Chai With

Chai with Dr. Madhav Chavan. Co-Founder of Pratham

01 Oct 16

Brian Herbert once said “The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.” There are so many great minds that have the capacity, ability, and willingness to learn but unfortunately for them it is not a choice – what they lack is the means to a proper education to help develop those minds and that is where Pratham comes in. One of the largest non-governmental organizations in India today, since its humble beginnings in 1994, Pratham has made great strides in improving access to and the quality of education in India and worldwide. This month, we had the honor to speak with Dr. Madhav Chavan, who co-founded Pratham with Farida Lambay.

Before jumping into our wonderful conversation, I want to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Chavan. Having just flown into Phoenix with only hours between arriving and the Pratham Charity Gala 2016, he still made the time to speak with the Asia Today family and we had the opportunity to meet an amazing individual and learn more about the exciting work Pratham is doing in India and around the globe.

Humble Beginnings…

Our conversation started with a very simple question – How did the idea of Pratham form? Dr. Chavan shared that the original idea, a thought around creating a society mission that brought together government, business, and people to understand and address the education issue in Mumbai, came from UNICEF in 1991-1992. Dr. Chavan was asked to take the idea and run with it so he brought together civil servants and business people and created a body called the Pratham Mumbai Initiative. Originally, this was a mandate only for Mumbai and there were no thoughts and plans to have it grow to the global presence it has become today. However, people liked what Pratham was doing and it was working – governments liked it, people liked it, donors liked it. Due to the huge success in Mumbai, things kept happening and Pratham kept growing one successful step after another. Today, after surpassing its own humble expectations, the desire has grown to make a bigger impact and continue to make big transformations at a grand scale.

Many people mistakenly believe that Dr. Chavan moved back to India to start Pratham. During the course of this conversation, we discovered he went back to India to become a researcher and teacher and it was by chance that his shift collided with the literacy movement in India. At the time he shifted, Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister and the Government had launched many missions – one of them being the national literacy mission. India was recognizing that it needed to increase literacy if it was to become successful and they were trying to recruit people outside of government knowing that governments cannot make people literate; people have to make themselves literate. Luckily for Pratham and India, Dr. Chavan got caught in the middle of it and went from teaching at universities during the day to working in slums in the evenings for this initiative.

Preparation Meets Opportunity…

As I studied Pratham and its techniques prior to meeting Dr. Chavan, I was always intrigued by the data gathering tools used by Pratham to measure the problem. Maybe it is my IT background but I have been a firm believer of using data to solve problems but this was the first time I was seeing a not for profit organization use this approach so naturally I was inclined to ask Dr. Chavan about the thought process behind tools such as Annual Status of Education Report (ASER – symbolizing the hindi word assar meaning impact) and its impact to the work Pratham does. He graciously shared that the original idea was not to gather data. In the course of what they were doing to accomplish their goal of “Every child in school and learning well,” they were finding that there were a large percentage of children in school so the first part of that “Every child in school” was working but they were not learning enough forcing a shift in concentration on “learning well.”

As Dr. Chavan put it “if children are in school, parents assume learning is happening and so does the government.” There are assumptions such as children are in school so they must be learning or starting a school will get children to learn. However, the data gathered clearly showed that children were in school but not learning; having identified the root problem,the focus could shift to the right solution for that problem which required a two prong approach – educate parents and the government that children are not learning and create a tool to see if children are learning that was so simple it could easily be used by anyone regardless of their level of education. With this in mind, they started experimenting with various techniques – one of which was to go into the communities and have children take 5-7 minute household based (not school based) tests where they were sitting with their family and everyone was watching – the basis of ASER

As is the case with anything new, many people liked the idea of the tool while others hated it. However, Pratham continued to march forward and from its first survey in 2005, they executed the survey yearly for 10 years straight until 2015. In each rural district, 30 villages were sampled. In each village, 20 randomly selected households weresurveyed. This process generated a total of 600 households per district, or about 3,00,000 households for the country as a whole. Approximately 7,00,000 children in the age group 3-16 who are residents in these households are surveyed.Using the tool, they found that 50% of children reach 5th grade and cannot read a 2nd grade text or do simple subtraction. The tool was so successful that it convinced them it could be used in a large scale – it was accomplishing both goals of raising awareness that children are not learning and assessing the child’s capabilities. Data gathered from ASER impacted governments slowly but surely and the conversations shifted from starting schools to learning outcomes. Today, The ASER model has been adapted for use in several countries around the world: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Pakistan, Mali and Senegal.

