There is a village I know – a temple town in south India – where people live in abject poverty, by normal standards. I was interviewing a cross-section of the villagers for a study I was doing. The study was examining the potential of distance education intervention in a rural scenario.
One of the questions I asked a traditional scholar in the village was: What do you think would be an acceptable charge for the villagers for making lessons available at their doorstep, via technology enhanced distance education.
The scholar said, “We cannot pay much. It would be difficult to even spare a hundred rupees [about two dollars] a month. But if you can use the same technology to learn from us, then we can provide lessons in scriptures, Sanskrit, etc. in return for lessons that you provide us.”
What a wonderful idea! Such an exchange of lessons would also help preserve so much traditional knowledge. Vanishing languages and cultural practices can get a new lease of life. And, above all, it would enhance the self-respect and dignity of the recipients of developmental aid. They would not just be passive recipients of largesse, but contributors too!
Such is the POVERTY OF IDEAS in our midst that we seldom stop to think that the poor too can contribute meaningfully, if not materially, to make the world a better place for us all.
What I wish to say through this example is this: We need to make the poor our partners in progress as we surely are through ventures like microfinance.
We need to free our minds of pre-conceived notions about what ‘education’ constitutes and take a much broader view that includes traditional knowledge, cultural mores and practices. Much of this knowledge could help us advance in our quest for preserving the planet.
We also need to learn from the poor how to find joy in simple things like singing in the rain or waving at a passing train.
Rather than looking ‘down’ on the poor from a perceived position of privilege, and seeking to uplift them to our concept of better standards, we need to sit with them, work with them, learn from them and make the process participatory and uplifting for all of us.