Barefoot evangelist who helps the poor pull themselves up by their own bootstraps

April 21, 2006

'Bunker' Roy has preached 'people's' solutions to help the impoverished learn and earn for more than 30 years. Sara Wajid met the darling of the social entrepreneurs.

At Barefoot College in rural India, the internet cafe is housed in a mud hut. So far, so twee. But the hut is a geodesic dome designed by American maverick architect Buckminster Fuller. The extra postmodern layer in the joke makes all the difference, and Sanjit "Bunker" Roy, founder of the Barefoot College, has plenty more where that came from.

Roy is the darling of the social entrepreneurship movement, which seems a bit odd given that his life's work is ostensibly based on Gandhian principles. He has won the World Technology Award for Social Entrepreneurship, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs award and he was a keynote speaker at last month's Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

A passion for technology and a pioneering spirit marks the social entrepreneurship brigade. Many of these philanthropists made their fortunes in the dotcom boom - Geoff Skoll of the Skoll Foundation was the force behind eBay - and they like to fund projects that reflect their values. The blurb for the forum reads: "The social sector is approaching a tipping point. All around the world, societies are bringing the dynamism and pursuit of effectiveness to social development that has more typically thrived in commerce." The discourse is more Richard Branson than Gandhi.

So it's easy to see why Skoll supports Roy and Barefoot College. In 1972, Roy moved to Tilonia, a village in Rajasthan, one of India's poorest and driest states, and set about uplifting the inhabitants by training them in the practical application of technology such as solar electricity and rainwater harvesting.

Whatever the grammar of this strange new language, Roy is fluent in it and knows how to woo the social entrepreneur crowd as well as politicians, philanthropists and royalty (Prince Charles is a huge fan). Roy's PowerPoint presentation at the forum included a slide of traditional artisans making papier-mche puppets out of recycled World Bank reports.

The Armani-clad delegates at Oxford University's Said Business School lapped it up. But it is not a gimmick, Roy insists, they really do use the redundant reports. "People have said Barefoot is a brand, but that's a gut instinct on our part, not a deliberate or manipulative thing."

Roy uses terms such as "instinct" and "common sense" a lot. After working and living with the illiterate rural poor for more than 30 years, he has little faith in formal education and "paper qualifications". "At Barefoot, we have a practical base - the endorsement of what you have learnt is given by the community. If you run a school where there is 100 per cent attendance of children who have dropped out (of formal education), this is a good endorsement. Also, the Barefoot approach is replicable. It takes just a little input to make a 'dropout' a productive, responsible member of society."

Roy also has little faith in deskbound development officials. In a recent article, he urged the out-of-touch officials who drew up the Millennium Development Goals to put aside their bureaucratic obsessions. "Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger does not need indicators and databases. Only intellectual activists who have no idea how to reach the very poor need that.

"With 60 per cent of the poorest rural children not going to school in the morning because they have to help with domestic chores, far from being a solution, the development report offers only a demonstration of an inability to think outside the box. But there's a common-sense people's solution - have school at night. Few government teachers sleep in villages.

So train literate but unemployed rural youth as part-time 'barefoot'

teachers by the thousands all over the world to run night schools."

Roy believes that training the rural poor in useful practical skills is the key to sustainable growth and that top-down approaches to poverty can only fail. "More needs to be learnt and unlearnt from the growing corps of social entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs are the new activists, but because they live and work with poor communities, driving change from the bottom upwards, their solutions to poverty are often simple, practical and rooted in traditional forms of working."

He is incredibly persuasive, making it all sound so simple. But the results are convincing. "Barefoot technologists" have used solar power to electrify several thousand houses in eight Indian states and have installed hand pumps in the Himalayas; "barefoot architects" and masons built the college, which runs on solar power. To date, 15,000 boys and girls have attended more than 150 Barefoot-run night schools.

So why isn't everyone doing it? And how radical is this ideology? Isn't there a conservative strain of anti-intellectualism at work in the Barefoot approach? Even if an impoverished semi-literate rural woman can be trained to become a "barefoot solar engineer" in six months, the panels she will use were invented by a "paper-qualified" engineer somewhere else through the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake.

Roy says: "We stress strongly that any technology that can be managed and controlled by the people should be the technology we disseminate. Any technology that creates dependency, deprives people of jobs or harms the environment is not for us at Barefoot. So solar energy and rainwater harvesting was ideal for us - this is people's knowledge, hundreds of years old, that has not been adopted by the engineering fraternity at large because there is no money it. It does not lead to dependence on the engineer."

"Of course the rural poor have a right to choose which approach or method is best for them; but those in the development field have not given the rural poor a choice, and Barefoot does. Knowledge for knowledge's sake does not get you anywhere at the level at which it matters, where the poor are trying to raise their quality of life. Education is about giving people choices."

Roy says the secret of Barefoot's success is respect for and faith in rural people's knowledge, self-reliance and private initiative. But he readily admits that he is a product of "a very elitist urban background" (he was schooled at The Doon School and St Stephen's College, Delhi) and that his peers from that time are ambassadors and suchlike. Perhaps his social and cultural capital, accrued through old-fashioned class privilege, is a key ingredient in the Barefoot project. The ability to woo men in power is based on the ability to relate to them, to make them laugh with jokes about Buckminster Fuller. At the core of the Social Work and Research Centre that spawned Barefoot were students from top Indian universities.

Roy plays down the importance of paper-qualified cultural capital and defends Barefoot's radical credentials. "Starting a school is a political act, as is putting a solar panel on your roof or the location of a rainwater harvesting tank. It may look like social work, but we are dabbling in the political process by having an input that makes a difference and that changes people's minds. Questioning is built into the process.

"Having Barefoot teachers running schools gets me into trouble with the teaching fraternity. They say: 'Where's this chap's qualifications? This is illegal.' But I say: 'Don't get hung up on his lack of a degree; see how he handles the kids and look at his compassion.'

"People with the baggage of formal education can be harmful in the village as they often look down on the poor. The mindset is that if you have had a 'good education', you do not come back to the village because that makes you a failure. When you ask rural women why they want their sons to go to the city for a higher education they say, 'Because he might become a judge one day.' But the jobs are not there, and so we have hundreds of thousands of security guards with degrees living in slums in the city rather than returning to the village.

"I advise people to get a functional education, enough reading and writing not to get tricked by the money lender and then come back to the village."

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