Understanding Impact Through Community Volunteers

Field volunteer Mansingh Ninama presenting recently harvested corn from his farm.

 

It was a scorching hot day in April and I was riding as a passenger on Mansingh Ninama’s motorcycle when I realized I could no longer keep from asking him a question I had been thinking about all day. Throughout the time Nimama and I were riding through the dry, hilly, roads in the area surrounding Sundrav village of Anandpuri block of Banswara district, I observed him wave to nearly every passerby and speak to several unfamiliar faces

“How do you know all of these people?”, I asked.

He laughed and began to tell me the story about how he started working with VAAGDHARA.

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Born and raised in Sundrav village, Ninama maintains an inspiring pride in farming and a contagious energy in seeking to bring positive change in his community. When questioned regarding the roots of his mentality and approach, Ninama is quick to note that he has not always had such clarity or direction.

In the early 2000’s Ninama finished studying towards a B.A. in Education and was working with an NGO to bring affordable private schooling to his community. Though this was fulfilling for Ninama, this experience was cut short as the funding was not renewed after the initial contract. Despite this disappointment, Ninama successfully continued to provide quality education without funding support for the following year. However, this was not sustainable and points to a larger issue regarding a lack of exit strategies and practical sustainable planning in the social services sector.

After the school was shut down, Ninama was approached by VAAGDHARA team members about participating in an Organic Cotton Initiative. Though this project was not successful in producing harvestable organic cotton, it was precisely through this program that Ninama’s life was changed for the foreseeable future.

While taking me through a tour of his surprisingly green, cool, and fertile land Ninama noted that it was through participating in the cotton project that he learned the need for organic farming practices and the benefits it could provide him. Prior to the experience Ninama largely used chemicals on his farm and purchased a significant portion of food for his family from the market. Nowadays, Ninama proudly claims that he does not buy any food from the market, and that he relies only on what he can grow for grains, vegetables, fruits, and fodder for his animals. His previously rocky and unfavorable land is now fertile and bears many fruits and possibilities.

Additionally, Ninama has continued to participate in VAAGDHARA’s many programs in Anandpuri as a community leader and field practitioner. Instead of being a participant, he now leads the communities in the same direction that has benefitted him. It is through this leadership responsibility that Ninama has developed the repour in Anandpuri block. While reflecting on his early years as a practitioner he talks about his timid nature and nervousness as he approached panchayat leaders or potential program participants, but through trainer trainings at VAAGDHARA he has learned communication skills, and through his experience on his own farm he has developed the knowledge and passion for VAAGDHARA’s nutrition-based agriculture approach, which develops self-sustaining farming practices.

On October 31st, 2017, Ninama spoke in front of thousands of people at a tribal conclave concluding VAAGDHARA’s Jan Jatiya Kisan Swaraj Yatra. He spoke about how being a community leader has changed his life, how he has reaped financial and health benefits through the integrated farming approach, and how he wishes to continue working in his community to help bring positive change to his fellow farmers.

Similar to Mansingh Ninama, Kailash Chandra Ninama’s life was also was transformed after becoming a VAAGDHARA field volunteer. Also from Sundrav village in Anandpuri block, Kailash was introduced to VAAGDHARA team members during a project on water connectivity about 5 years ago. Prior to his involvement with VAAGDHARA, Kailash notes that he was primarily a manual laborer and worked in difficult circumstances with little income. He was given little responsibility during his initial involvement with VAAGDHARA, but with time the project manager observed Kailash’s work ethic and his desire to learn and he was given more opportunities—eventually turning into a bonafide community leader. Kailash’s story is quite similar to Mansingh’s in that through his involvement with VAAGDHARA he was able to learn leadership skills, improve his own life through sustainable farming interventions, increase his income, and improve his family’s livelihood.

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Often in development work, impact assessment gravitates towards the benefits and life changes observed in program participants. However, my purpose in sharing the stories of Mansingh Ninama and Kailash Chandra Ninama is to challenge our notion of ‘participants’. In the current model, representatives from the target community often serve as volunteers, field coordinators, or program intervention specialists, but they are not included in impact assessments. As we work towards finding a way to assess the impact of our efforts in the development sector—particularly in the described model—I believe it is essential to include the impact on the lives of the facilitators as well—for they too are part of the target community.

To be clear, I believe there is much to be done regarding impact assessment and quality control in the context of on the ground work. I am convinced that the nature of relationships between funders and grassroots organizations pushes organizations to manufacture numbers and other details in place of thorough assessment. This is not an indictment on organizations at the funding or grassroots level, rather an indictment on the system itself. Perhaps, impact assessments should include an analysis of impact on the lives of local individuals that carry out interventions or project activities such as Mansingh Ninama and Kailash Ninama, or perhaps there is a different resolution. No matter what the answer to this dilemma is, the experience riding with Mansingh Ninama on that hot April day as he waved towards passersby was inspiring enough to make me reconsider how I evaluate impact.

Parijat was born in India but grew up in Columbus, Ohio, from the age of 6 onward. He feels a sense of gratitude for the education and opportunities he has received and has always felt a sense of obligation to re-connect with and give back to India. At Ohio State University (OSU), this interest was intensified as he obtained his degree and worked intensively in the field of environment and sustainability. He hopes to obtain a PhD in Political Science one day, focusing on ethical development. He backpacked through the Himalayas in Nepal and spent a few months in India after he graduated from OSU, but he is so excited to experience India through a new and different lens as an AIF Clinton Fellow!

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