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More Than a Neighborly Gesture

Massive financial assistance from Romania has not only led to the renovation of hundreds of kindergartens in Moldova, dampening a major reason for emigration, but also imported best practices in local financial management.

by Madalin Necsutu and Ilie Gulca 8 August 2018

“The plaster was falling off, revealing naked walls. The ceilings were leaking in almost every room,” says Gheorghina Anghenie, the principal of a kindergarten in Sadova, a village in the Calarasi district in central Moldova. “It was very cold – the central heating couldn’t efficiently heat the entire building.”


Her tale is not an isolated case, as throughout Moldova, a poor country of 3 million in Eastern Europe, the working conditions in many kindergartens have been jeopardizing the health of the children, their teachers, and the rest of their employees for years.


Until recently, such risks and the general poor state of educational infrastructure throughout the country were significant factors contributing to massive emigration – one of the highest rates in the world. According to official statistics, 60 percent of those who leave are part of the active population under 30. While it is impossible to survey all of those departing the country, anecdotally, the greatest part of those who leave do so thinking of a better life, including better perspectives that come from quality education for their children.


Moldovan authorities have invested in educational infrastructure over the last dozen years or so. Such efforts have raised the number of children enrolled in preschool education dramatically, but their efforts were still not enough to create enough space for all those who should be enrolled, nor to ensure decent conditions for those who managed to find a space. The repairs inside the kindergartens were sporadic, and the parents had to pay for them – while watching the share of the national budget’s allowance for education gradually decline, from 19.42 percent in 2007, to 18.77 in 2015.


That downward trend took place at the same time as more research was demonstrating that just the opposite was needed if the Moldovan economy is to ever hope to rebound. The 2000 Economic Sciences Nobel prize winner, James Heckman wrote in a 2012 study that states trying to reduce their deficits and consolidate their economies should make significant investments in early childhood education.


“The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, from birth through age five, in disadvantaged families. Starting at age three or four is too little too late, as it fails to recognize that skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way,” the American economist wrote. He added that efforts should focus on the first years of life in order to achieve maximum efficiency. “The best investment is in quality early childhood development from birth to [age] five for disadvantaged children and their families.”


A Helping Hand


In 2014, help came from the outside. The Romanian government offered a three-part grant of a total value of about 27 million euros ($32 million), meant to refurbish the network of preschool institutions. And over the past four years, that is precisely what has happened: 940 kindergartens out of the 1,469 early education institutions were repaired and supplied with furniture and other goods. Many also received new heating systems, an initiative that received support from other European countries, including Germany.


Liuba Cuznetova. Photo taken by Ilie Gulca.


“If before some children were freezing cold, nowadays they can study in normal conditions,” said Liuba Cuznetova, deputy director at the Moldovan Social Investments Fund (FISM), which manages the funds provided by external donors for projects within the country.


The impact has been dramatic. According to the FISM, more than 200 new classes have emerged by this point (with 90 percent of the project done); that translates into places for more than 5,000 children. Most rural kindergartens in Moldova have about 80 children enrolled, as such, 5,000 new spots for children mean more than 60 newly built or rebuilt kindergartens, many of which had been closed because of dire conditions.  


Along the way, difficult choices had to be made about which kindergardens to rebuild and which not. More than half of the rural settlements in Moldova, hit by the lack of financing from the state and ravaged by depopulation, wither away and gravitate toward those villages that have managed to access investment.


Daniel Ionita, Romanian ambassador to Moldova, and Mircea Esanu, executive head of the Moldovan Social Investments Fund FISM. Photo courtesy of FISM.

“Children from neighboring villages go to schools that have their toilets outside, and no bathrooms. Parents from those villages have to bring their children to us, and thus the free spots in classrooms get filled,” said Victor Stana, mayor of Gura Galbenei, which acts as a magnet for nearby towns without developed infrastructure.


The beneficiaries of funding were thus preschool institutions from villages with demographic potential, an improvement over past practices when the authorities repaired some kindergartens, only to see them abandoned for lack of students.


“The investments were done in areas with a certain number of children and requests from parents, where there were no conditions at the required standards. Those were the starting points,” said the Romanian ambassador to Moldova, Daniel Ionita.


Side Benefits Galore


The gains of the schools project for Moldova have gone far beyond the noble goal of refurbishing delapidated buildings to educate more children in better conditions. The FISM, in cooperation with the donor, decided to use the opportunity to import good European practices in the fields of acquisitions, monitoring of infrastructure development projects, and efficient administration of external financial assistance. The local authorities have developed their abilities to organize transparent tenders and manage investment contracts, as well as to evaluate the execution of works – rare skills in a country consumed by endemic corruption.


FISM representatives have traveled from village to village, explaining the benefits of the kindergarten repair program. A verification council – whose members included mayors, kindergarten employees, parents, and activists – was created in every village, another key part of the attempt to eliminate opportunities for graft.


