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The Barefoot Approach Beyond India
Sarah Rich, 26 Mar 07
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This week we're running a bit of a theme around NGOs, activism and grassroots movement building. We thought we'd begin with one of the great, well-established NGOs working in sustainable development in India, and now reaching their influence well beyond.

We've long held Barefoot College in high esteem as a model for teaching invaluable skills toward sustainable development and poverty alleviation to the rural poor (the "barefoot") of Rajasthan and surrounding regions. As a reader shared with us a few years back after his visit to the campus in Tilonia, "It is a living example of local people using their own skills to meet their own needs and manage their own resources."

The structure of the education at the Barefoot College revolves around skill-building, particularly in the area of architecture and engineering, turning out capable professionals who may not be able to read or write, but can offer know-how to meet their communities' needs in a sustainable, inexpensive and locally-appropriate manner. Founded thirty-five years ago by visionary leader, Bunker Roy, the college itself was built entirely by barefoot architects, and the campus runs on 100% solar.

Conventional installation and maintenance of electrical technology doesn't work in remote villages as it can in cities. Barefoot College began where access was most limited and worked their way in. Since 1990, according to Roy, they have solar-electrified about 500 villages and brought light to 100,000 people who will not get electricity from a grid for decades to come. They have equipped village midwives with solar lanterns for safe night deliveries. The college also works towards women's empowerment by offering nontraditional skills such as masonry, handpump repair, and water tank construction.

In their underground water tanks, Barefoot College can collect and store millions of liters of the extremely infrequent Rajasthan rain. The long-range goal of Barefoot College, says Roy, is to create hundreds of financially- and technologically self-sufficient solar-electric villages within his (and our) lifetime.

One way they are accelerating progress towards this goal is by hosting small groups of villagers from outside India, coming to Tilonia from Afghanistan, Bolivia, Cameroon, Mali, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia, for intensive skills education. They can then return to their home countries to take on improvement projects in their own villages. A group from Sierra Leone's Safer Future Youth Development Project learned to build rooftop rainwater harvesting systems and returned to install them in local schools. (A PDF of photo documentation can be downloaded here.)

With the students from Afghanistan, Barefoot College made a documentary film, The Ordinary Heroes of Afghanistan on a grant from the Skoll Foundation:

As the film documents, the Barefoot College organized five remote Afghani villages to select 10 representatives to become Barefoot Solar Engineers, brought them to India for six months of training, and purchased and transported solar panels to solar electrify the villages for five years, all for less than the cost of hiring one UN or World Bank Consultant in Kabul for one year.

See excerpted clips from Bunker Roy's talk at the documentary premier here.

With more than three decades under its belt, and so many thousands of people served by the benefits of sustainable technology, Barefoot College is an incredible testament to the potential speed and power of change facilitated by the very people who need it. As they gain the means to host even more students from Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East, hopefully Bunker Roy's vision will come to be, and villages everywhere will gain access to light from the sun and clean water from harvested rain.

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It's wonderful to hear this since I just returned from Venezuela and witness on a small scale how this works. Muhammad Yunus' book, "Banker to the Poor" was my last read and I was very happy to see, with my own eyes, micro-financing implemented in Venezuela. Between access to reasonable loans and adult education programs, I met with many Venezuelans who had started coops together to pull themselves out of poverty, and often times, help their community do so as well.

When given the resources, such as the Barefoot College, the poor prove to be very capable of becoming self sufficient. We underestimate the poor maybe because we assume they're so uneducated, ignorant, and incapable. Clearly, providing them with the education gives them the tools they need to impress us.

Posted by: Ashley Cecil on 27 Mar 07



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