A quiet but sure revolution in sustainable development has been underway for the last 35 years in India's desert state of Rajasthan, where a new model of rural empowerment and education has taken form in the so-called Barefoot College, an alternative, community-based learning centre that trains rural citizens in the practical training programs for solar engineering, rainwater harvesting, computer programming, midwifery and even photography.
Founded in Tilonia, Rajasthan in 1972, the driving idea behind Barefoot College is to demonstrate that the key to alleviating rural poverty lies within communities themselves and do not necessarily come from urban professionals, government intervention or big foreign aid packages — it is grassroots and cooperative innovation at its finest. Already, the Barefoot model has been brought to other places such as Africa, Afghanistan and other far-flung places in India where "western" development models have a hard time taking root. In India alone there are already 20 such independent centres modeled on the original.There are no certificates, degrees or deadlines in Barefoot's informal learning environment. "The idea is to use local wisdom before we involve expertise from outside," says 60-year-old founder Sanjit Bunker Roy. "In development there are no experts — only resource persons."
Villages all over India send disadvantaged members — typically women — to attend the college, where they receive a small stipend to learn skills that can be contributed back to the community to increase technical and financial self-reliance.
These students are the protagonists in these small success stories of empowerment: women who were once maids or labourers learn to fabricate, wire and set up solar energy systems for not only their villages but surrounding communities as well, earning extra income and respect. Barefoot College's own rainwater harvesting program led to the building of 1,000 similar systems in 17 Indian states, benefiting 220,000 people. The college was instrumental in setting up over 200 rural health centres where health workers can provide preventative care and education — and the list goes on.
Another goal of Roy's is to promote universal primary education in rural areas without relying on the formal system alone: "It destroys initiative and creativity Encourage private initiative without commercializing education. Give private initiative more responsibility, more space, more freedom." To this end, Tilonia has set up a children's parliament where an elected body of girls and boys aged between 10 to 14 years make sure that the schools are properly run — an innovative step to better child-empowerment.
The Barefoot model offers a contrast to big initiatives such as the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which offers an enormous global scope for reducing poverty but lacks the hands-on, bottom-up, community-driven approaches proven by Barefoot College for the last three decades.
Of course, the Barefoot methodologies are more time-intensive and may reach fewer people in the short-term, but as Brenda McSweeney, a former top official for India's UN Development Program who worked with Roy, puts it: "On the people's-empowerment front, Bunker's model is unbeatable. There was an enormous sense of dignity among the people."
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