I finished my undergraduate studies in June 2017, not long before joining the AIF Clinton Fellowship. One reason I loved my time studying at Northwestern was because I enjoyed asking big questions, piecing together possible answers from a wide range of sources, and embracing the grey areas that exist when discussing topics in the humanities and social sciences. Every social issue seemed to have a wide variety of answers proposed by scholars, with no explanation ever being the absolute truth but rather one factor of many at play. The continued existence of grey areas and unasked questions fuel my desire to go back to graduate school in the future.
In the non-profit sector, there exist grey areas as well. There are, however, different in nature. In the field, grey areas exist in moments of subjectivity, like in academia. There, ongoing and continued debates about this grey area happen through articles, publications and books. But in the social sector, resolving the grey area must happen much faster, by making decisions regarding session customization, staffing decisions, pursuing funding opportunities, among others. These decisions often lack clear “right” or “wrong” answers, yet their impact upon the organization’s work and impact can be large.
One personal challenge I felt upon arriving in-country as a fellow was moving away from my academic understanding of issues in India and towards the practice-oriented space in which NGOs must work in order to make their intended impact. Questions that I asked as a student, such as the impact of Hindi as a medium of instruction in schools, the marginalization of religious minorities in Indian society, the connection between patriarchy and tradition in the region, and the ongoing impact of the 1947 partition on South Asian societies, all of these take on different flavors. Not all educational NGOs engage directly with these kinds of questions because the answers, while important, exist more in the academic and political spheres than the practical one, and because it may not be within the scope of the organization’s mission to deal with these issues on their face.
That does not mean that social sector work is divorced from structural issues, however. Indeed, we must address the fact that many colleges fail to equip students to enter the 21st-century workforce and fail to address the social perception that government employment is the only way to make a viable living. One solution to the latter is to discuss employment opportunities in the private sector and to convey that these jobs can still lead to middle-class employment and significant social mobility. Medha’s internship efforts are meant to do this and give students the opportunity to work in the private sector and to nurture career goals that they want to pursue.
The social realities mentioned above are harmful to students themselves and are manifestations of larger systemic phenomena. It is estimated that 30% of Indians aged 15-29 are unemployed , one of the highest youth unemployment rates globally. While India has the world’s largest youth population, it risks squandering the potential economic and social benefit that a large workforce may provide . Additionally, the jobs that are coveted by families are also a problem. Government jobs, long seen as a source of stable and lucrative employment, is out of reach, even for India’s brightest students. For example, 5 lakh students appeared for the U.P. civil services exam in 2017. They were competing for just 980 vacancies .
Historians and sociologists who study Indian education are aware of the historical processes and continued pressures that keep the education system failing the vast majority of students. And this history is important: A system designed to produce clerks to administer empire rather than critical thinkers is unlikely to suddenly begin providing meaningful and useful education to India’s students . NGOs working to remedy this situation do so without the deep historical background a scholar might have but deal with the present consequences of this nonetheless. We are not divorced from academic debates, jut focused more on dealing with their consequences than trying to debase their origins.
But Medha, committed to the sustainability and durability of the change it is pursuing, would like to ultimately address the systemic problem in addition to the symptoms it is currently handling. Ideally, the state educational boards of Uttar Pradesh and other states will see the results of our programs and choose to require implementation of our curriculum across all state degree colleges. This change would be monumental, as it would address the symptoms and also represent a meaningful improvement the educational system at a systemic level, helping to correct flaws built into the system during the pre-independence period that have continued to the present day.
 Iyer, Sriram. “Slowing GDP Risks Turning India’s Demographic Dividend into a Disaster.” Quartz. January 08, 2018. Accessed April 03, 2018. https://qz.com/1173792/as-gdp-growth-slows-indias-demographic-dividend-could-turn-into-disaster/.