Trouble in “Paradise”: struggles with ICS India

Reading my previous post now, I chuckle to myself at the hope I still had about the project picking up – well, as much “chuckle” as I can muster, whilst also being close to bashing my head against a brick wall with frustration.

Students in India
The 3 Bs of education: bored, bemused, baffled

When speaking to friends and family back home, they try and helpfully suggest speaking to other staff members, or contacting the London office again – but we’ve contacted everyone we possibly can and aren’t getting anywhere with it. We’re in almost daily contact with various staff members about the situation, and while there is a bit of talk, there is no action. We’re even chastised for contacting the London office by the Indian staff – we’re informed again about the “chain of contact” we should follow – we should put all our worries to our designated Assistant Programme Coordinator (APC) who we should see daily – but in the time we’ve been living in Chatrapur, we’ve seen our APC very little – weekly would be pushing it, and certainly nowhere near daily. At one point early in the process I put a group worry about the male Programme Coordinator to the female APC, hoping that the sensitive situation would be dealt with tactfully. The problem was passed straight on the the male member of staff, who came and aggressively put an end to any further discussion. Following that little “incident”, you can probably see why this “chain of communication” thing wasn’t really going to work.

Aggressive behaviour, drunken behaviour (though we’re not supposed to drink, the male members of staff have been actively encouraging it, getting drunk themselves, buying alcohol – including for underage volunteers – and calling those who do not wish to drink “boring”), as well as inappropriate and aggressive conduct with volunteers, a lack of training, a lack of preparation of the project (in fact, no useful project actually existing), no prospect of things changing, the list could go on – what the hell are we doing here?

At one point, during the training, things got so bad that the Country Director for India flew in from New Delhi to assess what was going on and take statements. Things started off well – she proclaimed complete neutrality, and assured us that she wouldn’t show the communications we’d had with the London office to the members of staff in question. We then found out that she had shown the papers to the staff, and at the end of our sessions with her, stated “As I mentioned, it is my job to remain completely neutral. However, I’d just like to say that I am completely behind my team, and have complete faith in them. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.” Very neutral. I think we knew then that the whole thing was doomed!

Ready, steady…hmmm

3 weeks in – and an interesting 3 weeks it has been! We spent 2 weeks training at a youth hostel in Godalpur-on-Sea (a weird mishmashed Indian/English name if ever I’ve seen one!), though to be perfectly honest I think most of us came away from said training more confused than when we arrived. Not off to the best start!

Lighthouse, Godalpur-on-Sea

Living in our little place in Chatrapur are 4 English volunteers, and 2 national volunteers. When we arrived and during the training it became clear that the roles we came out here to do aren’t as clear cut as we thought – the junior volunteers are struggling to understand the reason they are here, and myself and the other senior volunteer are feeling much the same. We have now been told that 80% of our role is to be spent researching information on the internet – and I can’t see the reason for flying us across the world to sit doing what we could do in England, or doing that which an Indian person could just as easily do (if not more easily, as they obviously understand the culture, language and whatnot here). Also, there is no internet connection here, and no plan to have one installed. Go figure that one out…

The junior volunteers are to go into schools to try and teach about the Indian administrative system – civic participation – to children who speak no English. As such, they have the National Volunteers to go to the schools with them to translate. But of course the Indians know more than the International Volunteers do about the political system here, and citizen rights – so they are doing the majority of the teaching. We’ve brought up our concerns with staff, who have suggested that the junior volunteers teach whatever they’d like to teach – music, IT (despite the lack of instruments or IT equipment) – though none of the junior volunteers have teaching experience, or any idea of what might be needed or missing in the curriculum.

This is a huge pet peeve of mine, so-called “aid” where people go abroad and impose their ideas of what the community needs without actually consulting the community. As it happened, this “teaching whatever they like” didn’t happen in the end, but the fact that it was suggested worries me somewhat as to how seriously staff are taking things. Speaking of the staff, I’ve got a whole lot of stories there…though I won’t get started on that or this post will end up novel-length!

Although we’re off to a disorganised and altogether worrying start, I’m still grateful for the opportunity to have come out here and hope that we can work on creating a viable project. We’re still working through things and trying to create our own roles – it’s a challenging time for all of us, but we’re pulling together as a team to try and work things out.

New year, new chapter…in India

Fishing on Chilka Lake

In a few days I’ll be in India, beginning in-country training for my International Citizen Service placement with Restless Development. This time last year, while searching for a job in the third sector, I could only have hoped that an opportunity like ICS would come along.

I have always been interested in international development and its surrounding issues, and have volunteered and worked for charities for quite some time, but until ICS I haven’t been able to focus on development. Three months on-the-ground work will be invaluable experience for all of us involved with the programme, as well as increasing our confidence and knowledge of the development field.

This will be the first time that Restless Development has worked in the state of Odisha, in the east of India. This project is a great opportunity to get under the skin of a local community, meet new people and learn about another country and the problems it faces. Hopefully we’ll be able to make an impact during our time there, and pave the way for future volunteers to continue our work.

During my time over there, I will be acting as a leader for the volunteers I’m living and working with. This is a wide-ranging role incorporating project management and ongoing pastoral support as the group comes together. Although I have managed projects for charities in the past, this project, with its in-at-the-deep-end aspect, will definitely be a challenge. A new culture, new and as-yet-unknown tasks, new people, challenging day-to-day lifestyle, and the pang of homesickness will no doubt create heightened emotions in all of us.

But they’ll also give us life-long friendships, with our fellow volunteers and those of different cultures, amazing experiences to have and stories to tell, and the knowledge that we can thrive and help bring about change in any situation.

Best of luck to everyone else involved in ICS!

 

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to my blog! 🙂 I’ll be using it as a place to show my photos from around the world, as well as regularly report from my International Citizens Service (ICS) volunteer placement in Orissa, India, with Restless Development. During this project (January – April 2012) I will be helping to build skills and confidence among local communities as well as improve employability. This will involve a combination of office-based work and time spent within the communities involved. This is Restless Development’s first project in Orissa. I’ll be posting more details as soon as I can – I’ll be getting my bearings for the first week or two and will hopefully be able to put a more in-depth post about what is happening here and exactly what action we will be taking.