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.... ;-)

1 comment:

  1. Hey Tim,

    It is interesting to see how different your placement is. This is why the partner should be evaluated for current capacity before they ask for an MIS volunteer. VSO India clearly missed in your case. How long are you going to be here? Maybe SOVA could use you as 2nd-line tech support after I leave in October...

    It seems like you're also finding perseverance an important trait here as well.