Sunday, 5 April 2015

The “Quarterlies”

The “Quarterlies” is a weeklong meeting where the EduCARE interns come together to share ideas, discuss projects, troubleshoot and enjoy each other’s company. This March it ran for five productive, but tiring, days - two in Naddi, three in Rait. Consequently, I decided that today (the day after) would be spent in unwind mode: espresso drinking, momo eating, Orwell reading, blog writing.

I have taken the first sip of my second coffee when a woman sharing my table asks me “if I saw the Dalai Lama this morning?”

She’s got medium length sunny-blonde hair that flicks at the end and a pale white complexion that I’m sure appreciates Himachal’s mostly temperate climate.She’s Austrian, a teacher by trade, who’s broken from tradition to immerse herself in Tibetan culture and pursue her love of learning here in McLeod Ganj.

She tells me that the Dalai Lama’s currently in residence and has just delivered a speech at the temple down the main road from this cafe. He leaves tomorrow for Japan, then onto my native Australia in June. As it was, I hadn’t heard he was in town. So, I hadn’t seen him.

The conversation changes course, from Buddhism to EduCARE, when my Austrian pal asks what I’m doing here in India - travelling, learning, teaching, working?

The answer is all of the above.

And it was at this point that I did my deepest reflection on my EduCARE experience.

I tell her that I live in a rural village 45 minutes from Bikaner, Rajasthan. It’s a place called Gajner where the locals treat us just like the sun: with unswerving attention and relentless warmth. Hardly a day passes without a shopkeeper offering free chai or locals inviting our group for lunch or dinner. Sometimes both.

Our boss is Mr. B, I tell her, when she asks who ‘runs’ the NGO. But I’m quickly critical of my comment. “He’s not a boss at all”, I clarify, “more of a mentor or guide.”

In fact, he’s a former Air Force pilot. He traded in his wings for a position as ‘Director’ of EduCARE about 15 years ago.

He’s got an imposing physical presence, sports a rough dark beard and invariably wears a baseball cap. He often talks in long, winding, philosophical and metaphorical sentences.

Mr B’s a lateral thinker. He exudes enthusiasm at every breath, urges us to self-challenge, and encourages us to unlock our potential.

Occasionally, like all good leaders, he leaves us scratching our heads, uncertain and sometimes confused. We question how – or if - we can operationalise his ideas. How - or if – do we turn his exuberance into results.
Learning and innovation, he maintains, is the answer.

The Austrian and I spend the next thirty minutes talking about how the acronym NGO has gathered some negative connotations, especially in India. Once in Jaipur, I had excitedly told the owner of my guesthouse that I was planning to volunteer for an NGO. He explained that the NGOs of Jaipur were only interested in making money and not developing the welfare of those they purported to help.

What’s more is that NGOs are forced to be results-based. The term is a bit of a buzzword in the Development space. It was created, I think, to satisfy the West’s thirst for a more scientific approach to aid policy. The implication is that if an NGO doesn’t produce ‘results’ that can be measured and evaluated and then used to inform new policies, the NGO is inefficient.

I contend to my Austrian friend that EduCARE challenges this paradigm.

It is still results-based, but not hamstrung by the short-termism of the NGO industry or restricted by government demands for detailed reports on scientific methods and linear expectations of poverty reduction.

Instead the word ‘result’ in Mr’s B’s dictionary probably reads: an impact that challenges societal traditions by empowering women to alter the status quo. An impact might be felt in 20 or 30 year's time but will be at least economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

Though if he reads this post, I’ve no doubt he’ll challenge me. For that’s his nature, and that’s what he wants to nurture in all of us.

Thus, EduCARE tries to redefine what an NGO is. The organisation demands patience, ideas and determination.

At some point, our Austrian friend and Mr. B share a value. She’s rejected the expectation of staying in the safe and strong Austrian state and chosen topursue her interests in Tibetan culture and language. Similarly, Mr. B challenges what’s conventionally expected of an NGO chief.

One of my colleagues, a fellow intern, summed its virtues up pretty well last week at the Quarterlies. He told me: “This internship will probably be the only time of my career where I get so much freedom to put into practice the ideals that I think are important for the world’s future. To implement the things I actually care about.”

So, this is the defining mark of EduCARE and should be the defining mark of the NGO sector as a whole - one predicated on innovation and societal challenge and freedom to reject the dominant paradigms.

In 3 month's time, the interns will again converge on an EduCARE ‘cluster’ for the Quarterlies. We’ll discuss and debate the merits of our NGO, of our work and its ‘results’. We’ll recount stories about our respective clusters, the intensity of the locals’ glares, our projects’ problems and successes. And we’ll argue about Mr B’s philosophy.

And some of us – like myself – won’t be there. I’ll either be at university, in the workforce (hopefully) or perhaps with my friends or family. Either way I’ll be attempting to instil Mr B’s values into my interactions and conversations, seeking to recreate the progressive environment that EduCARE lent me while interning.

Lachlan Alexander - Australia
Community Research Manager 

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