Volunteering in South Asia – Opportunities and Outcomes

The variety in grassroots NGOs in South Asia is incredible. Since I started working in India, I have visited a hugely diverse collection of NGOs, from those organising unions in tribal belts, to those providing a caring and empowering home for the daughters of sex workers. From those defining human rights in South India to a Nobel Prize nominated child rights NGO.

Now, as 2Way Development’s Regional Placement Manager for South Asia, I am beginning to experience how this variety continues into Nepal and Bangladesh. Over the past few weeks I have been working with a variety of organisations looking to become partners. These have included rural development organisations focusing on water quality, agriculture and animal husbandry, organisations running environmental camps in the Kathmandu valley, organisations running empowerment centres for persons with disabilities, and organisations running skills development courses for women.

Overall, there is one thing in common. All these organisations are looking for skilled and dedicated volunteers to help improve their work. The roles open to volunteers are highly varied. Some organisations are looking for assistance in fundraising and communications, others are looking for business management assistance. Some are looking for researchers, and some for childcare supervisors. All of these will be excellent new roles to add to our already large collection of South Asian partners, each offering volunteers a different experience and equipping volunteers with a different collection of skills.

I have personally been volunteering in India for over a year. When looking back over my time I can see that I have learnt a lot. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, to never expect that anything will go to plan, and to accept that it is always best to be independent rather than rely on other people. I don’t necessarily mean this in a negative way. That volunteering in India gives you a great deal of independence can only be a good thing, despite it making things more difficult in the short term.

I have learnt that there are definitely not enough days in the week, even under the 6-day working week that is standard in many Indian organisations and businesses. And that though the speed of work in India is often low, the hours are long and the expectations for international volunteers are high. On top of this, I have learnt that the goals of international funding agencies often do not fully match the needs on the ground, and that the amount of intrusion from these agencies can be infuriating. That is not to say that funding agencies don’t have a right to specify how their money is used though.

These are all fairly abstract concepts, what about real skills? In many ways, these are harder to quantify. Certainly, my written and verbal communication skills have increased significantly, as has my understanding of industry terms and concepts. My ability to write a funding proposal, a progress report or a brochure has gone from zero to competent. My research skills have improved fairly significantly, as has my teamwork ability. Unfortunately, my Hindi language skills have increased significantly slower, and my Gujarati is still pretty much non-existent.

I’m not sure that I have gained as much as I had expected, but when does that ever happen? I’ve probably gained more real skills in the past year than I did in my 3-year degree in International Development, and that by itself is pretty good going. Possibly the most important point is that I no longer feel like an outsider to the development world, and can now see myself as having the abilities required to make a career out of this. In the end, there is always more to learn than you can ever absorb, and even after a year I know that I am only scratching the surface of this industry. Volunteering can never teach you everything you need to know, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

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