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August - September 2007
Unlocking Potential – Volunteering in India
How the Asian Foundation for Philanthropy is driving social change in India.
It is 7 o’ clock on a Monday evening and Bala and Nimmi are still in the office. This is a good day they tell me. Early starts and late finishes are the norm for this two person band. This is not the corporate sector where time equals money, it is the non-profit sector where time equals social change.
Bala Thakrar and Nimmi Unadkat are the driving forces behind the Asian Foundation for Philanthropy (AFP), a UK-based charity which helps British Asians offer their time and skills to make a difference to socio- economic development in India. AFP aims to encourage Indian Diaspora to volunteer in India in a structured, effective and innovative way.
Now you may think that India is already a hotspot for global volunteers and backpacking students on their gap year and you are certainly not far off the truth. The dilemma however, is that whilst India is the largest recipient of poverty eradication aid from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the large number of volunteers heading to India are not Indian. The acute absence of ethnic minorities working for DFID is noticeable at all levels of the organisation.
And DFID is not alone. India attracts some of the largest development sector teams from some of the most prominent organizations in the UK including Oxfam and Save the Children. Unfortunately, these teams are made up of a small number of Indians. Indians tend to magnetize towards traditional sectors such as medicine, banking, accounting, law and pharmacy. However these skills, are highly transferable in the development sector. AFP is helping to realize the linkage between the two through their volunteering programme, Paropkaar. “You may have people skills or you may have financial skills – we are a very inclusive organization” says Bala.
AFP was set up in November 2004 by Bala Thakrar, a committed player in the not-for- profit sector for the past 20 years. In her years in the charity sector, Bala has been central to the set up of the first Housing Association for Asian Disabled People and various Asian women’s mental help services. Few can doubt her commitment to helping her community.
The organization is reactive, responding to ground level needs. Volunteers are fully exposed to the realities of the field whilst given the opportunity to embrace their cultural roots. AFP’s reputation for maintaining high levels of cultural sensitivity often stands them apart from the larger mainstream volunteering organisations such as VSO and GAP Activity, as well as many agencies who charge a fee for the chance to volunteer.
Bala is confident when she says “Sewa is central to our ethos. British Asians are representative of other British Asians when they are volunteering in India. This is why we ensure that volunteers uphold cultural sensitivity when on the field by not drinking alcohol, dressing appropriately and respecting elders.” With AFP you are not a volunteer, you are one of the locals.
Volunteering is nothing new to Indians. Sewa (social work) and Daan (donating) have been an intrinsic part of our identity since time immemorial and are inherent to our cultural values. Financially, India receives some of the highest numbers of remittances from around the world. DFID estimates that up to £1.9 billion pounds of remittances have been sent back to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. At times of crisis Indians are more than willing to donate financially and religious buildings often attract large numbers of funds resulting in exquisite temples and facilities. Indians thrive on entrepreneurial spirit.
So why is the Indian Diaspora so reluctant to volunteer in India? AFP’s research identified diverse reasons for the lack of enthusiasm for international volunteering.
The first is parents who are reluctant to let their son or daughter venture abroad to volunteer. The second is time constraints.
AFP’s solution was to set up short term volunteering placements ranging from a minimum of one month to a maximum of four. Prior to each volunteer’s departure, parents and family members participate in parent support groups run by project worker Nimmi. “Nimmi has aged beyond her years dealing with the parents!” laughs Bala. Parents are given the opportunity to ask questions and gain a deeper understanding of volunteering with AFP. Volunteers are also fully trained before they set off to India and during their stay, supported by Jayanthi Beliappa, the third member of AFP based in India.
Key to understanding the anxieties of parents is to appreciate the financial struggles many of them have encountered upon their arrival in the UK. Parents have worked endlessly to earn money for their families, often in very difficult conditions. Money-orientated mentalities remain intrinsic to the Asian community and this is mirrored in the successful status that we have secured nationally and internationally. To encourage their child to work for free in India may understandably be a foreign and uneasy concept to come to terms with. Safety is also a key concern.
