By Aditi Rao
Ahead of us lay a rope bridge with thin wooden planks. It seemed precarious, a slight slip of the foot and we would perhaps drift away in the gushing gorge below. Padma Tashi said that there was a village on the other side of the bridge but staring at the gorge below, the village was nowhere in sight. It seemed then that the only logical solution at that moment in time would be to lose all logic, to trust. So we, my two college friends and I, followed in the footsteps of Padma Tashi, the director of the NGO we were volunteering with.
A few days prior to this little escapade, Padma Tashi had told us he was going on a site visit. It would take two days. We could accompany him, it would be interesting, and we could offer support if needed. We jumped at this opportunity. We weren’t exactly sure of the details but the excited, enthusiastic, teenage travel volunteers we were, the vagueness added to the thrill. Now, standing in the middle of the bridge with a backpack stuffed with clothes, books and a 10 kg pack of rice (a gift for the villagers we were going to stay with) my enthusiasm was adulterated with varying degrees of exhaustion, curiosity and simple joy.
And as it happened, crossing the bridge was merely the fun part. Climbing uphill in high-altitude Ladakh and attempting to keep pace with fit Mr. Tashi made me wonder worriedly about my rapidly beating heart. I had visions as I trudged up of my heart exploding, spurting flesh, blood and unknown juices all over this absolutely surreal landscape. That would have been a shame.
Two and a half hours later, we were at the edge of a green leafy opening. Sumdo. A tiny village of about five families, tucked away in a corner of a mountain – a dramatic little discovery for my Bombay-bred sensibilities. Members of this little village had sent in a request of an irrigation channel to Rural Development and You (RDY), Mr. Tashi’s NGO. He was here now to inspect the existing infrastructure and measure the length and width of the area fit for the irrigation channel. The oldest in the village, a bearded ever-smiling Ladakhi man scurried across the mountain like a man on a mission to show us their crops and the extent of their village. We held measuring tapes and jumped over flora and fauna to find a stream, pockets of crops, a solitary yak, and cement and mud room in the far end of the village. This last one was a fascinating discovery. Inscribed on the door was the name of another local NGO, LEDEG and inside was a functioning metal structure. The old man explained that it was a pump. It generated electricity for the village through hydro power. The village was a small one, a lush one, they received a lot of rain so the pump worked well.
Later in Leh, Mr. Tashi busied himself with models for the irrigation channel that he had promised to Sumdo. This was perhaps the most minor of the umpteen projects RDY was pursuing but the RDY office made sure not to undermine it. There were grants to apply to, efficient structures to plan. The villagers needed these channels. It was Mr. Tashi’s job to listen to their requests, discuss possibilities, draw up plans and deliver in the most efficient way possible.
Watching the way RDY functioned seemed both idyllic and pleasantly surprising. It was a perfect intersection of genuine motivation, community collaboration and efficient planning; a platform for civil society; a space for individuals and communities to choose their own lifestyles. In the perfect world, this willingness and ability to cater to the needs of all the different communities would perhaps be the government’s job. But in the given sociopolitical landscape, the grassroots democratic method of sustainable development implemented by NGOs was not only the alternative but also the best way to maneuver the many complexities.
Many of these ideals of an NGO come to fruition in the day-to-day, through tangible outcomes. The bridge between the abstract ideals and the living reality is a difficult one to cross. After all, the NGO community, regardless of the idealistic, perhaps even altruistic foundations exists in a bureaucratic framework. It would be perhaps naïve to believe that there is a way to be unaffected by the environment. My experience with RDY and the NGO community in Ladakh was unique in that sense – the divide between ideals and reality was less mediated. Many of my other experiences with the non-profit community around the world have often left me disgruntled. My discussions with people also reflect common criticisms of the maladministration by NGOs. However, there is a degree of faith that is retained in those discussions and within me, no matter the experiences of ineffiency I may have had with nonprofit entities.
I utter NGO and people sit back, “Aah, social work, you want to help people.” These words, fashioned and outfitted perhaps in prettier, less crude ways in some occasions always leave me fascinated. Many may not have tangible encounters to base their opinions on but NGOs are continued to be placed in a broad, moral category whose boundaries although always relative and shifting appear somehow utterly fixed in this context. At least the intentions are good, at least there is some good work being done, at least…I am fascinated with the tremendous symbolic value NGOs have today.
This phenomenon is both reassuring and pleasantly surprising. It is not unfounded. Yes, the bureaucracy and inefficiency may be difficult to erode, but the non-profit community attracts individuals and donors who are deeply committed to some form of social justice. The projects and activities they choose to implement are often those overlooked by other institutions. Yet symbolic value even for its own sake is significant because it is a great impetus for hopefulness. It allows for society to hold NGOs to higher standards. It may be wishful thinking but in the long process of change, symbolic value may ultimately be the first step towards tangible outcomes.
The greatest task then perhaps is for NGOs to retain the values that they are meant to embody and to truly recognize their own symbolic value within society while also functioning within the political realities. This must be done, if not for the sake of the bleeding hearts, then at least for the future of a social, political and institutional landscape that they have the tremendous ability to shape.
Aditi Rao is a Political Science student in Macalester College in the United States.