FROM PATNA TO PERU (AND BACK!)
My name is Arjun and I have been a part of the Program Management Group at Pratham. Our team is at a rather interesting niche in the organization – we interact with donors and manage those relationships, while also working with and supporting field teams on program planning and implementation.
My three years at Pratham have been a rollercoaster. From spending hours on train stations to eating guinea pigs in Peru to conducting elections in a village in Uttar Pradesh, Pratham has exposed me to a range of experiences that I could never have imagined. As I look back at my time in the organization, while there have been (plenty of!) moments of frustration, I would not have had it any other way.
I landed in Patna on a warm October night and caught a train to a district called Jamui on the edge of the state. The purpose of my trip was to visit a cluster of villages where local leaders had taken the initiative to work on children’s learning.
I met the cluster head with Gunjan (the Pratham staff member leading the initiative), and asked him what he would do if Pratham teams moved on from that area. He responded that they would manage on their own and that he would be that area’s Gunjan. This completely blew me away. Later, I sat under the stars talking to villagers about their aspirations for children’s learning. Their sheer enthusiasm and passion is forever ingrained in my memory.
Not long after this field trip, I found myself on a plane to Peru. Our team was helping the Peruvian government pilot Pratham’s teaching-learning approach in some rural schools. After a fair amount of travel, I reached a school in rural Cajamarca. It was morning, and the day’s activities were about to begin. I saw two boys come out of the classroom, collect some stones, and start playing the ‘number wheel’ game. This activity is designed to help them understand the concept of place value and had been taught in class the previous day. This was really amazing!
After my time in Peru, I returned to India and soon went back in Patna visiting new locations. The excitement of seeing people from India to Peru use, adapt and implement our approach fueled me and kept me awake, despite the jetlag.
When I look back at my time with Pratham, it has been the opportunity to work together with an extremely diverse group of individuals that has been one of the biggest highlights. From field staff in a corner of Bihar to leadership teams sitting in Delhi and Mumbai, the organization has allowed me to interact with–and more importantly learn from–a most incredible and passionate set of individuals.
By working on programs and developing collaborations with governments (in India or elsewhere), Pratham has given me the chance to really drive change and make my voice count. More than anything though, it has shown me the power of clear and focused action and convinced me that ambitious leaps in outcomes are possible in a future not too far from us.
And that’s really exciting.
WHAT MAKES PRATHAM CLICK
I gaze at a book called In Search of Excellence on my table, written by two ex-McKinsey consultants on what makes great ‘corporations’ click and I’m left in awe as to how Pratham, an NGO, has so intuitively, over and over again for the better part of the last two decades, managed to create an environment where everything just clicks.
Around this time last year, I knew little about the development sector. I’d worked for two years in a consulting firm and was ready to apply my obligation to dissent to a bigger context. Tired of castigating our politicians during after-work parties, I decided it was vital for me to get a sense of how things worked on the ground. At the same time, I wanted to stick to my core skill of data analysis. Measurement, Monitoring and Evaluation seemed like a natural fit, and Pratham’s work in the area immediately caught my attention.
When I joined in October 2017, I was fortunate enough to be trusted with Pratham’s flagship program, called Read India. I was told I’d be collaborating with more than 40 people from 10 states across India, which at the time seemed quite overwhelming! As I spent time with state-level MME teams, I realized how much effort Pratham had put in to cultivate a strong cadre of leaders in every state, an achievement few NGOs can boast of today. Data is often conveniently left out of the conversation in the social sector, yet here I was in an environment where people close to the field were discussing how our intervention could be more effective if some additional indicators were added to our monitoring formats1. I was humbled and elated to witness how strongly people in Pratham--whether our leadership in Delhi or a staff member in a remote village in Rajasthan--believed in the power of data to make better decisions.
