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Symposium 2009

Proposal - The Barefoot College

The Challenge

According to the International Labor Organization, income inequality has increased in about two thirds of countries world since the 1990s. The financial crisis and the accompanying global recession ...

According to the International Labor Organization, income inequality has increased in about two thirds of countries world since the 1990s. The financial crisis and the accompanying global recession are expected to widen the gap further between the rich and the poor.

The Barefoot College was established over 38 years ago in the deserts of Rajasthan in India The sole objective was to improve the quality of life of the very poor, the impoverished, the economically and socially marginalised and the physically challenged living on less than $ 1/day and empower them with the skills and the knowledge to stand on their own two feet.

It’s the only College in India built by the poor and only for the poor. Mahatma Gandhi’s thoughts live in the lifestyle and work style of the College. Living conditions are simple so that the poor feel comfortable. Everyone sits, eats and works on the floor. Everyone takes a living wage instead of a market wage.

There is a spiritual dimension in the College because working relationship depends totally on mutual trust, tolerance, patience, compassion, equality and generosity. The idea is to apply the knowledge and skills the poor, the deprived, the neglected, the semiliterate and the impoverished rural poor already possess for their own development thus making them independent and let them live with self respect and dignity.

No one comes to work for the money, power, position or security. However long you stay no one can get more than $ 150/month. The difference between the highest and lowest paid is not more than 1:2. There have been no written contracts for 30 years. Very few people leave because in spite of their incredible skills they are “unemployable” in the eyes of the world. We are so paranoid and misguided about degrees and qualifications supposed to certify capacity and competence.

It has been shown that if the learning and re-learning environment is relaxed, non-structured and informal the rural men and women are capable of wonders. By understanding, respecting and applying traditional skills needed to provide basic needs (drinking water, lighting, education, health, employment, housing) semiliterate and very poor rural men and women have shown they can not only improve their quality of life but also free themselves from exploitation, injustice, discrimination and fear.

The College believes the very poor have every right to have access to, control, manage and own the most sophisticated of technologies to improve their own lives. Just because they cannot read and write there is no reason why the very poor and illiterate men and women cannot be water and solar engineers, designers, communicators, midwives, architects and rural social entrepreneurs. They have shown the impossible is possible and confirmed what Mark Twain said, ”Never Let School interfere with your Education.”

The Gandhian message through the Barefoot College has spread to 13 States all over India and by 2009 will have spread to more than 17 of the Least Developed Countries in Africa.


Innovation in Design: Solutions

The Barefoot College believes one of the keys to minimizing of human suffering is in the hands of the impoverished rural women strong enough and confident enough to shape their own destiny. Over the last 15 years hundreds of illiterate and semi-literate rural women have been trained in non-traditional occupations changing the lifestyle and mindset of village India in several States all over the country. They have been trained as barefoot solar engineers, hand pump mechanics, designers, architects, masons (for rainwater harvesting), teachers, doctors, weavers, computer programmers and political leaders fighting for their rights for minimum wages.

When the ideas, knowledge and skills of the marginalised poor are used their own development and up liftment that’s the first step towards confidence building (against capacity building) developing self esteem and reducing the dependency on long term hand outs from outside. Eventually the dream is one day they stand on their own feet and face the world as human beings.

What is innovative is that the Barefoot College has given priority to the ideas and thoughts as the rural poor see as important-and respect their wishes. For instance the poor see very little value and relevance to paper degree and qualifications from formal Colleges and Universities. The importance and respect they give to their own traditional knowledge, skills and practical wisdom and keeping the oral tradition alive from father to son is deep rooted and cannot be replaced. Much of the focus of the Barefoot College has been to “educate” men, women and children living in remote villages all over India to be aware of this precious resource so that eventually they stay in their villages and not migrate to cities living in slums.

It is also the main reason why the College gives no importance to “urban” experts with paper degrees and qualifications. In fact it is disqualification if the person with a degree wants to come and work in the College!

What is yet another innovation the Barefoot College has demonstrated in practice is building the confidence and competence of very poor people-the barefoot educators , not just teachers – by training them to provide a service to their own community thus making them as self reliant rural possible. Over the last 30 years several thousand poor young unemployed and unemployable rural youth, both men and women, have been trained s barefoot professionals.

Thus barefoot educators-doctors, night school teachers, solar engineers, water drillers, architects, designers, midwives masons, communicators, hand pump mechanics, computer programmes and accountants by the thousands have passed through the College. They have demonstrated that “experts” with paper qualifications are really NOT required to alleviate human suffering in villages if the goal is to make them self sufficient and sustainable.


“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.” Mahatma Gandhi

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