It’s proving to be a summer of firsts. My first time traveling alone, first time in India, first time being in the mountains, first time experiencing Buddhist culture, first time teaching, first time doing research of any kind.
Just as I questioned my ability to teach, I wondered why I was ever selected to perform research. I have no qualifications and I’ve never done an interview in my life. Okay I interviewed a 90 year old war veteran for my 8th grade history class, but that experience didn’t exactly help me to feel more confident about this project.
So I came here with no teaching experience, no research experience, AND very limited information about the area I’d be working in because many aspects of Zanskar have not yet reached the World Wide Web aaaas you might have guessed based on my trying experiences with the Internet here thus far. I was, for the most part, blind. The question, “What the hell am I doing here?” passed through my mind more times that I’d like to admit.
But nevertheless, I always finish what I start, or I die trying. (Except for running. Running doesn’t count). I would attack this research project with the spirit and vigor of an utterly passionate, totally unqualified college student.
So let’s set the groundwork…
In 2013 I went to Malawi, Africa with buildOn — an organization that galvanizes students to volunteer in their local communities, and also sends these same students to build schools overseas. This experience deserves more than a meager paragraph, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll stick to the important details. The trip changed everything for me. It showed me the true direction of my life, and inspired a blazing sense of purpose within me. Though I vaguely sensed my raison d’être before the journey, my time in Kachere helped me to become intimately familiar with it. I knew that I was to dedicate my life to helping our global community of children to have equal access to quality education. I realize that this all sounds extremely romantic. Almost too romantic, even for my taste. But these words come from the truest place my heart knows.
As I was formulating a research project for the fellowship, I was trying desperately to combine this purpose with a novel field of exploration. My goal was to explore a topic that would ultimately instigate progress. There are thousands of people across the globe with the same humanitarian desires, and there are a thousand NGOs trying to help. But in this era of progress, globalization, and change, the field of educational humanitarian aid still seems to be stuck. Projects are failing and people are not being helped. The hearts behind the projects are golden and good-intentioned, but too many NGO projects are falling short of the goal to make a positive impact.
In my introductory international studies course, I learned that one of the biggest mistakes of NGOs was the failure to communicate with local people about what aid is needed. Because foreign aid groups are unfamiliar with the intricacies of local difficulties, and because they aren’t directly asking how they can help, projects are often wasted and unused. Yet it is still the case that foreigners are coming into communities and asserting that they know what’s best — a claim that is hardly questioned because of the age-old illusion of western superiority.
I decided that my research needed to address this issue — ending the pattern of ineffective foreign aid. I want to harness the compassion, wisdom, and will to act, and re-direct it in such a way that it actually educes a positive and lasting effect. And the best way to do this, I thought? Initiate a “Practicum in Asking,” or so I liked to call it. I decided that locals know best about what needs help and how would be the best way to go about helping. They’d know about the NGOs in their area and how they could be made better. I said that every local would have a valid opinion because their whole life is there, so it is sure that anyone and everyone who lives in Zanskar would be able to give me some sage insight about the current state of things. I thought local knowledge was the key to progress, and I thought it was the only key. Or at least the only one that was worthwhile.
But I started to face some problems as I began my research. For one thing, I didn’t know anyone. I admit it’s quite difficult to perform interviews when you don’t have anyone to interview. But I started my research anyway, reaching out to shopkeepers I’ve bought biscuits from and monks I’ve said hi to and people in the village who’ve smiled at me.
Then the real problems began…
1. Most of my subjects were not opinionated about anything needing to change.
2. Few were vocal about issues in the educational system.
3. Even fewer were familiar with the work of NGOs in the area.
4. After learning about failed projects in Zangla, and becoming close friends with the coordinator of the NGO that was supervising said projects, I began to see that there were many different negative manifestations of foreign aid and non-communication.
I became overwhelmed by all the information I was receiving (experientially and via interviews), and also by these walls that I was running into. It was then I realized that I had to restructure my research a bit. My ultimate goal — to push the field of foreign aid in a forward direction, to end the pattern of ineffective aid, and to channel the goodwill of misguided humanitarian ventures into the realm of positive impact — remained the same. I merely changed my means.
While still retaining a focus on education by selecting interviewees with backgrounds in education, I expanded my questions to include a broader range of issues: environmental, medical, seasonal, etc. I concluded that it was most important to evaluate the structure/set-up of the foreign aid sector as a whole before honing in on specifics.
I then placed a greater emphasis on the ways in which NGO work could be improved — getting local feedback on the effectiveness of NGO work in the community by making contact with individuals who have been in close contact with foreign aid groups and their volunteers. I then examined past projects, identified their strengths and weaknesses, and made it a point to brainstorm ways of avoiding the pitfalls I discerned and promoting the qualities of the projects that were actually working.
Although the means of my research had to shift slightly, I maintained a stern belief that a great importance must be placed on local opinions about what aspects of the community really need help and how would be the best way to aid.
I interviewed government teachers, religious teachers, successful foreign aid groups, unsuccessful foreign aid groups, local NGOs, mothers and fathers of sponsored children, and college students.
I discovered a great deal about the complicated issues that exist in the government schools, parent mentality about the importance of education, ideas for future NGO projects in the community, how to run an effective foreign aid project, how NOT to structure an NGO, and even how to improve the methods of the organization that I came to Zanskar to volunteer with.
After hitting about a thousand walls, and then maneuvering my way around them into a realm of clarity, I feel confident and excited to start putting all my research together into a final report. I also feel quite proud about the way I attacked this project — how this was exactly my first time ever doing a research project of this caliber, and how successful it turned out to be.
Reach out to me in September for the full report of my research! I’d be more than happy to share with anyone who is interested. Thanks for reading yet another weekly blog-novel!