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Charito's Crusade

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Head of Creative Associates Transforms War-Torn World

There is a painting in the conference room at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Creative Associates International, Inc. (CAII) depicting a woman releasing a dove into the air. It is a fitting portrait for the international professional and technical services firm, which is owned and managed by women whose mission is to bring peace to families in war-ravaged areas around the world and to help build viable democratic societies in countries historically riddled by tyranny and conflict.

M. Charito Kruvant, a native of Bolivia and a naturalized American citizen, is the founder, president and chief executive officer of Creative Associates. After receiving her master’s degree in early childhood development and teaching in bilingual settings in the United States, Kruvant was talking with three academic colleagues when the idea of the firm came up in 1977.

“We came from very different backgrounds,” she said of the founders group, which included Mimi Tse, Creative’s vice president and chief financial officer. “We wanted to be self-sufficient and independent. It was not really the norm for women at that time. Not only did we want to have a job, but we wanted the opportunity to be known as professionals.”

The group established the private, for-profit firm to address the educational needs of women and children in “vulnerable communities.” But they determined that the larger crises of war, poverty and oppression had to be tackled before family problems could be addressed. So Kruvant and her colleagues began to study war and conflict, trying to find ways to promote peace and understanding. The resulting strategies combined research and fieldwork to help societies and communities rise above conflict and respond to basic needs.

“We knew how difficult it is to live in conflict and how societies and families are torn by that,” Kruvant said. “We wanted to be agents of change and promoters of peace, and we realized that if we were going to be agents of transformation, we needed to be in the midst of conflict and be able to talk to those who are in the midst of war.”

Kruvant herself became acquainted with conflict at an early age. Bolivia was in the middle of a civil war when she was born into what she describes as a close-knit family. Despite feeling secure in her family, “I was very aware of shootings, bombs and people dying in the street.” Because of the violence, Kruvant’s family fled to Argentina, where she pursued academic studies in the field of early childhood development.

Creative Associates became an international firm in 1979 and quickly gained a reputation for technical excellence. Since its inception, the firm—which now has 12 offices worldwide—has completed more than 400 contracts for various educational and technical support projects in nearly 70 countries.

Kruvant put together an exceptional team of experts in a wide variety of disciplines both in the United States and abroad and became a leading contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In addition to USAID, Creative’s clients have included the U.S. State and Defense Departments, the Organization of American States, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and U.N. Children’s Fund, U.S. Peace Corps and the World Bank.

Creative’s projects include HIV awareness and prevention programs in Africa; helping to reintegrate former gang members into society in Guatemala; training teachers, developing curricula and procuring textbooks in Afghanistan and Iraq; combating child labor in Panama; and decreasing human trafficking, particularly of young women, in Albania.

Projects in other parts of the world assist with election and other political processes, rebuilding physical infrastructures, and providing accelerated learning for young adults whose schooling has been interrupted by war or hardship. Recently, Creative established the Center for Security and Stabilization (C2S2), which seeks ways to better stabilize security while meeting humanitarian needs in conflict and post-conflict areas.

Kruvant believes that strengthening families and meeting local needs are central to the development of peaceful societies in war-torn areas. “Families that care for each other succeed. Research tells us that what mom says matters most to children and what dad does matters most, so when we are engaged in a project, we focus on the needs of the locality first,” Kruvant explained. “If a man we have trained needs to report to work at the local factory, a priority is to make sure he gets to work each morning on time. While we are mindful of the big picture regarding the national needs for education and capacity building, the first order of business is to make sure local needs are met. Solutions must be local.”

Kruvant, who said she enjoys taking risks, has experienced a few during her prominent professional life. In the 1980s, she was sent on a U.S. government-sponsored mission into the jungles of Honduras to persuade the Contra rebels to lay down their arms against the Sandinistas. Those initial meetings with the rebels in their Honduran retreat were tense. “The young men just sat and stared at us. They were tough,” she recalled.

“When Congress voted to stop aid to the Contras, we bid and won a project to reintegrate them into post-war society,” Kruvant said. “We told them [the rebels] that if they wanted change in their country, they had to figure out how to do so non-militarily or else the U.S. would provide no more aid.”

