Education Before Literacy Reduces Poverty: Barefoot College

Tilonia Women Working as Solar Engineers Designing, Installing, Calibrating and Manufacturing Photovoltaic Systems - Photo Credit: Barefoot College

Education may not necessarily mean literacy. In fact the very definition of literacy shows it simply to be the ability to read and write, whereas education involves the gathering of knowledge that is focused in specific studies. Sanjit “Bunker” Roy (often referred to as “Bunker Roy”) understands this fact and it is one of the driving forces behind the continued development of his brainchild: the Barefoot College. The Barefoot College defines itself as a “non-government organization that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable.” This is quite a statement, and yet Barefoot College continues to illustrate the validity of it through their advancements.

Bunker Roy’s quest to educate people began from a personal desire to work in a village making a positive difference in the lives of the very poor, which started in his own country of India. His personal education is extensive, yet at an early age he observed that the measure of a man or woman is not by their credentials, but rather their knowledge in areas that directly enhance their lives and makes them self-sufficient.  He started Barefoot College in a remote village called Tilonia, which is completely off the grid from any public works in the rural of Rajasthan. Those who could afford to leave Tilonia left, and those who could not leave clung to the skeleton of what was once a community. Yet what he has created in just a few decades has reduced poverty faster than any government program founded in any country. He has done this by focusing on the education of women. He started by teaching mothers and grandmothers how to become solar, electrical and water engineers, dentists, computer programmers and teachers, along with other much needed professions. These women start out illiterate and, after they become proficient in their chosen areas of expertise, they then can find the time to acquire literacy. Literacy is indeed valued at Barefoot College, but its importance is secondary to education. Bunker Roy learned long ago that in order to combat poverty, Barefoot College must focus on educating the women first. It also became clear that by educating a woman, it would result in educating an entire family.  In this process, Bunker Roy also made the observation that women are far more compliant and receptive to learning as opposed to their male counterparts.

Children of Tilonia in Democratic Format Assembly Including Elected Prime Minister shown in Center Photo Credit: Barefoot College

Tilonia Man as Weaving Artisan, Women trained as Hydrology Engineers Teaching Other Women, Tilonia Women Trained in Dentistry- Photo Credit: Barefoot College

What is Bunker Roy’s secret to solving the problems that add to impoverished situations? The answer is to “Ask the poor what they need,” and there lies the difference between wealthy developed communities compared to the poor ones. The poor know what they need to become self-sufficient, in comparison those who live in developed countries tend to only be aware of what they want. Once the poor respond with what is needed, Barefoot College then makes it possible for people to get the education required to become the solutions and in turn, empower others to thrive within their communities.

The success in Tilonia has made it possible for Bunker Roy to take many of these proficient women out of the country to teach and share their knowledge and technology to other remote impoverished communities around the world. The women of Tilonia have taught and empowered women in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Bhutan, Gambia and  they are assisting with the creation other Barefoot College campuses around the globe.

The very thought of illiterate grandmothers applying Swiss-like precision to their photovoltaic plates would make any engineer marvel at their proficiency. One would also wonder why this type of education couldn’t be applied to developed countries such as Canada, The United States, Italy and the like? Perhaps this is due to government regulations or perhaps the unwillingness to change. Whatever the reason may be, Bunker Roy, the Barefoot College and the women of Tilonia shine as an example of what people can do together to reduce poverty.

Perhaps humanity as a whole may take note and amplify the efforts of the Barefoot College, but until then, Barefoot College will continue to educate before teaching literacy, because it has been proven to be a clear way to take an ample bite out of poverty.