Suman Bhattacharjea – The colour of optimism


suman-3From September through December of each year the home page of the ASER Centre website showcases a map. With each passing week, that map steadily turns a darker shade of blue.  By December, all of India is a uniform dark blue – not a very interesting image for a website, but a beautiful sight for those who understand what it represents.

It means that the ASER survey has been completed in every state of the country. This December, the map will turn dark blue for the eleventh time. This year ASER will reach 607 rural districts of India, visiting something like 18,000 villages in all.

This will be my eighth ASER and watching that map slowly turn blue still fills me with awe – and pride. Not because of the statistics the survey generates, although of course those are important. But because behind that dark blue on the map are about 30,000 real people, all of whom have volunteered their time and effort, most of whom we will never meet.

At my first National Workshop – ASER 2008 – there was a delegation visiting from East Africa. Nobody could have imagined that eight years later, ASER-like assessments would be done in as many as nine countries in Africa alone. Last year, the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) network was formally established to link all the countries doing these citizen-led assessments. Dr Sara Ruto – a member of the group from East Africa that visited in 2008 – heads the network’s secretariat, located in Nairobi.

Those of us who do ASER understand why the model has spread so far. ASER is simple and quick. It measures something important and it tells us something we did not know about our own children. Most of all, it is not a complex technical measure that you can look at and shrug your shoulders and forget: it is a tool that both tells you what the current status is and points you towards what needs to be done. In other words, it connects assessment to action.

And so now there’s another map to track – the spread of citizen-led assessments across the globe. This is how the map looks today:


So far an estimated 600,000 ‘ordinary people’ have conducted these assessments in the thirteen countries that are currently members of the network (more information on how this came about is available here). We may never know their names or what motivates them. But in a world where every day brings scary and depressing stories from country after country, the very fact that year after year thousands of people come together voluntarily to ensure a better future for our children provides a ray of hope. Watching that blue spread and deepen on a map is what encourages us to remain optimistic.

Suman Bhattacharjea

Director (Research), ASER Centre