Tag Archives: volunteering in india

Is Gap Year Volunteering (or in generally Global Volunteering) a Bad Thing?

Volunteering abroad to build schools or dig wells might make people feel good about themselves – but it can be detrimental to those who are supposed to be helped, writes tour company founder Daniela Papi.”

(post inspired by this article in BBC News, where the above quote comes from)

When I was in grade 10, I went to an infosession on a volunteer trip to Thailand.  I still clearly remember how much the teacher emphasized that the trip was really about us (the volunteers) not the orphans – we would get much more than what they would receive and needed to be clear that we were not going to help someone else.

When I was volunteering at an NGO in India, I again saw the same thing… People were coming in to teach English for a few weeks feeling that they had an impact, but in the macro view it wasn’t really beneficial for the students (I’d even go as far as saying it was bad for them).  The volunteers didn’t necessarily know how to teach English, nor was there consistency from volunteer to volunteer (whether they taught simultaneously or consecutively).   Seeing this lack of cohesiveness and long-term impact, a friend who was a mid-term volunteer (ie several months vs few weeks) actually worked with the local teachers to change the system and stop the volunteers from teaching English anymore, instead assisting them in developing a methodology to teach English thru the local teachers.  Her work may not have been as “fun” as working with the kids everyday, but the systems that she helped create are being used to this day.

Recently a friend who is serving in India shared her frustrations as she was sitting behind a computer looking at spreadsheets when she wanted to be in the field working with the women (her project is focused on self-help women groups).  I understood her frustrations, but my immediate thought was – while it’s not what you expected to do, what you are doing is likely going to have a greater impact.

Volunteering abroad has great benefits – it is a chance to learn about other cultures, about people from different socio-economic groups than yourself and more (I don’t need to rehash its benefits).  The image of volunteering is spending time with “poor” kids or woman, helping them.  But the reality is is that NGOs usually have GREAT field workers – people who understand the language, the people and their hardships.  Generally, the biggest way you can support their activities is behind the scenes – helping to create more efficiency in the workflows, assisting with documentation or grant applications.  That is not to say there is no local interaction, but instead of being with lots of people, it will be with a select few. In the background, it is about capacity and skill building with the staff to assist them in doing a job they already can do better than you (ie. working with the local community).  Initially it may not seem as rewarding, but in the end I believe it is because you really create relationships with those few that you are working with and helping others grow is such a beautiful thing.

So, is volunteering abroad a bad thing? Not necessarily, but I think the perspective with which volunteers go to serve needs to shift (recognizing they will get more than the local community) and there needs to be an awareness and understanding to do the things that may not be as “glamorous” (and shareable on facebook) in order to really create value for the community vs just for oneself.



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Bubbles Bursting

I came to India with the mentality that I’m not here to change India, but India will change me. Keep an open mind, but more importantly keep an open heart. The recognition that I will not change the world is an important one, but remembering that in your day to day life is much easier said than done. Keep an open mind, keep an open heart- again something that is easier said than done.

I’ve been in Ahmedabad for six weeks now and slowing the bubbles are starting to burst around my head. In retrospect, I can say though I may have had a slightly better understanding of what it means to do service work in a developing world, I’m no more enlightened than the person next to me. I’d heard the stories and was on hand aware of what to expect, but the story is completely different when you’re the main character.

I’m so surprised, yet not surprised that I got caught up in the traps. Well maybe they aren’t traps, but necessary steps that every NRI has to go through. It takes more than just knowledge of what is likely to happen to come out of a mentality and way of thinking that we have been trained in.

Bubble number 1: India is not the US or Canada

Well duh.. no brainer right. In the N. America, we work on an external clock- deadlines, due dates, etc. In fact, as Indians we often complain about IST and get frustrated with it, though we all follow it… tyranny of the majority is our justification. Everything in India works on a much slower pace. It simply takes longer to get things done. For someone who is used to deadlines, likes to get things done and over it-this is a slightly difficult concept to become okay with.

Organization is not everything. A lot of work that I have been involved with isn’t formally structured. People kind of flow and things get done. But from an outsider perspective there is a lack of efficiency, etc. It takes some clarity of mind and untraining of the mind to recognize that there is some rhythm and organization to the seemingly unstructured flow.

It’s a very difficult process to untrain the mind. There are ties when I wonder if I am seeing things in certain ways because of my North American background or because there actually is something wrong. Slowly I’ll learn. As a person who likes to do, its been a challenging process to simply look, listen and learn, but as with any change in behaviour, etc, this is my sadhna. It is a practice that will take time.