She added: “These young men were illiterate but they had discipline and could follow orders. That discipline was crucial to our mission. This was more than an educational program. It was a program that envisioned what peace means to them.

“The program involved transferring the skills of war to the skills of peace,” Kruvant continued. “It takes a long time and requires much patience. Throughout our years, we have learned about the horrors of war and also about what it takes to create a viable civil society. People everywhere first need to feel secure, next they need good health, and then they need education and training—and all this within the context of the rule of law. You cannot impose that on a society. You start by identifying the leaders and then helping to create a space for them to make their own decisions.”

Making their own decisions was also new to blacks in post-Apartheid South Africa. Kruvant and her staff met many times with black national and community leaders to help them develop the foundations of a new civil and social infrastructure. “I saw myself as a person of color and therefore had something vital in common with them,” Kruvant said. “We had respect for their having been oppressed.”

At first, the meetings with the black leaders were difficult, “but in time we got them to see that the social and civil opportunities we were helping them to create for themselves would be for the benefit of their children.”

When asked which project she is most proud of, Kruvant cited the firm’s Afghanistan Primary Education Program, or APEP, funded by USAID. “Girls historically forbidden to receive an education are going to school,” Kruvant said. “A lot of girls they were illiterate and some were home-schooled. We worked with local communities, including some mullahs, to support education for girls and to break the process of fourth-century life. The project is also educating young boys, many of whom have been maimed by land mines that litter the countryside.”

In Afghanistan, where merely walking to school is an act of courage, girls and boys show an indomitable spirit and enthusiasm for learning—as demonstrated by a streaming video on Creative’s Web site. In the clip, the youngsters are asked what they want to be when they grow up. “I want to be a doctor,” said one proudly. “I want to be a pharmacist,” declared another. A third said she wanted to be a politician.

Kruvant has worked as a contributing author to books on childhood development and corporate social responsibility and has been a frequent lecturer at graduate schools around the country. From 1996 to 2000, she served as an emergency schools trustee after the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority’s Board took power from the city’s elected school board. She also chaired the advisory board of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s D.C. office and has served on the boards of at least half a dozen other organizations.

According to Kruvant, a good education starts with the basics, which lead to the ability to inquire. “It involves building on the innate human yearning to discover, to get new knowledge, to analyze and assimilate new information. Sadly, many school systems around the world don’t do this. One of the key questions we ask when we work with people at the local level is, ‘Should we change the educational system or create new opportunities for learning different from traditional ways?’ By that I mean community-based learning as opposed to traditional ways,” Kruvant said.

“We have learned in our teacher training programs that the first priority is the teaching of basic skills starting with the ability to read,” she added. “From there our experience suggests that people want and need to make choices for themselves. A cookie-cutter approach to teaching is not effective. If a child has a preference for learning through visuals, shouldn’t we teach him or her through that method? If a child learns better auditorily, then that approach works best.”

In Iraq, the firm—working with the country’s Ministry of Education, USAID and nongovernmental organizations—has trained more than 70,000 teachers, rehabilitated 76 schools, and provided textbooks and other classroom materials. “We are helping the Iraqis return to the days when it had the best education system in the Arab world,” Kruvant noted.

And to critics who want instant solutions, she counters: “Problems in the world are often a lot more complex than many people realize. We need to acknowledge this complexity and to have patience.”

Addressing the urgent need for more women to assume leadership roles in the world, Kruvant observed: “The way women process information and negotiate is different from men. Women are more verbal and their instincts are different. They are more inclined to engage in an open form of politics. One of the most important areas of our work is to not only identify leaders, but to redefine what it means to be a leader.”

Moreover, it is important to remember that tomorrow’s leaders are today’s children. “The future of the world is in the hands of our children—not just in the environments where we implement programs, but in the United States. And it is absolutely critical that we look after them well,” Kruvant said. “The power of democracy allows us to make choices and if something is harming a child, like the constant sexuality being bombarded on our children through television, then we must speak up, particularly women. Anything that harms a child is wrong.”

About the Author

Alan B. Nichols is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999