I live in India. I work in ‘development’. I was lucky; I graduated with a degree in Anthropology and immediately got a job working ‘in the field’. So I packed my bags and headed half way across the world to start a life far removed from my days as a student. I had been to India twice before for months at a time; I knew the country, its idiosyncratic quirks and off beat rhythms; its vibrant colours and potent smells; its sleepy villages and pulsating slums.
And far removed from all the guidebook photos of festivals and saris and yoga and wonders of the world, there is my office on a hill. I travel there everyday and sit at a computer. I write project proposals and grants and evaluations. ‘Development’ lingo says I am ‘working in the field’ and yet I can’t remember the last time I walked through a slum or a village – the places on the margins of Indian society where ‘development’ takes place.
So why do I live in India if the work I do could be done anywhere in the world?
In truth I am not 100% sure – there is certainly a value to being ‘on the ground’ in the country where our programs are implemented; networking opportunities and meetings are easy to organize and working with local staff is hugely insightful.
More than anything though, being in India and working in ‘development’ has been eye opening. India is a country where ‘development’ is happening at feverish levels. The number of NGOs registered in India varies from report to report but most settle on a number around 1.5 million (granted not all of these are reputable). There are 55,000 NGOs registered in Mumbai alone. There is a sense of urgency. 41% live below the poverty line ($1.25 a day); the national literacy rate for girls is 54% against 78% for boys (UNICEF data); life expectancy in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, is just 54.
And it is against this backdrop that I have been exposed to ‘big budget development’ – the kind doled out
by huge unilateral aid organizations. A conference on the issue of food scarcity was accompanied by a lavish buffet. A meeting of environmentalists involved 100 delegates taking domestic flights to attend. Hypocrisy is the bedfellow of many it seems.
So where does this leave me? More cynical, more angry and more unsure than ever before about continuing working in the field of ‘development’; and yet walking away does not make sense either.