The International Business & Development Club hosted a discussion with Pratham, an organization that aims to wipe out illiteracy in India. Forty students engaged in an interactive dialogue with Mr. Vikas Taneja who described himself as “a BCG partner by day, the head of Pratham’s Boston Chapter by night”. About one hundred students who attended the India Trek also had a chance to interact with Pratham, when they met with the organization’s CEO on their December visit to Mumbai.
For those who think that non-profit is a fluffy topic, think again! For starters, take Pratham’s ultimate objective – to eliminate illiteracy in India by 2009. This means reaching out to 60 million children who currently do not know how to read or write, with a $20 million budget, all by next year! Anyone willing to take on that job after graduation? While Mr. Taneja acknowledged, with a chuckle, that this timeline was too aggressive, he also remarked that it was the sheer audacity of the goal that motivated himself and others at Pratham to reach for the impossible. And it has worked! In fact, Pratham has now educated millions of children in 21 states across India.
So how do you create a low-cost, scaleable education model that can be replicated all across India when you don’t have a great deal of money, teachers, or motivated children? Well, like most tough problems, the solution here is a mix of art and science. The art here is being creative and letting go of old paradigms. For example, Pratham recognized that one of the biggest costs in educating children was the initial expense of constructing school buildings. So to minimize fixed costs, Pratham decided to leverage resources that were already out there – i.e. classes were held in a community member’s kitchen, underneath a tree outdoors, or in any open space they could find.
But what do you do about the human resource constraint? After all, as Mr. Taneja said, 50% of the public school classes don’t even have instructors due to a shortage of teachers.
Instead of going to teachers colleges, Pratham responded to this problem by training women from the local community in basic reading, writing and math curriculum. Not only did this address the teacher problem, but it also empowered these women, many of whom were single mothers who had previously been socially and economically excluded from society. The community-based model also works in addressing the challenge of student absenteeism. After all, if a kid doesn’t show up to school, the local teacher knows where he lives and can personally hunt him down!
Pratham’s operating model not only demands the art of creativity, but also the science of numbers and hard analysis. In fact, Mr. Taneja joked that it was Pratham’s focus on data that appealed to his consultant within and drew him to Pratham in the first place. For example, when Pratham realized that there was no reliable data on literacy levels in India, it decided to spearhead the largest educational survey ever done in India, a daunting task that involved coordinating 500 independent NGOs, and over 110,000 volunteers to travel to cities and villages all across India to gather school enrollment data and test children on their basic literacy and math skills. For those who still think that non-profit work is child’s play, try managing an organizational challenge of that size!
To achieve its goals, Pratham has established a unique public-private partnership. It draws together corporations, the government, and community leaders to improve the quality of teaching, motivate children to complete school, and ensure that skills of young people meet the needs of India’s emerging economy. Private partners include such IT giants as Microsoft, WIPRO Technologies, Lucent Technologies, Google and the Gates Foundation. For example, Google is working with Pratham to make a real-time, online district-by-district map tracking education performance indicators across India. The idea is that if government and NGOs have easy access to this information, it can help them spend their scarce resources more wisely. Additionally, Pratham has entered into partnerships with state governments and is playing an active role in influencing education policy.
So for those of us who aspire to do good in the world, but don’t want to commit to a life of non-profits, is there anything we can do to help? In fact, India’s business leaders are doing just that. Some of the biggest “movers and shakers” of India’s business community sit on Pratham’s board including Mr. Mukesh Ambani (Chairman, Reliance Industries), Mr. N Vaghul (Chairman, ICICI Ltd), Mr. Kumaramangalam Birla (Chairman, Aditya Birla Group) and Mr. Rajat Gupta (Managing Director, McKinsey & Co).
However, since our CEO days are still a long way away, what can we as students do today? The session ended with Mr. Taneja asking HBS students that exact question. One student suggested that RC students could help Pratham fundraise through their section charity auctions, and Mr. Taneja responded that if students could raise $15,000 they would be able to sponsor a Pratham education program for an entire district. Other suggestions included hosting another discussion where interested MBA students could provide specific suggestions for Pratham’s strategy going forward. Overall, it was great to see a true conversation between business school students and an innovative non-profit organization. After all, as Pratham has learned, it is the partnership between these sectors that creates a real impetus for change.