3 Most Significant Learnings from my Fellowship Journey

The American India Foundation’s William J Clinton Fellowship for Service in India has been a roller coaster ride. It has been filled with a lot of learnings, along with moments of joys, challenges and moments of breakdowns. The fellowship has been the biggest blessing that I could have asked for as 24 years old.  As I reflect upon my journey as a fellow, the three most crucial professional learnings that I have obtained are – 

  1. The development sector is interconnected. 

Though the development sector and development work are categorized into different sectors like health, education, livelihoods, etc., in reality, all of these sectors are interconnected. For sustainable change to occur, the engines of all these sectors need to run together. During my fellowship, I was working in the health sector. I was assisting my host organization in implementing their Tuberculosis Support Program on the ground. 

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that has been plaguing the world for decades. Despite it being treatable and curable, the world hasn’t been able to eradicate this ailment. In India itself, over 24 lakh cases of tuberculosis were notified in 2019. While working on my host organization’s TB Support Program, I learnt that most of us might have the TB bacterium in us, but in a latent form. When our body’s immunity system takes a hit/toll, that is when the TB bacterium acquires life. Resultantly, one gets diagnosed with active TB. Henceforth, just like with many other ailments, “nutrition” plays a crucial role in fighting TB. Increasing the intake of nutritious food becomes the need of the hour, especially when one gets diagnosed with tuberculosis. On diagnosis, a patient needs to complete a course of medication that lasts for six months. For the medicines to work effectively, the patient needs to increase their intake of nutritious food. Unfortunately, many find it challenging to afford nutrition, especially when one gets diagnosed with TB and can’t make it to work anymore. While conducting follow-ups of many patients identified through our program, I felt like I had hit a dead end when I was trying to explain the importance of increasing their consumption of nutritious food while simultaneously trying to change a few of the community public health behaviours. Whatever I was explaining, their implementation comes with an opportunities cost, and I wasn’t sure how much the communities could afford the cost. Henceforth, to improve the health status of communities, their livelihoods have to improve, along with their level of education. Subsequently, we must have a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach towards the development sector and development work in general.

       2. A psychological approach to development work. 

A crucial realization that hit me during the fellowship was that most of the work that we carry out as development professionals in the development space is about changing mindsets and community behaviours. To successfully achieve this goal, it is pivotal for us to have a psychological approach to our work. Community psychologies are complex. It is of utmost importance to non judgementally consider the psychologies/mindsets of the target communities before designing any program or intervention. Only then, the interventions yield results. The “rations for vaccines” campaign that we launched at our host organization was a classic example of designing interventions by identifying a community’s paramount need and simultaneously cracking their minds. At my host location, the vaccination rates were meagre.

 

3 steps of our rations for vaccines campaign – 1) Awareness 2) Vaccination 3) Ration Distribution

 

There were some valid concerns amongst the communities on getting themselves vaccinated and losing a day or two’s daily wage as they had to travel to get themselves jabbed and simultaneously deal with the side effects of the vaccinated. Along with these valid concerns, there were all kinds of rumours flowing around the vaccines. Resultantly, the vaccine hesitancy amongst communities was extremely high. To counter this hesitancy, we launched our “rations for vaccines” campaign. We provided a pack of ration kits to the highly needy daily wage workers when they got themselves vaccinated through this campaign. The need for rations was much stronger than the strength of the rumours surrounding vaccines. Everybody now wanted to get themselves vaccinated. People saw each other getting vaccinated, and nothing happening to them. Thereby, the rumours surrounding vaccines fell apart, all the more. Eventually, we didn’t even need to use ration kits as incentives. Communities would go by themselves and get vaccinated. 

       3. Vocal for local.

The fellowship further highlighted my belief in the power of locals. At my host organization, the majority of the employees are locals. The locals’ understanding of the demographics, societal structure/systems and needs of their particular areas has proven extremely useful for us in designing relevant interventions and programs. Involving the locals in the decision-making process for programs and interventions aimed at their regions while simultaneously involving them in the implementation stage assists in the building of a strong relationship for a development organization with their target audience.

Surat Ji – Project Potential’s master artisan at work. Surat Ji is a local and I have seen very few craftsmen who are as talented as him

Such relationships of trust prove to be highly beneficial in the long run – both for the organization and the community. All of my experiences at the grassroots have taught me that the locals are uniquely talented in many ways. As development professionals, or even otherwise, it is our responsibility to provide them with the awareness of their skills and talents and simultaneously provide them with a platform to hone their skills and then provide them with opportunities to use their skills. 

Apart from the above, there have been a lot of other learnings, both personally and professionally. These learnings have allowed me to get a deeper understanding of development work and the sector as a whole. As a result, I have attained clarity concerning what I want to pursue in my masters and how I want to design my further education. All of these learnings and realizations could occur because I decided to step into the unknown and outside of my comfort zone, which further highlights the value of stepping into the unknown and outside one’s comfort zone. 

Tonmoy is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Project Potential in Kishanganj, Bihar. For his fellowship project, he is supporting and coordinating public health projects in four panchayats across Kishanganj. Tonmoy was raised in Numaligarh Refinery Township, a small township in Assam. Right since his childhood, he has been a firm believer in the concept of equity and thereby, equitable and sustainable policymaking has always interested him. With this in mind, he decided to pursue Political Science, with minors in Economics from Delhi University. Early in his undergraduate studies, he understood the power of learning by doing, which made him undertake his first internship at Child Rights and You in his second year of college. Here, he taught various subjects to slum kids along with being a part of their flash mob team. To understand policymaking, he worked as an intern at Niti Aayog, the government of India’s policy think tank, where he handled the partner management process at the Women Entrepreneurship Platform along with being a part of the organizing team of India’s first Global Mobility Summit – MOVE Summit. Later, he was appointed under the special secretary to Niti Aayog, as a research intern at CADFI (Center for Advancement in Digital Financial Inclusion). Apart from this, he has been volunteering in various capacities with other organizations in the development sector like Rural Changemakers in rural Madhya Pradesh, and Maati Community in Assam, exposing him to challenges faced by rural India while simultaneously motivating him to work on eliminating them. In his free time, Tonmoy likes to watch documentaries, read about human psychology, and go for runs. Tonmoy expects the AIF Clinton Fellowship to be a highly reflective experience for him. As an AIF Clinton Fellow, he aims to do better, be better and bring conversations surrounding the development sector, back to his hometown.

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