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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/CIRAN


The Barefoot College - promoting productive employment for youth


A hundred years ago, when villages in India had no urban-trained professionals with impressive paper qualifications, what did the villagers do? They developed their own knowledge, skills and wisdom to solve their basic problems of drinking water, health, education and employment. The Barefoot College has been reviving and giving more respect and dignity to knowledge, skills and wisdom that have been devalued and discarded by modern-day planners and ‘experts’. The idea is to apply traditional, indigenous knowledge and skills to solving these basic problems, and thus to reduce villagers’ dependency on the expertise from outside which is so often inappropriate and irrelevant. Villagers are encouraged to depend more on their own common sense, on their indigenous institutions, and on their own practical skills and ability to judge what is possible.

The skills taught at the Barefoot College are aimed at providing the basic services villagers need: safe drinking water, sanitation, education, and health care. The College is a non-formal training institute where young men and women are taught practical skills by village teachers, many of whom have no formal qualifications. Teaching and learning are based on the day-to-day needs of villagers. The approach has given the College a grassroots base, made the training low-cost, and demonstrated the sustainability of community skills that have never been endorsed by any recognized university or college. Up to now the practice of using village knowledge and skills has only been paid lip-service; it has never really enjoyed real confidence or been given a full opportunity.

The College has over 400 staff members working full-time in various activities related to basic services. They have no formal qualifications for the job they are doing. With the help of a cadre of barefoot engineers, doctors, teachers, designers, chemists, accountants and traditional communicators, communities are using expertise they acquired from their ancestors. The concept of communities depending on themselves has revived. Indigenous institutions and decision-making processes have been activated, and villagers have gained new confidence. They increasingly recognize their own strengths and assign value to their own skills--something that was never felt before.

All changes emerge from a conflict of ideas, approaches and methods. The Barefoot approach has challenged the urban-based, ‘paper-qualified’ experts in the belief that this totally non-violent conflict will be beneficial to the communities over the long term. Already the benefit has been amply demonstrated.


Region: Ajmer District Rajasthan
Neighbourhood/village: Silora Block


  • The use of traditional (indigenous) knowledge, skills and wisdom promotes active community involvement because people depend more on each other.
  • The use of traditional knowledge has an ethical dimension. It encourages transparency and accountability. This is not the case with urban-based skills, which encourage secrecy and dependency, and which offer no guarantee that the service is either competent or reliable.
  • The use of traditional knowledge demystifies the local technologies that will be the basis for sustainable solutions in the future. The more people who understand and try out a technology, the greater the chance of the technology being accepted.

Economic sustainability is achieved as people depend on and compensate each other for exercising their skills and providing services. Nothing is free.

Environmental sustainability is served by using solar energy instead of fossil fuels, and by collecting rainwater instead of drawing on groundwater for drinking.

Other types of sustainability are achieved by using traditional media, such as puppet and street theatre, to convey messages on social issues (minimum wage, gender equality, etc.).


The main stakeholders and beneficiaries are rural communities that are socially and economically poor but culturally rich. More specifically, the College trains members of these communities who are otherwise not eligible for work in public service because they are semi-literate and from vulnerable, socially deprived groups. Such people account for 95% of the College’s full-time staff. They are trained to provide valuable service to their communities as barefoot engineers, doctors, teachers and traditional communicators.

The staff of the Barefoot College and the members of the communities they serve number some 50,000 to 70,000 people.



The strengths are obvious. Local technologies based on traditional, indigenous knowledge and skills have stood the test of time. They have been accepted without question by village communities, and have been used extensively. Their low cost makes them easily replicable wherever similar problems exist. If the people were left to themselves they would use such technologies more widely.


  • Urban-based, ‘paper-qualified’ ‘experts’ with incomplete knowledge continue to interfere, undermining recognition for the importance of local technologies and traditional knowledge. This is the biggest threat to the practice.
  • Local people find it difficult to stand firm and press their case. They have a lack of communication skills and low self-esteem.
  • This approach has been tested over the last 25 years and has proven to be effective.
  • It has increased the confidence of the poor, developed their self-respect, and enhanced their dignity and self-esteem.
  • The barefoot professionals are no longer too shy to meet with and talk to urban-trained 'experts' on an equal footing.
  • In 1997-98, through the use of centuries-old local technologies, a total of 12 million liters of rainwater was collected in 100 schools attended by 3000 children. The cost was a mere USD 0.10 (ten US dollar cents) a liter.
  • The schools now have teachers, albeit barefoot teachers with no paper qualifications.
  • Over 150 young people from nine states of India have been trained as barefoot solar engineers. They have equipped over 2000 houses in the Himalayas with solar electricity.

The practice could be transferred to other places and situations, but it is essential that several conditions be met:

  • The organization or institution must believe in the value of traditional knowledge and skills and have faith in its own capacity to make use of them. If not, there is absolutely no point in trying to replicate the practice.
  • If the organization or institution has been totally spoilt by the presence of and dependency on urban-based, ‘paper-qualified’ ‘experts’, then the Barefoot College approach will not work.
  • The organization must be flexible, transparent and non-hierarchical. Otherwise the approach will fail.
The Barefoot College approach has been replicated in 13 states of India, and in Morocco. There are plans to perhaps try it out in Mali in 1999.

The organizers of the Barefoot College are prepared to help replicate the approach anywhere in the world where there are problems of unemployed rural youth and where there is a high rate of illiteracy, which means that there is a rich and vibrant oral tradition and that indigenous knowledge remains to be identified and utilized.

The College does not encourage visitors to drop in unannounced. It prefers to receive advance notice and to confirm dates, and asks that visitors respect this.


The Barefoot College was winner of the 1995 ESCAP HRD award, an award given by the Human Resources Development (HRD) section of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). More information can be found at their website: http://www.escap-hrd.org/abarfoot.htm.

The Barefoot College began in February 1972. There is no end in sight.


Bunker Roy
Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC)
Barefoot College
E-mail: bunker@slt1.unv.ernet.in


Organzation that provided this information:

Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), Barefoot College
Tilonia 305816
Madanganj District Ajmer, Rajasthan
Telephone: 91 1463 3016 / 88205
Fax: 91 1463 88206
E-mail: swrc@unv.ernet.in

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