December 2, 2010

The Barefoot College - a college for the poor, built by the poor

Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy - the founder of the Barefoot College. 
His motto is from Mark Twain: Never let school interfere with your education

Every Year Time Magazine announces the 100 most influental people affecting the world. Sanjit Bunker Roy was named as one of the most important thinkers for 2010.

After receiving an elite, western style education, Roy turned his back on it and started to work with the poor on the ground. He quickly learned that illiteracy was not a barrier to people developing themselves. He was deeply impressed with people's skills. In 1972 he established the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India, a college that gives practical training in self-development skills like solar panel engineering, health training, water tank construction and more. Furthermore, it is a college for the poor, run by the poor. The students admitted usually live on less than one dollar a day; they are most often illiterate or semi-illiterate and only want skills - not degrees. The teachers have no degrees, only know-how. And the student body is mostly made up of middle-aged women and some handicapped men. Roy says:
We've come to the sad conclusion- men are untrainable. They expect too much, they're restless; if they are young, they're impatient - the first thing they ask even before the training starts is 'Do I get a certificate?' They will use that certificate to get the worst job possible in a city, whereas if we take middle-aged grandmothers to be trained, I don't have that problem.

Two barefoot solar engineers at work

The Barefoot concept came from Mao Zedong's barefoot doctors - farmers who were given basic medical training to assist their communities with common illnesses and disease prevention, as the urban-trained doctors would not serve in these areas. Farmers would often work barefoot in the rice paddies, thus the name barefoot doctors.

Roy's philosophy is one of decentralizaton and small-scale:
Small is beautiful; small solutions- inexpensive solutions where it is community managed, community controlled and community owned - this is the most important thing. (...) Anyone who is poor, marginalized, can develop and acquire a technical skill which is very sophisticated - and help their own community.

Not only did Roy gradually develop the feeling that elite educations would not help solve the problems of the poor; he suspected that development bureaucracies lead and run by highly educated people might even be part of the systemic problem of poverty and marginalization. He has written provocative articles on Why the millennium goals won't work and suggested that the millennium goals might be Ending Poverty, But Only on Paper. He criticizes large development budgets basing their activities on urban- or foreign-based experts. For the cost of one UN consultant in Kabul we can train solar engineers and electrify five villages, Roy says, it should shame them.

Click here to see a good - short and concise - PBS program about the college.

Below is an interview with Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy:

For more details about the college see the Barefoot College website:

Click here for an in-depth article about Bunker Roy and the College.

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