The pros and cons of being a development professional in India

This could also have been titled: Things no one told you during your development studies degree’ or because you didn’t know other dev workers before you started working.


1.       Corruption

More often than not, you are surrounded by people who are out to make a quick buck. Most NGOs are created to siphon off funds. People blatantly report achievements of one project in another and ‘economize’ funds for themselves. You find yourself agreeing with the description of Greg Mortenson’s antics as using his NGO as his personal ATM. That’s what a lot of people do. You start resigning to the fact that a whole lot of old and respectable players are money launderers. To put this in French, ‘On dépense pas de l’argent, on le détourne.’ (We don’t spend funds, we siphon them off’.) Donor bodies have transparency and accountability last on their priority list. 11 out of 17 French NGOs refused to participate in a confidential study regarding corruption in 2008 so even if those posh white blokes have their hearts in the right place, their money definitely isn’t! Monitoring is deliberately loose so as to leave loopholes for exploitation. Suggest the emulation of the Ugandan government’s successful newspaper campaign to reduce corruption in the education department by publishing all details of funds in the newspapers and colleagues cribbing about corruption in the sector suddenly become ‘mañana mañana about it.

2.       Lack of respect

Given the rampant corruption in the development sector, the public (middle aged and senior citizens mostly) outside the development world looks at you with such a suspicious eye , that it becomes difficult to hold ordinary, easily forgotten conversations in the most regular settings. Sample this:

Doctor: So what do you?

Me: I work for a NGO on an agricultural development project.

Doctor: Is there any meaning in all of this? All the good-for-nothing people that I know are running NGOs.

Her expression suggests that she would dearly love to whip one or two of those good-for-nothings.

Me: A simple nod and hectic cerebral activity to search for some other topic to chit-chat about during a very routine examination.

In fact, even within the development sector, there is a general agreement that this sector seems to attract the worst people from society or as one colleague unkindly put it, garbage!

3.       Wrongful respect-induced embarrassment

While I have whined about how this profession does not command respect, I also the feel the need to crib about how awe-struck some friends can be. While I do not share photos of the self with smiling children, I do at times share pictures with farmers. Here is how friends might comment on the photos you share about work.

Sample Facebook Comments of admirers

Sample Facebook Comments of admirers

Ok, attention is enjoyable and one does know that it is a rarity to see a city dweller leave the comforts of urban living and come work in a village. However, it is not flattering but embarrassing to be at the receiving end of blind praise. You feel grateful for all the appreciation and praise but since only you know how much you have truly achieved, beforehand praise makes you uncomfortable. Anyway, young people who praise blindly today will be hard core critics tomorrow. See point 2.

Good job, precious job, impressive job: Mr./Ms/Mrs. Outsider for the Dev Sector, you don’t know the findings and remarks of the monitoring and evaluation people from the donor body. You don’t know if we had bribed the monitoring guys to write a goody-goody report despite bad work. Many of the capacity building sessions i.e.trainings, often amount to nothing more than recording attendance and tea with snacks. You haven’t run into the cartoons who narrate stories from the Ramayana to explain sustainable agriculture with the effect of boring every beneficiary to day-dreamland. Despite all the sitting down that dev workers do with the farmers, the project may or may not have achieved its results and there may have been many discrepancies. One doesn’t become ‘great’ by choosing to be dev worker. There are men heading women’s empowerment projects who have been angered at the birth of their second daughters (but they do deserve thanks for not having checked the sex of the foetus and gotten it aborted). There are women working against domestic violence but who themselves are dating married men. There are social workers working ‘to end human trafficking’ but who actually prey on rescued children themselves. Don’t praise just like that. Many NGO founders believe that they are doing ‘good work’ and that by running a NGO they are ‘good human beings’ (why can’t a bank clerk be one too?). Worse, there are people who think that they are doing a favour to the people their project is targeting (WhyDev, I didn’t say ‘beneficiaries’) via their work. The general public’s gullibility and eagerness to praise development workers makes it easy for criminals amongst us to take a whole lot of people for a ride. Take a cue from Professor Alastor Moody’s book, constant vigilance while dealing with the ‘good human beings doing good work’!

4.       Lack of access to essentials

Working in remote locations exposes you to exactly the same problems that locals face. You face things that are only news items in your city life or were someone else’s problem from your development degree curriculum.  It hurts in a manner that I can’t put to words to have money to buy something but to find out that it is simply not available.

