“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life’, to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands – whether of individuals or entire peoples – need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world” – Paulo Freire.
I have ventured into the development sector recently.
It has been about five months since I have started working for STIR Education in Ramanagar district of Karnataka. Since the organisation was unknown to the schools in the district, my task, initially, was to introduce the organisation itself and to explain what we do.
While doing this, I heard responses from teachers and cluster-resource persons. I was disheartened by the culture that was created in these spaces and localities – the culture of ‘false generosity’.
The idea of non-government organisations (NGOs) has been stereotyped in certain ways. In the eyes of people, NGOs have become organisations that dole out free books, materials, computers, bags, flashcards, and many such freebies.
There is no one to blame for this perception except the privileged (either from the NGOs, corporate sector, politicians, or a combination of these). They are either ‘buying’ peace for themselves because of the ‘guilt of their oppression’ (as Freire would say), or are completely blinded by the consequences of their actions.
The NGOs, the corporates, or the politicians who believe that they are helping by giving out free materials are living in ‘false realities’. Yes, schools are certainly deprived of quality materials due to the negligence of the government. However, the solution to this shouldn’t entail ‘blindly’ filling up this gap, because filling the gap is not a ‘one-time process’.
Any individual or private-sector organisation isn’t likely to be able to finance the development of a particular school or a chain of schools, forever. Also, the intervention will only be ‘localised’ to certain ‘spaces’, without any option of scaling it up. On top of that, as these organisations or individuals aren’t liable to provide these materials, they can surely walk out of that particular ‘space’ anytime.
The result of this ‘charity’ is that it exonerates the government from actually having to provide these materials. Consequently, schools constantly have to extend their needy and trembling hands.
I see disappointed faces when I explain how the organisation I work for does not give out any free materials. Even after explaining this, I am constantly reminded by teachers or cluster-resource persons how different organisations and individuals have contributed different materials to one school or the other.
There is more to this culture that breeds the ‘absolutising of ignorance’. Time and again, I have seen how organisations believe that they are the only ‘stakeholders’ of all the world’s knowledge. Consequently, they also think that the teachers or students they work with are mere ignorant objects.
I have seen organisations which assemble teachers or cluster-resource persons, and then lecture them on what should and should not be done, for an hour or two. However, they never engage with the persons assembled in discussions or debates. Essentially, this continues the system of oppression. The oppressed are always living under the clutches of the oppressor.
The intervention thus becomes ‘anti-dialogical’. The ones who are ‘trained’ blindly follow the orders of the ‘trainers’, without ever questioning the rationale behind the intervention. If questions do arise, they are never directed at the ‘trainers’. It is rare to see organisations which actively involve the ones who are ‘trained’ in the design process. Obtaining inputs and feedback therefore becomes more difficult in the scenario where there’s no involvement of the ‘trained’ personnel.
The participation of ‘trained’ personnel can be ensured only if we start the process of communication and dialogue from the very beginning and try to involve every stakeholder in the process. For this, it is important that every stakeholder be reminded of how the intervention and its design process is likely to fail without their views, inputs and feedback.
It goes without saying that a successful intervention is impossible without synthesizing the views of the oppressed or the underprivileged. After all, they are also stakeholders in that particular sector. However, the present culture delimits the oppressed because they are treated purely as objects. Instead, they should be liberated and empowered to the extent that they can transform their own realities.
Lastly, I will highlight the negative consequences of irrational decisions from the top (in a top-down process), regarding technological solutions. This would help explain how the incumbent government’s policies, which are forcing people to go cashless in a country like India, can be disastrous.
Any technological solution should ideally be based on the ground reality. This includes the accessibility of the technology, the capability to use the technology, constant maintenance of the technology, and the ability of the government to track its usage, and the state of these technologies.
Recently, I witnessed the student tracking system, funded by Infosys and introduced by the Karnataka government in Ramanagar district. The idea was to gather and input details of all students in a digital database. But, instead of helping them, this technological solution created a long and disastrous administrative process.
Since there are barely any computers in the district schools, no internet, electricity or means to enter data digitally, the cluster-resource persons had to manually collect the data from the headmasters of all the schools. These resource persons then had to either access a cyber cafe or the Block Office, and manually enter the data into a portal, which experienced server issues frequently.
Visits to schools, academic discussions, feedback to teachers (which should have been carried out by the resource persons) were overlooked for the first few months of the academic year because of this process. This being the reality in a place barely an hour or two from India’s Silicon Valley, one can well imagine the reality in far-flung areas in the districts.
Technological solutions, either from the government, development-sector organisations or corporates, need to take full cognisance of the long-term impact of these solutions. Particularly, a complete understanding of the ground realities is a must before decisions are taken. In the process, such technological solutions may well ‘shock’ the government structure and individual stakeholders.
Without empowering government systems and individuals to take charge, one cannot impose solutions from the top. Such forced implementations are bound to fail without creating positive results. Corporates or NGOs, especially the ones which work on technological solutions (e-learning, replacing teachers with tabs, free tabs, computers, virtual reality) for government schools, will fail in their interventions if they only focus on ‘first-world’ solutions for India. After all, India is still plagued by issues such as teacher shortages, untrained teachers, infrastructural issues, and lack of funding.
Thus, while I do understand that there is a financial crunch when it comes to any sort of intervention, one need not employ populist measures just for the sake of intervening. One needs to reflect upon and understand the long-term consequences of every single action.
Charity or philanthropy should not end up reiterating the power structures which perpetuate a ‘need’ for more charity or philanthropy, in the first place. I would therefore urge NGOs, corporates, and individuals to strive towards creating sustainable systems involving every stakeholder and empowering them. Only then will spaces be created where people themselves transform their own realities, instead of having realities imposed upon them.
Manipulating the subjects of intervention will only create false realities. Only a ‘people-centric’ intervention can liberate people, and change systems and mindsets.
The article was first published here. It has been published on Youth Ki Awaaz with the author’s permission.