Deborah Jacobs (@djlibrarian) was quick to pick up the comment I made, at the last board meet of READ( @READglobal), celebrating seven years of operations in India.
Deborah and a bunch of others are part of a small and significant movement that has been, over the last 20 years, bringing a model of learning that connects with rural communities in far flung parts of the globe.
The story begins with this lady, Dr. Antonia Neubauer, a Lake Tahoe- based travel entrepreneur, who was stumped when one of the sherpas who had accompanied her through a trek in Nepal refused the customary “baksheesh” and made a strange request.
He asked for books, so that his kids could read, remembers Toni, many years later. So she, and her friends, pooled together their resources, and the next year came back with a box of books, but she wanted to see where they would be used.
A visit to the village, convinced her that a book without a way to protect and share it, would soon be destroyed, or sold by the kilo. And that brought in the next play, how about a library? But then, this was Nepal in the ’90s, forget about making a building, who would maintain a library, or pay for electricity or even a person to clean and sweep. There was a war on between the royal forces and Mao-ists raging.
Turns out quite a few were ready. When I first met Toni and Senator Omer Rains, not only had they figured out a way to convince un-lettered sherpa’s to set up libraries for the books they wanted, but also business models to sustain the libraries in the middle of their communities.
The model was elegant in its simplicity. READ would propose to set up the library (aka CLEC- community learning centers) if the community partnered with it. How? Split the cost of the building, the land, the computers, power and other infra. So, READ would provide seed funding, while the community would provide the land, the hands, and other local inputs, the cost sharing 50:50. Then, the community would choose a project which would pay for the READ investment, and also sustain the library and pay for training and salaries for the librarian and others involved with the project.
The first such model in India was at Ullon, a remote village in Sunderbans, where the project scaled and is now The Oceanic Library, and a community hub for education, healthcare and livelihoods, and then a few others strung out in Manipur and Mizoram. In the last 7 years, the movement has slowly but surely gathered steam, has found eager communities finding a sustainable business model to support a library and learning center in their midst.
So, if it’s a dairy farm project in Mewat that supports the library and school, it’s a beautician training center at Badshahpur near Delhi, and then again, a mobile hospital in remote areas in Coorg. Here’s more!
Why do I find it interesting? 3 good reasons. Firstly, it is “inclusive“. Not in the jingo-istic “have’s looking down at have-not’s” way, but right from initiation, the model expects the village to agree on and commit to their project and their activities around it. So, at Geejgarh, in Rajasthan, the women of the village chose a sewing school as the sustainability project, and that’s what they got. The women of Badshahpur, chose a grooming school and beautician training center, with an eye to India’s wedding market and that’s what they got.
For years before this, when handling the CSR roles as part of my many corporate jobs, I would be struck by the top-down approach that seemed to be in vogue when invoking corporate philanthropy. You, mister corporate, tell us what cause you’d like to spend your money on and here we have an option, was what most fund-raising NGO’s would talk about. As if, you could de-link children, from malnutrition/trafficking/ women/ education/ sustainability/ livelihoods/ men/anti-corruption/ environment.
And frankly, my first project, a village school computer learning center at Carterpuri, started with building loos, and putting up a water tank. I couldn’t imagine going to a school which didn’t have drinking water and separate toilets for boys and girls. So, if you start at one place, you automatically impact all others. But, if you build walls, as in, this is only for this community, that age group, other gender, and put locks on doors, you’ve lost the participation that is so central to rural communities.
It’s “bottom up” from start. If the community on ground isn’t ready to put in its own sweat and tears, the engagement doesn’t start. And the time spent in building consensus, which can be acted upon, as I saw at Geejgarh, is time well spent. In India, when folks buy in, and contribute their own land, their own furniture, and fittings, it becomes something they are emotionally tied in to.
And finally, it has “impact“. A well maintained space which the community has invested in, created its own rules, works that much better, than something set up as part of a Five-Year Plan, or with bureaucratic red tape surrounding its usage. At Geejgarh, the women are now making cloth bags that are sold at the Bharti-Walmart EasyDay stores, and are interested in marketing and selling their ethnic handicrafts globally. Here are a few pix!
So what does it mean from the context of the global village where an idea for change can transmit across the world and unite or divide opinion in nano-seconds? Let me summarize; a traveler from Lake Tahoe, meets a Sherpa in Nepal, who wants books for his kids, which need a library, and a librarian from Seattle comes across, and helps with training communities across Nepal, India and Bhutan to manage their rural libraries, and sparks off the need for social enterprises in the local context, in the process enabling corporate sponsors to do well by doing good.
As the saying goes, telecom, internet, social media have brought us closer and we are now residents of the global village. Now, thanks to a few remarkable folks, across the world, there’s a library at the heart of it!