Students for Development: a new point of reference

Homeless children in front of the barracks where they live in Eldoret.Photo: Duncan Ateka

Lonnie Embleton was an intern in Eldoret, Kenya

Canadian university students travel to a developing country for at least three months to work as interns on a development project under the Students for Development program, or SFD. The program, in existence since 2005, is funded by the Canadian International Development Agency and administered by Universities Canada. The participants are undergraduates in third and fourth year, master’s and doctoral students. Often they benefit from a fascinating overseas experience. Sometimes, the brief internship influences the next steps in a student’s career. Here are two experiences that illustrate this path, as told to writer Jeanne Armstrong.

Getting the picture
Lonnie Embleton in Eldoret, Kenya

Along the streets of Eldoret in western Kenya, empty glue bottles are strewn everywhere. They’re a daily reminder of drug abuse among street children, a problem that plagues small towns like thisone. In fact, 77 percent of street children sniff glue, according to a study by an Eldoretrehabilitation centre.

“Glue is cheap, readily available, and it suppresses hunger when they can’t always find food,” explains Lonnie Embleton, a master’s student in public health at the University of Toronto.

Through the SFD program, Ms. Embleton decided to base her research on substance-abuse problems among the estimated 3,000 street children living in Eldoret.

She coordinated her research with AMPATH (a partnership of Moi University School of Medicine, a Moi teaching hospital and a consortium of U.S. medical schools) and the Tumaini Children’s Drop-in Centre, a rehabilitation and education centre for street children.

Ms. Embleton designed a curriculum for children at the Tumaini Centre that combined education, self-awareness activities and community involvement. But it turned out the biggest hurdle she faced wasn’t what to teach the kids but how to keep them coming back to class. “Because they’re so transient, you don’t expect they will come every day,” she says.

Starting with a class of 15 students, she announced that if they attended at least 80 percent of the classes they’d get a reward. The reward was a chance to try their hand at photography with their own disposable camera. Together they took photos in and around Eldoret.

The project was more than just a fun activity for the children, says Ms. Embleton. It gave them a sense of pride and showed the community that these weren’t just “street urchins who beg and steal … they do it because they have to survive.”

At the end of the project, Ms. Embleton organized a photography exhibit at the Tumaini drop-in centre and invited the Eldoret community, whom she felt were engaged with the exhibit. Last fall she took the exhibit to campuses in the U.S. and Canada. Ms. Embleton plans to return to Eldoret early this year, with some assistance from her supervisor there. She intends to conduct quantitative surveys on what drives drug abuse in the area and hopes to present her research findings to local services and programs, in a bid to effectively target the causes of substance abuse in Eldoret.

Plan for a patchwork city
Jed Kilbourn in Iloilo City, the Philippines

It’s difficult to imagine any large NorthAmerican suburb without sidewalks. Indeed,developers are required by law to makethem when they’re building new homes.

But in Iloilo City in the Philippines,sidewalk construction can easily bebypassed – a Canadian student whoworked there almost two years ago says it’sas simple as paying off a home inspector.

“A big challenge in Iloilo is that it may have great legislation, but they don’t have good resources to police it so it doesn’t get implemented,” says Jed Kilbourn, a graduate of York University’s master’s in environmental studies and planning program. In the summer of 2009, he helped develop urban planning strategies for Iloilo, a central city of about half a million people.

The Philippines presents a unique challenge in urban planning and development, says Mr. Kilbourn, whose SFD experience was supported by the Canadian Urban Institute and York University.

“In the 1990s, the national government in the Philippines became extremely decentralized,” he explains. “While it may have made the structure of government more accountable, cities like Iloilo found themselves in completely new territory when it came to city planning.”

Iloilo’s development has been jagged, due in part to the various waves of colonizing influences. Established as a city in 1890, Iloilo reverted to town status in 1900, but regained official cityhood again in 1937.

The city is an amalgam of political sub-divisions, or wards, which in turn are grouped into seven geographical districts. The Philippines’ Local Government Code of 1991 took a large degree of power from the national government and granted it to local governments.

Mr. Kilbourn collaborated with Iloilo officials to develop seven training modules on issues that affect the city’s planning. One module that fascinated him was disaster risk-management. He calls the Philippines the “holy grail of natural disasters.” Because the country lacks proper preventive strategies when it comes to infrastructure, the tsunamis or typhoons that are common in the region often destroy homes and buildings, he says. It doesn’t always have to be a disaster, he adds: “A disaster happens when things aren’t planned well.”

Mr. Kilbourn now works as an urban planning designer for Urban Strategies, a Toronto-based firm. And while Toronto isn’t plagued by typhoons, the SFD internship gave him planning skills that he can use in the job, he says.

“It’s so fundamentally important for anyone in the industry to have a sense of doing things differently.” The internship gave him a new point of reference, he adds. “We work on precedent – City A did this, City B did that – and we can learn from that.”

Both Lonnie Embleton and Jed Kilbourn had a chance to revisit their experiences, when they took part in a presentation about SFD to the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies at their annual meeting last November.