Our attempts to frame all the difficulties that we encounter in the world as ‘problems’ may be one of the reasons why it is difficult to bring these difficulties to an end. Each of these problems have inherent paradoxes and a solution to a problem leads to new problems. We solve the problem of transportation through new innovations and create new problems like air pollution, traffic jams, cutting trees and so on.
There are some problems which are defined in ways that are loaded with several assumptions. For example, we want to eradicate child labour. To solve this problem, we create laws that ban children working in factories and by setting up mechanisms to monitor these cases. But when children act in a movie or become popular by winning a reality singing show, we don’t complain that it is child labour because it is assumed that money and popularity are not bad for children. This paradox is inherent in all our thinking across different subjects.
Let me take you back in time to two social innovations that came from my country – I grew up with the former and the other grew on me over the years. These innovations are the outcome of a deep understanding of the paradox inherent in every problem. My belief is that by surfacing out the contradictions and understanding these paradoxes, a greater level of awareness can be created about the problem and a solution resulting from that awareness can address the problem in the best possible way by thinking holistically.
Midday meals by K Kamaraj
K Kamaraj was a former Chief Minister of my state Tamil Nadu in India between 1954 – 1963. During his term, the state was grappling with several social challenges that included malnutrition in kids and low literacy rates.Once during an official trip to South Tamilnadu, Kamaraj had to stop at a railway intersection and he got out of the car and waited. He saw a few boys busy with their cows and goats. The Chief Minister had asked one of them, “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you go to school?” The boy immediately answered, “If I go to school, who will give me food to eat? I can learn only if I eat.” Confronted by the paradox inherent in the answer, the Chief Minister, who also dropped out of school when he was a kid to support his family, launched one of the greatest social innovations ever – the midday meal programme. By offering a meal at schools, his government started nudging students to attend schools and as a result, they tackled two social problems – low literacy rates and malnutrition in kids.
We had this program in the school where I studied in my hometown, Madurai, and several of my classmates from extremely underprivileged backgrounds used to bring a plate along with books in their school bag. The government over the years has introduced eggs (it is a privilege for these kids) once a week and also used this programme to give employment opportunities to women.
The impact of the program ranges from attracting children from disadvantaged sections (especially girls and tribal populations) to school, reducing school dropouts, increasing nutritional benefits, integrating kids from different castes and also, creating employment opportunities to women. The programme has since been adopted by various state governments in India and is also extended through public-private partnerships with organizations like Akshayapatra. Today, it is the largest programme in the world serving 120 million children in over 1.27 million schools and Education Guarantee Scheme centres.
Non-violence by Mahatma Gandhi
Non violence is THE greatest social innovation that I know of. Non-violence by Gandhi is an outcome of the understanding of the paradox in the conflict between Indians and British. The paradox: at an individual level of identity, whether they are Brit or Indian, they are opposed to the killing of another human being and oppression but when it comes to their national identity, the same humans are ready to kill each other.
Non-violence is an outcome of the realization that the conflict is not between humans but rather one of identities and I believe that Gandhi cared for the British humans as much as he cared for the Indian humans.
In conflicts all over the world, the ‘status quo’ is that there are a bunch of soldiers fighting and millions of citizens who are disconnected from the violent engagement between two sides. The traditional way to engage the citizens is to give them military training. Gandhi turned it upside down. He was successful in engaging millions of people by disengaging this idea of soldiers with weapons. Non-violence is disruptive to the traditional violence-based model because it attracted more people who are non-consumers of violence who otherwise would have avoided participating in this movement because a) ordinary citizens wanted to contribute to Indian independence but are scared of taking up weapons or loss of life b) their value system/religious affiliation would not allow them to kill people c) they were afraid of taking the law into their own hands, fearing that it would leave them with ever lasting guilt d) they couldn’t take the shame of going to jail and they didn’t want to spend time and efforts to undergo military training e) they wanted to contribute without doing what is generally taking place.
Non-violence satisfied all the above and even delighted the common person because they were revered for their moral courage and discipline, imprisonment became an honor because they are doing it for a bigger cause and it left them with no guilt, and transferred this guilt to their opponents. Also, it gave self-respect to people who otherwise would not have used their power in any other way. Instead of fighting on battlefields, new initiatives like Salt Satyagraha, Quit India movement (the equivalent of ‘Go to Market’ models in the business world) are mobilising and influencing people to join their cause.
We have a proven, healing innovation called ‘non-violence’ that is available but unfortunately, the modern world wants to stay with the status quo of violent approaches to resolving conflicts. Countries spend billions of dollars to strengthen their military capability when millions of their citizens don’t have access to shelter and food. For a war that will not happen or for a war that is going to happen in the future, countries are de-prioritising their present realities. The above examples demonstrate that it is possible to solve these problems by understanding the inherent paradoxes. Can’t food security and national security be tackled in a manner similar to the midday meals approach?
Author: Vijay Raju, Associate Director & Head of Partnerships, Global Shapers Community, World Economic Forum. He is also a Global Leadership Fellow. Follow the Global Shapers on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.globalshapers.org
Image: School children eat their free mid-day meal, distributed by a government-run primary school, at Brahimpur village in Chapra district of the eastern Indian state of Bihar July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi