Monday, December 11, 2006

American India Foundation

My last stop in New Delhi was to visit the American India Foundation, which is the largest Silicon Valley/India foundation. Founded in 2001 in response to the Gujarat earthquake, AIF now runs multiple programs. The one I was most interested in is the Digital Equalizer Program.

Digital divide programs are notoriously difficult to run successfully. They typically run out of steam when the funding runs out, assuming they worked at all. Of course, people are reluctant to talk about the failures, but a few people have studied this issue. I had just read a paper about the LINCOS project in Central America, so this was fresh in my mind.

AIF is definitely part of the social entrepreneurship movement with a results oriented culture that appeals to the tech entrepreneurs who are some of the main funders. Lata Krishnan, the CEO, co-founded a billion dollar a year revenue company in tech before turning her hand to the social sector. She's very sharp!

Three schoolchildren in brown uniforms

The AIF team in New Delhi took me to visit a school that was part of the Digital Equalizer program. To my delight, the Akshay Pratishthan school had a focus on teaching students with disabilities: roughly half the students had disabilities and were mainstreamed with students without disabilities. This school is run by an NGO (a nonprofit) and provides free education to children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are very focused on education linked to vocational outcomes: the goal is to help these children move up the economic ladder with real job skills. The school has almost a dozen different social enterprises that provide access to these job skills.

Children getting on schoolbuses, some with physical disabilities including crutches and wheelchair users

One of those areas is of course computers, and that's where AIF comes in. The school is in its third year of the DE program. There are several ways AIF works to make the DE programs sustainable. First of all, they provide training for school staff and teachers on using the computers in education. Second, they focus on project based learning, where students use the computers to complete projects. I especially like this one: I never learned anything on the computer unless it was to accomplish something. I was shown an particularly nice student project in science on the physics of airplanes (lift, drag, etc.) : just the sort of thing I would have loved at that age. Lastly, they phase out their financial support over three years, requiring the school to gradually pick up all of the costs of operating the computer center over time.

The students and teachers were quite enthusiastic about the program, and were quite specific about why they like it (from the students' perspective) and why it's effective (from the teachers' perspective). Students get at least two computer sessions a week.

I was able to meet with the chair of the school's board, Mrs. Aruna Dalmia, and talked about the challenges of running a tuition-free school. The social enterprises often pay for the entire cost of operating a certain vocational department (like their beautician classes), but the core costs of running the school has to be raised from donors.

Three students
The children were simply delightful. Even an engineer like me softens around masses of enthusiastic kids. The philosophy of mainstreaming and full involvement for almost all of the disabled students resonated with me.

We wrapped up with a lunch back at the AIF offices, where I got to meet Shankar Venkateswaran, the head of AIF in India, and many of his team. Our talks covered a wide range of topics including AIF's work around helping people obtain good livelihoods in general, as well as challenges around adult literacy. I felt very much at home with the dynamism of the organization, and the focused way they go about obtaining results in India. For me, it was very much a learning experience as we explored how Benetech might be able to assist the work of AIF. Looking forward to going back with something useful in the future!

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