“Around 2,500 people were instructed in how to organize tenders and to manage contracts. This was, most of all, an investment in people,” said Cuznetova, from the FISM. “These people also sign the contracts, and the expense reports. It is important that they should know the price of works, and act as a local watchdog.”


Past experiences had shown that many initiatives had failed because ownership wasn’t assumed locally. With the communities contributing their own funds, the buildings are less likely to fall into disrepair, Cuzentova added.


The inauguration of the kindergarten in Gura Galbenei, 29 November 2016. Mayor Victor Stana and Romanian Ambassador to Moldova Daniel Ionita. Photo courtesy of FISM.

“By creating these local councils, our goal was to create local-level responsibility. Besides, it was a way to mobilize the community, which contributed with some of its own money,” Ambassador Ionita added.


One town where the impact of the rebuilding efforts is very visible is Sadova, official population around 2,500. In reality, the number of inhabitants is probably close to half that.


“The situation is quite hard in Sadova,” says its mayor, Vladimir Susarenco. “If in the beginning the first to leave were those who needed financial means to finish some building projects around the house, or to organize a wedding, now the ones to leave are parents, and they are taking their children along with them,” he said.


Renovating the kindergarten was, among other things, an attempt to give those families some motivation to stay. The Romanian funds, funneled through the FISM, provided 1.6 million lei (82,000 euros) to repair the roof and refurbish the interiorn, and the local Romanian embassy also made sure that the school would have enough furniture for the kitchens and sleeping areas.


But the upgrade attracted not only local children, but those from nearby areas since Sadova, as one of the most developed towns in the area, serves as a magnet for people from neighboring villages looking for work. With the expanded capacity of the kindergartens after the renovation, the children of seasonal laborers could attend as well.


“Even if these families are only here temporarily, they would also bring their children along. This way, we have a large number of children in spring and in summer,” the mayor says.


The Sadova kindergarten. Photo taken by Ilie Gulca.


Anghenie, the school principal, said that this could lead to an increase in the total number of children, allowing for up to 10 or 12 newcomers. “We don’t treat these children differently. What’s important is that their parents pay the fee for the food – otherwise there is no problem,” she added.


As elsewhere, the FISM required a 15 percent local contribution to the repairs, which the inhabitants of Sadova managed to cobble together. The regional council also chipped in to cover the cost of the new roof. “It’s hard to raise that money from the locals, but you should know that the people are open [to the idea],” Susarenco, the mayor, said.


The net result, said Anghenie, the kindergarten’s principal, is a facility where the children have everything they need: heating, food, and good schooling, given that all the teachers are university educated.


“The parents know that the Sadova kindergarten has been renovated with funds from Romania, because we announced it, held meetings. Those who didn’t know before found out last summer, once the kindergarten was inaugurated,” Anghenie said.


Jumping on the Bandwagon


Perhaps the country’s president, Sadova’s most famous “native son,” felt left out of the impending celebration. Shortly before the official inauguration of the kindergarten repaired with funds from the Romanian government, Dodon contributed personally to set up a playground. According to the mayor, the president donated 50,000 lei of his personal funds.


Dodon’s gesture is hardly unique, as some politicians demonstratively allocate funds to chosen schools in a rather populist way, says Anatol Gremalschi, an expert on education who is program director at the Public Policy Institute in Chisinau, an independent think tank  


“All the ruling parties have targeted this segment of the population,” he says. “This is a catchy thing to do in order to attract voters. It’s spectacular and pleasant.”


The inauguration of the Sadova kindergarten. From right to left: Liuba Kuznetova, Moldovan President Igor Dodon, Romanian Ambassador to Moldova Daniel Ionita, and Sadova mayor Vladimir Susarenco. Photo taken by Ilie Gulca.


“Any help is welcome,” said Susarenco, the mayor, countering complaints that Dodon’s main impulse was to burnish his image in an area where he grew up. “And he also studied in this kindergarten. The color of the cat doesn’t matter, as long as it catches mice.” More important than Dodon’s single contribution is that the first lady, Galina Dodon, soon instructed her charitable foundation help kindergarten-age children with school supplies and other goods necessary for educational activities.


The conditions of the kindergarten in Gura Galbenei were even direr than in Sadova, and, once again, it was the Romanian funds that saved the building from being demolished.

“The kindergarten was kept running for 30 years, but stopped working in 1992,” said the local mayor, Victor Stana. “The entire community lost any hope that it would ever be repaired. It seemed that it could not be repaired even with the help of God.”


Here, in Gura Galbenei, the help from Romania was massive. No less than 3.8 million lei brought the building up to modern working standards. At present, 74 children, divided into three groups, attend the kindergarten, which has toilets and bathrooms for each classroom. The renovation also created at least 15 long-term workplaces, as well as additional jobs for the seasonal workers who were involved in this project.


