Last year, I completed two decades in what I like to call as the ‘Change business’! Known commonly as the NGO or the civil society sector, it has been a very enriching experience.
When I decided to do a Master’s in social work in the early nineties, people wondered if I was out of my mind! I had been a top class student in my under graduate program in Agriculture and was already enrolled in a Master’s program in Agriculture specializing in soil chemistry. But I was convinced I wanted to be out there in the villages doing something (I did not know what) to change the lives of the people there. I thank my parents for supporting my decision!!
The lessons learnt along the way have been tremendous. I am sharing some of what I consider are key lessons that I have learned in the course of my long association with NGO’s.
Lesson 1: It is important to analyze a problem from its root causes if we want a change to lasting: A lot of social problems that we see are only symptomatic of a larger malady. One has to get to the root of that. For example, it is not sufficient to simply have a AIDS prevention program in a high in migration district without addressing the problem of livelihoods there. It is poverty that drives people (usually men) out of their homes to far off cities to find work and while they are in these cities they seek services of sex workers and the epidemic spreads. And sex workers are not the cause they are simply part of the epidemic chain. They are also in the business thanks to poverty. While a NGO Working on AIDS may not have the expertise to deliver program on livelihoods, it is important that they work with others who are working on livelihoods to address both the cause and effect.
Lesson 2: Each organization has its model for change based on the extent to which it believes it can effect it. : There are organizations that are very service delivery oriented. There are others that are very activist in their approach who believe that confrontation through “morchas’. They believe that the state should provide for the people what is rightfully their due and if it does not, then people should be led to demand for it. It is not right on our part of debunk any model because each organization has a philosophy for change.
Lesson 3: It is difficult to separate the personal and professional when you are involved in the change business: A lot of the work that you do and the model of the organization that you work in are reflections of your own convictions. You cannot work in a women’s rights organizations and condone the superiority of males. A job in a NGO is not like a job in bank where you can separate your work from yourself. Here, you are a living example of what you believe in, which is reflected in your work.
Lesson 4: Like in every other sector there are both good and bad NGOS: The recent hullaballoo over the IB report about a few NGOS seems to suggest that all NGOs are agencies that come in the way of a nation’s development. I think there is a lot of misinformation that the media is spreading. As mentioned earlier, there are different models of development. An activist organization like Green Peace is intrinsically confrontational. But that does not mean that they are reducing our GDP. Believe me, they are too small to even make a change in the environmental sector. We Indians are not committed enough around these causes for them to influence us in such a manner. If the government is seriously looking at the NGO sector they should look at those organizations that take money from people and do not implement what they promised to do. There are NGOS who exploit their female staff and yet others who do not follow government regulations like the maternity act and provide paid leave for their women employees who are pregnant.
Lesson 5: Like every sector, it is the investment that determines the extent of change possible. Unlike people’s movement like the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the Chipko movement where communities mobilize themselves for a cause that affects their lives directly, NGOS are largely dependent on external funding and the extent of funding determines the amount of work that is possible and the quality of staff who would be involved. Though people might make the choice to work in the non profit sector, they are people who are experts in their own way and are entitled to a decent compensation. And contrary to popular belief this money is not written away in charity by the donor. Every donor wants to see what is the extent of change brought about by their money. It is the return on their investment. One needs to understand that. And if you are an individual donor it is your right to ask an organization to provide you with evidence about what your money has been used for and what is the result of that.
One of the biggest myths that we NGO professionals have is that we are the only ones making the change. That is actually not true. We are only innovators. We can never replace the government in terms of reach and scale! But, we can play an important role giving a voice to people at the grassroots which policy makers sitting high above may not be able to hear. A vibrant democracy requires such voices to be heard and provide feedback on policy development and planning. It is only then that change can happen!
About Meera Sundararajan
Meera Sundararajan is a social development professional based out of Chennai. A graduate in Agriculture with a Master’s in Social work she has been working for the last twenty years with various national and international NGOs in the country. Her passion for change revolves around women’s development and empowerment. She enjoys reading and expressing her thoughts through her two blogs “Chronicles of an Unknown Indian” (http://meerareflections.blogspot.com) and “Kaleidoscope” (http://meeratales.wordpress.com). Besides English, (which is the language in which she writes) and Tamil (her mother tongue), she is fluent in Hindi, Bengali and Telugu.