Monday, June 28, 2010

Stop chasing those numbers

A lot of this month seems to have been occupied by numbers – we were writing a proposal for one of donors and if the project were approved, it would mean that we could continue to do the good work that we do. The exercise involved a lot of wrestling with numbers. Numbers to be filled in the budget column ; numbers to be filled in explaining how many people would benefit from the grant and how to make sure that enough number of people had access to the program without us spreading ourselves so thin, that quality itself would be compromised.

Having worked for a funder before, I can understand their compulsions. Funders have to calculate hard data like cost per beneficiary and if that is too high, then the manner in which the program has been designed may not be feasible to run and fund; no matter how good the rationale, the bottom line is always economics – the final question before any funder will sign off – does it make economic sense to fund this program – will enough numbers of people benefit from the grant or a tiny number of them will? If the answer is not satisfactory enough, the application will not be accepted. Working for a donor, I used to examine those numbers and determine whether they were consistent with financial prudence. Today as someone who works for Oasis, an implementing agency, I have to supply those numbers and apply the same parameters.

But just how much should an organization be driven by numbers, is a question I still have not been able to resolve. Numbers are important I know. It costs a lot of effort to raise money and if it is not used in the most efficient and cost effective way, the donor is very likely to feel short changed. Yet as someone dealing with people and their suffering, just to what extent can this be quantified? and even if it can be , to what extent is it fair or right to measure the efficacy and success of our efforts through numbers alone.

At Oasis, a large part of our work is with victims off trafficking. Often they have suffered immensely and in a manner that we can hardly imagine or understand. They have been exploited, abused and brutalized in the most unimaginable ways possible. At Oasis, we try and restore to them some of the lost years of their lives, through a host of interventions. Those interventions are costly. That intervention s is intense. Those interventions take time to work. If at all they work. And sometimes, they don’t because some hurts and experiences human beings cannot deal with, no matter how proficient their methods and how professional their staff. Only God can heal every one, we at Oasis can only try and does our little bit as His agents and instruments.

So is it fair to always ask that question” How many”? How many women did you rescue from the brothels? And how many children? Why so many women? Why so few children? Why did only so many women enrol for your livelihoods program? Why did so few get successfully counselled and come to terms with their past? Why? Why? Why?

As a donor, I used to know how to ask the right questions, and I still do; but today I know how easy it is to ask questions than it is to provide the answers to some unfathomable mysteries. But one thing too I know, that numbers are one piece of the puzzle. Yes money is important, cost benefit ratios are important, effectiveness is important, professionalism is important. All of those things are important. But infinitely more important than all those numbers is the human spirit which we try to heal.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Prakash Jha should make another movie

I went to see Rajneeti over the weekend with my daughter. After all the press coverage about how the movie was largely based on the life of Sonia Gandhi and all that, one expected a lot of that, but unless the censors have completely distorted the film by cutting of big chunks of the film, one can hardly see evidence of that. Katrina Kaif for some moments in the film does play a widow and her mannerisms do like one of the Gandhis – could be Sonia or he daughter, the similarity about ends there. The movie is not anything about the Gandhis – Sonia or Priyanka. Rather the movie is about the lumpenization of Indian politics.

We have all grown up with the notion that politics is bad and politicians are the baddies. If one had somehow missed out this bit of a middle class Indian’s education, Prakash Jha can fill the gap. His depiction of Indian politicians – not the underground Maoist types; but the types that fight elections is such that one would come out of the theatre shuddering with horror at our plight as we think about how we are ruled and by whom. And that raises a question.

That politics and politicians are corrupt, inept and amoral has been taught to us from the time we learnt to listen to stories in our mother’s lap. It began with stories of wicked kings and as we grew older, began to be replaced with other people we recognized or knew. Eventually the media created bigger ogres of our ruler and politicians. But coming back to the question that arose after watching the film, I fail to understand one thing – if all our politicians are like the ones portrayed in “Rajneeti”, how are we surviving as a nation?

Rajneeeti’s political figures are barely human. Ranbir Kapoor is supposedly cast in the role analogous to Arjun (the film has shades of the Mahabharata in it), but could well have played the Biblical Satan with ease. Though there is a whole lot of dark side to the so-called democratic Indian political system, but murdering someone from the rival side at the broad daylight in front of masses as shown in the film is like a little too far stretched.

Of course, bad and even villainous politicians live and thrive; we all know that. But what about the good ones, they too exist, don’t they? they may not be saints, and possibly don’t even claim to be one, but they are the ones who ensure that anarchy doesn’t run amuck, and that there is at least some attempt at governance and the rule of law.

