any increase in the overall education budget (NEP & VSO, 2008). So, this is believed to be more a question of political will than a lack of financial resources (Kim, 2007).
Teachers in NEP & VSO's (2008) study also said their performance would improve if they received an increase in their salary as this would allow them to have more time preparing lessons as they would be able to give up their additional jobs that they often hold outside teaching - driving a motorbike taxi, working as a tourist guide, and (mostly) farming. As to the apparent failure of an NGO pilot scheme in Siem Reap, where teachers were given a salary supplement of US$30 (doubling the basic salary of most teachers), some speculate that its failure was because the supplement was sufficient enough to allow teachers to give up their additional employment (NEP & VSO, 2008). However, others believe the fundamentally uncommitted attitude of teachers is the main source of problem; while bad school management and a lack of leadership are also to blame since, under similar circumstances, teachers in some schools come to school and do their work (Kim, 2007).
While any discussion of the educational problems of Cambodia cannot evade considering the impact of widespread poverty, the problems of teachers' malpractice appears to be due to more than economics. While the Cambodian government is currently trying to raise the professional profile of teaching by offering higher salaries, Marshall et al (2009) observe that higher salaries may have little impact even on teacher attendance or on their charging of informal fees. In other developing countries, such as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, pay incentives alone have been found to be ineffective in increasing teacher motivation (Bennell and Akyeampong, 2007). Hence, an emerging consensus is now that better salaries alone will not have a transformational effect on teaching practices. Instead, the key factors associated with improving teachers' motivation and practices are improved teacher training (NEP & VSO, 2008) and more functional and continuous monitoring and account systems (Benveniste et al, 2008). Especially, Marshall et al (2009) suggest, the inspectorate system to monitor teachers' practices should be of a more supportive nature than that of simply judging, reprimanding and holding teachers to account for meeting basic standards of performance.
Relevant in-service training would help to alleviate some of Cambodian teachers' demoralization, but this is far easier said than done. This is because most teacher training in Cambodia is seen to be of a poor quality and concerned only with administrative issues rather than with teaching methodology (NEP & VSO, 2008). A critical issue in this is the shortage of well-trained and experienced teacher trainers. Hence, although a teacher training needs assessment in 2008 conducted by the MOEYS Teacher Training Department identified a need to raise and emphasize teachers' thinking skills (Oro, 2008), how this could be addressed through teacher training remains as a major challenge. In response to this problem, the NEP & VSO (2008) study recommend that development partners' training projects should focus on training teacher trainers until a pool of professional teachers who can be trained as teacher-trainers emerges. And, if necessary, international consultants should be employed.
Nevertheless, using international consultants for capacity building is not a straightforward process. Some criticize the ineffectiveness of training workshops run by international consultants delivered through translators (Kim, 2007). And while the state of Cambodian education has improved much over the last 20 years, including the capacity of education staff, it is not as much as might have been expected given the scale of the financial and other assistance poured in the country since the early 1990s. There are two main reasons for this: uncommitted attitudes and political rivalries within MOEYS that undermine the effectiveness of education policies (mostly written by international consultants); and education policies that do not reflect local realities. Given research shows that, with appropriate encouragement, the education levels of teachers do not hinder reform processes (Craig et al, 1998), the poor education levels of Cambodian teachers act more as an excuse for inaction than as a catalyst for greater efforts to encourage their commitment and participation as conscious agents in educational reform.
Internationally the promotion of children's rights and a child-centred approach to education has inadvertently led to the sidelining of teachers from discussions about children's schooling and learning processes. Teachers' rights have received little attention (Tomasevski, 2004) as has the issue of their agency. Hence, in debates about the EFA over the past twenty years, teachers have not enjoyed much representation in the policy formation process and have been treated as just one of many education factors to be addressed, such as school buildings and textbooks. This is despite the fact that most of schooling is mediated via teachers and, in achieving the aims of EFA, retaining children in school is as important as, and perhaps more difficult, than enrolling them in school to start with. In particular, in countries such as Cambodia, where teachers' education levels are relatively low, they have not been trusted to use their professional ability. Instead, in most policy discussions, they are seen as being in need of further development and training. But this is rarely for themselves, but only as a means of contributing to children's learning processes.
As a major approach to improving the quality of school education, the Cambodian government has recently planned to introduce the principles of the 'child friendly school' into the pre-service teacher training curriculum, implement it in all provincial teacher training colleges, and provide in-service training on these principles to teachers (MOEYS, 2005b). According to the National Child Friendly School Policy (MOEYS, 2007b) a child friendly school is:
â€¦a school that recognizes and nurtures the achievement of children's basic rights. Child friendly schools work with all commitment holders, especially parents/guardians of students and values the many kinds of contributions they can make in seeking all children to go to school in the development of a learning environment for children and effective learning quality according to the children's current and future needsâ€¦ (p.4)
But in this policy teachers again remain largely invisible, presumed to be functioning in the background and no more important than other stakeholders in producing child friendly schools. While teachers' low motivation, and consequent malpractices, has not helped to establish them as responsible and reliable partners in the policy process, the reverse is also a major problem: not respecting teachers for their role in the classroom does not help to raise their motivation. For example, one of the dimensions of the child friendly school approach requires nurturing teachers' attitudes, behaviour and moral values. But this is only related to the promotion of effective learning among children and does not concern the issues that teachers often battle with in their professional lives.
In 2007, and with assistance from its international development partners, the Cambodian government developed and distributed teacher training material on child friendly schools that emphasizes the role of reflective teaching in promoting critical and creative thinking among children (Bunlay et al, 2010). Part of the effectiveness of this training material will depend on how teacher training colleges make use of it. Nevertheless, where the significance of teachers' broader commitment to the aim of achieving sustainable educational change, such as the EFA, are not better recognized, and until teachers' professional abilities to think beyond their immediate concerns are not cultivated and respected, any attempt to develop greater reflectivity on their teaching practices will remain of limited use. This is because, unless almost all teachers voluntarily appear in their classes - every day and on time - with a sense of their role as agents for change, any new approach may not last long after the initial pilot stage when any financial and technical assistance from development partners has ceased.