Learning from Barefoot

What is the Barefoot College?

A concept in Practice: Social Work Research Centre and its evolution into the Barefoot College, Tilonia, India.

The Barefoot College is a place of learning and unlearning.It’s a place where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher.It’s a place where NO degrees and certificates are given because in development there are no experts-only resource persons.It’s a place where people are encouraged to make mistakes so that they can learn with humility, curiosity,the courage to take risks,to innovate,to improvise and to constantly experiment.It’s a place where all are treated as equals and there is no hierarchy.

The Barefoot College will always be there; so long as the process leads to the good and welfare of all; problems of discrimination,injustice,exploitation and inequalities are addressed directly or indirectly; so long as the poor, the deprived and the dispossessed feel it is a space where they can talk, be heard with dignity and respect, be trained and be given the tools and the skills to improve their own lives, it retains its immediate relevance for the global poor.


Holistic Learning

The organisation began its work in 1972 from Tilonia, locating itself in the middle of people, in a village,as it should be for a rural development agency.Living among people who would be affected by that development process is critical to a programme which addreses their needs..

SWRC programmes were initially started with urban expertise from outside the area. Today, all these programmes are largely run by the people themselves, who have no formal educational or professional degree.


Learning from Barefoot

As the name suggests, a person’s will to learn and aptitude for learning is the basis for real change, far more important than any formal degree or qualification merely on paper. This concept of learning is the foundation and began in the 70s, with barefoot Health workers , followed by barefoot Midwives,in the 80scame the women leaders, the hand pump mistris , culminating with the barefoot women solar mamas, now a globally recognised example of women’s empowerment.

As Gandhiji said, means must match ends. Our Field Centres, were designed by local masons. The new campus at Tilonia was designed and built largely by masons from the villages. Many of whom can barely sign their own names. The campus itself reflects the adaptation of both traditional, as well as new methods and technologies.Traditional methods including building only with lime and stone were the foundations of the buildings. Solar energy is used to provide electrical power to the campus.

People without degrees and certificates, trained at the SWRC/ Barefoot College, work in every field – as night school teachers, health workers, computer operators, solar engineers, .At Tilonia, recognising that all these activities are related, workers are encouraged to learn and work for more than one section, have become grass root multi taskers and intersectional learning has led to improved skills for planning and implementation of programmes. In this process,  each individual learns about the entire organisation, its mission and its functioning.


Sense of Community

What makes Tilonia a wonderful place is that there is no managerial hierarchy and this egalitarian nature of the Centre is reflected in all aspects of the organisation . Performance evaluations are done by the staff themselves for each other.

In the campus and community dining hall, there is no distinction by way of caste, religion, or position. Food is simple and people serve themselves and wash their own dishes.Initially, rigidities have been broken –one of the most difficult tasks. However, now they proudly boast of actually having “unity in diversity.” To reinforce the sense of community, an hour every morning and evening is reserved for voluntary participation in community work like keeping the campus clean or watering the plants.


Sustainable Development

Long before the definitionand vision of sustainable goals by the UN the SWRC form 1973,  its inception has put into practice the idea of sustainable development through self-sufficiency.

The sense of ownership of the SWRC is reflected in the large number of worker managers and the fact that many generations have grown up with the ideals and principles of what has emerged as the Barefoot College. As workers and managers there is a sense of pride in the translation of the concept into practice.  A sense of ownership is very important for the success of any project,its effective implementation and for continuity. Development does not end with an achievement. It leaves us with a new set of problems to be addressed.

There has been another distinctive approach to the unemployed rural youth.Barefoot College has worked with their aptitude and skills to help them become a productive part of the Barefoot College and the community. A large percentage of Barefoot/SWRC workers are from the neighbouring villages.


Appropriate Technology

“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology toward the organic, the gentle, the elegant and beautiful.”

 E.F. Schumacher : “The small is beautiful, economics as if people matter”


The dilemma of modern technology- its importance warring with its tendency to take over- has been met with triumph in SWRC/Barefoot.  Humankind has lived with technology through history. SWRC has used common sense and self reliance as indicators to evolve people centric and ecologically friendly technologies. Development has to often contend with exploitative technology. SWRC does not believe in imposing technology on rural people, nor using technology which deprives people of employment. Any new technology has to be thoroughly tested, appropriated and modified before it can be effective. Adapting and improving on pre-existing, traditional ways is often more effective than using newer technologies.


Field Centres

These Field Centres act as a nuclei, from which the support to village activities, in the pattern of Tilonia can be decentralised. The concept  percolates to the communities in the 110 villages of the Silora Block through its  12 SWRC field centres. The field centres are units of independent decision making in keeping with the concept and in consulaton with each other and the main centre in Tilonia. Each one of them serves between 9 to 35 villages.

The field centres are dependent on the main centre only for administrative purposes and for certain policies and issues. All co-ordinators of the field centres meet once a month at one of the centres to evaluate their work for past month and plan for the next.


Does the Barefoot College apply to your development programme?

The rural poor must satisfy basic minimum needs like drinking water, health, education, employment, etc. to improve their quality of life. Billions of dollars are spent every year in the name of the poor to provide these services. Colleges, research institutes, and funding organisations employ urban-trained, paper-qualified professionals to provide these services at tremendous costs. But there will always be a vested interest to keep the rural poor, poor because thousands of jobs are at stake and poverty is big business.

The belief of the Barefoot College is that development programmes do NOT need urban-based professionals because para-professionals already exist in the villages whose widom,knowledge and skills are neither identified,mobilised nor applied just because they do not have an educational qualification.

This belief was put into practice 49 years ago in all the development programmes dealing with improving the quality of life.


How do you develop a Barefoot College?

First, by having faith in the capacity and competence of any poor rural community anywhere in the world where that community has members who have the knowledge,  skills, wisdom and faith to identify and solve their own problems.

Second, by creating an environment and a situation where these skills and knowledge can be applied for the community’s own development.

Third, by informal,non-structured, on-the-job practical training until such time as the person has acquired the confidence,the competence and the capacity to provide the service without any help from outside.

Fourth, by choosing an area which is remote,inaccessible, very difficult physically to reach, so that there is peace, mental space and non-interference from so-called experts who are dying to make sure that you fail.


Will the Barefoot College work in your communities?

The Barefoot College will work anywhere in a poor rural community anywhere in the world where:

  • there is extreme poverty
  • the rural communities are neglected,deprived and forgotten so they have no choice but to develop and depend on their own knowledge and skills.
  • where families in the communities depend on each other and not on people from outside – thus all knowledge and all skills are useful, necessary and respected.
  • where the percentage of ILLITERACY is high so that the oral tradition is rich, and knowledge and skills are traditionally passed down from one generation to another.


Who should participate in the Barefoot College?

We should start by stating who SHOULD NOT participate in the Barefoot College:

  • those who hold paper degrees and call themselves experts.
  • those who hide behind these degrees and qualifications and are unable to work with their hands.
  • those who lack the courage to take risks, to innovate, to take the initiative because there are so many reasons why it will go wrong.


The people who SHOULD PARTICIPATE are:

  • Those who are dropouts, cop-outs, washouts and rejected by society because they cannot pass an exam and show a degree next to their name
  • Those who have no possibility of getting the lowest of the low government job.
  • They have no choice but to stay and the investment in the training is not wasted.
  • They will earn the respect of the communities they serve because of the service they will provide.