Take for example our freedom fighters- people whose birthdays we love to celebrate and whose statues and portraits adorn all public squares and several calendars all over the country. Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi, Veer Savarkar , Sardar Patel, Nehru... and many , many others. Weren’t they politicians of one hue or another, whose beliefs differed widely, usually vary widely, but because of that they wouldn’t kill each other and cause mayhem. They did give each other that space.

Even today such people exist; politicians who are quietly and silently burning the mid night oil so that they can serve the country as best as they can. They may not make it to the newspaper headlines because they are not looting the exchequer and amassing assets; neither are they plotting intrigue and communal violence in the dead of the night. Such people exist; and it is because of such politicians that the nation still runs and that we are not yet a failed state. Their story too deserves to be told. Prakash Jha ought to write the script of another movie. He has exposed the gory side of Indian politics. Now he ought to project its golden side.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Whores and Prostitutes : the baggage that words carry

One of my colleagues was orienting some newly inducted staff about our work among the prostitutes of Mumbai, when an indignant hand shot up to protest. “prostitute” was not a word to be used – especially by our kind of people who were involved in the development sector who ought to know better. After a sheepish apology, the session continued and eventually we proceeded to enumerate the number of "beneficiaries" whom we had rescued from the "flesh trade".

Soon other hands had shot up. The word “ beneficiary” was too patronizing – who did we think we were any way.... and “flesh trade” .... well wasn't the word so coarse and harsh and how could we even think of using such a word, didn't we have any sensitivity at all or what ? I began to have deep sympathies for our communications manager , who presumably has to learn to walk around with a lot of dictionaries and thesauruses to avoid tripping over a charge about the wrong use of words. I was thrilled that I didn't have her role.

Later that day, I was leaving to board a flight. The weather was wet and it had been raining heavily causing traffic jams all the way from my home to the airport. The humidity and the rain had ensured that all all my clothes were soaked to the bone. As the taxi entered the crowded and disorderly airport terminal, i spotted a relatively empty gate meant for “ persons with special needs”. I immediately cataloged all my special needs – I was occasionally breathless, more often than not short tempered and hot headed,m terribly impatient too. Some minor medical ailments were accompaniments too. But the CISF jawan at the gate wouldn't let me in.stripping aside jargon, he told me that the gate was meant for “apang log”, the disabled”. Special needs was an euphemism for disability.

Since then i have been wondering a lot about the words we use. A lot of them have become so much a part of common usage that we use them without thinking and without intending any harm. Yet words carry a lot of weight, can be stigmatizing and devastating for the self esteem. But we seldom know, because we live and breathe in a different world. As a child , I was taught , never , ever to use the word” leper” because it had a certain connotation of exclusion, isolation and neglect. On street corners and traffic signals , I have seen plenty of people who would qualify for the use of the word in its classical sense, but so ingrained is the lesson, that perhaps this is one word that I am most unlikely to use.

Some of course can of course can so completely swing the other way, that they are more concerned about the correctness of their jargon than sensitivity to the person. Indeed it is possible that the people most busy in serving those in need have the least time to update their vocabulary , while those who are right in their nuances of speech are the most indifferent when it comes to doing things that really matter.

So which way does one turn ? While it is perhaps correct to say that one should not be unduly obsessed with words and phrases and that the motive of the heart is far more important than the utterances of the tongue, we should never forget though that words carry a lot of weight and a stray word spoken out of turn and without the slightest ill will intended, can cause paralyzing harm and trauma which we may neither see nor recognize. So let us weigh our words wisely and choose our phrases carefully , in as much as we are able. There is enough hurt in the world, without we needing to add unwittingly, an extra ton.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Volunteers : The silent worker bee

