THE BLOG

The World's Only College for the Rural Poor: Channeling Gandhi, Creating 21st Century Solutions

11/16/2013 08:17 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

More than one billion people live on less than one dollar a day. Seventy-five percent of the ultra-poor live in rural areas with no access to clean water, education, or light. In every region, women suffer most from the conditions of poverty. They are unable to exercise their full agency and human potential.

Organizations across the globe are working to combat poverty, to fix it. So far, solutions proposed to break the cycle of global poverty have not taken hold at the village level. Tools and technologies are overwrought with complicated installation or upkeep, creating communities dependent on outside help. In short, solutions being offered are irrelevant and inadequate.

On rare occasions, a program is well researched and sensitive to the needs, customs and cultural context of the population it serves. Barefoot College, based in Rajasthan, India, is one such institution. From the outside, it seems like a happy accident that a rural college, built and staffed by Barefoot Professionals ("graduates" of the community based vocational learning programs) could make such substantive impact with such little reliance on the formal education system, big business, or traditional community development models. But, on closer inspection, it is no coincidence that the College has become one of the most successful and replicable models for breaking the cycle of poverty.

Barefoot College stands out because of its 40-year history of providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities. The College has a strong commitment to the Gandhian spirit of service and sustainability; to the central belief that knowledge, skills and wisdom found in villages should be used for internal development before getting help from outside; and to supporting women's empowerment and gender equality.

Diplomas, certificates or other paper-qualifications are not required at Barefoot College. None of the Barefoot trainers have formal degrees, nor are any certificates awarded on completion of the program. What, then is the outcome of a Barefoot education -- the impact of an illiterate woman who becomes a solar engineer, a man who becomes a Barefoot architect, a child who attends night school taught by Barefoot teachers?

Can they really bring light, water and livelihoods to their communities? With education, tools and technology in their hands, can people living in extreme poverty lift themselves -- or their children, or their children's children -- out of it?

There is proof in the pudding. After decades of community based development work, Barefoot College now runs solar engineer trainings for 100 rural grandmothers each year so that they can return to their villages and build sophisticated solar panels that light up their community. The solar program alone more than 50 countries, 700 women engineers who bring light to more than 1,000 villages or 450,000 people in rural communities. Programs centered on water, education and livelihood also deliver supplies and technology to communities in need and ensure that the next generation of Barefoot Professionals can continue to succeed. Every tool, from drawing tablets to solar panels, is built by local villagers for more prosperous, self-sufficient and sustainable communities. All programs are designed and taught using images and diagrams so that any person, irrespective of age, gender or literacy, can learn the same skills.

In a recent panel discussion on creating business at the bottom of the pyramid, Barefoot College founder Bunker Roy argued against big business interventions and in favor of a bottom-up approach that helped people help themselves. He argued that until we begin treating people living in extreme and debilitating poverty as our equals, as potential solutions to the problem and heroes to their own stories -- we cannot help them rise out of their conditions. "They have tremendous knowledge and skills which we have completely ignored," said Bunker. Only when we value those skills and form partnerships with those communities can we begin to put rural people in control of the tools and technologies they need to improve their quality of life each and every day.

Sometimes, the simplest things can have the most impact -- and in the case of Barefoot College, they can literally and figuratively brighten someone's day. Bunker Roy makes a point of asking the women trainees their favorite things about being solar engineers. He asked one woman living in a high-altitude village, with cold temperatures and limited daylight, the best part of creating solar heat and light for her village. Is her answer warmth and protection from the elements? No. "It is the first time I can see my husband's face in winter."

To follow Barefoot College's Solar Grandmothers and other revolutionary professionals and programs, visit http://www.barefootcollege.org/. To support the next generation of Barefoot teachers, artisans and engineers, visit http://www.crowdrise.com/barefootcollege.

Wren Brennan is a copywriter at Amplifier Strategies and a member of the U.S. communications team for Barefoot College.