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Volunteerism in Rural Development

Volunteerism in Rural Development

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Published by livemoments
A paper by Professor Anil Gupta.
A paper by Professor Anil Gupta.

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Published by: livemoments on Aug 04, 2009
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10/19/2010

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Voluntarism in Rural Development in India: Initiative,Innovation, and Institutions
1
 
The individual urge to extend one’s responsibility for social change beyondmandated or formal duties is far more pervasive than is generally assumed.However, not each individual with such an urge takes voluntary initiatives. In stillfewer cases are initiatives transformed into innovations. Only rarely areinnovations institutionalized in society.This chapter is based primarily on a review of literature and my personalexperience of more than fifteen years in the field of rural development and myinvolvement in extensive interactions with voluntary organizations and volunteersworking in public and private commercial organizations. My contention is that theliterature on voluntary organizations or NGOs has neglected the scope ofvoluntarism that exists among professionals working in mainstreamorganizations. Thus, I distinguish the phenomenon of voluntarism from theactions of voluntary organization. Given the fact that problems of ruraldevelopment in India are complex and widespread, isolated initiatives ofvoluntary organizations (
volags 
) may not be able to bring about large-scale socialchange. There is a need for linking the organizational space that
volags 
providewith the urge for change among developmental volunteers (DVs). The DVs workin various organizations but find only limited opportunity for the creativeexpression of their urge to relate to socially disadvantaged groups. Donoragencies have also given lesser attention to developmental voluntarism than theyhave to NGOs in developing countries. Public and private organizations cannotsustain support to voluntary organizations in the long run without nurturingvoluntarism among a minority of employees within.The first section of this chapter traces the roots of voluntarism in the context ofIndian culture. The second section reviews the trends in the growth of voluntaryorganizations vis-à-vis voluntarism in rural development and social change, andthe third section draws some implications for research and action at both theglobal and national levels.
Voluntarism in Eastern Societies
It has not been widely appreciated that the roots of voluntarism are quite differentin Eastern societies, in particular in Indian society, from those of Westernsocieties. The result has been the implanting of an alien culture in most NGOs,no matter what their ideology is.
Aparigrah 
, a Sanskrit word, implies the value of non-accumulation or of notkeeping anything more than is necessary for one’s minimal needs. The concepts
1
Published in The Nonprofit Sector in the Global Community: Voices from Many Nations, a publication of Independent Sector, Washington, pp.422 - 437, Chapter 24, 1992.
 
 2
of sacrifice and charity are also differently rooted in the Indian mind. When onegives away one’s dearest object to a needy person, the sacrifice could beconsidered charity. If giving away something is only for one’s own self-purity andnot aimed at someone else’s well-being, it is
tyag 
(sacrifice) but not charity.Contrast this with the Western notion of giving away something that one can dowithout, or that one needs less, or that one has much more of than one needs.I am not implying that the motivations of voluntarism in India are in any significantway related to the notion of
aparigrah 
. What I do suggest is that forstrengthening voluntarism in Indian society, support systems and organizationscannot ignore the cultural anchors of the spirit of voluntarism. Even if fewpeople believe in
aparigrah 
in urban and middle-class society, there remains alarge mass of rural people who do respect a volunteer who follows the principleof
aparigrah 
.Voluntarism based on
agarigrah 
has another dimension, and this is thewillingness to receive knowledge from whoever is knowledgeable. Thus, givingsomething away (
pradan 
) is accompanied by the inculcation or assimilation ofhumility and duty toward others (
grahan 
). Voluntary organizations thatemphasize giving as the basis of a relationship with poor people are either seenas paternalistic by the people or seen as a source of external resources andskills. Hardly any voluntary organizations try to tap the historical reserve ofknowledge (technical, institutional, and social) of the poor. The term resourcepoor masks the “richness” of economically poor people. The
grahan 
or“assimilation” of knowledge from the poor does not constitute “richness” to manyNGOs. Lest this richness of the poor become a paradox, let me explain it incultural terms.In Western society, there are only a few words, say,
aunt 
or
uncle 
,
nephew 
or
niece 
, for characterizing a whole range of relationships from the mother’s orfather’s side of the family. In Indian languages, each class of relationship has aspecific word. People thus have a web of relationships, many of which operateon different planes. Richness in the ability to maintain subtle differences inprotocol and mutuality provides a “safety net” of kinship linkages.In developmental paradigms the neglect of the role of cultural roots, religiousidentities, and the philosophical basis of social responsibility has led to a crisisamong many voluntary organizations. At a recent meeting of voluntaryorganizations, mostly with Marxist-Leninist leanings, organized by the Institute ofDevelopment Studies, Jaipur, it was admitted that despite one and a halfdecades of mobilization of the people around social and economic causes, therewas still a wall of silence between the people and volunteers on the issues ofcultural, religious, and caste/ethnic identities. The question “Where do you comefrom?” or “To which village or region do you belong?” was consideredunacceptable in developmental dialogues as a basis of relationship (Aruna Roy,
 
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personal communication with the author, 1990). Any effort to build on spatial orother ethnic identities was considered reinforcement of parochialism.Another cultural element of voluntarism is reciprocity. This includes both
giving 
 and
receiving 
but not in the form of exchange. As Ellis (1989, p.1) puts it, “It isthe giving and not the gift that is important.” Eastern as well as African societieshave evolved ways of keeping track of reciprocities. Ellis adds that reciprocitiesare characterized further by (a) wealth being equated with one’s esteem orprestige in society based on giving behaviour, and (b) the assurance of goodreturn because many people owe it to the giver.Moreover, the poor use a longer time frame to settle reciprocities than the rich,and in high-risk environments, such as drought-prone areas, generalizedreciprocities dominate specific ones (Gupta, 1981, 1984). Studies on voluntarismhave not exploited the potential of reciprocal economics versus exchangeeconomics for fostering collection action.The extent to which
initiatives 
calling for deviance from accepted norms, even forsocial good, are sanctioned by different societies also differs in the West and theEast. Cultures that provide the concepts of
aparigrah 
and
tyag 
also containcodes of sanction against deviance from a certain social order. The exploitationof the poor may thus become possible not merely through the “selfishness” ofdominant social classes but also through “learned helplessness” (the opposite ofvoluntarism) on the part of the poor people.To illustrate how cultural codification of compliant and conformist behaviour takesplace, a story from
mahabharat 
, an Indian epic, may help. Droncharya was arenowned teacher who had an
ashram 
(a type of school based in a forest) towhich royal families considered it a privilege to send their children.He had taken a vow to make one of the five royal brothers (Pandavas), namely,Arjun, the best archer in the world. One day a tribal boy named Eklavyahesitantly approached Droncharya to seek admission into the school.Droncharya refused admission saying that only the children of royal familiescould be admitted to his school. Eklavya returned home dejected, built an idol ofDroncharya (whom he had accepted as his teacher in his mind), and startedpracticing archery.One day Droncharya was moving in the forest accompanied by the Pandavas. Adog started barking and disturbing their conversation. Eklavya, practicingnearby, heard it. He filled the mouth of the dog with arrows. Droncharya couldnot believe it. He told the Pandavas that if somebody was such a good archerthen he surely needed to be met. They soon found Eklavya and asked him howhe had learned to be such a good archer. Eklavya, recognizing Droncharya,attributed the excellence of his skill to Droncharya himself. Droncharya wasflabbergasted because he had never taught Eklavya. However, on hearing the

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