Volunteers are one of the most valuable resources and a voluntary organization can have, especially today when a lot or most voluntary organizations are largely staffed by paid professionals who work for a salary. While the changing nature of the sector and the increasing demands and scrutiny made by government, donors and funders and even the general public may mean that this shift is largely inevitable, volunteers still help to remind us of our roots.
At Oasis, we have been fortunate in being blessed by many volunteers – short term and long term. Some of them have been around for years and while having cost the organization next to nothing, have enriched Oasis in ways that might be difficult to quantify. The other day, we were trying to calculate in monetary terms what the worth of a few specific volunteers with their particular skills and experience might be. I do not know what figure was finally arrived at, but we agreed that if we had to hire all those people and pay them the salaries that they could command, it could hit the organisational balance sheet quite badly.
But money and salaries are one thing. Often volunteers bring with them skills and experiences that are not readily available in the market place. It is not a matter of being able to pay the salaries, often the right people with a suitable combination of commitment and skill are just not around.
When volunteers come from another culture or country, they also enrich local staff in providing them a platform to work in a multi ethnic and multi cultural environment. They usually bring perspectives on a particular situation or a way of doing things that are fresh and new and can help challenge existing notions of how business has always been conducted. More importantly, by their very presence and the dedication they display, they may end up challenging or changing local work culture and practice.
It is worth considering why volunteerism, even for a short spell is not at all entrenched in India. The concept of the ‘gap year’ is not prevalent in India at all unfortunately. It is one straight and long ride from school to college and university and then onto your first job. In most situations, a gap in the resume that does not follow this beaten track would raise eye brows in most interview situation. The concept of taking some time off now and then and follow the call of the heart is not too well understood or accepted in India.
Of course there is also an economic dimension to this that must not be missed. Volunteerism costs. It may not cost the receiving organisation like Oasis directly, but some one obviously is paying the bills that the volunteer worker is incurring in the country- their housing, their grocery bills, utility bills and others. Depending on organisational policy, possibly the office may absorb some bills, but that still leaves a substantial chunk that the volunteer ultimately is responsible for.
We at the receiving end of a volunteer's untainted service are often unaware of what it takes to raise that sort of money that would pay your bills, no matter how frugally you ultimately choose to live. Occasionally mid career professionals have worked long enough and saved enough to manage their own finances, but ever so often we get younger people who are not likely to have reached that stage and need to reach out to friends and family to raise the necessary resources to come.
Volunteers are the silent worker bees that often quietly and unobtrusively keep the bee hive of activity running. More importantly perhaps they keep a much needed notion alive; that in a materialistic society where every one seemingly works for money- not every one really is.
Volunteers represent the incarnational model that often enough it is more blessed to give than to receive and enough people still exist who believe that and live by that.

A new kind of business

Corporate Social responsibility has been around as a concept for some time. It has been increasingly picking up momentum and allowing corporate bodies, hitherto focused only on making profits for shareholders and promoters to look beyond these horizons. CSR initiatives are now in place in many business entities and can take many forms – from simply writing a cheque and funding a favourite charity to encouraging employees to get involved in specific tasks that encourage more than just passive fund giving. CSR has in certain situations got to the point where business entities have set up non profit organizations which operate within the overall ambit off the corporate brand but with their own mandate.

CSR of course means many things to many people. Some entities genuinely pursue it with a passion. In India, the Tatas have traditionally been known to have been those who have promoted CSR initiatives from long before the term itself was coined --- from the early 20th century in fact, when the town of Jamshedpur was being planned and built. Today there are several others like Infosys, Wipro and others who have their own CSR initiatives. An offshoot of CSR perhaps is when individuals associated with corporates, with their own private wealth set up funds and ventures and become philanthropists. A well known example would example would be Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

But like every paradigm, this one too is changing. Charities are evolving too like everyone else. If businesses are becoming altruistic and looking at more than just their balance sheet , charities are also looking at more innovative ways to raise money than continually wait at funder’s doorsteps and dance in tandem to a donor’s footsteps. Donor fatigue may ensure that yesterday’s need has become today’s burden and no longer do fundable; but human needs not just fade away like the last season’s autumnal dress selection. Needs remain, require to be addressed and no responsible agency can walk away because yesterday’s fad is no longer fashionable to fund and resources therefore are beginning to dry up. So why not set up your own business and do what the corporates are doing – generate profits and generate them ethically with a framework of values underpinning the whole enterprise and then send the profits back to fund the core charitable activities.

The Jacobs Well project of Oasis is one such model; where the core charitable activities of Oasis remain the focus and yet the entity is run as a viable business with fair trade practices and the ethos of Oasis guiding it in what it will and will not do and how it will do them. Legally and in terms of its identity and branding, it is a separate entity doing business, striving to compete aggressively but fairly in the marketplace and make money and as much of it as possible. And when money is made, after retaining enough for ongoing business expansion and consolidation, the surplus is handed over to fund charity.

So it is a classic case of reverse engineering. Typically NGOs and charities have gone to big businesses and asked for money to sustain themselves and their work. Often they have to constantly keep tweaking their work to make sure it meets donor requirements and preferences. It is not unusual for an organization’s work to be diluted or affected in the process; after all, money is a big influencer. Jacobs Well attempts to keep Oasis’ core charitable focus and activities at its heart , even while it ventures to a competitive market place and remain a viable and sustainable business entity that is not just selling its products to a captive charity market , but out there in the more demanding public bazaar.

Friday, June 18, 2010

This word called sustainabilty

One very common word in the charity sector is the word “sustainable”. We are constantly asked by various well wishers, donors and others about the sustainability of our work. Often, after a visitor has had a long tour of the work being done and the change that is happening in peoples’ lives, in the final debriefing session, the question inevitably gets asked.... “but is your work sustainable ?. What is your outcome? What has been your impact so far? What are your goals for the next three to five years and how much will it cost to achieve these goals?”

