1 Aug 2020
With Malaysia staggering back to its feet post-lockdown, Dipti Kumar of the Malaysian Collective Impact Initiative tells us what this will mean for the education of generations to come, and why educational equity is everyone’s responsibility.
If asked if she’d known that educational equity would become one of her biggest motivators for running MCII, Malaysia’s first collective impact organisation, Dipti Kumar would tell you what she’s told me: “Not at all,” the young CEO candidly shares. “What initially drove me and in fact still does was realising that the world was unfair, because while I grew up surrounded by people who knew the value of education and had access to it, somewhere out there is a child that doesn’t or can’t have what I had. So what can I do to change that?”
THE VALUE OF KNOWLEDGE
Growing up, Kumar recalls how her mother had made their education her number one priority, taking care to allow her children to explore their interests no matter the circumstance. “A huge part of my wanting to contribute to the growth of individuals via the education sector is largely attributed to my mother’s insistence on it,” Kumar says with a fond smile. “And because it helped my own growth so much, it made me all the more aware of the inequity that surrounded me.”
Despite her family experiencing their own financial constraints at the time, Kumar began tutoring at an orphanage near her home in Bangsar at age 15 as she was quick to realise the monetary challenges the orphans faced as well. “They (the children) didn’t necessarily have the means to pay for it, despite the fact that they needed it.” That very thought evolved, and then followed Kumar as she went to King’s College London for her bachelor’s degree in law, where she found herself volunteering a mentoring at ReachOut UK, a mentoring charity that worked with children from minority communities. When asked about the students she had mentored there, Kumar gave a small pause before answering. “They’re local students with character development challenges identified by teachers under the British school system… and a lot of them had tough backgrounds.”
Over time, Kumar’s passion for humanitarian work grew, and she eventually came across the prospect of hopping on the wagon that was volunteer tourism, also widely known as ‘voluntourism’. “I was excited at first,” Kumar says. “But after taking a long, hard look at it and the ethical conversations surrounding it, I decided to book a flight to Nepal instead of joining large-scale organisations or online volunteer projects that you had to pay for.”
THE ROLE OF AN NGO
The first thing 21-year-old Kumar did as she set foot in Kathmandu, was to get to know the locals and what it was they truly needed. “I think as NGOs,” Kumar begins carefully, “it’s important that we connect with the communities that we’re helping on a more empathetic level. We shouldn’t just decide what’s best for them and then just fix what we perceive as different or wrong without understanding what’s ‘wrong’ about it in the first place.”
During her three months in the sprawling capital of Nepal, Kumar eventually worked with one of their NGOs, Filosofika Nepal, which ran a shelter, a school, a drug rehabilitation centre and an informal education centre for the street children of Kathmandu. It must be said that the term ‘street children’ can be flexible in meaning, and according to Mike Greenwald’s independent report on ‘The Street Boys of Kathmandu’ (2014), both Greenwald and Kumar’s take on the term describe the children who live on the streets – which is an unfortunate moniker widely used to identify them. “They’re not orphans, it’s just that their families are so poor that they have to live on the streets,” Kumar explains. “Their fathers are away for work and their mothers will care for the children by the roadside. Filosofika Nepal aimed to empower these people, which was a cause I wanted to help.”
And while she gave the children classes, Kumar had felt that it I wasn’t enough of a difference, nor would it have lasted in the long run. “I knew that if I wanted it to be sustainable, I had to do more,” she says. “So I sat down with the school’s management and together we re-devised the whole curriculum.”
Providing classes that were more holistic and prompted higher order thinking skills, Kumar and Filosofika Nepal went as far as to revamp an NGO’s fund reliant system; turning it into a social enterprise model instead.
“We started running a small kitchen at the school because we wanted to bring the mothers out of the streets and have them closer to their children while they improved their own cooking skills.” Kumar shares. “And while one would think that the separation encourages independence, I think it’s important for those in the education sector like myself to not be so arrogant as to decide what’s ‘best’ for these children just because it may be good for their academic development.”
She then continues to tell me what became of the model revamp, her expression proud as she says, “The locals came to support the restaurant when word of it spread. And over time, as they started to get more money – the mothers included – children weren’t having instant noodles anymore and they get to eat healthier. nutritional meals now.”
But the challenges of an NGO aren’t limited to just funding, especially when one considers the various stakeholders they’ve united under a shared interest of improving the education system. “While the Collective Impact model we at MCII follow allows for everyone to be held responsible for our growth as a human race, recently there have been small, positive shifts in our local education system,” Kumar says. “The reality is that by creating a system that satisfies the needs the masses, we neglect individual ones -which then means we don’t address the human needs we require to grow.”
She also emphasises that although having a more adaptable framework that suits the current climate would be optimal, the key to change is dependent on the mindset of those involved. “The problems that arise in education are a systemic problem,” Kumar explains. “We can’t just change one thing and expect it all to follow. Take funding for example: the reason why it’s much harder for MCII to gain is because people ultimately focus on the short-term, tangible outcomes as it’s immediate-like if you gave me X amount of money today, then the school would then be provided X amount of tables tomorrow.
“But say if we had a 10-year plan of improving the system, it’s difficult for our audience to envision the long-term impact because they don’t see the change in numbers, they don’t see the impact reports. So it makes it harder for them to justify spending that money.”
And this hesitance, coupled with a lack of awareness of the latest education models among parents, makes MCII’s objectives all the more harder to achieve. “Let’s talk about the special education needs for example,” Kumar illustrates. “We follow a model where we divide the classrooms for children who are differently abled, where the teachers in said classroom are trained with specific skills that cater to the individual needs of these children and that includes identifying what kind of support these children need as individuals.”
“And specifically, when you talk about Malaysia’s initiative to address special needs, it’s great! But the problem lies within the execution of it,” Kumar gives a little sigh at this. “Because as a teacher, if I identify a student who has special needs, I need to help them and by doing that, I need to move them to a classroom that can better support their needs. But if the parents dismiss it and refuse, that child is going to be stuck in a system that won’t allow them to learn nor develop.
So what exactly does it take to create sustainable changes within a framework long built in place? “At the end of the day, we can point fingers and argue in circles about who is responsible for instigating change, but is that constructive? No,” Kumar states. “What MCII does and continues to do today, is to build trust among the communities we’re in contact with, to not only get them to tell us their needs and concerns, but to tell them that we’re here to support that so here’s how we can make this work.”
“Twenty to thirty years from now, I want to see Malaysia grow. And I’m not sitting on the sidelines as it does – I want to see my home empowered, especially its children”
From June 2014 to June 2016, Dipti Kumar had served in the advisory panel for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Trust for two years while undergoing her masters in law. It’s a charitable foundation founded in 2012 that aimed to eliminate preventable blindness and nurture young leaders across Commonwealth countries.