Sunday, April 29, 2012

Poor NGO Types

I work for social change. When I started in this field I was often the butt of my own jokes and did joke about how I was always broke. Somehow it goes with the image, but the more time I spend in India working on civil society projects relating to women's rights, the more I realize how ridiculous it is. Sure we can all conjure up the traditional image of an Indian social worker,  'Khadi ka Kurta pajama', in our minds with a cheap Jhola bag resting on his shoulder and dusty kolapurri chapals on his tired feet. In addition to being obviously poor and hungry. Well I could not disagree more with that image. Yes, I believe in working tirelessly for the needs of others. Yes I believe that we all owe it to ourselves to make sure that our fellow woman and man is well taken after. But no, I do not need to be hungry and poor to help the ones who are. I do not need to live below the poverty line in order to help people who do. Just like I don’t need to turn into a maple tree in order to save one, or a woman to work for women's rights.

I ask you this, why on earth are the people who work for the good of others forbidden from enjoying a comfortable lifestyle? No one would ever question my lifestyle if I made millions by marketing the merits of poisonous products such as Coca Cola or tobacco but the second a social worker drives a car or eats in a nice restaurant she/he is considered to be dishonest. 

Had I been a doctor or a lawyer no one would question my fancy German car, or accurate Swiss watch, fine Italian suits or lavish holidays on some luxurious island resort with a hard to pronounce name.

When I asked Dr Anand Kumar a noted sociologist the same question, he answered "Society accepts preachers who are practitioners, be it Vivekanand, Gandhi, Mother Teresa or Anna Hazare. Socially cautious entrepreneurs like Ratan Tata, Narayan Murti and Azim Prem ji are all highly respected by all strata of society. Social entrepreneurs like Sunita Narayan, Aruna Roy and Vindeshwar Pathak are all examples of women and men who have broken away from the cliché of the impoverished individual working towards social change.”

Kuber Sharma, a modern day social activist, argues that "This doesn't exist in my world. I know that this lifestyle is something I don't survive in. Hence while I am not averse to working in the grassroots and have worked in little villages all over India, as a full-time profession I prefer a cushy Delhi office. No I still don't have an air-conditioned office, but at least I can be myself here. If clothes and gadgets will dictate what I am and how I think, then let people judge me."

Devendra Kumar, a development professional and also one of the first people who told me "I want to make money through doing good" (this was about 10 years back ), when I gave him a ring for this blog post explained that "Social work in India is still considered a voluntary action and not a professional one. This is a major downer for the development sector. The salaries of the social sector need to marginally match the ones of the corporate, then only can one expect quality social activists. We need to look into the development sector as a professional one if we want to bring about large scale sustainable development."

Manish Tiwari, a political journalist, argues that "If one was to create two categories of NGO’s the ones using the funds and the ones stealing the funds, the list of thieves would be miles longer (I could not agree more). This extreme disparity has led to the critical take of society. No one as such is against social entrepreneurship, but everyone is against con artists minting money in the name of philanthropy. 
Dr. Rohit Negi, who teaches Development Studies and also the catalyst behind this blog post, explains that “The origins of this notion are in Gandhian practice. Prior to Gandhi's entry on the Indian political scene, the leadership was largely elite, and they had very little pretensions of reaching out to the masses. Gandhi's message was to live and dress like those on whose behalf one claimed to speak, which is what representation--government or non-government--is essentially about.  Even today, civil society and social workers are viewed through that same lens: they must be incorruptible and lead what the larger society considers a simple life. Because, in part, non-profit also means non-well to do. That someone who is in the development sector, broadly defined, also make good money and live a more-than-decent life attracts allegations of impropriety, and undermines his/her credibility.  For better or worse, I believe this is a fact. There are obvious merits of holding civil society to a tough standard, but then it means that anyone who wishes to be in this arena with a degree of honesty needs to choose between the work and a comfortable life.”

So what happens to me? A guy with a technical degree who believes in viable social change . Do I starve to fit into a cliché ? Or do I battle it out , changing professional norms as I progress ? Or do I give up both and jump back into the corporate sector designing micro chips and selling them to the highest bidder?  

1 comment:

  1. Professionals like you represent much needed change. Stereotypical notions are clearly being questioned. How else can we bridge the gap between ignorance and awareness, between aam aadmi and the wonders of 4square. Clearly, battle it out, we shall.