When the sum of the parts > the whole
Six years ago, an advocate named M L Sharma filed a Public-interest-litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India, which drove the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to find out more about the NGOs in the country and the results were bizarre. India was estimated to have about 20 Lakh NGOs, which translated as 1 NGO for every 600 people.
While this includes schools, housing societies, religious charitable trusts, sports associations and the like, a significant number, one in five NGOs in India, work in the education sector. This immediately poses the question of “How is it that lakhs of volunteers & paid staff who are taking on the complex educational crisis haven’t moved the needle on it, significantly yet?”. The scale of our country and time to see the results are contextual factors that are here to stay. Keeping that aside, we notice that most organizations identify a specific, manageable part of the problem and focuses on just that. This has proven extremely helpful for them to see quick success, however has unintended consequences on the educator sector and its last-mile beneficiaries, children.
This individualistic approach to linearly solve complex problems, is not an accident and comes as no surprise if we were to look back at what schools and colleges created; competitive and achievement-driven individuals. Visibly, the trend continues, with non-profits projecting their impact every quarter, competing with one another for funding opportunities, schools trying to compete with one another for enrolment.
There’s very little incentive to shift the conversation to be wrapped around the child, as a complete entity and to look at all the factors that affect his/her growth overall. An organization which focuses on literacy and numeracy training for teachers in public schools for example, will inevitably be blind to hunger or symptoms of child abuse at home. And soon technological/pedagogical enhancements to their narrow focus solution, cease to help increase their outcomes beyond a plateau. Another organization that works on supporting school leaders in the same school, may not be reinforcing the same key messages. If the road ahead is to be filled with more dissipated effort & silos, we’re likely to be more about the organizations and less about the children.
Disrupting this trajectory, may start from a place of deep humility that no individual/collective or organization has all the answers and that each one can only see a part of the whole, at all times. This realization, sparked with the curiosity to expand one’s worldview, will move people to see through others’ eyes. A free flowing of meaning between people & groups across shared interests, problems, beneficiaries, values etc. then becomes possible. Just like the exchange between musicians & engineers that brought us the iPod, we’ll pave the way for more cross-functional innovations by embracing the diversity that already exists in our local regions.
However, critical to this entire ecosystem moving from competition to collaboration, is the role that select individuals assume, as servant leaders. Knowing the people & organizations around, coordination, holding space and more, they do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, the work no one else has the time for. These servant leaders act as the bridge, by creating voluntary platforms for people, to learn from one another, irrespective of the organizations they represent. Not only do these platforms provide the space for individuals to grow their capacities, and the birth of multiple collectives, they also allow them to evolve through the process & influence the evolution in others. This continuous evolution in individuals across the groups they are a part of, results in deeper, more nuanced & expanded understanding of the problems they’ve identified, leading to more holistic and interconnected solutions for our beneficiaries, that build on top of one another.
Fellow Durbar is one such a platform housed within Teach For India, that invites participants to build on their knowledge, skills and interests and start/leverage multiple collectives to grow holistically. KER Chronicles & MaKERs’ club being offshoots of this model, have provided the space for student voice & agency. A group of around 25 alternate educators from across the country have sustained an anonymous network for the last 22 years by religiously holding space to dialogue, every year. Each educator approaches their children from a different lens, but when one person discovers something, the collective discovers it too. More recently in Tamilnadu, a platform started to bring musicians together, has now elevated itself to a larger purpose of eliminating caste-based discrimination, they’re aptly called, the Casteless collective. What began as an attempt to support non-profits in the Silicon Valley in 1999, the platform ServiceSpace has paved the way for multiple collectives of 4,00,000 people who volunteer their skills and time to help others. Such examples are few and far between, but growing by the day, showing the promise of the rise of more servant leaders, platforms and collectives.
The next big revolution in humanity, not just in education, will be one that leverages the power of many, and not the few in power. And at its centre, will be voluntary platforms where collectives emerge. The question is, when would you like to start one for your community?