Almost exactly a year ago, I submitted two fellowship applications for work in India. I was ready to take on any role either organization would see fit for me and commit a yearlong term of service to the Development sector. I needed more time living in India but under a very different guise than as a language student. In one window opened on my laptop screen was a presentation I was building about innovative correctives to the delivery strategies of India’s sanitation and cleanliness campaign, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan; in another window was a document headed by the following questions: Is progress intrinsic to development? Some development initiatives are successful and some aren’t. Even when a problem has been identified, why is there sometimes no tangible change or effect? In your experience and observation, does everyone get an equal voice in deciding what development means for their community and/or country? Though one was completely prompted from a structural, programmatic lens and the other an abstractly open consideration, in both portals I channeled my past exposure interviewing families in southern Rajasthan about their experiences with the Swachh Bharat mission, particularly, as well as their real access and understanding of access to developmental schemes, in general. I also thought about quieting conversations I had had before English instruction classes at a women’s legal advocacy and empowerment organization in Lucknow. I cycled through heavy stories of cities, villages, people that had found me over that past year. In reflection I was, in no lesser words, consumed by how individuals navigate the challenges that they’re consumed by.
A few months later I interviewed with both organizations. After an overnight train from Lucknow to Delhi, putting up with friends in Old Gupta Colony, joining the messy morning rush into Rajiv Chowk, then ferried by sweet, encouraging autowaale preparing me for the back-to-back-to-back interviews between organizations, I re-learned something about my mind and heart: they aren’t separate operators. I think through my feelings and my feelings come from conversations. Conversations are gifts wrapped in concerns and bowed with life. Life is found around and within people, and people are found among those concerns that inform what they’re inclined to talk about. So, at minimum, I need to hear those words in raw and feel those people in proximity, to sit where they sit in order to see what they see. Despite the very real importance and needed presence of large-scale, widely affiliated and resourced platforms, the way I can best contribute to those programs, the development sphere, or this idea of progress is by learning directly with the individuals who would actually benefit by those larger entities and conceptions. In short, does everyone get an equal voice in deciding what development means for their community? Absolutely not. Perhaps many actors in the Development realm aren’t listening for more definitions, either. However, as long as I can be in place here — now India, but generally any here where community-centered initiatives find their life actually from those communities — I’ll keep listening and questioning what progress and development really mean to those who are working for it on the ground.
Gratefully, I’m doing just that this year.
What I ended up finding frustrating about potentially joining an entity that was working primarily through governmental offices or partners that were balancing so many initiatives reaching in so many directions, were the geographical conditions for strategizing solutions. Those associates were literally, physically removed from their beneficiaries. It’s not that the solutions wouldn’t be oriented towards ground level impact, it’s that they wouldn’t be grown from that ground. They wouldn’t necessarily be designed from what local individuals would imagine as fruitful — rooted visions for the longterm impact of such projects. I’ve learned from co-Fellow Janelle Funtanilla in reflection of her previous Peace Corps service in Thailand, that the Thai plant tree seeds with the intention of their grandchildren sitting under the shade of its future branches. Such consideration and progress requires commitment, understanding, ownership, accountability. Progress has got to come from the roots; development strategies have got to plant the seeds which sprout those roots. Otherwise, what are we doing but planting decorative flowers that have no guarantee of flourishing or locally being maintained?
In the broader contexts of Development work — service-oriented initiatives, relief actions, governance reforms, welfarism, volunteerism, humanitarianism — particularly within the post-colonial, neoliberally dominated definitions of these engagements, whose development is Development really for?
This post is not particularly a polemic on my profession, but instead an earnest effort to understand an important series of questions that was raised in a presentation I recently gave to my colleagues at the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust. How far can we actually go in community involvement? In other words more connected to my introduction: How active can we be in guiding local voices on what development or progress mean to them?
Specifically considering the first-tier target population of my project, the monastic community: What are the ethics of encouraging or incorporating the monastic community to drive ecological conservation efforts designed by an external, staunchly secular environmental organization? Monks join the Buddhist sangha for a purpose of study, devotion, to take up a path that doesn’t exactly hold as its destination active conservation of biodiversity. Even though I am assimilating textual teachings and incorporating leaders’ directions into our modules, can we really deliver ecology workshops and rightfully hold accountable monastics to internalize and prioritize our teachings? Is this their definition of progress or proper devotional efforts?
The questions put me in a strange crossroads between levels of engagements: if I were thinking of environmental education at a state-wide level and planning curricula that would be handed off and channeled through local schools and NGOs, there’s no way such dilemmas would have hampered my thinking. Anything like this, any problems that could arise from considering the tier-two target population — local lay communities, those who would in turn be taught by whom we were teaching — would be completely up to those local schools and NGOs to figure out. Well, here I am, trying to figure it out.
Obviously, there’s no grave rhetorical violence or coercion being done to deliver our environmental education workshops or in trying to inspire the monastic community into active stakeholders of Ladakh’s biodiversity and conservation. But I’m left with the lingering hesitation about the deeper sentiments expressed during our organizational meeting: Really, monks have a primary purpose committed to in their vows. What is our place to introduce new dimensions into those vows? Are we creating distractions? Are we actually forcing diversions from the Middle Path? How are we imposing our definitions of development and progress? Again, does everyone get an equal voice in deciding what development means for their community? Am I part of a process that’s perpetuating the recurring “No”?
There are no easy answers, but are there clear ones, either? Part II to follow shortly.
julley ~ drew