So, I did it!
It’s been over a year now, since I returned to my country from 10 Merton Street [the previous home of the Blavatnik School of Government], followed by an internship stint with the McKinsey Amsterdam office. Amidst all the things that kept my schedule super packed during the last year, I have been trying to nurture one concept – Fulltime Volunteering @ Home. It wasn’t any strategic post-BSG career move, rather the result of a few circumstantial deliberations. It ought to be of such kind because, I believe, most unusual ‘human’ events happen only by chance.
First let me explain the 3-word term I have used as a nurturing concept. Volunteerism is not a widely understood concept in many parts of the world. In many cultures, ‘helping other/ altruistic giving’ is a societal norm and distinguishing that from volunteering is rather confusing. Can volunteers receive modest out-of-pocket expenses, assist a family member or stay at own home during volunteering? Whenever you need the definition of a term, the organization that does the best is the UN. International Labour Organization (ILO) didn’t disappoint me either: “Volunteerism is the unpaid non-compulsory work; that is, time individuals give without pay to activities performed either through an organization or directly for others outside their own household”.
One can write pages elaborating each and every word of the definition; I am leaving that to the interested readers. I have added two extra words in my terminology: Full time – just to indicate I was not holding any other paid position; @Home – to clarify the point even though I was working for causes ‘outside my own household’, I was staying with my family, fooding & lodging being obviously taken care of by the family.
Before going further, I want to write a few lines on the context of volunteerism in India. Going by the assumption that majority Indians, irrespective of religion, follow the ‘Hindu way of life’, one of the core values reflected in the Hindu philosophy promotes the principle of working without the expectation of getting any reward. In the Bhagvad Gita, lord Krishna explained the ‘Karma Yoga’ to Arjuna, stating that the motivation for work should be duty, not an attachment to result or to maintain its saving effect. The pioneering leadership of Mahatma Gandhi during India’s freedom struggle was instrumental largely in creating acceptability about the role of voluntary services. Responding to Gandhi’s appeal many youth and voluntary organizations came forward to take part in Gandhi’s ‘Constructive Programme’, the other branch of Civil Disobedience movement.
Although India holds a tradition of volunteerism, as of today, full time volunteering is not really encouraged until you have earned ‘enough’ (God knows how much is enough!). There is valid logic too; in a country where almost 0.72 billion people belong to the working-age population (ages 15-64), there is fierce competition for survival. Hence, nobody here is tuned to a concept of full time volunteering in the peak of a career period. Neither was I.
Within the two weeks of my arrival from Amsterdam, when I was weighing out the job offers I had, there occurred a massive flood in my native area, Agia. Although my province (Assam) is known as the flood capital of India, Agia had never witnessed flood of such magnitude in a decade. The fierce water attacked the unprepared habitants at the stroke of the midnight and swept away houses, livestock, crops and human beings. The power and road connectivity was cut for 72 hours. Our own house became a place of shelter for three families. As per unofficial record of three worst-hit districts (with current government infrastructure, it is next to impossible to accurately estimate the damage) 60 people died, around 0.5 million people got affected, around 50,000 families got their crops & livestock washed away and left with no livelihood options.
There was absolutely no way but to jump into action. But what one can do when the magnitude of devastation is that high? I took some time to bring down BSG’s ’Go, Change the World’ attitude to the practical demand of ‘Think globally, act locally’. I roped in a local NGO for the human resources, fund-raised around INR 2 million with help from my friends who are either sympathetic to donate or run foundations to collaborate, prioritized shelter & livelihood restoration as immediate needs, and surveyed door-to-door in around 18 villages to select the worst victims as beneficiaries. This program ran for six months and the latest (November, 2015) impact assessment showed that for 70% beneficiaries our assistance became prominent source of earning livelihood (100% for shelter).
This was my first experience of volunteering in disaster rehabilitation efforts; also first assignment after Oxford education. Did BSG help anyway? Of course!
Imagine four scenarios: one village woman is demanding ducks instead of goats (beyond our budget) as livelihood option, with only 4 volunteers and 12 hours at hand, we need to send a message to 300 illiterate villagers residing in an area of radius 4 kilometer, draw a statistical analysis of damage caused by flood for raising fund and lastly, I need to convince the beneficiaries that some ordinary citizens have contributed for their welfare, not any political leader or the Government. Here I went – I brought Prof Deepak Malhotra to convince the village woman, the WPP team for taking care of the communication part, the confused non-Mathematician brains of the Decision and Data Analytics class for the statistics and the concept of Political Philosophy for placing ordinary citizens ahead of the state. Atif [Ansar]’s black swans, Monica [Toft] and Maya [Tudor]’s 5I’s toolbox were my constant companions too.
