Finding Hope

We live in difficult and dark times marked by a senseless parade of simply incomprehensible levels of violence and death. The struggle against disenchantment and despair is particularly acute for those of us who have chosen to work in the development domain. Encounters with deep rooted inequities, complex webs of vulnerabilities and structural issues are never easy and they rarely fit neatly within the interventions we design. But we have to find our own oasis of hope. For me, the continuing perseverance of countless field level/frontline workers, despite significant odds, is one such source of hope and inspiration.

These women and men bear most of the burden of organisational and programme expectations and deadlines. They are entrusted with ‘making an entry into the communities’, ‘rapport building with various stakeholders’ and ensuring ‘community ownership’. These innocuous sounding words encompass hours of hard work, braving all kinds of reactions (including standing up to resistance and ridicule), changing tactics and doing whatever else is required.  

I have always been struck by the hospitality and willingness to share exhibited by the field level workers that I have met across several states in the country. Recent interactions reaffirmed this. Local realities and dynamics, their own role, gains (big and small) and challenges are shared unvarnished. Their personal journeys with the programmes are no less interesting and insightful.

Of course, just as with everything else, all frontline/field level workers are not the same. There are variations in interest, capacities and contributions. But most of those I have met have always been ready to go the extra mile if it benefits a community member. This sense of commitment is exemplary. It is more awe inspiring when we think of the circumstances in which this commitment is lived. Typically, they occupy the lowest positions in official hierarchies, cope with inadequate salaries and find themselves constantly compromising on family obligations. They have to balance increasing expectations of community members and other participants with the programme mandate and limitations.  Moreover, they have to deal with their own sense of frustration, particularly with intractable challenges that they get to witness on a daily basis.  

Some are lucky and at least find a conducive environment within their organisations. That makes a huge difference. Their commitment then is also reflective of a broader organisational focus and value. Yet, for many, consistent regard and respect for their work (even within their organisations) is an infrequent reality.  

So, if these women and men can still find the strength to continue their work, I can too. Any maybe we need to tell their side of the story more often in our development narratives.

Just Finish It

March 31st marks the end of the financial year for many. It also got me thinking about how a lot of assignments end. Very often, this is what happens.

Stage I: We are all really excited about this!
Someone wants to document the journey, achievements, challenges and learnings that emerged from a programme.  Failures (or, areas of improvement in NGO speak) are added. This last bit involves a certain amount of negotiation. The winning argument – we can say that we need to work on these aspects in the next phase! Anyways, so the team and the consultant hold one or more meetings. Everybody is brimming with ideas, excited and cooperative.

Stage II: Getting into it
The sense of enthusiasm is still palpable as more meetings are held to spell out the specifics, make field plans and other necessary arrangements. There is a deluge of documents. People are eager to share. Sometimes, this initial stage also brings in a sense of the people who inhabit this universe – who all need to be consulted, who will give feedback and, most importantly, who has the final say.

Stage III: The Actual Work
The blood, sweat and tears part starts. Interactions with participants, organisational staff and others occur. New leads emerge. Often, this adds new dimensions and enriches the documentation. Sometimes, this snowballing thing also threatens to snowball out of control! Timelines, costs and other factors have to be considered. After the fieldwork is completed, the consolidation and writing begins. First, draft outlines and then draft documents are shared.

Stage IV:  Close to the Finish Line
When we are really lucky, this stage (finalising with feedback) comes and goes quietly without causing any heartburn. The designated people provide feedback within the designated time frame. Further steps, especially where designing and printing are involved, occur seamlessly. There is more feedback. It is incorporated and we are done.

Stage V: It’s Not Over Yet!
Very often, stage IV begins to expand over space and time. In fact, it takes over our lives. We wait for feedback. Or, after we have incorporated all the feedback, there is more feedback. Or we spot mistakes that need to be corrected. When that is done, more mistakes surface. This is when we just want the assignment to end and to get our lives back. The only consolation are those words that capture a world of wisdom…This too shall pass!

And it usually does. Till it happens again.

Saying Goodbye

A recent cleaning spree in the house revealed a sheath of papers that stopped me in my tracks. It was the report on the last day of fieldwork done in my first year of studying social work years ago. I didn’t know that I had held on to this while cities (and addresses) and phases of life passed by. It took me back to that day. Two of us had been placed with an organisation working with children living in and around a railway station. And on that day, we had planned to buy gifts and snacks and have a little party at a home for children run by the organisation. How we had planned…the interactions with the children and the staffs that day…us being smeared with colours and dragged into some fierce dancing (the next day was Holi and we were possibly infected by that spirit)! But what also stood out, as I read those pages, was this unmistakable sense of sadness (and discomfort) at saying goodbyes.

In fact, the goodbyes were captured in the writing. And those images rose again in front of me. Chatting with the women who cooked and helped at the home and them turning silent when I said we won’t be coming again. Some children refusing to come near us that day. One child in my group work session avoiding to look at me. Overhearing another child telling his peers vehemently – They will never come again. One child, in the end, coming up to shake hands and then smiling shyly and saying – Thank you.