Getting Into the Groove
In April 2018, Pratham decided to shift its focus from learning in schools to learning in communities. The goal, broadly defined, was to better understand learning levels of all children in a village and work towards improving those, involving community members in the process. That is no small task when working in 14 different states (~3500 villages) with such diversity in contexts. However, we realized we could either be discouraged by the massive scale and complexity of this problem or break it down into simpler pieces. The first step? Making sure community members understood the problem of poor learning levels in the first place.
The solution we came up with was a village report card, an assessment of their own community’s learning levels led by village volunteers. From designing the report card to piloting and translating it to training team members at the state level who then conducted volunteer trainings, I was given complete freedom to call the shots. In a span of 30 days, volunteers collected data from 100,000 children across ~480 villages in 14 states2. Further, close to 70% of this data was collected on a tablet-based application we built within a week’s time! Somehow, yet again, things just clicked! From our CEO to everyone on ground, it was heartening to get such tremendous support from all ranks of the organisation, all aligned toward a unified goal. I was doing some great work a year back too, but could I compare any of it to this exercise? I doubt it.
Every Child Learning Well
As I pause the music on my phone, my colleague from our Assessment Unit excitedly shares that one of our co-founders, Dr. Madhav Chavan, plans to make learning modules on music for rural children to access via Android tablets in their villages. ‘Why limit our work to Math and Science?’, he says. Another new day, another new idea, another new experiment; practicing our obligation to dissent against traditional beliefs about education. This pretty much sums up the one year I’ve spent at Pratham. People around me might be from a variety of backgrounds, but it is our unshakeable faith in every child learning well that, I guess, makes Pratham click!
- A website, prathaminsights.in, maintained by M&E team is a convenient platform for consumption of our program data in the orgaisation and outside, for our donors
- A Tableau based dashboard with analyses of this data can be viewed here: https://public.tableau.com/profile/eshan8280#!/vizhome/VillageReportCard-Round1/VRC
THE MAGIC OF PRATHAM
My journey with Pratham started in May of 2012, and although it has been some time now, Pratham still makes every day feel anew. Pratham was my first job out of university, so I was eager to absorb as well as apply my psychology degree in the real world.
Over time, Pratham has gifted me with the opportunity to work in various capacities. I started in the People Development Unit, where I contributed to the creation of capacity building programs for people within Pratham. Most importantly, this first position taught be that training can be a ‘tool for change’. As I gained experience, I began creating content and training people in conducting Life Skills sessions for adolescents, youth and adults. This profile gave me a chance to develop content for children on various soft skills and also work with many, many teachers across the organization.
With the learnings from the aforementioned experiences, I was provided a platform to lead a girls’ education program working with Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalays (KGBVs). KGBVs are residential schools established for girls for girls in Upper primary grades in economically and socially backward blocks of the country. Pratham’s partnership with KGBVs is in three states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Working in these three geographies gives me immense satisfaction and a constant thirst to learn and then concretize my learning. Be it seeing the KGBV girls speak confidently about a Science experiment they learnt, hearing the stories of friendship and collaboration with teachers and wardens or watching the way my own team of 50 women is evolving in the process -- everything has been extremely fulfilling.
One of the best things that Pratham helped me understand is how to nurture people. Looking at how my seniors have been with me and how they provided me with a safe space to grow, I learned about the impact that strong, consistent mentorship can have. Pratham works in the field of education, and even internally I’ve been amazed at how much personal and professional growth is possible here. The people in this organization are exceptional at facilitating change, both externally and within. I believe these experiences of warmth and guidance have been instrumental in translating the same in my own work.
In my journey of about six years now, Pratham blessed me with three values: trust, passion and resilience. I see these in people at all levels of Pratham, from the central team where I work to the state teams and instructors across the country. Pratham trusts its people, the energy within the organization is contagious and whenever we have a set-back, we bounce back with energy!
All in all, the Pratham experience is a magical one: there is magic in the work we do, the way we do it, the places Pratham takes us and the contentment at the end of the day!