There is a really awesome practice at MS that on someone’s birthday, we talk about that person’s gunas or positive attributes. I could see how it would be a challenging process on the part of the birthday person to make sure that the conversation does not inflate one’s ego. The process is not for that person. The process is a space to reflect and think about what one has learned from that person and to share that with others. With the people we see every day, work with all the time, it can be easy to forget to recognize what we are learning from them so this provides that space. In addition each person learns different things from the same person. We each share a personal and unique interaction and this is a space to share those experiences. I have found this process really powerful. Sahil was here for 6 weeks or so, I got a chance to interact with him for about 3 weeks. It wasn’t as if we had hours long conversations, but I still learned from him and I didn’t recognize that really until we spoke about him when he was leaving. As others shared what they learned, I thought about it and realized what I had learned. Sahil is really good at adjusting. I didn’t know this, but while he was MS, he never complained to other people, he just went with the flow and did stuff. He shared some of his frustrations with me, but not with MS staff. He adjusted to the culture at MS. Until other MS shared their experiences, I didn’t realize how much he adjusted, thus I learned from Sahil how to manage expectations and adjust. Anjali- I had only known her for a few days when it was her birthday, but already I had learned a lot from her. Bhaskar’s birthday was a few days ago and again the sharing was so powerful. You really get insight into people and are reminded again of how cool each person is, which sadly can be something that we can forget.

Bubble 2: Subconcious desire to skip the difficult steps that come between where I am know and who I want to become

Sounds weird and is sort of difficult to explain. I am surrounded by people who exude pure love. They are well on the path to knowing themselves and being present at all times. I want to shed agyan and negativity and be in state of constant harmony, but you can’t just get there in an instance. It’s a process that involves a lot of suffering after all suffering is for the purification of the soul. It takes effort and practice. No matter what I know or say, until I go thru the trials and tribulations which are inevitable, I won’t really understand and knowledge will remain knowledge and not become wisdom.

Plenty of other bubbles are bursting. The process is well underway.

It’s amusing on one hand to see how quickly I can fall back into old habits and thought patterns. Literally at one point, I was thinking, I could change this place around. That’s when someone had to come and ask me: did you come to change an organization, did you come to change people or did you come to change yourself? I had entered this spiral that veered off the path of truth which I have set out upon and forgot one of the things that the preamble to my blog says. Luckily I am surrounded by people who will guide me on my path. For their guidance, watchful eye, I am utterly thankful. Truly blessed to have so many around who care and will/are shining beacons for me when I get lost in the darkness.

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“Why do people come to India? It’s to get inspired.”

Wow. It makes so much sense, yet I had failed to recognize this reasoning. Everywhere you look in India, inspiration is right in front of you. The world that many of us live in in North America is so incredibly artificial. Turn on the tap and water comes out. Push down the handle and our feces and urine disappear from sight. Even without a formal survey, I could say with a large degree of confidence that a majority people do not have any idea how clean water gets to their taps and what happens to sewage after they flush. And these are the basic facilities. Let’s not forget how we get our food, where our clothing comes from or how plastic containers are manufactured. At least for those living in urban North America, the world that we inhabit is a mirage, hiding complexities and our interconnectedness to the rest of the world and humanity.

Come to India and a lot changes. Even if you don’t live in a village, where the connection between farm and products is very apparent, you are more aware of the realities of the world around you. For example, my upper class family friends in Ahmedabad, like everyone else, have water worries. Before the Narmada dam project, every week, a tanker would come by to fill their water tanks. It’s a country where even if you live in an AC house and drive a Mercedes Benz, the realities of the living conditions of those at the bottom of the pyramid cannot be swept under a rug.

In India, inspiration is staring you in the face. Everywhere you look there is an opportunity to serve and/or learn. Every moment that I’ve been here has been a growing experience. Left, right and all around, I’m meeting people doing incredible work and with hearts of gold. Some are NRI’s and many are not. Each is giving of their self, body and soul included. In one way, it’s easy to live in India, to be inspired and motivated. I could see how it would be a very different challenge to go back and maintain that state in the industrialized world. It’ll most definitely be interesting to see how some volunteering returning to the US adapt. Ultimately though, if one learns to see from the heart vs the head, I believe that inspiration will be found everywhere.

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