Saturday, June 18, 2011

Ginger volunteer vs Indian weather

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel; I've broken the back of it; I'm over the crest of the hill; The hard part is over; It's all downhill from here....

I'm now well into the second half of my placement. In five months exactly, my visa for India expires and I am feeling good about having conquered the thing that potentially worried me the most about living here in India - the weather.

When I arrived here in November last year it was still a nice balmy mid-20s. When I got to Jharkhand in December it was a bit cooler and slowly got down to a chilly 5C....but that didn't bother me. I'm English for goodness sake - we have cooler summer's days in August (normally the Bank Holiday weekend to coincide with my birthday ironically). What did worry me? The reports of 45C+.

For the colour blind amongst you, I'm ginger. Yes, it's true. Some of you might not have noticed. Unfortunately, us gingers do not have a particularly impressive track record in hot weather. So despite my mother's helping hand in my DNA, I definitely lean to the Myles side of the family and our ability to get sun-burnt sitting in a darkened cupboard at night. 45C was not an attractive proposition to me.

Added to this, our office wasn't exactly state of the art (see previous post). We did have a fan, but it had a tendency to stop. When it did, it was the equivalent of trying to work in a sauna. Walking the 300m back to my flat for lunch resulted in a need to change my t-shirt. Sitting at my desk in the evening checking my emails had a similar effect. It. Was. Hot.

The middle of June (specifically 10th-15th) however, is an important date in Jharkhand. It marks the arrival of the monsoon. And it's now here in all it's glory. We have buckets of water, the ground is a mess, it's mid-20s temperatures.....AND I'M LOVING IT!!!!

Honestly, it's so funny - everyone keeps asking me what I think of the weather! I say - it's like this for 9-10 months of the year in England. But cold. And windy. And just generally miserable. Here? It's still warm, it's refreshing and lovely and cool.

That's the light-hearted side of things, but the monsoon is critical in many parts of Jharkhand, as it is for most of India - as about 60% of the country’s farm-lands are rain-fed and agriculture accounts for a fifth of the GDP. Last year, while overall for India it was better than 2009, in Jharkhand it was not good - crops died and water tables were depleted - it has huge (and obviously far more important) impacts beyond just cooling down the overseas volunteers. It will last until mid-August and needs to replenish the land to enable crops to be grown for the rest of the year, when rainfall will be minimal.

So thankfully it looks like this will be a good year for the monsoon. It might make my morning run a bit more dreary (and messy! the road to my flat is like a ploughed field!) and I'm sure after 6-8 weeks I'll have had enough of it all, but there are more important things than staying dry at the end of the day. Like eating. And having crops to sell and money to live in general.

So, thank you monsoon. You've made one Englishman and 1.3bn (roughly) Indians very happy!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Same country, very different experiences....

Blogging is an excellent way for me to let you guys back home (or around the world – you know who you are!) keep up-to-date on my travels, (toilet) trials and tribulations. It's also a great way for volunteers to share experiences. I try to keep up to date on the blogs of a number of other volunteers – it's nice to know other people are sometimes in the same boat, but it's also sometimes interesting to compare how different our experiences can be....

Corey and Gina are a couple who are living in Korput, which is in Orissa (those of you with foggy Indian geography, that's on the east coast, south of Kolkata!). They've been there for over a year now and Corey, like me, is an IT professional.

First, as an aside, they wrote a fascinating article about the challenges of a couple volunteering together, so if anyone missed that and is considering it, it's well worth a read.

Anyway, getting to the point. Corey wrote a post the other day that I found fascinating. It's about the work that he's been doing and well worth a read, he's been doing some awesome stuff – but I couldn't help but compare his experience to mine. I think it's fascinating to see two placements, in the same country, with similar job roles, being so completely different.

Like me, Corey was sent to India to help provide MIS. For those not familiar with the term, it means Management Information Systems. The idea is that by using MIS you can analyse data far quicker and easier, helping you to make business decisions. For example, you might see that one project is spending far more on phone calls than another after analysing the expenses. This could allow you to get a more cost effective call plan.

That's the work I was supposed to be doing in India. Except my organisation isn't in any state to do this. The fundamentals just aren't there. The expenses aren't submitted properly, so I can't analyse any of the finances. There is basically no reporting, so I can't analyse any of that. Project plans? Nope, none of them either!

On top of that, the fundamental skills just aren't there for me to even begin to do something like an Access Database. Half of the staff can't even use a word processor properly. Changing fonts, selecting text, these are the skills I'm trying to teach. MIS? They don't even really know what they mean by it!

So I'm actually doing a back to basics version of my IBM job – teaching project management and basic office skills. Which is great, don't get me wrong, but it just highlights how flexible you need to be as a volunteer!

Ok, next topic of comparison – finances and equipment. Corey has a picture of his 20 batteries and inverter. These help the office keep running when the power is out. 20 batteries. Twenty! We have one. My office has two computers. If you turn the printer on, the lights go out. This just goes to highlight the impact that the organisation's size and funding situation can have.

Corey just spent $300 on a Network Attached Storage box. This is a fancy network hard-drive. It's cool and extremely useful....if everyone has their own computer that is. In our office, everyone shares one computer! Networking isn't quite so important in that context! Our great office expenditure will be replacing the current broadband box with one that includes a wireless router. Total cost, maybe £20.

Srijan is a small organisation. We've got about 30 “full-time” staff. Why the quotes? Those staff just mean the paid workers, not volunteers. Some of them probably only do 5-10 hours per week.In terms of what I would call core workers, we've got 15-20. SOVA (Corey's org) is significantly bigger, and obviously much better financed. Our annual budget is around Rs 60-70 Lakh (£100,000), I wouldn't be surprised to hear SOVA has that as the annual budget of one project!