You have the money for certain medicines, but your local chemist does not stock them. He (always a ‘he’) might have something that you need but only the cheaper generic alternative that according to what some doctor friend has told you may not be viable.

Same for hospitals as the rural health center treats you for minor trouble but you might have to urgently drive out 150 kms to get treatment for excruciating abdominal pain. On reaching the hospital, you find out that it was a minor ailment that gets fixed in a matter of 2 hours without requiring hospitalization. How did it reach ‘excruciating’ levels? Because it started in such a minor manner that you didn’t consider it very serious, you procrastinated because you didn’t want to approach the local doctor because you assumed that he/she would be ineffective and you kept telling yourself that you would visit the closest city on the weekend having no clue that the ‘minor’ pain was going to seem life-threatening within the work week itself.

Even access to certain food items is troublesome. Your location might not have a single dairy and there  may be no fruit bearing orchards in your area, yet.

While grains, pulses, vegetables, hens and eggs are not in short supply, for the past year, I haven’t purchased milk or fruits because they simply aren’t available for sale with vendors here. The only time I’ve had fruits here is when some woman farmer refused to send me back empty-handed from her home and gave me a papaya or a jackfruit (talk about hospitality) or when I bought mangoes during the summer when I would go 40 kms away to Mandla for some work or the other

5.       The Good life takes a backseat.

Your location has no libraries and no bookstores. Your area hasn’t seen an English newspaper yet and hence no Jug Suraiya and Aiyar or whoever your favorite columnists are. You can catch them online but that’s not the same thing as reading them in the newspaper.  You can’t buy good music (illegal downloads are an option but I choose to be holier than online pirates). There are no chamber music concerts to attend and absolutely no one shares your love for Raag Malkauns! Dark chocolate is unheard of and there is no cappuccino to accompany you on pensive evenings. They don’t store ice-creams outside of summer so no vanilla to satisfy your taste buds. You keep thanking engineers and tech startups for the internet, PCs and all wonderful things like YouTube, iTunes, GoodReads and plenty of other websites where you can get yourfix of culture. You shall remain eternally grateful to Flipkart and Landmark or the website you shop on for delivering books within a radius of 50 kms from your location. (Hey, you can cover the last miles, right?) Right now, Jeeves and Wooster keep me company in the evening.

6.       The Know-it-all

Development workers and even the government officials specifically involved in development work are more often than not, big time ‘Know-it-alls’. The worst offenders are the types who hold degrees in Sociology or Social Work (In the Indian context, alumni of TISS and Jamia Milia seem to be exceptions) and have inflicted themselves upon the development sector. Not all of them are unbearable creatures, but most of them are. Why? Because they mistakenly believe themselves perfectly capable of running any project irrespective of the problem it seeks to tackle, be it public health, agriculture, adolescent girls, sanitation or watershed management. The term ‘social worker’ starts sounding like an abuse. The blame cannot squarely be placed on their poor shoulders as they are given the responsibility to implement these projects. You start wondering what the HR guys were thinking before they hired them. Or on an even more serious note, whether the project implementing body even has a HR department. (Yup, there are bodies like that!) SEAWL tells us things are the same in that country called Africa.

While in certain contexts it is important to be a Jack of all trades, master of none i.e. a generalist, specialized fields need people with university degrees in those areas. The project management skills and experience of the MSW species is considerable but it is frankly as irritating as hearing a blackboard being scratched with nails to hear someone with a Bachelors of sociology and a Masters of Commerce and Social Work try and lecture you about correct fertilizer doses for a certain crop. One iodine deficient being had actually said, “We didn’t need degrees to learn agriculture, we learn’t it by practice.” Statements such as these make me want to throw the 1.5 kg each Handbooks of Agriculture, Horticulture and Animal Husbandry at their faces while the brain screams, “BUGGER OFF! BUGGER OFF!”

7.       Parental objection

A child always wants his/her parents’ appreciation and approval and choosing the development sector is a sure way to close the doors for that. Your mom fears that you aren’t interested in building a healthy bank balance and your father fears that you are out to become Mother Teresa. They worry with good reason that you might not get to hospital in time in case of a severe illness. They have nightmares that you may have simply decided to not get married at all! And given the fact that they have seen the ways of world far more than you have, they hate the fact that you are in sector “where 95% people are corrupt.” How they arrive at that figure is a mystery but they aren’t very far from the truth although I wouldn’t say 95%. Things aren’t that bad either.