By the time the flood rehabilitation project got over, I had made up my mind to dedicate one complete year for full time volunteering. The question was how and where. This was first time I was staying continuously at my native place since I left home post high school. This ‘déjà vu’ helped me develop a new perspective of looking at my community. Professor Paul Collier’s lecture on economic development of a nation from the lens of norm, narrative and identity was at the core of my perspective. I decided to engage myself with a few problems faced by my community and take up voluntary projects based on the problems.
There was another reason for full time volunteering @home. India does not have a comprehensive framework to facilitate volunteering in specific sector/organization/region. Even though the need for volunteerism had been advocated in the successive Five Year Plans of Government of India, the National Policy on Voluntary Sector was announced only in 2007, after six years of the observance of International Year of Volunteers (IYV) by the United Nations. But, still now, if we want to invite international volunteers to our country, we need the approval and consent of three ministries, like external affairs, home and nodal ministries. There is difficulty in getting visa for the entire duration and for entire India. To facilitate youth volunteering inside India, government has two big institutions – National Service Scheme (NSS) and Nehru Yuva Kendra (NYK); but my personal experience with both the organizations had been dismal.
Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you want to see’; I derived a corollary, ‘Create the way you are searching’. The lack of formal framework gave me the liberty to design my own way and select projects of my own choice.
First I called on the rubber farmers, a major chunk of local livelihood earners, to understand how technology can help their daily routine. We brought professors from IIT Guwahati (premier technical institute of India) to our village and together we identified 4 areas where technology can help either to save time or to increase profitability. Insurgency had been a big issue in Agia which I tried to show in the movie ONE LAST QUESTION. Along with two local DPhil students, I interviewed around 10 surrendered/under-ceasefire insurgents, searching answers for my unlimited questions pertaining sovereignty. With my non-profit startup XOMIDHAN, I conducted 12 career counseling workshops in different parts of my province. Some of my works were not exactly volunteerism, but demystifying myth (e.g. witch hunting) existed in my native since generations. Well, let me not prolong the list here, because that is not the objective of this blog. Also, my comedian friend has suggested I should write another piece like “33 amazing things you can do as a fulltime volunteer@ home”.
A bit of politics – well, you can’t escape from it if you have an Oxford Public Policy degree and working with native people. I was approached by several political parties, but I didn’t find space for my thoughts & necessities in the current political context. Instead, I presented three of my dream projects to the political leaders, and assured my full cooperation if those projects are taken up. During conversations with the politicians, I had one useful realization: the complexity of the ‘public problem’ is so huge that it is almost impossible to solve with the current capacity of the local leaders. The fact that there is no capacity building program for aspirant leaders, most of them simply maintain status quo. The leaders also know that citizens have so much dependency on state that their limited capacity would be useful for at least one section of public, sufficient enough to make them re-elected. So, why bother?
Eventually the month of October came and the matriculation pictures of 2015 MPP batch were up on BSG website and social media accounts.
My target was to spend one year in fulltime volunteering and I was very careful in choosing projects and setting expectations. But things are not only 1 and 0 in the real world. Though I was quite clear about the differences among phrases such as volunteering, ‘working in developmental work’, ‘committing oneself for the nation’, unemployed, ‘playing politics’, ‘coming back for community upliftment’, ‘taking sabbatical’, holidaying etc., my surrounding human-system was not. When I took up an assignment in December’15 and was preparing to shift to New Delhi, I had to explain many well-wishers why I am going back to working life. The village woman who negotiated for goats over ducks said with teary eyes, “why don’t you stay here forever? I and my people will ensure you win the next assembly election if you decide to contest”. Love and compassion always empower people. I love being with the common people, work for them and give power to their wishes. This makes me happy and contented.
When I look back, the last 14 months have drastically changed my way of looking at public policy issues. While BSG lessons acted as a solid foundation, I was also overwhelmed by the wisdom of local people to tackle their local issues. The amalgamation of both with the native area being an experimentation ground is an adventurous proposition. Fulltime Volunteering@ Home is an amazing concept and I am all game to promote this throughout my life.
To all my friends and coworkers who live outside their native area – Take a break, go back to your native home, spend some time with the people who always feel so proud of you, discuss and try to solve a few of their problems, re-establish the old family connection, say hi to your old crushes, write the first chapter of your autobiography, bring real value to your skills and most importantly, be useful to a needy.
If this is a difficult decision to take, I have another suggestion- apply for an Oxford MPP degree first.
Manjit Nath is a BSG alumnus (MPP Class of 2013) and is currently working as a Consultant-Youth Affairs for the Ministry of Communications and IT (Government of India) in Prime Minister’s flagship program called ‘Digital India’. He is currently based in New Delhi and you can find him on Twitter @manjitzing.