From problem to paradox

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 etc. 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 set up mechanisms to monitor these cases. But when children act in a movie or participate in TV reality shows, we don’t complain that it is child labor because it is assumed that big money and popularity is not bad for children.This paradox is inherent in all our thinking across different subjects.

In this post, I am going to 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 the 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 about the problem.

Mid Day 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? How can I learn when we don’t have food to eat?”. Confronted by the paradox inherent in the answer, the CM who also dropped out of school when he was a kid to support his family, launched one of the greatest social innovations ever – ‘The mid-day 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 which are 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 the Adivasis) to school, reducing school dropouts, increasing nutritional benefits, integrating kids from different castes and also, creating employment opportunities to women. The programme has since then been adopted by various state governments in India and is also extended through public private partnerships with organizations like Akshayapatra and others. 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 a Brit or an Indian, they are opposed to the killing of another human being, oppression etc but when it comes to their national identity, the same humans are ready to kill each other. A low level identity like ‘nation’ precedes our high level identity called human beings. Gandhi’s Non-violence used this high level identity to resolve conflicts between low level identities. Gandhi realized that it is not a conflict between humans but rather one of identities and he 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 while millions of citizens stay 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 armed soldiers & 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 of the following reasons.a). Ordinary citizens wanted to contribute to Indian independence but are scared of taking 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 in 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 all that what is being generally done.

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 instead causing the opponents to feel the guilt.Also, it gave self respect to people who otherwise would not have used their power in any other way.Instead of fighting in battlefields, new initiatives like Salt Satyagraha, Quit India movement (the equivalent of ‘Go to Market’ models in the business world)were created to influence and mobilise people to join the 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-prioritizing their present realities. The above examples demonstrate that it is possible to solve these complex problems if we understand the inherent paradoxes.

Can’t food security and national security be tackled with one solution?

You can also read this article in WEF agenda via http://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/06/problem-paradaox-2-social-innovations-that-have-changed-india

Image Credits: indianexpress.com

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed are those of the author and they do not reflect the views of his organization or any of his affiliations

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