So I've got it tough and Corey's living the life of Riley, right? Not quite. My partner organisation are awesome when it comes to taking advice and being open to new ideas. Corey talks about the struggles that he's had making changes – for me, it's more a case of trying to hold back so as not to overwhelm everyone!

I can't speak highly enough of the management and staff attitudes to trying new things. Build a website? Sure. How about an Intranet? Go for it. Individual emails for all staff instead of sharing a few joint accounts? Ok. HR Policy? Why not. Finance Policy? Sounds good. Weekly reporting? Let's give it a go. Etc. etc. I'm not saying I get to do whatever I want, but if I put an idea forward, they're open to it. We've made some great progress in 6 months and that is testament to the attitudes of everyone in Srijan.

When you apply for VSO they tell you, read your placement description, then expect to be doing something completely different! I think that's definitely true. What I don't think I had considered was quite the range of different roles there would be within one country and one type of role...

...and at the end of the day that's what makes this so cool. You don't know what you're going to get into, but it's all important, it's all worthwhile, and you just do as good a job as you can.

Right, where's my candle? I need to print this document out.... ;-)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Around Jharkhand in 20 days

The last couple of weeks have been pretty manic. I've been all over Jharkhand, visiting different field offices as we do a review of all of our projects. It's pretty amazing the range of projects that Srijan gets involved in, mainly because their focus is on community mobilisation, not on particular sections of society. I thought I'd try to give everyone a feel for the work we do.....

Polio in Pakur
First stop was Pakur. This is right out in the East of Jharkhand. It's a fair old trek – 10-12hr drive. On roads that make you feel like Tigger by the end of it! I was told to expect scorching temperatures (45C+), but we got lucky and they were mid-to-high 30s – possibly even lower than Hazaribag!

This is a major new project for Srijan. In more ways than one. Firstly, the sheer importance of the work. It's the fight against Polio. I would imagine most people reading this, like me, are completely ignorant about Polio. For good reason – there are only four countries in the world where Polio is still in the wild. India is one. The Indian government has made it their mission to eliminate this disease and it's getting close.

In Pakur last year, there were eight cases of Polio. The aim for this year is obviously for none. The strategy – immunisation of all children under 5. It's a huge campaign. Every month there are “Pulse Polio” rounds for the next ten months. Added to that is a weekly “routine immunisation” campaign.

Srijan is responsible for half of the 10 grids in Pakur. Which brings me to the second reason for the importance of this project. It's being run by UNICEF. Obviously the recognition to be gained from a successful project with UNICEF is huge for Srijan.

The project is just starting, with a completely new team, so we were visiting to ensure things were going to plan. We've also just started doing Objective Setting for every Srijan employee, as well as documenting their Roles and Responsibilities, so both of those tasks needed to be completed.

The Core Group
After a few days it was back to Ranchi, the state capital. We have started a new initiative in Srijan – the creation of a Core Group. This is a team of three employees who we feel have the attitude and behaviours that make them stand out from their colleagues. They will hopefully be taking over more of the day-to-day running of the organisation over the next 6 months, allowing the current Senior Management team (basically, the founders of Srijan) to step away from the coal-face.

So we had the kick-off meeting for the Core Group, which was pretty successful. If nothing else, it creates a method for rewarding better work within the organisation, even if it takes longer than Srijan would like to get to a position where they are helping to run the organisation.

We've also started an “Employee of the Month” award. Sounds corny, right? But I knew from my IBM work in India that it works out here. First recipient – a woman who brought 20 participants out of a total of 28 to a group session. Next session? One of her colleagues brought 36! I think that counts as a success!!!

Back to Hazaribag
The tour continued with a short stay back in Hazaribag, doing Objective Setting for the teams there. Our projects in the area include improving farming irrigation techniques, improving girls education opportunities and the rights of the disabled.

Sex Workers in Gumla and Khelari
Back to Ranchi again, which was our base for two day trips to Gumla and Khelari. These are towns in the West of Jharkhand. They're mining towns. Mining attracts migrant workers. Migrant workers attract sex workers, which makes these communities high-risk for AIDs.

Srijan are doing a “Targeted Intervention” in these two towns, educating the sex workers on the importance of protection, providing medical check-ups etc and educating the local communities on some of the myths that prevail about the disease. More project reviews and Objective Setting here then back to Ranchi.

Late night viewing
Getting back to Ranchi on the 28th meant that I was able to stay up and watch the Champions League Final. It's not often that you enjoy watching your team get thoroughly thumped, but I did. Barcelona were mesmerising. That's all I'll be saying about it though. It still hurts....

Back to Pakur
After a “day off” sitting in the office in Ranchi, I travelled on Monday back to Pakur, where I've now been for almost a week. It's important that we get the right processes in place early on this project, so I'm helping the Project Manager here to ensure he's got everything considered, as well as being the eyes and ears for the management team.

Health Services in Hiranpur
We've got another project nearby, so I went on a field visit there yesterday. This project is to encourage the use of the health services provided by the Government. Some of you may have seen a recent report by the World Bank on Public Services provided in India.....there are a lot of good schemes here in India, but one of the biggest problems is that people don't know about them. The CHIN-Change project is seeking to address that, by educating people about their rights to Government services.

I'm going to be in Pakur until Wednesday, then it's an overnight train back to Ranchi, then.....? Maybe back to Hazaribag, who knows! This is basically three weeks without a day off now – this volunteering lark isn't all holidays to Nepal :-) I'm trying to convince some of the guys here to go to the cinema tomorrow night though, could be amusing....not sure my Hindi is good enough yet, but it's all about the experience, right?!?