Records and Life in the Third World

I was in Africa recently, in the country of Sénégal in a little town called Guéoul. I wasn’t there on business, or more accurately, I wasn’t there on my normal business. I volunteer for a nongovernmental organization that tries to keep young girls from poor families in school.

Guéoul looks very much like your stereotypical third world town. It’s dusty and the infrastructure is pretty primitive – or nonexistent – by Western standards. The schools our students learn in are very much the same, and would no doubt very accurately match any stereotype you might have about third world schools. And when you’re walking down the street to go to the school, you’re dodging chickens and goats and donkeys, and kicking up a lot of the aforesaid dust.

All in all, it’s not the sort of place where you imagine that recordkeeping is going to be terribly important. And although I’ve been there a number of times over the past 10 years or so, that’s sort of what I tend to think too. But it’s completely wrong. Complete and accurate record keeping, and appropriate retention of those records turns out to be as critical in a dusty little town on the edge of the Sahara desert as it does in the middle of a gleaming first world metropolis.

image2The reason I’m in Guéoul, the reason there is an NGO, the reason I go over there every year, is to make sure that 110 or so girls stay in school and have academic success. I sit there and act like a big shot and preside over a lot of meetings with local teachers and administrators and parents and community leaders, but at the end of the day, if we want to see how our students are doing, we go to the records made by their teachers.

We’ve recently begun an initiative to track the progress of our program over time, because over the years we’ve tried to improve our program by giving our students tutoring and classes and other programs outside of normal classroom situations, in order to improve their academic standing and success. We’d like to know if, over the years, that’s made a difference for our students. That’s important, because students from poor families typically are not strong academic performers in any country.

So, in order to find all of this out, we need records. Not just records for our students, but records for all students so we can compare the performance of our students against their peers. And since we’re doing a study that ideally encompasses the full 10 years of our program we need 10 years worth of grades.

So, I found myself in a whole series of meetings talking about records, and the content of those records, and how far back those records are being kept, and where they are located, and how access to them might be gained, and under what circumstances. All in all, it was much like any other project I have participated in, except that the costumes were a bit more exotic.

And all of this got me to thinimage1king about how critical records are in people’s lives. If our program works as intended, it will dramatically change the prospects and ultimately the lives of the young girls who participate in it. But at the end of the day, we can’t know if it works, and we can’t make any adjustments we might need to make if we don’t have good records by which to judge ourselves, and the progress of our program and our students. When you become involved in a situation like this, you really start to see records and recordkeeping in a different light than sometimes we do in the normal course of our work. They are not a burden to be eliminated or a problem to be solved. Records are, in the final analysis, our memory, and without that memory we cannot identify and correct our mistakes and weaknesses, nor can we understand the course of our own progress. And without those things, we can never move forward. And this is true, not only in in the little town of Guéoul, but everywhere else as well.

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