“When we walked down the road and looked at the kindergarten, we would see it melting like a candle,” says the principal of the renovated kindergarten, Natalia Marin. “Nobody cared. Now, thank God, we have a European kindergarten.


“At the inauguration the children were not the only ones who were enthusiastic, but we were also looking at it and saying: ‘God, this is so beautiful!’ ” said Marin. “We were comparing the way it was before, and how it came back to life. The spirit of the children, their noise brings life back to the village. The parents are also very happy.”


A Reason to Return


To some extent, Stana, the mayor, said, the repair of the kindergarten has contributed to the return of parents working abroad. “Around the year 2000, the village of Gura Galbenei was a champion for international departures, with 3,000 people leaving within two years,” he said.


Things have changed, however. “The best professors, doctors, young people left, and came back after five or 10 years, making families whole again, and leading to the creation of new workplaces,” the mayor said.


Marin agreed. “A lady who went to work in Israel came home recently, and wrote a request to enroll her child in the kindergarten,” she said. “More and more people are coming home. They prefer to come back to Gura Galbenei because we have new jobs, we have a kindergarten, a health center, and a high school. We have no reasons to look for a better life elsewhere.”


The Tvardita kindergarten. Photo taken by Ilie Gulca.


Some of Moldova's many ethnic minorities have also benefited from the Romanian-funded program, such as in the town of Tvardita, in the Taraclia of southern Moldova, which has a population of 5,400, most of them ethnic Bulgarians. The town has two kindergartens.


Kindergarten Number One had operated in a 100-year-old house, which had been turned into a school and functioned there from 1956 until 2016. With 800,000 lei in funds from the Romanian government, the school moved into a large building that had belonged to a medical clinic. Each class now has separate bathrooms and sleeping areas, as well as new furniture, and the school has a modern infirmary and kitchen, principal Elena Savrieva said.


The kindergarten currently has four classes comprised of 85 children in total, including one preparing 25 children for elementary school, an option that didn’t exist before. The institution has 20 employees: seven teachers, a music teacher, a speech therapist, a teacher of Romanian and Bulgarian languages, two cooks, and auxiliary staff.


After the repairs, the kindergarten can school up to 100 children, and the teachers can start to work full-time. “We will receive children starting from the age of two and a half. Nowadays there is this tendency, the parents are young and want to work,” Savrieva said. “We didn’t have enough room for children, now, thank God, we do. We will receive some more children, there is demand.”


Savrieva said she couldn’t recall any cases of people in the town or surrounding region going to work abroad and taking their children with them, “Those who leave are unmarried, and don’t have children, and they are usually young, so they leave and come back. Our town has the necessary infrastructure,” she said.


Still a Ways to Go


The Ministry of Education couldn’t provide exact figures of just how much the approximately 5,000 spots created through the Romanian funds had increased the percentages of preschool children now enrolled in early education institutions. But the program has clearly added to a rising trend.


In 2006, more than half of all children aged one to six were not enrolled in preschool education (56.7 percent of the children in the countryside, and 32 percent in the cities). Now the degree of enrollment for children is of 65.3 percent, according to figures offered by the Ministry of Education.


While the progress is impressive, the percentage was low to start with, and shows that one third of all children are still out of the system. And, Gremalschi says, the Romanian-funded program ends in 2019, so the authorities will need to rely again mainly on state funds, while also needing to invest in the infrastructure for secondary schools. “In order to continue this strategy, we have to invest also in teachers. We need professional educators. The methods from the past century do not work anymore,” he said.        


He advised taking immediate measures to invest in the education, which would have positive repercussions on the mass exodus of the population. “To some extent, investment in preschool institutions creates a certain incentive for young families to remain in Moldova,” Gremalschi added.


If the authorities need someone who can epitomize such benefits, they need look no further than Vera Dron, a woman from Gura Galbenei, one of the villages detailed above. With limited possibilities to earn a decent living there, she left as a young woman for Israel in 2011, cleaning houses for seven years.


During her time abroad, Dron gave birth to a child. “It’s was very hard to find a suitable kindergarten there, because they are very expensive,” she said.


“After finding out that the kindergarten I’ve been to is undergoing repairs, I decided to come back home with my child,” she continued. “It’s good for children to go to the same kindergartens that they parents went to. Especially given that now, after the repairs, our kindergarten is just like the one in Israel.”

Ilie Gulca is deputy chief editor at the newspaper JURNAL de Chisinau, where he has worked as an editor since 2009. He has also participated in many journalistic investigations, including into illegal arms exports and illicit energy deals. Madalin Necsutu is the editor in chief of the Moldovan edition of the Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei and has been the Balkan Insight correspondent for Moldova since 2017. He has been awarded for his political and investigative stories in Romania and Moldova by the European Commission and UNDP.

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