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The W.J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India Blog: On Serving in India

Sunday, March 21, 2010

On Serving in India

With the number of young non-resident Indian (NRI) volunteers at India’s NGOs today, it seems coming to India for service work is a new rite of passage. Manju Sadarangani first came to Kutch, Gujarat to provide relief in the aftermath of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. She has fond memories of the village boy who wanted to marry her and of the impact she made with just a laptop and a spreadsheet program. Manju was a member of the first group of fellows sent to Indian NGOs by the American India Foundation. Today, Manju is a political officer for the American Embassy in New Delhi.

The2001 Kutch earthquake proved to be a galvanizing moment for pan-Indian philanthropy. In the decade since, a steady supply of young NRIs has come to India’s NGOs to work on service projects, not necessarily in areas where they have familial or linguistic ties. Motivated by the opportunity to be a part of India’s phenomenal growth story, they are enhancing India’s vibrant civil society institutions. In the process, they are finding out a lot about identity, development and what it means to “serve.”

The NRI supply meets a demand among Indian NGOs for professional managerial skills, transparency and fundraising capacity.[1] Young NRIs help apply for funding, set up evaluation systems, and professionalize processes. Their expertise in everything from Excel to English is valued for shaping strategies and implementing programs. However, both the organization and the individual deal with the frustration of unmet expectations. Indian NGOs can struggle to effectively maximize an outsider’s skill and time, or resist change from an external source. Former volunteer Sanjana says, “I sort of got lost trying to figure out how to use my skills [at the NGO].”

NGOs are equally frustrated by the assumptions and priorities of these well-intentioned individuals. In general, they have knowledge of how things “should” work, and may not be as open to figuring out how things can and do work in the Indian context. NRIs in particular carry assumptions about India they’ve picked up in the India-in-exile of their birth. But because channels are open, learning takes place. The greatest, albeit tangential, contribution NRIs are making is enhancing NGOs capacity to utilize outsiders. For example, Seva Mandir in Udaipur hosts over 100 volunteers each year, and has a formal training program, housing and support services for volunteers.

To meet a need for structured support on both sides, fellowships and other formal exchange programs for young people from the West facilitate service opportunities in India with financial and structural support. Among the more professionally-oriented programs are the American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellowship, the Deshpande Foundation’s Sandbox Fellowship and the Asian Foundation for Philanthropy’s Paropkaar Volunteers program. Identity and the search for self is a motivator for many NRIs. Programs like Indicorps and the UK-based ConnectIndia have a more explicit focus on personal development through service for people of Indian origin. As former fellows and volunteers go on to work in the development sector, exchanges help launch new organizations and social ventures, bolstering India’s vibrant civil society institutions and changing attitudes towards philanthropy and volunteerism. Back at home young NRIs are also moving the diaspora’s giving to India away from financial support of religious and education causes towards strategic engagement for social and economic development.Kerala Site Visit

Meghna Shah is a Clinton Fellow of the American India Foundation working on capacity-building projects for SAATH, an Ahmedabad-based NGO that creates market linkages for India’s urban and rural poor.

This posting is also available at South Asian Philanthropy Project (SAPP)

[1] “Investing in Ourselves: Giving and Fundraising in India,” Asian Development Bank, 2002.


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