All of the above are valid questions, but I can never respond to these questions without relating an incident that occurred long ago, but which still plays on my mind. I was attending a conference where the subject of discussion was that institutional and residential care was costly and not sustainable in the long run and needed to be weeded out. Many arguments were presented by speakers from different disciplines with irrefutable facts and figures. Near the end, a diminutive figure stood up to speak. He introduced himself as a consultant to the World Bank on urban planning and began by saying that in his infancy, he had been abandoned outside a hospital, in a garbage bin, presumably by his parents. He was then picked up from there and taken to a children’s’ home where he received his education.

After he finished his schooling, he chose to become a priest and joined the Jesuit order. The Jesuits then furthered his education and sent him to study urban infrastructure planning and he became a person of such rare distinction that the World Bank picked him to advise governments around the world so that they could contain unplanned urban growth in the world’s growing mega cities. He summed up his talk by saying that although there was great merit in all these debates, a wholesome human being who was given the opportunity to realize his gifts and who then in turn used his vocation to serve his generation was the greatest definition of sustainability and something whose worth could never be factored in financial terms.

For the last few months, those thoughts have been constantly resonating in my mind. For indeed the cost of restoring broken lives and restoring them to a point where people are no longer “beneficiaries” of aid, but active and empowered participants in society is huge. When we talk of costs, bills and finances are the imagery that most commonly come to mind, but I am not just talking about the money involved here. The human cost involved and the sheer diversity of people and skills needed at different stages in a person’s transition to wholeness is immense and the task can seem daunting.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Human Trafficking : What Can I do ?

In the movie "The Verdict", Paul Newman plays am alcoholic down and out lawyer who has hardly any clients and is yet some how moved to take on the case of a woman who is paralysed and rendered comatose during surgery as a result of medical negligience. he takes on a very powerful medical and social establishment armed with powerful, well connected judges and lots of money. he fumbles , despairs and often is on the verge of giving up , but perseveres and wins the case and erven greater damages than what he had asked for.

Lawyers involved in cases dealing with human trafiicking , perhaps often feel the same way, puny pygmies fighting a powerful, well entrenched set up whose tentacles seemingly reach every where. And even the puny pygmies are few. In a field dominated by corporate law, taxation law, property law and criminal law and the incredible wealth associated with them, human rights lawyers are not easy to come by and the field itself can get immensely politicized with a lot of negative fallout for all concerned.

It is in that context that the judgment of the 3rd of May, 2010 in Kolkata where two men and one woman were sentenced to 10 years in prison for the trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of three minor girls must be seen. The girls, 12, 14 and 16 years old, had been lured by traffickers from their rural villages in Nepal and West Bengal with the prospect of legitimate work in Kolkata. Instead, they were “sold” to the accused persons, who in turn forced them to provide sexual services to as many as 12 customers a day.

The numbers are important because convictions in instances of trafficking are few and far between thus discouraging investigators and agencies involved in anti trafficking work, work that is in any case, demanding, unrewarding and life threatening. According to an US State Department report released in late 2009, 1,970 traffickers had been arrested within the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Goa and West Bengal, resulting in just 30 convictions – a mere 1.5% of trafficking-related arrests.

Trafficking is not a priority for policing activity in most situations – short of manpower as well as equipment, the police are often required to deploy their limited resources according to the political priorities of the day – tackling terrorism, internal security issues and major economic offences are the big ticket concerns of the day. So anti human trafficking agencies often have to actively assist the police in arresting such traffickers, framing charges and making sure that adequate evidence is available for a conviction to occur. In the Kolkata cases, the agency involved was the International Justice Mission.

What can you and I do? Well a raid and rescue operations are complex processes and part of the reason that conviction rates are so low is that at the time of trial, very few witnesses are available and those that are usually turn hostile. church members as well as common citizens of integrity can come forward to accompany raiding parties and serve as credible witnesses when cases come up for trial. Although India has according to some estimates over a million lawyers and over 80,000 graduates every year, very few come forward to pursue careers in human rights law and trafficking related activities.

Then after the raids are over and done with, the long journey of rehabilitation and reintegration of the victims begins and there again there a dearth of resources and people. Counselors, half way homes, skilled wardens and care takers and a whole range of other professionals are needed. Of church congregations have an incredible amount of human resources avaailble in their pews , whch anti trafficking agencies like, IJM, Oasis and others could use. In all these areas more and more people are needed to be active and get involved and engaged and in the end, though the process is long and winding, persistence pays off as the Kolkata judgment proves.