The Winning Formula, by Alex Counts, President, American India Foundation

Remarks at the Conclusion of the 2016-17 AIF Clinton Fellowship Program

Alex Counts, President, American India Foundation

The speech below was delivered on June 30, 2017 at Service, Collaboration and Community, Public Seminar of the 2016-17 Clinton Fellowship Program of the American India Foundation in New Delhi, India. The author spoke from an outline, not from a script. These formal written remarks have been reconstructed after the fact, with a few enhancements and clarifications added.

Good morning, everyone.

I can recall but a single formula from my college days.  But it is an important one, so pay attention.

It is: Graduate Students + Free Food = Successful Event.

Now, I know that those of you in the audience who are Clinton Fellows are not exactly graduate students.  But you are close!

Since I don’t think the laws of nature have changed since the 1980s, I would like to preemptively declare this conference a success, so that we can all relax and have a good time sharing experiences and learning from one another.

I would like to thank all of our guests for coming, including AIFT staff, as well as our main funders of the Fellowship Program this year: Narotam Shekhsaria Foundation, Infosys Foundation USA, Stuyvie Comfort (in a gift honoring AIF Co-Founder Victor Menezes), and American India Foundation in the U.S.

I would like to especially congratulate the Clinton Fellowship team, led so well by Katrina, for having the vision, determination and guts to conceptualize this first-ever completion event and then to make it happen so well!

And I would like to especially congratulate all the Clinton Fellows who are concluding their ten months of service today. You have pushed yourselves to serve across cultures and have gone beyond what most people ever do in terms of service and learning.  You transcended international borders or in some cases, borders that exist within Indian society.

In today’s globalizing world, where some people seek refuge in nationalism, isolationism, intolerance and “blaming the other,” we so need things like the Clinton Fellowship Program and people like you.  We need to increase understanding, collaboration and service opportunities across borders.  Building longer, sturdier and more travelled bridges between the U.S. and India, the world’s two largest democracies, is a special opportunity, and challenge.

When I began preparing for this session, I reflected back on my experience in South Asia as a Fulbright Scholar.  I served for ten months in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1989.  I love the Fulbright program and still do, though I must admit that AIF’s Fellowship program is essentially a cheaper and more enriched version of the Fulbright program, though of course much smaller and focused on a single country. I enjoy being an ambassador for both of these outstanding programs.

I thought back to one particular story from early in my Fulbright fellowship.  I accompanied future Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus – himself a former Fulbright Fellow who studied in the U.S. in the 1960s – on a weeklong trip to the district of Tangail, about 100 miles north of Dhaka, the capital. After his tour was over, I stayed behind for a week at remote branch to learn what Grameen Bank was really all about.

I had packed a huge knapsack – the kind that backpackers take when they are going for months at a time – and filled it with all kinds of things I did not really need. But I forgot to bring one thing I did need: something to protect me from the lower temperatures common in January in the countryside.  I shivered at night, and was too proud to ask anyone for a blanket or warmer clothes.

So I went back to Dhaka, and returned to that same branch in February. I left lots of my gear in Dhaka, and instead brought a heavy blanket and warmer clothes – which both proved useless, since the cold snap was gone and tropical temperatures had returned.

Upon returning to Dhaka on a public transportation after this second trip, weighted down again with lots of things I had not used, the bus I was on stopped 40 miles from Dhaka. The driver kept telling us he would be able to fix it, but as the sun set and darkness set it, his promises were less and less credible. People began jumping on Dhaka-bound buses that would never really stop, but would slow down enough that a few people could board.  I wondered how I would get on one of those buses with my heavy backpack, and what I would do if I failed. Finally, I ran alongside a bus, grabbed the door, and with the help of some kind strangers, pulled myself up onto the bus.

End Point conference of the 2016-17 Clinton Fellowship Program of the American India Foundation
Service, Collaboration and Community, Public Seminar of the 2016-17 Clinton Fellowship Program of the American India Foundation

Perhaps a story like this rings familiar to you. My own personal foibles – foolishness and pridefulness in this case – had me go into the field twice with too much gear, including much that I did not need. I was unable to humble myself simply ask people for help in the broken Bengali I spoke at the time. Still, when confronted with the prospect of being stuck overnight in rural Bangladesh, I summoned reserves of strength and resilience and somehow got myself home.