Now many may say that Pratham was lucky. As it was starting, the government in India changed and Dr. Manmohan Singh started increasing expenditure in education with a focus on measuring outcomes not just money spent. However, in the famous words of Seneca, the Roman Philosopher, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” With the tools and techniques created by Pratham, the preparation had been done and Dr. Manmohan Singh created the opportunity. And when the opportunity came, Pratham was more than prepared! Recognizing that even with good intentions, it is difficult for governments to move quickly, they thought to take it upon themselves. Through voluntary action, the effort and money requiredcould be reduced.

Measuring and Sustaining Success…

For any profit or not-for-profit organization, it is important to have a measure to evaluate if they are successful and Pratham’s numbers speak for themselves. In Uttar Pradesh, where the literacy and education issue is the worst, experiments conducted showed that 23-24% of children were reading at the right level. After Pratham’s learning camps (10 days at a time every month), numbers jumped to 70-80% after only 5 camps. And the gains are sustained as long as you keep giving them materials to continue down the path of education. Last year alone, the Phoenix Chapter raised money for 1,000 libraries which provide books and other activities for these children to sustain what they are learning and keep going down the path of education long after these learning camps.

Well-Deserved Recognition…

Pratham has received many recognitions and awards through the years – Asia Game Changer Award, DAC Prize for Taking Development Innovation to Scale, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award, WISE Prize for Education, Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, Kravis Prize in Nonprofit Leadership, and the list goes on.

Having received so much well-deserved recognition, I was curious to know if there was one award or honor that was most memorable. And Dr. Chavan with a smile on his face quickly answered, they are all special but it is always the first one that is special. Being a late riser, he remembers getting a call from someone early at 8 AM stating that his boss was going to call him. He curiously asked who his boss was and the person stated that his boss was Henry Kravis who was in India because his daughter was there but would not share why his boss wanted to talk to him. When he received the call, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Nonprofit Leadership was to be awarded to Pratham and that was a huge moment both personally and for Pratham. The award came with a generous donation of $250,000 but more than the money, it brought Pratham to the international scene. Immediately following that,Pratham started receiving wards without applying and has made it a policy not to apply for any award which speaks volumes about the work that Pratham is doing and how well it is being received.

Lives Impacted…

Having been involved with Pratham from the beginning and having impacted so many lives, I had to ask are there stories that are close to your heart and he fondly recalled the story of a girl named Nancy (spelled Nainsi originally but all over social media as Nancy now) from a small village in Lucknow. Videos of Nancy’s Footsteps can be found all over social media: in 2013, she could not read simple words and the stress and nervousness was written on her face as she struggled with reading; it then moves to videos of her as she reads after each learning camp showing progress one after the other. The story doesn’t end there – one of Pratham’s volunteers went looking for Nancy years later and was successful in finding her. She showed Nancy the videos from 2013 and the little girl now grown up giggles at her own videos and then confidently says, I can read even better now, runs in to grab some books, and comes out and confidently reads passages about freedom fighters from history books. Pratham does this with millions of kids every year but as Dr. Chavan put it, it really doesn’t sink in until you see a child like Nainsi grow over the years.

The impact is not just with children. Dr. Chavan then moves on to a store about Surekha – President of a slum community. As he is teaching children in the community and telling them to teach their parents, a child comes to him saying that my mother is the president here but does not want to learn. Dr. Chavan went to the child’s mother who was from a Dalit Buddhist family and told her that he will return 15 days from today and asked what punishment he should give her if she has not learned to recognize letters by then. Looking around, he saw photos of Gautam Buddha and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the perfect punishment came to him. He told Surekha that if she has not learned to recognize letters when he returns, he will take these photos because they believed that people should learn and she does not deserve to have these photos if she refuses to learn. His colleagues were petrified by his unconventional approach and he himself did not know what the outcome to his ultimatum would be. However, he returned 15 days later to find that Surekha had kept her end of the bargain; as he called out letters, she drew them in the dirt showing that she was learning.

Final Message…

Asia Today was honored to meet such an amazing individual and learn more about the wonderful work Pratham is doing all over the world. We wish the organization continued success in all its future endeavors and look forward to hearing more about its contributions and successes in the coming years.