You’ve heard it before. Billions spent on educating the world’s poverty-stricken children so that they can become employable productive citizens—with precious little to show for it. You’ve also heard stories of incredible courage and determination—of individuals who have beaten all odds to make a better life for themselves. What sets the failures apart from the successes?
Two recent encounters in India affirmed for me that character—those old fashioned values of discipline, perseverance, respect, responsibility—are as important as hard skills and classroom education in achieving one’s dreams. I would further add that the very poor, whose worldview is narrowed due to their cultural and economic isolation, need to be guided to dream, to “think different,” before real progress can take place. The efficacy of well-meaning organizations or large-scale government programs might rest on our ability to teach core values and attitudes that will enable an individual’s proper development to take place. Only then can we ask the person to take on transformative change, whether at the individual, community or national levels.
Set in the Arvali Hills and surrounded by lakes, Udaipur is called the most romantic city in Rajasthan. Soaring forts, floating palaces, stirring stories of maharanas and their chivalry and harems—Udaipur is booming as a tourist destination. But drive just a little distance and the folds of the hills reveal sparse villages with families toiling over small plots of land, desperately fighting nature to grow enough to eat, and resigning themselves to modernization that is taking their children away to work in the cities or to the cotton fields of the more prosperous neighboring state of Gujarat.
A long established and respected NGO in Udaipur took me to see their work first-hand. We drove for two hours to Madla, situated 40 miles and several centuries from Udaipur. The narrow tarmac road held only one vehicle at a time, with the oncoming one having to wait politely off the road before passing. The hilly terrain provided glimpses of scattered huts, each with a small patch of land next to it, plowed and ready for the rains which were predicted to begin any day.
The hamlet or fala of Madla has 50 families, all engaged in subsistence agriculture. The NGO has been working in the area for 20 years on a variety of issues proposed by the villagers themselves. The NGO’s efforts have resulted in the formation of an elected body of leaders who oversee the work and ensure community participation. We have come to meet with these leaders.
The headman takes us to his home where seven men, ranging from middle age to wizened, are arrayed on charpoys set in the shade. The dirt-floored verandah, spotlessly clean, also holds several cattle and the lowing of a calf punctuates our conversation. The men speak with pride of what they are working on with the help of the NGO: water conservation, which requires the difficult and delicate task of getting all 50 families to cooperate for a common good. Helping to pay for a balwadi (daycare center) so mothers can get their work done. Challenging the ancient custom of large weddings that leaves poor families indebted, all for the sake of keeping up with the Joneses.
Finally I ask them: what are you doing to increase livelihood options for your youth so that they are not forced to migrate off the land? There is silence. The translator encourages them to speak and after some prodding the headman begins. But he is only repeating the things they have already told us about what they’re doing currently. I ask the question differently: what would they like to see happen to their fala ten years from now? Again, silence.
Later that evening back in Udaipur, I tell this story to Soumen Biswas, executive director of PRADAN, an NGO that for 30 years has been focused on improving livelihood opportunities for India’s rural poor. “Yes, that problem exists all over India. The poor, they don’t dream!” he said.
Contrast the inability of these grown men to imagine a different future for themselves, with the case of Parvati. Her parents migrated from a rural area in India’s south to Mumbai to work as unskilled laborers on a construction site. She is one of six children, all girls. They shared a single dwelling of 100 sq. feet with no toilet or running water, living on a $1 a day or less.
Parvati’s parents and older two sisters are illiterate. “But from the very beginning I wanted to go to school.” Her parents indulged her but when she reached puberty they worried about her safety in going to and from school, and insisted she stop. Parvati’s saving grace was that she had become involved in another NGO’s program, one that gathered slum children to play sports, and through that medium, taught them values like responsibility, discipline, teamwork and focus. It turned out that Parvati excelled at soccer and had been appointed as a volunteer coach and mentor for the younger children.
“I don’t blame my parents for telling me that ninth grade was enough and I should now stop. No one in their village goes to school.” Parvati however has a dream: she want to buy her family a home. Her parents were luckier than most. Migrant construction workers often stay on after the building is complete, creating a spontaneous slum surrounding the luxury high rise. The city considers these slums illegal and refuses to provide basic water and sanitation, indulging in the fantasy that if they don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist. Meanwhile generations are born and raised in these invisible slums.
Parvati’s parents however escaped their slum dwelling because the high rise owner decided to employ them, the father and an older sister as gardeners and the mother as a maid to the owner’s wife. With this comes a small apartment in the basement. The family knows they are at the mercy of a single person who could throw them out on any whim. A home of their own represents security, stolidity and a decrease in dependence.
Parvati has been clear-eyed from the beginning on how she would achieve her dream of a house. She must have an education which would lead to a secure, high paying job. She wore her parents down by continually pleading to be allowed one more year of school after ninth grade. That one year turned into three more. And then she asked to go to college.
This was unheard of, especially from a girl. The parents were adamant in their refusal.
By this time Parvati was earning a small salary from the NGO as a trainer. She told her parents that they will never have to worry about financing her education—she would do that on her own. But she also would not take no for an answer.
Parvati worked during the day and attended classes at night. Her hard work and determination have led her to the degree she wanted. The NGO has taken her to San Francisco and London to tell her story to donors. When I met her last July, it was her first trip abroad and she was very shy of using her English. The NGO brought her to New York two months ago. She had just finished her final exams and exuded confidence. We spoke about the next step in achieving her dream. She has done the math: she has to earn at least four times what she is currently earning at the NGO in order to be able to save enough for a down payment on a modest house. She sought my advice on whether to ask the NGO for a raise. She plans to avail of any opportunity to get a higher paying job.
Social scientists studying the achievement disparities between poor and middle class children in the US have concluded that values and characters are a necessary determinant of what sets communities apart. Paul Tough writing in the NY Times said, “The real advantages that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey. However you measure child-rearing, middle-class parents tend to do it differently than poor parents — and the path they follow in turn tends to give their children an array of advantages”.
People like Parvati are lucky: they are born with a drive and determination that belie their circumstances and override any obstacles in their way. But the vast majority has to be taught, has to be guided to dream. If they don’t, then how can we as outsiders help them to achieve those dreams?
The Udaipur NGO admitted that all their efforts in Madla will not get the families out of subsistence and into a different future. This NGO is not alone. There are countless examples of well-meaning efforts to teach low-income girls to sew or learn computers. But the effort ends there, without guiding them to think of how they might use their new skill, or connecting them to opportunities that exist around them. Yet families appreciate—nay, demand—such training. Why? It increases the girls’ marriage value.
The good news is that attitude and values can be taught. Programs exist to guide behavior and even values, building what we call character. But these programs are rarely integrated into ones offering hard skills training. The vast number of educational and vocational programs around the world will have limited efficacy unless this integration happens.
This article was first published on Interaction.