During experiences like mine, and yours, you confront your limitations in one moment, and break through them the next – continuously, for months at a time. And you emerge a different person.

I enjoyed the presentations that some of the Fellows made earlier today, and look forward to the ones that are still to come.

I liked the comment one of you Fellows made about social and behavioral change, which said that a key priority is just to “keep a conversation going” with a community over an extended period of time. Thirty years in the development sector has taught me that despite repeated promises of quick fixes, simply continuing to talk about something in a variety of ways over a long period can and often does make all the difference. As one of my colleagues at Grameen used to say, “Repetition is reputation.”

I liked the presentation where three of you talked about your experiences, but rather than have each person talk about what they did, each person talked about what they and the other two Fellows had done in a particular aspect of their service work. In order to do that, you each had to listen to each other and synthesize common themes between your journeys.

Another one of you talked about how each of you operated with insufficient knowledge, but someone needed to make decisions and advance your projects despite this. Imperfect information is a reality of work in the development sector, and learning how to deal with it is one of the great challenges. Clearly you have a lot more skill at that than you did ten months ago.

Someone talked about the importance of patience in development work. This is certainly true. At the same time, knowing when to be impatient is equally important.

During the panel discussion held a little earlier, a Fellowship alumnus talked about how she wrote to her Fellowship mentor immediately after completing a graduate degree in the U.S. Keeping relationships alive long after your service in India is complete, and giving your friends, colleagues and mentors here a chance to join in your post-Fellowship journey and remain connected to you is so important, and in general, so rarely done.

Yet another Fellow talked about how the AIFT staff encouraged him to take risks, reminding him that it was OK to fail. That’s powerful! In so many development organizations, so many people are risk-averse. To have you come in from the outside and fill the “risk-taker” gap can have a major impact on the possibilities and culture of an organization. I had not fully appreciated this aspect of our Fellowship program before today.

But I have been tracking this group long before today. I interviewed two of the serving Fellows, who reported that I was a very tough interviewer. Maybe I need to revisit how I participate in those sessions!

Indeed, this class is unique in many ways.

There were 50% more posts to our Fellowship blog than in past years.

Due to the quality of those posts and the media partnerships put together by our staff, some of those writings were available to thousands of people who read The Better India and the New India Times. A few of your articles were circulated on social media hundreds of times.

A higher percentage of you served in remote rural areas than ever before.

We had so much confidence in what you had to say about your experiences that we opened up today’s session to the public for the first time, and as you can see, nearly every seat is taken.

Finally, your excellent performances in your host organizations will further increase demand for Fellows in the future among some of the leading NGOs and social enterprises in the country.

I also read many of your blog posts, and commented on some of them over the course of the year.

I was impressed by the maturity of your thinking. By way of comparison, I recall listening to some undergraduates report on six weeks of service in Latin America. They came to harsh judgments about the societies they visited, and they were quite certain about those judgments. I somehow wanted to strangle them when they said these things – of course, I would do it nicely, and gently, but…..

By contrast, based on your blog posts, in general you did not sit in judgment of necessarily imperfect organizations and people. Rather, you attempted to put yourself in their shoes, see the world through their eyes, and share your insights and what you felt called to do as a result.

You continually questioned your assumptions.

You shined the light on unsung heroes. You gave them voice.

You went way beneath the surface to understand India, what causes social injustice and social change.

You were humble enough to sometimes say that you just didn’t know what to make of your experience.

End Point conference of the 2016-17 Clinton Fellowship Program of the American India Foundation
Service, Collaboration and Community. Public Seminar of the 2016-17 Clinton Fellowship Program of the American India Foundation

I was particularly impressed by the contributions of the Indian Fellows, who were crossing different types of borders and grappling with somewhat different challenges than our U.S. Fellows.

Let me read a few blog excerpts that most impressed me.

