Educating India’s poorest

Why you should care about educating India’s poorest? Is there value in the bottom of the pyramid?
Read this article by Miniya, the Founder of The Stargazers Foundation:

The Indian Express, 6 November 2012
Investment in education in India is best described by a John F. Kennedy quote: “There is a lot of noise on the stairs but no one is in the room.” A recent Unesco report revealed that the millennium pledge made by leaders across the globe, that all children should have access to primary education by 2015, will not be fulfilled. After an initial surge, no one was ready to do anything about it. In India, education has been driven by the government. The number of children not going to school went down from 20 million in 1998 to 2.28 million in 2010, which is a noteworthy achievement. But increasing literacy is not enough. A fast growing economy needs young people to be educated in such a way that they can make responsible life choices, get the right jobs, and lead communities toward positive change. So who will educate India’s millions?
Big businesses will have to be brought on board too, as there is a need for models that focus on returns. When for-profit investors fund solutions, they seek good returns on their investment. Returns-based models will ensure that education is oriented towards jobs, leadership and change. However, the risk is that to deliver those returns, businesses will cater to the largest possible market, which is mostly urban and suburban. They may also engage only with communities where their operations or products could have a market. In doing so, businesses may accept a mediocre impact and miss the great value that lies at the bottom of the pyramid.
It is fantastic that non-profit organisations often aim for deep impact. However, my experience as founder of a non-profit organisation has been that we are no good at providing long-term systemic solutions on our own. This is because in the development sector, money is often project-based and not self-sustaining. We are not part of a “system” so we can be creative, but that does not give us the framework to carry on the good work. The risk of relapse is high.
Shaping the next generation of corporate and political leaders from all walks of society will require a multi-stakeholder approach. Especially in recent times, we have seen social tension disrupting markets and economic opportunity. The growing mismatch between skills and opportunities, in a country with a growing population that is learning to cope with the new global economy, is worrying. The government, civil society and the private sector should work together to educate the Indian youth.
The second question is then the challenge of how to do it. In India, it is not a lack of resources for investing in education. Nor is there a problem of scale, thanks to technology. The challenge is one of culture. Business houses in India will gradually have to take a lead role here, and to do so they will have to tweak their operating culture.
Big businesses need to realise that the historically strong government control over education is receding. They must search for their place in a sector that has the potential to attract $100 billion in investment over the next five years, according to a recent KPMG report. While investing in education geared to create individuals who will contribute to the economy, they need to look beyond merely addressing illiteracy. In the process, they might have to abandon corporate social responsibility programmes that sometimes aggravate social problems by providing short-term solutions. For any substantial investment in time and money, a public company would need to act in the interests of its shareholders. So business will have to keep in mind the market incentive to invest in education towards change. In a multi-stakeholder approach, businesses can partner with non-profit organisations for creative ideas, and with governments for scale and experience. Businesses must focus on nurturing talent at the grassroot level and tackle the challenge of reaching out to economically under-privileged communities.
Why should big businesses educate the bottom of the pyramid? Because they will realise that while the deepest malaise lies in India’s underprivileged communities, the greatest untapped opportunity can also be found there. Investing in education with a focus on the returns these communities will bring to society will ensure a sustainable model of socio-economic growth. The economic multiplier of bringing in this section of India’s youth into the economic mainstream is enormous. Creating leaders among them will also contribute towards creating a more equitable society. These are just some examples of the total returns of such an investment.

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