The confused aid worker

In the Indian development sector, where I started in 2005, there were typical notions of what constitutes the lifestyle of someone in development. The ‘sector’ was synonymous with

  • low salaries – The first two years, I was working for $300 a month, and had the fourth or fifth highest compensation package in an NGO that employed about 700 staff and worked with about 50,000 families
  • non-urban base – If you lived in a big city, you are not legit. One’s commitment can be proven only when he/she is based in a remote rural area and didn’t have easy access to internet. 
  • use of local transport – Most work-related travel was on motor-bikes, buses and trains; usually no 4-wheelers unless donors were visiting and no flying unless a conference paid for it.
  • extensive field travel – desk-based jobs don’t make the cut; research-heavy jobs don’t make it either. The ‘sector-worker’ is out in the field with implementation teams, in community meetings or in cities, networking with the government, NGO partners and/or donors
  • the look – kurtas and facial hair

During the time I was in the sector, my work exposed me to a diverse cross-section of development organisations and gave me the opportunity to make connections between what I saw in the field and the general discourse on development at the national level. With my interests and skills, I was probably fortunate this happened, because I realised quite early on that front-line project management was not really my thing. Although it hurt my ego tremendously at that time, there were people around me who inspired me to seek out other ways in which I could make myself useful.

Later in 2007, I moved to Chennai to work with a research centre. I started making about $2000 a month, had AC in my office and traveled extensively, but that mostly meant flying to other cities. In the eyes of many of my friends in the ‘sector’, I had ‘sold-out’. First, I was now into research and policy work – not really part of the real grind anymore; second, my lifestyle rivaled that of my contemporaries holding corporate jobs. Unforgivable!

Again, the debate was not about what was more important – research or practice. The debate was about

  • whether as a researcher, I was any longer a part of the ‘sector’ fraternity. 
  • whether young trained professionals like me were taking the right decision by abandoning grassroots implementation NGOs which have significant human resource constraints.
  • whether one valued small, but visible direct impact more than perceived big impact, often in the abstract and usually on paper.

But then, like I said earlier, my work is more likely to be in the balance of these questions – neither fully in nor out.

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