Dylan Igoe wrote, in his post titled “Mondays With Manish”, about how he learned that “to catalyze change one must first become aware of and attuned to the myriad complexities that define a community and its people. Importantly, this knowledge can only be derived through a complete investment into the minutiae of daily life in the community and by building personal relationships with people they hope to serve. Indeed, no amount of resources, funds and research” – and might I add, good ideas – “can replace the most important ingredient in community development: simply being present.”

Amen!  How many times do we need to hear that figuring out how to transform communities can be done through an app or through “big data” analytics before we return to the essential and enduring wisdom that Dylan expresses?

Nisha Sambamurthy shared, in a long blog titled “Dear Binod,” about how she tried to take the view of a man who had lost his wife in childbirth. She wrote, “I will take your story with me.  I will let it and other stories like yours be the small whisper in my head that propels me to keep fighting injustice even when every fiber of my body wants to give up.”

Think about all the ways someone could react to this tragedy. You could blame the victim. Or blame the system. Instead, Nisha was using it to motivate herself for an entire lifetime. I love the image of a “small whisper in my head” as the reminder to continue to fight injustice.

Janan Dave, in a post titled, “Thank you Babita,” wrote, “Being in India has challenged me personally and professionally in ways I couldn’t have predicted. It has forced me to be critical of what I thought I knew about social impact and public health.”

You all rose to the challenge described by Janan again and again, and your openness to learning new things made your experience so much richer.

Let me conclude with five observations and suggestions and you enter a new phase of your life.

First, reflect on how the Fellowship changed you, and what you gained most from it that can shape the rest of your lives. If you are like me, you will focus first on what you accomplished, what new skills you gained, and perhaps your increased comfort in cross-cultural environments. But perhaps you will find that the most valuable things you gained are relationships with people you would have never met, and a deepened curiosity about the world around you.  For these relationships and this newfound curiosity to have the most positive impact on you, they need to be continually nurtured.

Second, use the Clinton Fellowship program, its staff and its alumni, the American Indian Foundation, and me as resources that can help you in your career and in deepening your relationship with India. We are starting a pilot to match returning Fellows with mentors who were Fellows in the past, and we hope to expand it. But there is nothing stopping any of you from approaching someone you met through the Fellowship to open doors for you and advise you.

Third, leverage what you learned so that AIF and other organizations can benefit. Like previous cohorts, you have spent extended periods of time on the ground and have gained insights about societal trends, organizations that are much better (or worse) than their reputation, and more. You have shared those insights with us, and I invite you to share more. I recall recently meeting with someone who was the DCM at the U.S. embassy in the mid-2000s who told me that through joining a session like this with our Fellows he learned about an organization that he ended up seeking out and collaborating with.

You can also give us concrete suggestions about how to improve our program.

Fourth, evangelize about the parts of your experience that you feel most passionate about. In my case, after returning from my Fulbright Fellowship I promoted my host organization, the organization that sent me there, the country I had served in, and the idea of international service and exchange. You can become an evangelist for any or all of these things, or other things that touched you during your ten months, such as Indian culture, for example.

Fifth, contribute to the growing community of AIF Fellows now that you are an alumni of. Come to events focused on alumni, contribute to our blog, keep in touch, learn from people who completed this program years ago, speak at AIF events when invited (and participate even when you are not), and be open to requests to add value to our community, whether to fill out a survey or volunteer.

In my case, being a Fellow ended up shaping my career and my life in profound ways. Within three years of completing my ten months of service, I returned to Bangladesh for five more years. That second tour opened the doors for me to run an organization for another 18 years. And once that was over, I joined AIF, where I could indulge my twin passions of poverty reduction and international cultural exchange.

In fact, I can recall few days where I could indulge both of those twin passions together more than I have been able to today.

Thank you all, and again, congratulations and good luck!

End Point conference of the 2016-17 Clinton Fellowship Program of the American India Foundation
The class of 2016-17 Clinton Fellowship Program of the American India Foundation

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2 thoughts on “The Winning Formula, by Alex Counts, President, American India Foundation

  1. It was wonderful to hear the fellows who worked under different circustances and created impacts on lives of people. Best wishes to all AIF team for creating opportunities for young and aspiring minds!!

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