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During the­­ summer of 2017, I attended the India Summer School for Future International Development Leaders (organized and administered by the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University). The program’s main goals are to provide participants with both knowledge and field experience on research methods, program appraisal, current concepts and theories of development as well as creating project proposal for NGOs. During the six and a half weeks of the program, students divide their time between development and management classes, and conducting an assessment for a specific community linked to a local Nongovernmental organization (NGO). I had high expectations from the program in relation to assessing community needs and project proposal for a specific community; the experience exceeded my expectations.

The program organized teams of three people, one foreign graduate student, one Indian graduate student and an early-career development professional to work together as consultants for a local NGO, in my case Gandhi Manav Kaylan Society (GMKS), to conduct a needs assessment and elaborate a project proposal for its execution by the same NGO in the selected community. GMKS works with tribal rural communities in Rajasthan supporting their livelihood, women empowerment, child development among other goals. Our team was assigned to work with the Jambua village, formed by 62 households of almost exclusively tribal families, from the Bhil community. The village rely on subsistence farming for their living and temporary migration to perform labor work in urban areas.   People in this area struggle mainly with water scarcity, deplorable roads and seasonal preventable health diseases. In addition, the village lacks of social services such as public schools, preschool centers and health care facilities. Families in the village, rarely receive government services they are entitled to due to isolation, corruption, lack of information and access to adequate transportation among other structural discriminations.

As a team we developed a three-week long need assessment. We conducted semi-structured interviews with women in the village, children, local authorities, health service providers and school teachers. We conducted 3 focus group discussions and two social mapping exercises. In our evaluation we concluded that the community could benefit from better water harvest and treatment practices, improved sanitization habits and preventive measures for seasonal waterborne diseases. Our project proposal addressed some of these problems by promoting the incorporation of hygiene habits to daily routine. Behavioral changes are challenging to incorporate, thus we conceive children as promoters of better practices and the school context as the setting to conduct the initiative. We proposed a series of health related modules to be incorporated to school curriculum and the creation of children clubs in their communities to provide support for their initiatives, reinforce the habits learned at school and incentivize those strategies among other members of the village.  The project aligns with previous initiatives done by GMKS to support the use of soap in the community and invite children to be promoters of social change by providing them with knowledge and tools to exert their rights. We presented our project proposal to both our professors and the GMKS staff with a positive response. Currently the NGO is applying to funding from Unicef and have decided to include aspects of our assessment and proposed initiative in the final project application. If the funding gets awarded to GMKS they have committed to execute the project in the community.

As a learning experience, the program provided me with a unique opportunity to explore the challenges NGOs face while attempting to achieve their mission of supporting tribal communities. There are serious political, economic and social structures set in place that limit the possibilities of the most marginalized among the poor in India. Organizations need to learn to navigate in these complex environments in order to be effective in their actions. I engaged with this program with the expectation to learn more about development organizations, their strengths and weaknesses and understand what are the opportunities for marginalized communities to improve their own lives and overcome the multiple obstacles often times set by those who argue are trying to support them. I was able to witness firsthand how these mechanisms take place in a rural community, some of the limitations of the work they do, and the interaction with workers from the public health system. It was an amazing discovery to learn as much from the institutions as from the other participants of the program, who gave me an insight on the non-profit culture, the gender disparities, current political clashes and cast struggles.

My time in India made me reflect on my professional sense of purpose. It is a common feature of those of us who work in social sciences, more particularly in the NGO world to have the urge to do “good”, to have a positive impact on people’s lives. We have ambitious goals of finding the ultimate solution, committing grandiose acts of sacrifice and service. These aspirations blind us from the small changes we can accomplish that can still make a large difference.  While working with people from Jambua village, one of the poorest among the poor in India, I learnt a great lesson of humility. People in the community do not need us, they have faced their problems long before our presence and will continue long after we are gone. All we can aim is to be active listeners. If we learn from their experiences, we might visualize opportunities to help them cope with their daily challenges by offering a viable alternative that is sensitive to their life conditions. Recognize that people are wise, thus if problems persist there are multiplicity of factors that allow them to perpetuate. We need to wonder what has been tried in the past and why it has failed. Even if these statements seems common sense, I witnessed many instances of degrading tribal communities to backward, brainless people, illiterate or ignorant. I went to this program searching for answers to these questions: What are the alternatives to narrow ethnocentric interventions? What are culturally sensitive practices? How can we address structural oppression? Can we help communities with different cultural background and language than ours? I learned to never stop questioning my own motivations, to be conscience of the role I play in preserving unequal structures of power, to prevent possible unintended effects of my interventions- and the ones from the organizations I am part of -in the lives of the people we are aiming to serve.  Additionally, while in Rajasthan, I had the opportunity to spend time among incredible generous women, who shared their personal stories of resilience, strength and love for their children. Among them I discovered new privileges and became more aware of existing ones. I returned to the Global Studies MA program with a renewed commitment to use my privileges to fight for social justice.