Skip to main content

I have long believed that rural communities held important wisdom, structures, and quality of life that urban areas often lacked. A kind of pattern of life and of working that seemed to supersede trends, fads, and the rush to adopt progress in the kind of sycophantic way the world tends now to react to new “things”, technology, ideas, and even practices of behavior. I saw heroism and an entrepreneurial kind of DNA that often lay marginalized in its understanding because perhaps its monetary or economic face was not so evident at first glance.

Suddenly seven months ago we found ourselves in the midst of a health crisis, the likes of which had never before been seen. It has upended social, economic, and even justice systems. It has brought our destructive nationalist behaviors and a decided lack of global cooperation at the country and even the regional level. In short, it has laid bare the fissures and the divides that have for so long arrested regenerative investment in our planet and our people.

Yet in the midst of this unparalleled disruption- one thing has become clear. Our Global South rural communities have fared better than we could have imagined. There is much to be learned in looking closer at the reasons for that. They speak to resiliency, self-sufficiency, an understanding of the natural environment, and most of all they speak to compassion and to coming together amidst the failures of the social systems which have never really served them well enough.

Country by country, those working on daily wages in urban areas have mitered back to their villages, repatriated themselves “home”… By air, bus, train, car, and even, as we have seen in India so starkly- by foot.

Cities overwhelmed by this kind of influx would have been broken in every way- yet rural communities across the Global South have somehow managed to absorb, feed, water, and bring close those millions returning to them. We tend to think that informal structures and decision-making mechanisms are somehow inferior to the formal ones yet they are the stuff that rural communities are made of and at this moment when all around them have failed- they have continued uninterrupted and effectively.

Barefoot College International has been running 50 Solar powered Digital Night Schools for rural children. Most in the first mile, previously non-electrified communities where we have brought our Women Prosper model of solar electrification. One delivered by community women trained as solar engineers. These Solar Digital Night Schools are ‘self-managed’ individually by a village led education committee and a network of local Civil Society partners whose work focus rests in and with those communities over many years. Thus we work by strengthening Communities, Civil society networks, and Individuals who have not had previous access to formal Skill development; in a model that is carefully designed to embed self-sustainability and leverage self-reliance.

Under the umbrella of my extraordinary team who work to train teachers from within the community and develop content that is distributed manually and digitally, these schools have become a constant source of learning and unlearning for us at Barefoot College International. The curriculum and content are grounded in Government academic requirements but with a substantial difference. It allows a dual focus on issue-based curriculums like gender and Environmental stewardship. It partners with strong partners such as Worldreader to provide reading materials digitally that engage children and parents in taking up a relevant contingent to improve participation in rural life. The Solar Digital Night Schools work to build citizenship, democratic process, and awareness as well as critical thinking skills for children, into everyday practical applications of science, technology, and mathematics. A lesson in the value of various crops becomes a mathematical lesson. A need to develop an understanding of how Government works is exemplified through the participation in an India wide, children’s parliament.

This model we have been developing for many years has become a replicable and scalable template for what works in times of disruption. Placing power, literally and figuratively, with rural communities- has been the best mechanism to ensure credible information has a way to flow and be disseminated in times of chaos and crisis- exactly when it is most needed. None of us can contribute to solutions unless we are armed with the information, the frameworks for decision making, and the agency to take an active and responsible role in self-governing our communities.

We so often disregard informal governance and structures as being somehow ‘less effective’ but we are seeing first-hand the critical nature of merging our more formal mechanisms for codifying and scaling “best case” examples with and through informal systems for which our rural communities are heroic examples.

This article is part of our 60th-anniversary series. It is written by Meagan Fallone. Meagan is the 2018 Hillary Institute Laureate for her Global Leadership in the areas of Climate Change, Poverty Reduction, Social Justice, and Empowerment of Women. Fallone is an experienced entrepreneur who has successfully led for-profit and not-for-profit organizations to scale with an approach grounded in design thinking. Through her current role as CEO and Director of Barefoot College International, a commitment to leveraging the “Barefoot Approach” towards addressing the pressing challenges of economic inequality, human rights, and climate change, has been achieved through a dynamic partnership model between people, the public, and private sectors at a global scale. Meagan and her team have developed the unprecedented scale and reach of the “Solar Mamas” ZERO CARBON initiative. Exemplifying ‘Justice’ across- education, economic, climate, and social indicators. Her commitment to human rights and inclusion are at the heart of all programs she has catalyzed together with a deep understanding of Systems Change outcomes which are institutionalized by and through Governments themselves. Today Barefoot works deeply with a network of more than 136 partner civil society and fellow social entrepreneurial organizations, with philanthropy and private collaborations with companies such as Apple, Credit Suisse, Oracle, Goldman Sachs, Hogan Lovels, and ENEL together with Multilateral partnerships for the impact such as UNWOMEN, UNESCO, UNDP, GEF. For more information about the author, visit, or email