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Encouraging signs in Indian philanthropy


The philanthropy headlines in the past couple of weeks were awash in stories of the billionaires philanthropy club being created by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.  


In their shadow (maybe influenced by them?) HCL founder Shiv Nadar's made a $125 million contribution of HCL stock to the Nadar Foundation for philanthropic purposes.  The hope is that other Indian corporate titans will follow this lead and the spigots of philanthropy in India will open.   


Across the world in the inner-city neighborhood of Overtown just north of downtown Miami, another interesting moment happened last week (albiet on a much smaller scale).  A group of senior executives from Infosys spent a morning volunteering with kids in summer school at the Overtown Youth Center.  The executives helped the children with reading and math skills and led informative sessions about India (questions the kids asked ranged from do you eat worms to why are the currencies in India and the US valued differently) and about careers in business and IT.  One hopes that other Indian companies will also engage in global corporate citizenship, and encourage employees to give back in the communities in which they live and work.


Will this year be the tipping point for Indian philanthropy?


Azad Oommen


Participatory Approaches

I recently visited Butterflies, a NGO based in Delhi that helps street and working children. At Butterflies, the theme of including children and their voices directly into the programming is an aspect that came through very clearly and left a strong impression with me. NGO “clients”, those who receive services, are sometimes forgotten in the process; not consulted about their opinions, thoughts and desires regarding their own lives while decisions are made by staff based on current research/trends. I think that this phenomenon is particularly common in work with children, because they are easily and mistakenly viewed as not being capable of making decisions for themselves. Butterflies does a remarkable job at avoiding this pitfall.
In the US, I have witnessed “helpers” assuming that an “at-risk” adolescent girl would jump at the opportunity to be adopted into a nice, financially comfortable family and then reacting in shock when the girl express a strong desire not to be adopted when it came time for the papers to be signed. The parents, social workers, and counselors had forgotten to have real conversations with her about her thoughts on the adoption. They all reacted with surprise when she didn’t want to be adopted, thinking that she had done a 360 degree turn. However, as she explained, they shouldn’t have been shocked at all. She hadn’t changed her mind. Right from the beginning, this teenage girl had never wanted to be adopted. The service providers had simply assumed that, of course, she would want to be adopted and had actually never really asked her. And, in personally knowing this girl, it is perfectly understandable and justifiable why she would prefer not to be adopted.
All this is to say that I deeply believe in the importance of client participation in the design and implementation of programs and, as a social work professional, I also understand that it can be easy to make assumptions about thinking one knows what is best for the clients. It is definitely a healthy challenge and tension to keep one’s assumptions in check. Butterflies NGO does a beautiful job at this on both one-on-one and programmatic levels. On an individual basis, children are treated as decision makers; supported in and held accountable in their choices. On a programmatic level, as an example, Butterflies trains street and working children in first aid skills and organizes these children into teams (complete with first aid kits) to help respond to health issues on the streets. That’s empowerment! 

Joy Mischley

The Difficulty of Doing Nothing

It has been just over two weeks since I relocated from the US to India. This is my fourth time to India, most recently having lived for a year in Pune. Upon arriving, I felt as if I had never left… the transition seemed seamless, natural, and relatively easy. But, slowly, I am feeling some of the challenges of the transition. One of which is the difficulty of doing nothing when…
A small child constantly taps on my arm, begging, while my autorickshaw is stopped at a traffic light.
I hear stories of girls being sold in the sex trade.
An adolescent boy on the street wants to sell me a magazine or book.
I see a group of kids smoking cigarettes while digging through trash.
Every social worker, colleague, or friend with whom I have discussed this “difficulty of doing nothing” offers the same advice; to not give money and to not buy items from these children. Their reasoning is that this only supports child labor (children should not be selling things, they should be in school) or often supports organized begging rackets.
I have embraced this policy, learning to not react, to not see, and to not hear. But, I can tell you that this is a lot more difficult to do when traveling in an autorickshaw- open on two sides- then when moving around in an enclosed car or taxi. On the rare occasion when I am in car, I am relieved to have a barrier between me and the streets. I think of my friends here, recently discussing how it wasn’t a big deal to own a car anymore. I’m also reminded of conversations where locals have discussed the growing affluence of India’s middle class and their increasing ability to purchase cars. Having a car certainly helps one to deal with the difficulty of doing nothing and, don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for those days when the children can only tap on the glass, not on my arm.
And, I am also grateful for my work with SevaYatra, where I can counter those day-to-day moments of doing nothing with doing something. These past two weeks have only further fueled my belief in this organization and the importance of providing opportunities to serve and to learn with NGOs who are addressing the needs of children in holistic and systemic ways.
As more and more people in India have the means to surround themselves with physical barriers, whether a vehicle or a security gate, SevaYatra can respect one’s desire for these creature comforts while encouraging people to learn, serve, and give.
In previous stays in India, I noticed that over time I did indeed find a way to not hear or see many of the children on the streets. It was only through the fresh eyes of visitors from the outside, that I would reawaken to the difficulty of doing nothing. For me, this time around, I want to continue to stay open to this challenge, experiencing the reality of what is.
Joy Mischley