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Weekly Blog

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A response to Nipun Mehta's talk

This article refers to a March 2 talk by Nipun Mehta -- here's the full video.

My perspective on Nipun Mehta is that of an outsider -- to Sarvodaya, to pay-it-forward schemes like the Karma Kitchen, and even to writing blog posts (this is my first). But it is impossible to spend more than five minutes with the man and not come away sharing his sense of infectious enthusiasm, awe, and wonder of the world.

Faithful readers and members of Sarvodaya will doubtlessly be able to extract layers of meaning from Nipun's talk. My personal and admittedly inexperienced takeaway was of the idea of positive deviance, a kind of willful obstinacy in the service of public good. Nipun's primary example was that of an old sweeper working in a school, subsisting on wages that even by the standards of rural India are a pittance. As she would sometimes find the dropped pencils and erasers of schoolchildren, the sweeper would collect and save her findings for those even less fortunate than she. Once she had accumulated enough, she would give them all away to children who couldn't afford school. The woman today is still a sweeper, still deviant, and still collecting pencils for children.

Nipun's point was that there is no system in place today that properly encourages this pattern of positive deviance, no system that can adequately reward the woman's behavior. He called it "the long tail of love," the cumulative contributions of thousands and millions like the sweeper. Organizations like Charity Focus or the Karma Kitchen, Nipun explained, exist to amplify this positive deviance. The internet allows for "the aggregation of small things," for the trust paradigm to replace the fear paradigm in giving. The cynic in me wanted to object that such behavior is unsustainable and hopelessly naive, but all I saw in the room that day were converts.

Aman Kumar | aik@stanford.edu

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