Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Daily Struggle

I came to India to get experience developing and executing an entrepreneurial idea and to gain international exposure to NGO work. My experience in the US had quickly taught me that a nonprofit organization's approach to working in one city required a different approach to working in another city. I knew that regional differences played a significant role and anticipated that India's would only be magnified, but to what degree and to what dimension I had no clue. In my nearly five weeks working in India, I've quickly learned what I came here seeking. Entrepreneurship is no doubt difficult, but doing it in rural India requires twice the input and gets you only half the output. Never had the words, "you will soon appreciate the small wins," rang so true.

Everyday is a new day and never like the one before. When we first arrived we focused heavily on meeting with foundation staff to begin understanding the challenges in the area and develop contacts throughout the region. When not in meetings, we were discussing our web platform and wireframing the webpages to pass along to our web developers.

As we began developing our local sea legs, we soon became all too familiar with "the runaround." The runaround is everywhere. A task that should take five minutes takes five days. Things that are promised are rarely delivered without persistent pressure. Good communication (not to be confused with translation problems) is hard to come by and passing the buck is standard operating protocol. These are all part of a culture, which for thousands of years has tolerated with great patience bureaucracy, a sense of individualism, and in my opinion, a lack of trust, which I think is at the heart of why you can never find the decision maker when you need a simple task completed, and why when things go wrong everyone wants to point their finger to the next person. Without accountability the job is always harder.

Having learned to recalibrate expectations we have continued to pursue our work in the field, meeting, interviewing and filming NGO leaders, government officials, journalists, professionals, farmers and villagers. If logistics are the tortoise of our project, then getting an interview is the hare. When people hear you are a student from the US, it becomes your VIP pass to speak with whomever you want, even without an appointment. And they have no problem opening up their mobile contact lists to you either. Whether it was the Commissioner of the Municipal Development Corporation, who overseas 1.2 million people, or the most successful businessmen in the region, getting their numbers, speaking to them on the phone, and setting up a meeting was no problem - in fact, almost too easy.

With already 15 hours of footage, we split our time pursuing new leads and editing clips to help frame the challenges we seek to present. Beyond all the day-to-day operations, this has been our biggest challenge. There are no shortage of problems to be solved, for example in the education sector, but determining which issues are systematic and which could have potential to be addressed by the general public with a sustainable, scaleable solution is always a debate. And ensuring our time is spent wisely is a guessing game. When we travel four hours to a remote village to interview farmers about their involvement in their child's education, it's a total crapshoot whether the information we gather will be pertinent to our project's objectives. Some days require so much time and energy, yet provide little reward for the project, beyond the personal experience we can take home with us.

Beyond the personal challenges of work are the personal challenges of maintaining proper health. After four weeks of eating in the local restaurants, in villages and transitioning from bottled to filtered water, my stomach and I felt most invisible, with the exception of the minor discomfort from time to time. But as soon as I thought I had begun developing an immunity to the spices and dubious cleanliness of food preparation, I was knocked off my feet, admitted to the hospital with a food-borne virus. Right when I thought I was in a good zone with respect to my body and my project, everything nearly came crashing down. If it weren't for the support of my team, our project may have been derailed while I lay incapacitated.

India is a challenging place to work. And where I am, in the rural enclaves, life is much slower and more conservative. On one level, I can't say I would want to work in an environment like this again. I must acknowledge that I am biased by the struggle of being away from my fiance for so long, but there is more to my sentiment that resides here in India. I have accepted my new temporary home, but I often find myself fighting the cultural norms. I know change is slow, and I'm not expecting to change the world overnight, but its the small things, like getting a computer cord, which require four visits to the computer shop after four separate promises that it would arrive that evening, and the next, and the next and the next. It's arriving at a meeting, and waiting five hours for it to get started. It's meeting with a doctor and asking him a question about your test results and receiving a look of contempt as if it was an affront to ask a question of such an educated man of status. And the gender inequalities, while not oppressive, are disheartening.

But when I pull back and see the forest from the trees, I come away more optimistic from this experience. There has been a lot of amazing things about working with the people in India. Most are gracious, friendly and willing to help. They have taught me so much about their culture, and through the process, have educated me of the challenges of international development. I haven't even finished my project and yet I know that grown through the richness of experience, which has made the journey all the more satisfying.


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