Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why do men drink so much ?

Recently while on a visit to our program in the slums of Chennai, i noticed that all our programs were structured around women. The program was a very successful one and the team had worked hard with the slum community as well as the local slum clearance board to make thinngs happen and very visibly, the impact was there for all to see. But no men. Of course it was day time and men might be at work; but still I asked. Any programs with men ? No. why ? Some whispers and murmurs, but no answers forthcoming. But curious , i keep probing. In a way, i know what the answer will be, over the years, I have worked with many slum communities and the work is always or almost always with women. So the answer , when it does come, does not surprise me. We do not have any program with the men in the slums because they are either at work or if not , they are drunk.

so why do men drink, I ask ? Well, another round of familiar answers follow. Men go to work and get tired and need a drink for recreation. Oh, they have lots of worries and tensions and alcohol helps them forget their worries and tensions for that period of time when they are drunk. And so they drink. I probe further – what do women do and why don't they drink ? Well, women don't go to work and are not involved in manual labor , so they do not have the compulsions that men have. But they do have their worries and fears don't they ? Oh, yes, I am told- the women have their own fears and worries. So what do they do ? .... well they throw the household utensils around and then go to the neighbour's house to gossip. So in the evening , all the slum women are huddled around gossiping , while the men are slumbering, dead drunk. Neat. Very neat.

For years, i have been observing programs planned with men almost always fail, despite the same dedicated staff, the same meticulous planning and the same effort put in. programs with women succeed; programs with men fail; and usually because nothing consistent can be planned with the menl because of this alcoholism problem among men in the slums. This is case with us in Oasis, it is often the case else where too. Alcohol seems to be the almost universal sopoforic of recreation in the slums and almost the only one it would seem. So can any thing be done for men or are all developmental programs in the slums destined to succeed with women ?

some thing about Oasis's programs among young men gives me a ray of hope. I don't know where we will ever be able to break the scourge of alcohol and its hold among rhe older men, although I should not be pessimistic. But our program with the young men form the slums and others on the verge of dropping out of society which focuses on sports as a tool might be the answer, at least for the younger people. Using football as a glue, Oasis is able to bring together young men who might all have gone their own separate and destructive ways. These young men learn the value and worth of discipline, sportsmanship, fairness and respect for rules and perhaps most importantly make lasting friendships and bondings that may, if they are lucky , last a life time.

The Oasis progam is only a few years old and it could be said that in many ways, it is in its infancy. There is very certainly a long way to ago, and it will be a long time , before we can draw any definitive conclusions. Perhaps , I am being a fool to anticipate so much , expect so much to happen from a program that is so new , so nascent. But even so..I dream that way. I dream that one day it will be possible to walk into a slum and ask the question – not “ why do men drink so much ?” but on the contrary “ why do men play so much ? ”. it will be the day when the brawls caused by drink wll be replaced by the laughter and the banter of sport. That would be change. That would be transformation. That would indeed be life.

Bored meetings or Board Meetings

My organization's Board meeting took place on Saturday. Though the meeting was planned as a whole day event, all business had been conducted by lunch time. There were several eminent people present, all spoke and shared their views articulately and freely. Yet it was still possible to have a vibrant discussion and still all the transactions could be completed earlier than what was anticipated. Every one found time to listen to each other and although by the end of the meeting, a lot of decisions had been, they had been made so collaboratively that it would be very difficult for any one person to have claimed credit for the decision.

The free afternoon time left with lots of time to think of other Board meetings where I have participated, usually as a member, but sometimes as a participant. I remembered meetings of different hues; but the most common memory is that of dull, listless meetings dominated by one person, usually a man, while others sat around with a bored look, wondering what they were really doing there. Some basic, legal requirements were hurriedly gone through monotonously and then the crowd quickly dispersed. They would gather together in a similar fashion in another 6 months or a year for a repetition of this mindless ritual.

Sadly, governance in India is not taken that seriously; at least not in the nonprofit sector where I have spent a lot of my life. It is assumed that because the organizations involved in charity work, are supposedly there with highly altruistic motives, everything is just fine with the way they are run and with the way they are governed. And so Boards and such, by whatever name called, are considered a necessary evil, thrust upon us by the nasty arm of the law. Governance thus is something that is considered an intrusion demanded and required by the law and not something to be pursued for its own intrinsic merit. And so a lot of boards and governing bodies are filled by sycophants and toadies- hangers on with nothing of worth to contribute. The worst case scenario – and yet not uncommon either, are boards staffed by family members and relatives of the founder or the CEO.

This of course is a pity. My own board meeting has impressed upon me the value of having caring, involved people of integrity on the Board. They perform all the necessary statutory duties of course; but go far beyond that limited statutory duty. By virtue of the eminence they have in different fields of occupation, they become helpful sources of information, guidance and most importantly – of advice. They do not intrude in the day to day running of the organization – an activity for which they are too busy any way; but remain available to advise, guide and provide valuable insights – something that only the foolish would overlook.

Although it would see that governance can fall by the way side even in the corporate sector as evidenced by the experience of Satyam, it is an unfortunate fact that in the NGO sector, we do not know enough to educate our board members on what their individual roles and responsibilities are and what they can and cannot do. The sad result is that often NGO boards are either complete rubber stamps nodding assent to everything that the Chief Executive does or at the other extreme, an over bearing, micro managing body, stifling every initiative.

Perhaps , the trick is in having the right composition for your Board. In choosing people, who are eminent in their profession and are also adequately informed about the work of the organization. Individuals, who are committed without being too interfering or intimidating. When a bunch of such people gathers, animated conversation crystallizes into sagely counsel and wise decisions. And Board meetings are no longer bored meetings.