India. A land of spirituality, mystery, wonder…
For those in the Western world India has always held an exotic appeal, especially for those from the country that was its former colonial master.
The predominant images of India that we in the West are fed, largely through the media, is that of a country that is on one hand obsessed by religion, on the other, suffering from grinding poverty. We are largely unaware that this view is held much to chagrin of middle-class Indians. Although, for those who read the business sections of newspapers, there is now constant reference to a growing economy that, try as it might, cannot emerge from the shadow of its bigger rival, China.
This exotic appeal, the poverty, and also the scope for business opportunities, is an underlying factor for many of the foreign visitors to modern-day India. The characteristics of those who come from abroad these days tend to fall into these three areas: the adventurous travellers voyaging to far-off lands, the charity volunteers and the businessmen looking to outsource work and expand into growing markets.
For those of us who fall into the middle category, it has become almost a fashion accessory for your life’s CV. There are numerous gap-year students looking to ‘do their bit’ for the world in between their studies or before starting ‘real life’ by doing something meaningful what is assumed to be a poor and needy country.
Full of enthusiasm, and usually armed with the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to India, off they trot. Some are reasonably well informed about their intended destination, others are less so, but often underlying is an attitude that they are the ones who are better off and it is their duty to help the needy people of this foreign land.
It’s no wonder then that this paternalistic attitude soon falters upon arrival. Foreign volunteers find themselves hit full-on by a new and bewildering culture. Reading a few guide books just doesn’t cut it as upon arrival you begin to realise that even with having read the best information on the country, it’s true, as they say, that nothing can really prepare you for the experience itself.
Not least amongst this is our naïvety. Before embarking one person even asked me whether or not they had beds in India, he thought not. This one-sided picture of poverty is so ingrained that seeing some of the opulence and wealth of the growing middle-class is just staggering. Equally so is the diverse range of views and opinions held by the people of India on their domestic issues.
International volunteers have been an integral part of the Oasis India story since its earliest days. Many of the ideas and projects stemmed from the inspiration of those volunteers and they lent the work a dynamic and enthusiasm that tends to come from highly motivated individuals out to solve the world’s ills.
But it can be a mixed blessing. Amongst some in the faith-based organisation field, the view is that the resources put into international volunteers would be much better used on domestic ones. For the cost of one international worker tens of domestic ones could be hired, and with the added benefits of a better cultural understanding, minimising mishaps.
There are good reasons for this twofold argument. Firstly, the West and the people in it are, on the whole, cash rich. We have money to spend and the will to do so. If I had simply donated the money I raised then the total cost of my placement could have funded almost 80 low-level (i.e. non management) workers at Oasis. Secondly, from a cultural perspective, whilst we may think we have many seemingly good ideas and a good understanding of what needs to be done, the question should be asked: do we really? There may be a lack of cultural understanding to implement them effectively and if our knowledge of a country and a situation is only skin-deep, can we really come up with effective strategies to combat the issues? Even on a casual level, whilst I don’t think I’ve offended anyone as such, there have definitely been a few cultural misunderstandings along the way.
Personally however, I disagree with the argument that would reduce foreign volunteers. The reason I disagree is because I think our offerings extend beyond the scope of mere financial backers. To begin with I find the view that those in the West should be treated purely as cash cows is at best insulting and at worst damaging. I think it reinforces a view amongst some people that all we in the West have to offer is money.
Culturally we can bring a fresh perspective to a situation that doesn’t carry with it the cultural baggage that can sometimes hinder ideas. What’s more is that exposure to other cultures has other benefits. People may complain about globalism these days but as long as people are people cultures will interact and change. It’s inevitable and is far from new. If we avoided those which were not our own and relied only on select representations we run the risk of ignorance and forming stereotypes that are often incorrect.
Recently it is being acknowledged in the charity sector that when someone is only after your money, it can breed either resentment, or at least indifference. When you as a person do not feel valued or involved your interest wanes. I think Oasis understands this and both the wealth and cultural experience of a volunteer can be combined to a greater effect. The thrust amongst funding initiatives now is to get people more involved in the work that we do. By letting people participate to a greater degree, if they so desire, it creates a stronger bond and donor fatigue lessens. For some people this will come through the experience of volunteering. Indeed the original international teams to India from Oasis were people who came to find out how the money they donated was being spent.
Having spent almost a year with the organisation I have been inspired by the work that continues here and expect that as I move on my interest will remain strong as I have been more attached to the work itself; the people we help across India are more now than simply pictures on a TV screen. I have met them and they are living, breathing people who are capable of every hurt and joy that we are. It sounds obvious to say so but again, in the West, the view we are brought up with is one of pitying the hapless natives.
And who knows where it could lead. The thought of this experience being used as ‘personal development’ doesn’t sit well with me as it almost couches the experience in selfish terms of what I can get from it, but what about what it inspires someone to give for the future? For every five, ten, twenty volunteers who simply say that it’s something they’ve done and can tick a box on their to-do list, what about the one who goes on to make a career out of it? The person who’s inspired to find the next cure for whatever disease is ravaging people at that moment in time, or someone who goes on to work for the UN or World Bank, or even someone who dedicates themselves to helping a few individuals, not making a large-scale change to most eyes but still working miracles in the lives of others; for them it will matter and who knows where that will lead.