Controversy equally arises over issues of north - south aid. Traditionally, volunteering opportunities have been provided through British agencies such as the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). The image of the volunteer is thus stereotypically white, male and rescue worker as is reported in the AFP research study carried out in March last year. Many ethnic minorities considering volunteering fear that western NGOs may impose western values and development models on developing world projects. AFP works with local grassroots partners to ensure that agendas are never influenced in an unauthentic manner.
Does volunteering help? In a word, yes. AFP selects dedicated individuals often with expertise in a specific sector. Partner organisations are carefully identified. Volunteering is not just for youngsters or those wanting a break from their high flying often stressful careers. “People who have retired also have fantastic skills” remarks Bala. Most importantly, short placements offered by AFP are designed to act as a chain whereby volunteers can pick up from the efforts of the previous volunteers. Nobody’s contribution is wasted.
In addition to the Paropkaar programme, AFP runs the Daan Programme which focuses on key development areas - education (over 35 million children in India aged between 6 – 14 years are no receiving any education whilst 190 million females are illiterate), disability (India has a disabled population equivalent to the population of the UK), livelihoods and income generation (despite annual growth of 7% per year India has an unemployment level of 9.2% and nearly 7.5 million poor rural households in need of financial services such as micro credit) and health (average life expectancy is just 62 and more than a third of all deaths in India are children under five years of age).
Financial contributions made to the Daan programme are directed towards the above issues. Partners include Ahmedabad’s Women’s Action Group, Amar Jyoti Research and Rehabilitation Centre in Haryana, Amarpurkashi Project in Uttar Pradesh and Belaku Trust in Karnataka. AFP supports locals NGOs who often find it hard to attract international support, whilst partner agencies are located in areas which reflect the composition of Indians living in the UK.
AFP continues to raise awareness of their work to unlock potential amongst the Indian diaspora. “Individuals drive the agenda”, comments Bala, “ they can be the gatekeepers or the innovators.” AFP is clearly creating the latter.
Nimmi and Bala spread this message through their Jagruti (Awareness Raising) programme. “Development jargon often makes people turn off,” they say. “We are trying to make development more accessible. We are trying to encourage Indians who wish to work in development and to make the Indian Diaspora realise that the corporate sector have fantastic transferable skills.”
The Jagruti programme also encourages former volunteers such as associate consultant Nishant Lalwani to talk about their experiences. “The UK has been waiting for AFP for a very long time. Finally, an organisation that will take advantage of the huge untapped potential of conscientious Indians in this country,” he remarks.
A donor, Mahesh Nandha also returned from his volunteering experience fully inspired. “My wife and I were introduced to AFP through a friend” says Met Police employee Mr. Nandha. “We were so impressed with AFP’s determination to provide a high level of support to people like us, who want to help those less fortunate. Through AFP we will be forming our own Charitable Trust foundation to help the children affected in India by the Tsunami. “
AFP endeavors to place volunteers on a project that suits their skills, experiences, interests and availability. Roles range from fundraising, teaching and IT training to more development specific roles such as HIV/Aids trainers and researchers.
International volunteering is an undervalued concept. Yes it can boost your CV and career prospects, yes it can be a break from the pressure of corporate life and yes it is a different way to spend the summer break. To be a truly successful volunteer with AFP however, you must want to be a driver of social change, however big or small your contribution. Volunteering should never be seen as a sacrifice.
“Organisations like AFP give people the opportunity to be part of something important that will really make a difference in other people’s lives” says Nirisha Saujani, an undergraduate student at the Ashton University. “ Not only can volunteers help others in South Asia, but they can then return and speak of their experience - thereby spreading awareness of situations around the world.”
The structure is there, the conveniance is there, the chance awaits you – so what’s stopping you now?