I am sitting in a train on my way to Amritsar and the goodbyes we said to what became our home for three months seem far away. Yet it has only been a week since we got those trains on our 45-hour journey to Delhi. Three months have gone fast and it really does not seem like a long time to accomplish change. Change needs behavioural modification and that takes time. When they asked us at our debrief in Delhi “what would you do differently if you were to improve the ICS programme?” I certainly suggested extending the placement. It took us at least a month to get used to the place we were working at, learning about their way of doing things and about how we could fit in. We then finally started working on our projects and suddenly we had to go feeling like we could have done so much more, had we had the time… It really makes me think about those gap year volunteering opportunities that offer one or two weeks placements. What can be accomplished in such a short time frame? Is it worth it? If I was to go volunteering again, I certainly would not go for less than six months. But is there really a point to international volunteering? Three strangers arrived in a village in rural India feeling lost and without any knowledge of the local language. What could three young girls do to help in such a foreign environment? The language barrier seemed like a solid brick wall that had to be overcome if we wanted to do anything. We could not even remember peoples’ names. How were we supposed to work? Everyone in the NGO was really welcoming and nice yet they were stuck in their own jobs and did not know where we should fit in. Also, what skills did we have that could aid in improving peoples’ lives? It seemed like none. Our first field trip also felt like we were VIP tourists been shown around the village and taken pictures off whilst we “gave out” mosquito nets to the poor villagers. But that was not what we signed off to do, right? We wanted to actually help. Bring about change and share skills.
Don’t get me wrong though. If I were to do it again, I would not change anything. On a personal level, it has been the most rewarding experience. I have pushed my boundaries, lived in a completely foreign environment and surrounded by complete strangers that ultimately became my friends. I have seen things that have been eye-opening. I never would have thought that being surrounded by poverty and misery could be so enriching. In fact, the people that we worked with were so welcoming and hospitable. When we went to the villages they would always offer us food and welcome us with a smile and a thank you.
My point is that international volunteering was frustrating for 80% of the time. When we were trying to fit in and couldn’t. When we were pushing and pushing to get our projects done. When I worked hard to finish a 26-page project that should improve the life of a whole village and the feedback I got was “mmh yes… it’s really heavy… it will take me a week to read it”. So, what was the point of me working so hard to create a strategy, write up a proposal or any of the other documents I did if no one was even going to read it? Was there a point at all? Should we just have stayed at home? Were we a burden to the organisation with our different way of doing things? It certainly felt like that many times.
And to top it up, we found out about the general opinion on NGOs in India. There is a kind of complacent indignation towards the NGO sector. Similar to what people think about the government. They steal money yet sometimes they work well and help people. It’s just how it is… But if you want to make money, surely you would just start up a business or work in a bank? People that want to work in the NGO sector certainly want to devote themselves to servicing others. It is tough work and not so (economically) rewarding. So I thought... Yet my co-worker’s response left me speechless “In business you risk your own money. In the NGO sector you just play with donors’ money and profit from it!” It’s an arbitrator’s paradise. Risk-free investments with high returns. Great. That's real life development right there!
Nonetheless I don’t want to give a completely black picture. My vision has just become more real. Before, I probably idealised the NGO sector thinking that everyone that wants to work in this area must be a good person willing to take sacrifices for the sake of peoples’ wellbeing. Yet that is just an unreal vie en rose. As I said before, 80% of the time it is frustrating. The bureaucracy, the slowness and inefficiencies, the corruption, the interests of politicians and the difficulty to overcome these challenges in a completely alien environment. However, when you do manage to improve one person’s life, by something you saw and they didn’t or by a skill that you could bring or a resource you added, it is all worth it. One of my fondest memories of these three months was when we went to a village in Kundra. SOVA has been working with them for 5 years now and they have accomplished a lot. Especially as our colleagues in charge of these projects are from Kundra themselves so they have a special relationship with the area. We were welcomed with smiles, blessings and cooperation. They proudly showed us all the improvements that had come about since SOVA arrived at the village and we ended up dancing the local tribal dance dhimsa together. Time flew and when we left the village I could not erase my smile from my face. And That makes it all worth it. The paperwork and frustration that come with it for 80% of the time are quickly then forgotten.