Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Donations, Emotions, and Sustainable Education

The raft of knowledge ferries the worst sinners to safety. – Bhagavand Gita

Since the last post, I have finished up my time in the poorest, most backward and corrupt state in India – Bihar. In Bodh Gaya, Bihar, where Buddha supposedly attained Enlightenment (I stood under the tree where it happened!), I was able to volunteer teach at the Lord Buddha Charitable School for four days. I don’t consider myself an overwhelmingly great teacher, but with such a short stint I was able to keep the energy high and classes fun – I bounced around the room on all four limbs shouting “Oo Oo Ah Ah” like a crazed moron at one point. They definitely remembered “monkey” after that. Abisek, a teacher, revealed on the last day, “The students have told me they like your study methods and want you to stay here.”

Overall, it was a pleasant experience and I gained as much as the children, but it made me think more deeply about the NGO model, especially relative to education. In Bodh Gaya, the only buildings more common than temples are charitable schools – some of them scams, others not. Regardless of their authenticity, schools like Lord Buddha in Bodh Gaya survive off the tourist industry. Competition is fierce. I was approached by no less than five different people wanting me to “see [their] school”. My host and worker for Lord Buddha, Dinu, guarded me like the Chinese on Tiananmen Square.

I did take up the offer of one of the competing schools. I saw something similar to Lord Buddha – a struggling school, in dire need of assets, doing a marginal job of educating the children. Both schools essentially begged me for help. Mahendra, director of Lord Buddha, had the audacity to say, “We expect you will help us, support us, to develop our project.” On top of my donation of $25 and four days of work, they wanted me to adopt an orphan, at the annual cost of over $500 for seven to eight years (clearly, they hadn’t seen my student loans). At both organizations I received all kinds of enticements from chai, free food to songs prepared by the children and leis around my neck. How is anyone supposed to make a rational investment in education when so much emotion is infused into the process? The emotional aspect has become one my primary annoyances with the NGO sector. Remember the commercials of starving African children covered with flies? Same idea. My point is, I think if we really want to do something about education inequality (or any problem for that matter) instead of just feeling good about ourselves, we need to donate or invest with our heads rather than our hearts. You wouldn’t invest your life savings in a company or mutual fund that “really needs the money, please”, would you?

Then how can education be done in a more sustainable way, without relying on sporadic donations or a five-month tourist season as in Bodh Gaya? A for-profit company in India, National Institute of Information Technology (NIIT), is making an attempt with computer education in the state of Tamil Nadu. Gucharan Das in India Unbound, which I just read, explains how NIIT is collaborating with the Tamil Nadu government. Tamil Nadu provides the school and real estate and NIIT providing the teachers and computers. As Das explains, “During the day children get practically free education, and after school hours it becomes a regular NIIT commercial center open to the town’s residents. Whatever profits NIIT loses during the day are made up between 4 pm and 11 pm.” The book was published in 2000, and since then it has shown to be successful, touching over a million students in just five years. And the profit incentive should attract other companies to try to do it better. This is just an example specific to computer education, but you can easily see the applications for general education.

What about private universities? Aren’t they the same? Haven’t donations been the successful model for them? Yes and no. Yes in that donations and grants are a huge part of how a university is funded. But no in that it is simply in another league – it has the scale to create an investment corpus that kicks off interest to fund the university. Rural schools in India don’t have this scale, so upon leaving the Lord Buddha school, I suggested Lord Buddha institute the other key difference between private universities and rural schools: income-generating activities. My alma mater, like other universities, brings in money through a variety of sources to fund itself: football games, classical music concerts, the campus bookstore, paying $20 for the ID you lost, and of course, tuition. I certainly didn’t suggest these specific activities to Lord Buddha, but rather this line of thinking. A women’s handicraft cooperative made up of the students’ mothers, with proceeds divided between the women and the school, could take some pressure off Dinu and Mahendra to gather all of the funding. Or, eco-tourism program where tourists visit the village where the students live, have a meal with a family, and teach at the school, could create a powerful experience that tourists would be willing to pay for, and then maybe donate. All proceeds would fund the school.

What I’ve just covered certainly isn’t a comprehensive depiction of the problems or answers of providing sustainable education, but hopefully it raises some new questions and makes you and me both think twice the next time we fill that coffer.

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