The Pros

1.      You and your friends are hardy travelers

This applies to all expats and even domestic development workers. You have all at some point of time or the lived and not simply vacationed in different corners of the world. Your conversations can be full of experience from different parts of the world and you kind of try to live those experiences, albeit vicariously. Look at this:

  • You are friends with a French law graduate turned organic agriculture enthusiast who has interned in Denmark, Jerusalem and Panama, a French business administration graduate (degree from an Australian university) who had interned in Bangladesh before turning into a full time aid worker in Haiti, an American with a degree in tropical medicine who had been volunteer with you in Rome and is now volunteering in Guatemala, an Italian and a German vet who volunteered in Botswana, the list goes on… (By the way, 3 out of the 5 are girls.)
  • Two of your acquaintances had short stints in protected Indian Tiger reserves.
  • Another did his internship in a snow-capped Greater Himalayan village.
  • And you yourself had worked as project assistant for nuclear submarine construction project before doing a master in sustainable agriculture in Paris, volunteering in Rome and then taking the post of a project coordinator for sustainable agriculture programme in a Central Indian forest or something on similar lines.

 2.      Spectacular night sky

The city life offers us streets and the sky full of yellow street light. You do spot the moon and some bright stars and planets but that’s it. Living in a remote location, you can simply look up to find yourself under a breathtaking canopy of a thousand stars and you tell yourself, relish it till it lasts. My night sky isn’t as spectacular as the one in Patagonia but it sure makes me feel privileged as I had never seen a clear Milky Way in Bombay, Paris and Rome.

3.      Wildlife

While city life does not offer more than crows, dogs and cats, here is what  you can come across.

You may have picked up a snake because you thought it needed rescuing from vehicular traffic.

Rescued snake and me

Rescued snake and me

You might have spotted a vulture that is now a rarity in India.

Mummy vulture

Mummy vulture

You can come a across a 4 feet long Bengal monitor that will scamper off before you could get a photo.

Beautiful birds that you didn’t know exist like the racket tailed Drongo and the Neelkanth turn up every day in your office campus.

We were once very casually told (I won’t say warned because it did not sound like a warning) by Forest personnel that ‘there is a leopard that is in this range’. More fortunate colleagues have spotted pythons, the spotted deer and even a tiger in the jungle.  To flutter in and out of the National Geographic channel is a part of a regular work day you see.

4. Becoming a photographer

As it is highly important to properly document what you do and illustrate it with suitable photos, apart from the fact that you are an inveterate traveler, you get yourself a good if not the best camera and shoot to your heart’s content. Since you take photos practically every day, you decide you might actually refine this skill and start following some photography page on Facebook or elsewhere to keep getting your dose of tips and tricks. After all, if you have to capture breathtaking views, you better try and do it like a pro!

5. Adventure takes front seat

You’ve crossed rivers on foot when they were shallow enough. You had to row on a river to get to a village on the other bank.

A friend called me Indiana Jane.

A friend called me Indiana Jane.

100 km long bike rides within a day, 2 or 3 times a day are a part of your week. Trekking 16 to 20 km through a dense and hilly forest to get to your farthest beneficiaries is normal. As the closest movie theatre (no illegal downloads remember?) or some similar modern mode of entertainment is 150 kms away, you and your colleagues decide to chill-out by having barbeques on the bank of the Budner or swim in the Narmada for close to 5 hours on Sunday. In your case but not due to the lack of modernization, it might be the Lake Braccianno, La Gonave Bay beach, Koki beach or may be you lament the fact that you can’t swim in the Lake Victoria because of crocodiles.

6.      Unadulterated joy of sharing

There are many things that you may have  studied in college or may have learned in capacity building sessions for project implementation personnel that are of no practical use for yourself but are highly useful for the people whom you work with. Well you are supposed to be giving trainings with that knowledge anyway but here is something that no one ever told you about. It turned out to be pure joy to make a Zero Energy Cool Chamber (ZECC) with a farmer. The ZECC is a low cost technology for short term storage of fruits and vegetables. He was reluctant to construct what I had asked him to because he could not fathom how a brick structure could be created without cement but when it was finally ready on my insistence and when I explained how it was supposed to be used, that chap heartily thanked me for showing him how. He told me that he had lost count of how much of his stock goes waste every year due to lack of storage space. I had never imagined it could mean so much to someone. Ditto for telling someone that they could use mahua oil cakes instead of urea and then being told that they were looking for alternatives as urea was killing their lands (that is because they never have enough farmyard manure to add to their lands before urea application). I would dearly love to read other aid workers narrate similar experiences in different contexts.