Nothing really prepares us to say goodbye. To any one. In any form. We were student social workers then and possibly had even lesser idea of how to handle gradual disengagement. Even now, after more than a decade in the social work sector, I am not sure if we have a better understanding of how to actually ‘phase out’ of the lives of programme participants in a sensitive and judicious manner. Do we, ourselves, always manage to accept it and prepare for it? Do we ever manage to prepare the other actors involved? Of course, this is a complicated area with emotions, personal and professional relationships, project timelines and budgeted activities (and lack of them after a point!) involved.

My younger student social worker self had stumbled upon one important realisation though – if we accept the intrinsic dignity of an individual, that entails keeping them informed. This includes preparing them (and ourselves) of the prospective transitions- of the equations that should change with time and the eventual goodbye.

A Time to Enjoy…and Work?!!!

We look forward to certain festivals in the year. The holiday mood sets in. It is the time for re-living rituals that reverberate within our souls in inexplicable ways and evoke a reassuring sense of continuity in an otherwise fast changing world. Families and friends come together over good food and gossip. And it marks a break from work…That is the common template. For some of us, that ‘break from work’ bit…well, that never happens completely! It is strange how despite our best efforts, there are still tasks and deadlines that sneak up upon us. This is one of those mysterious, unexplained phenomena that scientists or even conspiracy theorists need to consider.

Accusations of ‘you don’t know how to manage your time’ and ‘you can’t even leave work at a time like this’ are levelled. A ‘Why don’t you go ahead and have a good time’, expressed with honest intent, is invariably misinterpreted. Surviving work and festivals and families calls for some special skill sets. Being able to practice patience and restraint (particularly in speech) helps!  Judgement, based on experience, also helps. So, one needs to definitely take out time for the family and then figure out when you can work and earn less rebuke and guilt.  Forget finding balance. Find a level you can live with!

Nonetheless, there will be times when that festive spirit will touch even the most work obsessed person in some way. Those moments of joy, planned or unplanned, experienced in quietude or companionship, are pretty special. So, mixed up, family cum work driven days with some stolen special moments … That is not a bad template for (some) holidays either!

What Failure Taught Me

A friend had once remarked – ‘you people in the development sector don’t have failures. Anything goes wrong, you call it learning!’ That sentence has stuck with me. Of course, looking at challenges and failures as learnings has its advantages. It promotes a more positive outlook and provides reference points for improvement in future programming. However, and this has been pointed out by many, do we really ‘learn’ and do we apply what we learn? This lessons learnt business calls for a post of its own. Here, I am going to focus on failures.

Failures in the professional domain come in various shapes and sizes. These range from those that evoke mild disappointment but don’t disrupt our worlds to those that make us doubt our own capacities and paralyse our sense of confidence and self worth. In my initial days as a journalist, many many years ago, I was, very briefly, placed in a particular division where I struggled to deliver. In my own eyes, I was a spectacular failure. In fact, I was surprised by my sudden and completely unexpected incompetence! Thankfully, I was later placed in another division where I felt more at home and did well.

While it hasn’t always been easy, my subsequent work in the development sector has been largely free of such experiences. However, the last few years with multiple assignments and deadlines and a never ending array of personal crises brought added pressure. I defaulted on deadlines – some because I couldn’t manage and some because the universe threw in additional googlies! And a lingering sense of failure set in. I did allow myself to wallow in it a bit and then decided to see what I could do about it, and what I had learnt! So, here are my learnings from failure.

  1. It is ok to fail. A lot of people, including the amazing Rumi, have even stated that broken is beautiful.
  2. It is not ok to let that sense of failure control your life. Or make you question your abilities.
  3. Take charge. See what you can do differently next time. And also make that point unambiguously in the next assignment.
  4. Despite best efforts, things may still go wrong. Just deal with it!
  5. And…as long as you can smile and laugh, it is not that bad.

Every experience does teach us something. Even though we may not see it or feel it, our battle scars do make us stronger and better and unique.

Me and My Work

So, I had read of this exercise where you think of something and see what words come into your mind. I was possibly subjected to something like this in college by my room mate who was studying psychology (I served as the de facto subject for countless experiments). I was curious to know what I would come up with regarding process documentation. And here are the results – the words that tumbled forth in an unplanned and unapologetic manner!


Go on…give this a try! The results may surprise you as well.





To be (humble) or not to be…That is the question!

People with innate humility seem to be an endangered species. Maybe, they are part of the collateral damage in a world which seems to increasingly equate brash confidence with competence and marketing acumen with real talent and success. Of course, there is a need to have a presence and speak up. This becomes even more pertinent as resources and opportunities grow scarce. And there is that little matter of managing to survive in the food chain! But in all this din, do we really get the chance to know the people we work with? To appreciate the quiet workers or those whose talents are not glaringly obvious? Or even those who are obviously gifted but choose not to broadcast that and do whatever is needed in their own understated way?

I would like to believe that substance matters and that the true ability and character of a person does shine through. Of course, there are often more examples to the contrary and you wonder how certain people got to certain places. Uncharitable jealousy or unaffected curiosity aside, it does irk!

But then I think of the (much smaller) sub set that continues to work despite all these discouraging signs around them. There are people who are clear about what they want, the paths that they take and don’t feel the overwhelming need to draw attention to themselves along the way. It can’t be easy.  But possibly, conviction triumphs.  And that is deeply reaffirming. And inspiring.