Skills revolution will come from the grassroots

Sanjit Bunker Roy figured out pretty early on that it does, indeed, take a village; in fact, it takes a village to keep a village. He founded the Barefoot College in India in 1972 on the premise that for any rural development activity to be successful and sustainable, it must be both based in the village and managed and owned by those whom it serves. The College, a non-governmental organisation, serves rural men and women of all ages, all of whom are barely literate (if at all) and have no hope of getting even the lowest government job, by providing training in such skills as solar engineering, water drilling, hand-pump engineering, masonry, architecture, and computing.

Marilyn Achiron, Editor of the Education Department caught up with Roy when he was in Paris to speak at the OECD Forum. He’s not one to mince his words:

“We are facing a disaster of monumental proportions,” says Roy. “We’re training people to leave the village, not to stay in the village. We’re encouraging migration at a colossal level from village to city. As a result, we’re losing all the traditional knowledge and skills that used to be in the village. Does anyone at the mover-and-shaker level have the courage and vision to turn this around? We’re already set in a pattern that we can’t break.”

According to Roy, whom Time magazine named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010, the big international donors are part of the problem, and not enough of the solution. “People aren’t listening enough. The biggest problem with the big donors is that they don’t have the ability or the humility to listen to what’s happening on the ground. We need to respect traditional knowledge and skills; you cannot be educated at the expense of tradition. It’s a balance. There’s a real urgent situation out there and we’re not treating it with urgency.”

A dissatisfaction with policies designed in the relative comfort of developed-world capitals while more than one in five people in the world live on less than USD 1.25 a day comes across clearly. The OECD is not spared Roy’s frustration: “The OECD’s attitude towards education is outdated. In the non-organised, informal world, people have no access to water, electricity, formal education. The OECD’s attitude is dangerous. They have to revisit it and adapt it to the reality on the ground. They have lost touch.” Even the OECD Skills Strategy, released earlier this week already needs updating:  “There will be a skills revolution from the grassroots. The current thinking has to change. The question is: How do you recognise skills that people already have and apply them in the situation in which they live? The OECD is very backwards in its thinking.”

Between 2007 and 2011, the Barefoot College trained some 300 grandmothers, from 29 countries throughout Africa, in solar technologies. After their six-month training course—paid for, along with their air fare, by the Indian government—they went back to their villages and solar electrified some 15,000 houses. Says Roy, “These illiterate grandmothers know more about the repair and maintenance of solar lamps and installations than any graduate of any five-year university anywhere in the world. And if anyone wants to challenge me on it, I’d be delighted.”

Barefoot College
Watch the TED Talk: Bunker Roy: Learning from a barefoot movement
OECD Skills Strategy
Visit our interactive portal on skills:
OECD Forum 2012
Photo credit: Colourful feet / Shutterstock

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