Dr. Madhav Chavan is co-founder, president, and CEO of Pratham. Recently, I interviewed Dr. Madhav Chavan, co-founder, president, and CEO of Pratham, and a 2011 recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Pratham is the largest nongovernmental organization working to provide quality education to the underprivileged children of India. It was established in 1994 to provide education to the children in the slums of Mumbai city. Since then, the organization has grown both in scope and geographical coverage.

“Madhav Chavan is transforming India’s approach to children’s literacy and education,” said Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation. “Chavan’s unwavering insistence on universal education and his work to engage community volunteers in the quest for literacy, has already reached more than 34 million children, offering a proven model for the entire world.”

Rahim Kanani: Describe the inspiration and motivation behind the founding of Pratham.

Madhav Chavan: The original thought that led to the formation of Pratham came from UNICEF in Mumbai. They set up the Bombay Education Initiative in order to create a three-way partnership between government, businesses, and civil society to own and solve the problems of universalization of primary education in Mumbai. The process that followed eventually led to the formation of an independent charity in which people from government, businesses, and civil society became board members. Once this was done, we went on to build on-scale interventions.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, how has Pratham evolved in terms of resources, reach, and results?

Although the board had many eminent, well-known people, it was important to establish credibility of the on-the-ground team, which was small. We began to build programs that took into account shortage of resources, space, and trained manpower but that still worked on scale. The first such program was the movement to set up pre-school centers in Mumbai that identified young women in slums who were good with kids—we gave them simple orientation and some play materials, and asked them to find a community space where the parents would send their children for a couple of hours. They were allowed to charge a small fee and keep the collection as their income. In a short while this began to spread and Mr. Vaghul, chairman of the largest private financial institution, ICICI, decided to champion our cause.

In 1994, we had only Rs. 250,000 (~$5,500 USD) for resources. But the success of our program and the backing of champions such as Mr. Vaghul helped us increase the donations tenfold over ten years. The model of a tripartite partnership was attractive to many people in other cities of India, and Pratham was spontaneously replicated in Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Pune, and so on. This geographical spread and growth in our ability to raise funds was accompanied by maturing of the organization—from an innovative service delivery outfit to an innovator in teaching-learning. From pre-schools, we went on to develop in-school remedial learning programs, bridge programs to mainstream out-of-school children, and a simple method of teaching children how to learn to read in a short time. Oxfam Novib, one of the 14 national affiliates of the Oxfam International Confederation, supported us in a big way to build capacities. As a new government took charge in Delhi with a promise of outcomes over outlays, the testing tool, which was the product of the Learning to Read method, gave birth to the nationwide survey for the Annual Status of Education Report—an innovation in itself.

A survey of over 16,000 villages, 320,000 families, and an assessment of about 700,000 children every year since 2005 became possible because of our ability to mobilize large numbers of volunteers in far corners of the country. We quantified the problem of the poor quality of education for the first time in India—and perhaps the world—where more and more children were enrolled in school, but learning was not improving. Following this, we launched the Read India campaign with the help of the Hewlett Foundation. This campaign helped us take the issue of lack of learning and what can be done about it across India to over 350,000 villages across the country. However, the campaign had a limited impact in some states. We have now scaled down Read India to one-tenth of the original size and are building demonstration models that can help to scale up again with renewed vigor.

As someone recently said, work in progress often looks like failure. Ours is a mix of success and setbacks, but we have the energy to keep going, which comes from the top of the society that gives up finances and from the bottom of the society where the volunteers come from. Both want change, and we are one of their vehicles in this fast-changing country.

What is the relationship between the localities in which Pratham operates and the local government?

We started with the premise that a three-way partnership was possible, and it worked for some time. However, it became clear to us that the way the government functions in India today, officers go through revolving doors, and partnerships fall apart with every transfer. There is no institutional memory and no policy continuity for change. Having experienced this for a decade, we have decided to build stronger links with villages and village governments. When state-level governments are amenable to partnerships, we build them. Maintaining continuous strong links with the community requires that members of the community participate actively in programs. Pratham has always relied on volunteers from these communities. They provide a live link with the people.

From a leadership perspective, what have been some of the critical challenges you have overcome or key opportunities you have seized that have significantly contributed to the success of Pratham?

The challenge of shortage of resources, both human and financial, was the first one. Creating an organization that can work with relatively few resources, and converts challenges (such as lack of space) into opportunities (such as asking the communities to provide spaces), is what I am really happy about. The key opportunity that we created was the launch of the Annual Status of Education Report. Although we did not know if we could raise the funds and the human resources for it, we decided to complete a survey across India and publish the results within 100 days. Until then, it was common for governments to sit on studies and surveys for years together. We created an example of setting the clock and delivering results that were current. It was after that that the governmental agencies began to bring out their results relatively quickly. It was a catalytic effect of a different kind. The report also created an example for many to follow that said people can do massive surveys with limited resources as a voluntary action to measure the effectiveness of their government’s action.

Separate from more capital and manpower, or other tangible assets, what are some intangible assets you need in order to be successful on the ground?

Social capital. The trust that people place in you, and your own ability to trust people, is probably the greatest intangible asset. It is also important to look at one’s own actions critically and reflect so that work can be improved. There is often a tendency to glorify the leader and, worse, the tendency for leaders to promote themselves. I find that while they benefit in the short term, invariably they are harmful to the organization.

As Pratham continues to expand, paint for a moment a portrait of the organization’s position—as you wish it would be—five years down the road.

Pratham’s strongest point so far is its ability to mobilize people. Our capacity to deliver high-quality educational services is limited by the abilities of the very people who provide energy on a large scale. Five years from now, Pratham should be recognized not only for its ability to mobilize people, but also for its ability to build capacities to deliver a high-quality, education-related services.

Read the full interview at World Affairs Commentary.