My time as a World Literacy Canada intern is almost over. It feels like I just started, but these seven weeks flew by very quickly. During my last few days here, I have been reflecting on my role in development as a whole. While I have studied International Development at the University of Guelph for the past three years and loved all of it, no course could have taught me what I learned here. I am walking away from this experience thinking about the importance of three words: local, skilled, and small.
What makes an NGO* strong? Thinking local helps. What I have noticed at WLC is that it maintains close, long-term connections with communities. Our project locations are close to our main office (within driving distance) and our Group Leaders who manage most of the on-the-ground development projects (i.e. Mahila Mandel women’s groups, scholarship students, libraries etc.) have been going to their set communities for 8+ years. All of our staff at the Varanasi office are Indian, and most people in the office only speak Hindi. Why no English? English is much less prevalent in North India and as we are involved with lower income communities, Hindi is also the language of those who access our programs.
How do skills play into it? To run an NGO well, you do not just need good intentions and commitment but ability and experience. A number of our staff members have master’s degrees in Social Work or other relevant fields. While I will soon graduate with a BA, my role is not, and should not be, as important as a local staff member. Local and skilled are not mutually exclusive but are closely intertwined elements towards good development. Another skill that is worth acknowledging is the staff’s ability to cope with crazy-hot Indian summers, for weeks now the temperature has been higher than 40 degrees! To me 30 degrees is hot (sleeping with frozen water bottles has worked wonders) but even Indians do not like this heat. I tip my invisible hat to our staff whose daily work takes them out to the baking hot sun every day.
Now when I say small, I do not necessarily mean a small organization, but small in the sense of small actions that accumulate into something much bigger. Recording the weekly 20 rupee contributions at a Self-Help Group meeting, helping a kid check out a Hindi picture book, or going to sit on a tarpaulin mat with 20 women every week to talk, are all seemingly mundane tasks. But over a period of time they can enable a woman to take out a loan when it would previously have been impossible, help a young adult acquire a firm knowledge of his mother tongue so he can search for a good job, or encourage a woman to vote in a local election for the first time. This is what our Group Leaders do every day and this is what it is all about.
When I look back on it, these principles of local, skilled, and small seem obvious, but they are not. Rather this type of development stands in stark contrast to what we are exposed to back home, especially in regards to our personal roles in development.
Voluntourism, where people pay to go to other countries to volunteer with short-term development projects, is an activity that has become extremely popular for young people in the West in the last few years. We are often told by university campus groups and other youth-oriented organizations that we are full of potential and can change the world. These organizations advertise opportunities to take care of orphaned elephants and children, or build a school for 2-4 weeks. While the notion that a teenager or young adult can make all this difference in another country comes from a very good place, it is deeply flawed. This modern version of colonialism oversimplifies development, and could not be more different than the work I see here.
I am thankful that WLC did not assume I had any inherent value by virtue of being a young foreigner. I worked to my abilities and used my skills as a writer to tell the world about WLC. This has been an amazing learning experience and I wish I could stay longer and say more! But as I leave it is important that I remind myself that I am only one part of a larger aim. While communicating to the world has value, it is the substance of that communication that is the most important; the local, skilled, and small on-the-ground work that our Indian staff are doing here every day to educate and empower women and young people.
International Development is a complex beast and makes its fair share of mistakes. It is impossible for any charity to do everything right all the time. But it is important to acknowledge and appreciate that the development that we support is not westerners going to poor places to ‘save’ people, we use ideas from Canada, India, Nepal, but the development that we support is local.
After reading this, one might ask: if my role isn’t to go to another country to make change, what am I supposed to do? I firmly believe that support is not just monetary, although that is vital. Encouraging literacy in your own community and city, staying informed about the world and social (in)justice, and encouraging dialogue are key if you want to work towards a better world. What’s even better is it is a never-ending role, there is always something to be advocated for or discussed.
The roles we play are all different. I am glad I got to play mine.
Thanks for reading,
*NGO: Non-Governmental Organization (i.e. a charity like World Literacy Canada!)