Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Anti-social social workers: whose interests are we really serving ?

The question is a subtle and nuanced one. I have been working in the social change sector for the last three years. It started out quite simply; we would sweat it out in rural villages talking to women of all age groups about their day-to-day lives and gathering valuable field data about the obstacles they faced. The hours were long and the work conditions were often gruelling. Nonetheless, I found the whole experience riveting. These early experiences engaging directly with the women whose issues I fight for on a daily basis not only altered the way in which I see myself, but also how I understand the women around me. I had found my cause.

Consequently, as I discovered more about the amazing work so many of my peers were committing themselves to, I knew that I wanted to dedicate myself to the same cause. Unsatisfied with simply standing by the side lines while law after law, case after case against women went unnoticed I wanted to learn, may be even chip in an idea or two. It’s a true reflection of the social change sector, that despite my lack of formal experience in the area, my ideas and I were welcomed into the team with open arms (if only time stood still).

The more knowledgeable I became, the harder I worked. The more I worked the more my network began to expand to include VIPs. I was interacting with the “names which matter”, The Titans of the social change sector in India as I like to refer to them. These are the women and men who call the shots, organize the big rallies, are called on by the media to comment and who the media in turn listen to. I won’t lie it was an honor just to be in their company. Forgive me for what I am about to say, but it felt like being called up from the minor leagues to play alongside Michael Jordan. At times, sitting at the same round table as The Titans, who have dedicated their lives to the cause, I had to pinch myself to believe that I was actually invite to sit there and contribute (again if only time could stand still).

Undoubtedly, I was just as naïve as the people who believe Rajnikanth is a fictional character. Lost in the romance of activism (I still am), it took around ten meetings before I came to the realization that in the desperate race to prove their own organization was worthier than the others, each of the amazing Titans had somehow forgotten about the “cause”. Spending their days sitting in air-conditioned conference halls, delivering presentations with the aide of management speak with big words to explain basic problems they had all but abandoned the social realities on the ground. They had lost touch with the cause that initially led them to the fight for equal rights.

In my experience, there are only two variables, which will determine the likely success of such meetings/ conferences/ workshops or blue-sky thinking seminars: the venue and the goody bags. So what do you do? You have no choice but to meet in the finest hotels where upon arrival at the registration desk you are greeted with an Italian leather laptop bag containing a notepad made out of recycled paper (an informal rule of the trade is that at least one item in every goody bag has to be eco-friendly), a custom pen with the logo of the host organization (never ever forget the logo, your branding is key). You’ll struggle through the morning speakers and stare at your watch every 20 mins. Once lunch finally arrives, you are treated to an exotic buffet selection, which you’ll wash down at the open bar.  You’ll notice that the single malts are particularly popular. So the careful balance begins. Drink in one hand, platter of continental foods in the other, you’ll sit and discuss how to make India a better place.

What happens next? The scripted dialogue follows and I start to feel like I’m judging an episode of India’s Next Best NGO. Sir, you should hear about the amazing work MY organization does. WE are here to guide you, because WE have been blessed to be the leaders in this field. Got the gist? Yes, in a room full of social workers the only discussions taking place revolve around the merits of each of their organizations vis-à-vis the others who are utterly and completely useless/wrong/fake and should be wiped off the NGO map.  Why? Because we’re the best. To sum it up, it would appear that hosting a pow wow on women in the right venue, with the best goody bags and the most delicious lunch is leading its participants to act in a way that is devoid of any connection to the women in the field, to the struggles they face and the goals they initially set for themselves to make this world a better place. Somewhere along the way, we lost touch with our cause.

We can boast of a country with 1.21 billion people, the majority of which live below the poverty line, are chronically malnourished and wake up every day with the simple goal of surviving. I believe that in order to effect real sustainable change we need to be more inclusive and less skilled in our collecting of goody bags. I see the choice as a simple one, we can choose to distract ourselves with petty discussions stripping each other’s organizations of meaning or we can rally under a single umbrella. We can choose to strengthen and contribute to each other’s efforts under a new mandate for social change and become The Social Heavyweights that our country needs. I for one plan on hanging up my free Italian laptop bag. Will you join me?


  1. A lion takes a few steps ahead, stops, looks back. Not to forget were and why we started, big or small, we must remember. Coz to forget is just not an option.

    1. This reminds me of an email I got 2 years back. Read it if you have time.

      The Development Set *
      > >> *by Ross Coggins*
      > >>
      > >> *‘Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
      > >> I’m off to join the Development Set;
      > >> My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots
      > >> I have traveller’s checks and pills for the trots!*
      > >>
      > >> *The Development Set is bright and noble
      > >> Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
      > >> Although we move with the better classes
      > >> Our thoughts are always with the masses.*
      > >>
      > >> *In Sheraton Hotels in scattered nations
      > >> We damn multi-national corporations;
      > >> injustice seems easy to protest
      > >> In such seething hotbeds of social rest.*
      > >>
      > >> *We discuss malnutrition over steaks
      > >> And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
      > >> Whether Asian floods or African drought,
      > >> We face each issue with open mouth.*
      > >>
      > >> *We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
      > >> Raises difficulties for every solution –
      > >> Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
      > >> By showing the need for another meeting.*
      > >>
      > >> *The language of the Development Set
      > >> Stretches the English alphabet;
      > >> We use swell words like “epigenetic”
      > >> “Micro”, “macro”, and “logarithmetic”*
      > >>
      > >> *It pleasures us to be esoteric –
      > >> It’s so intellectually atmospheric!
      > >> And although establishments may be unmoved,
      > >> Our vocabularies are much improved.*
      > >>
      > >> *When the talk gets deep and you’re feeling numb,
      > >> You can keep your shame to a minimum:
      > >> To show that you, too, are intelligent
      > >> Smugly ask, “Is it really development?”*
      > >>
      > >> *Or say, “That’s fine in practice, but don’t you see:
      > >> It doesn’t work out in theory!”
      > >> A few may find this incomprehensible,
      > >> But most will admire you as deep and sensible.*
      > >>
      > >> *Development set homes are extremely chic,
      > >> Full of carvings, curios, and draped with batik.
      > >> Eye-level photographs subtly assure
      > >> That your host is at home with the great and the poor.*
      > >>
      > >> *Enough of these verses – on with the mission!
      > >> Our task is as broad as the human condition!
      > >> Just pray god the biblical promise is true:
      > >> The poor ye shall always have with you.’*