By Sudhamshu Mitra
“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. As I did that, I heard the 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 NGOs has been stereotyped in certain ways. NGOs in the eyes of people have become organisations that give out doles of free books, materials, computers, bags, flashcards, and what not. There is no one to blame except the privileged (either from the NGOs, corporates, politicians, or combination of one or more), who are either buying peace for themselves because of the guilt of their oppression as Freire would say or 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, the schools are surely deprived of quality materials due to the negligence of the government. But that doesn’t mean the response should be to fill that gap blindly. Because filling that gap is not a one-time process. Any private sector organisation or individual is not going to have the finances to adopt a particular school or bunch of schools forever. Also, the intervention will be localized to certain spaces, without any option of scaling it to a larger level. On top of that these organisations or individuals aren’t liable to provide these materials; they can surely walk out of the particular space anytime. The result of this charity is that it exonerates the government of the responsibility to actually provide these materials. Consequently, the schools have to constantly extend their trembling hands.
I see disappointed faces when I explain how the organisation I work for is not going to give out any free materials. Even after I explain that, I am constantly reminded by teachers or cluster resource persons how different organisations and individuals have contributed different materials to either this school or that.
There is more to this culture that breeds the “absolutizing of ignorance.” Time and again I have seen how organisations believe that they are stakeholders of all the knowledge in the world; that the teachers or students they work with are mere ignorant objects. I have been witness to organisations which assemble the teachers or cluster resource persons and give them lectures for an hour or two on what needs to be done and what should not be done. They never engage the teachers or the cluster resource persons in discussions or debates. This basically continues the system of oppression wherein the oppressed are always living under the clutches of the oppressor. The intervention thus becomes anti-dialogical: the ones who are “trained” follow the orders of the “trainers” blindly without ever questioning the rationale of the intervention. Even if there are questions, they are never directed at the “trainers”. It is rare to see organisations which involve the ones who are the subjects of the intervention in the design process. It is surely a difficult task to obtain inputs or feedback in a scenario where there has rarely been any involvement of the subjects in the design process of the intervention. But that can only happen if we start the process of communication and dialogue from the beginning and try to involve every stakeholder in the process. It is possible if we constantly remind the stakeholders how without their views of reality, without their inputs and feedback, without their involvement, the intervention is surely going to fail. A successful intervention is impossible without synthesizing the views of the oppressed or the underprivileged, who are the stakeholders in the particular sector. The present culture delimits the oppressed because they are treated purely as objects, instead of liberating and empowering them by treating them as subjects who have the capability to transform their realities.
Lastly, I will touch upon the negative consequences of irrational decisions from the top when it comes to technological solutions. This would explain how the incumbent government’s policies, which force people to go cashless in a country like India, would be disastrous. Any technological solution should be made keeping in mind the realities on the ground. This includes the accessibility of the technology, capability to use the technology, constant maintenance of technology, and the ability of the government to keep track of the usage and state of these technologies. One of the recent experiences that I came to witness was the Student Tracking System introduced by the Karnataka Government (funded by Infosys) in Ramanagar District. The idea is to gather and input the details of all the students in a digital database. But instead of helping, this technological solution created a disastrous long administrative process. Since there are barely any computers in the schools (even if they are, they are not in working condition) and no internet, electricity, capability to use the computer to input data, the cluster resource persons had to manually collect the data from the headmasters of all the schools. These resource persons then had to either sit in a cyber cafe or sit in the Block Office (if there is a computer free) and manually enter the data into the portal, which experiences server issues every other hour. The school visits, academic discussions, feedbacks to teachers, which were the tasks of the resource persons, were overlooked and took a back seat for the first few months of the academic year because of this process. While this is in a place which is barely an hour or two from the silicon valley of India, one can wonder the realities in the areas far from the urban centres.
Technological solutions either from the government or from the development sector organisations or the corporates need to take full cognizance of the long term impact of these solutions, including complete understanding of the ground realities. Such technological solutions are going to create a shock to the government structure and the individual stakeholders. Without empowering the government systems and individuals to take charge, one cannot impose such solutions from the top. Such forced implementation is bound to fail without creating any 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 the government schools, will fail in their interventions if they focus on first world solutions to a country like India, which still battles 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 to intervene for the sake of intervening. This applies to organisations and individuals working in other development sectors, too. One needs to reflect and understand the long term consequences of every action. Charity or philanthropy should not end up reiterating the power structures which perpetuate a need for more charity or philanthropy. I urge the NGOs, corporates, and individuals to strive towards creating sustainable systems involving every stakeholder, empowering every stakeholder, thus creating spaces where people themselves transform their own reality, instead of other organizations and people imposing their own reality on to them. Such manipulations of the subjects of intervention would only create false realities. Only a people-centred intervention would make possible liberation; an intervention of that kind would bring change to both systems and mindsets.
Sudhamshu Mitra is an electronics engineer and worked as a game developer for two years at Zynga. He did a Post Graduate Diploma in Liberal Arts through the Young India Fellowship (2016 batch). Currently, he is working as a program manager at STiR Education in Bangalore.
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