7.      Discovery of culture, heritage and even geography

Getting out of cities like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Paris, Rome, New Orleans, Edinburgh, Washington or wherever you might be from and straight into some place that you didn’t even know existed before applying for the job helps you to discover cultures in a way that you can’t learn from books or documentaries. This is true for all people who travel and not just aid workers. While I love learning new things from books myself, I didn’t know the Gonds and the Baigas existed before I took up work here. I was blown away by the strong fragrance of Basmati rice in the kitchen of the palace of the Gond kings in Ramnagar even after 2 or 3 centuries of no cooking having taken place there. I had no clue about the effects of the Mughal invasion on the Gondwana. I found out about the Kanha, Pench and Bandhavgarh Tiger reserves only when I Googled about Mandla before arriving here. I had seen Bhedaghat in the movie Ashoka but didn’t know I was so close to it.  I understood what the lyrics ‘Mahua mahua, mehaka mehaka’ meant and the joy about it when I experienced the fragrance of Mahua blossom myself. An Italian male visitor told us that he found the Mahua derived alcoholic drink, sometimes referred to as ‘Mahuli’, to be better than grape wine. Keeping in mind the local culture, I’ve conveniently forgotten my love for wines and beers and have not yet tasted the ‘Mahuli’ as that can ‘give a girl a bad name’. Once while having jackfruit with a neighbor I surprised her when I mentioned that it can taste like fish if you fry it after it coating it with rice flour mixed with a little salt and chili powder. The herbivore absolutely loved this vegetarian fish dish. It’s fun to learn things from locals and to teach them stuff from back home.

8.      Firsthand experience of good change

On being asked whether the FAO did much in India, a senior (British) told me, ‘India does not need people like us. There are many people doing good work there.’ That was indeed a moment of pride. It was here on the field that I found out how true her statement was. Wi-fi networks are now available in villages, at least at the block level. Irrespective of how much I may grumble about corruption, the truth is that implementation is taking place. Government bodies, although slow, are doing their work. Good (read least corrupt) NGOs are delivering results. The middle class and the media are becoming more demanding. India is infamous for bad roads but that is changing fast. More and more villages (in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh for sure) have excellent cement concrete roads. Many suburbs in Bombay don’t have such good roads as seen Ghughri and Dindori blocks for example. This is a result of work done by the State as well as the Central governments. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana is bearing fruit. NGOs and government agricultural departments are doing visible work for the promotion of line sowing in nearly all crops and especially for the promotion of the System of Rice Intensification. And thanks to the success of the NABARD – WADI project, we can now enjoy mangoes at INR 50/ kg, something that was unimaginable about 5 to 7 years ago. The promotion of women’s self-help groups across India is helping more participation in democratic institutions, financial empowerment and more importantly, helping put an end to the ‘purdah tradition’ in many places.  NGOs and State Rural Livelihoods Missions are taking ICTs to villages and many semi-educated farmers are now using gadgets like pros. Check out the work of PRADAN, ASA, SERP and BRLPs with DigitalGreen.

9.      Gratitude

The life of a rural development worker has made me grateful for the following things:

  1. The privilege of having been born in a hospital.
  2. For parents who fussed over food, medicines, clothes and almost everything.
  3. For all the painful vaccination shots (I don’t remember the earliest ones  but I definitely remember that I feared injections when I was 5).
  4. Excellent food throughout my life.
  5. Stable government and functioning police. Yes there is corruption and inefficiency but what cannot be overlooked is the fact that most of rural India lives in peace and maintaining law and order is not difficult. The police is truly feared, in a good way. I was once searching for jobs in South America and a colleague who had worked there told me to never answer a phone call in the evening if I was out on the streets as I would get robbed and to never carry a laptop me as that would get me killed. No such problem in the motherland.
  6. For the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force’s rescue and rehabilitation work in cases of natural calamities. Thanks to them, the species that makes its living by moving from one emergency to another is not needed in India

There will definitely be additions to  both lists in the coming years. Till then, what’s your take?