REAP (The Rural Education Action Project) was founded in 2007 with a double mission. Social: to provide educational assistance to the rural poor in China, and academic: to address a lack of research into the rural education problem and the impacts of current policy. Since then, it has worked in everything from designing and implementing scholarship programmes and investigating student malnutrition, to assessing the potential of computer-assisted learning in migrant schools. Hearing REAP’s co-director Scott Rozelle speak at TEDx Beijing in February, I was intrigued by REAP’s model: bringing together research and action, and doing so through collaboration with a broad range of actors – not least of which, the Chinese government.
In 2010, a REAP policy brief on the prevalence of intestinal worms amongst schoolchildren in Guizhou province landed on the desk of Liu Yandong, vice premier and politburo in charge of education and health. Liu expressed shock at the findings; over 30% of 1700 students surveyed were infected with worms, and infection often went hand in hand with poor health, low school attendance, and low grades. Her department pledged US$30M to eradicate worms in Guizhou by the end of 2012. In Shaanxi province in 2009, a REAP project looking at the impact of a daily vitamin supplement on anaemia levels and school performance alerted local government to the link between nutrition and education, later evolving into several major policy initiatives.
At both national and provincial levels, collaboration ensured policy take-up. With the country’s top research institution the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) as a partner, REAP gains cachet and privileged access to top officials: it was through the CAS that REAP’s brief arrived in Liu’s hands. With provincial government, early buy-in is key. Officials are invited to serve on a project board of advisors, increasing the chance of endorsement for large-scale implementation and scale-up of successful initiatives. As an external body, REAP can shoulder blame where projects fail, but encourage officials to take credit for success. As Wang Liwei, editor of The Charitarian (a magazine on philanthropy and CSR in China) explains in an article, “In China…one must find the middle ground between maintaining independence, and working with government.” REAP walks that line admirably well.
REAP's 50+ collaborators also include corporations who provide funding, donations or expertise. A $500,000 contribution from Dell, for example, provides a computer-assisted learning programme for 3rd and 5th graders in rural Shaanxi which REAP helps implement and evaluate. Foundation partners aid with implementation, funding, and expertise. REAP facilitates these links, bringing actors together in a “policy action partnership” around the research work at the organisation’s core. Experimental research is guided by expert local opinion, and partnerships with government, foundations and corporate partners allow the move from research, to testing, to policy and finally wide-scale implementation.
There is a long way to go to nudge rural school participation up to urban levels, and entrance to Tsinghua University and its ilk will remain a steep struggle for countryside students. But, drawing his talk to a close, Rozelle finished on an upbeat note; “there is”, he said, “exactly enough time starting now.” The obstacles, in health, in access, in funding, are considerable – but REAP is one amongst others finding steps to overcome them. As China presses forward, many more of us will be watching how they do it.
About Jessica Davies: Jessica is studying Mandarin Chinese in Beijing. Before heading East, she completed her Bachelors in Philosophy & Modern Languages at Oxford, interning with FSG in Geneva during her year abroad. She heads home to the UK this summer to face the classroom from the other side of the desk, as a participant on Teach First.