Color in the Graphs, by Morel Jones

JonesM 1.jpgWhen I signed up to work with a development NGO in India, I had very romantic notions of what my experience would be like. In February 2008, I began working with an agricultural development organization called Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), which is partially staffed by scientists and works to improve the livelihoods of farming families and empower rural women and youth. In my mind, I imagined an organization full of individuals who were passionate about organic farming, dedicated to caring for the land, and intent on building good rapport with farming communities.

My experience at KVK has turned out very differently from what I expected. The first few weeks I spent mostly trying to figure out everything that went on at the organization and how it all functions. I found myself sorting through project “documentation” – piles of ratted notebooks full of scribbled Hindi. Often my search for information at KVK would be interrupted by lengthy questions about the freckles on my arms, or Monica Lewinsky.

With time, I developed my own research project on gender roles and decision-making power in agriculture in an effort to better sensitize KVK’s project towards the specific needs of women farmers. Though my coworkers were confused as to what I expected to gain out of a project that did not involve graphs and charts, I pressed on.

JonesM 2.jpgOnce my project methodology was completed, I headed to my selected village and began making friends. I lived with a family, slept on their roof under the stars, wow-ed the village with my chapatti-making skills over the kitchen fire, and washed clothes in the river. But I quickly learned that I was not going to find a magical way for KVK to empower farming women. In essence, though my research idea and methodology were good, I learned that one doing the research should have been someone else besides myself.

Indeed, I concluded that only field staff – people from or living in the village – would be able to have truthful, meaningful conversations with reserved Rajasthani villagers about major problems in their lives, relationships with spouses, and household decision-making power. I, a wealthy, educated, foreign woman, cannot do that very successfully. Likewise the wealthy, educated, upper-caste staff at KVK, who conduct interviews in full suits and eat their lunch separately from the villagers, cannot do so very well either.

JonesM 3.jpgMy project supervisor was not sad to see me let go of my gender analysis project, as she couldn’t quite grasp how I was going to graph my findings anyway. Now for the last two months of my internship, I will spend my time interviewing farmers and writing case studies of KVK program successes and failures. KVK wants written case studies for use in their Powerpoint presentations at annual meetings. My hope is that the stories I write and leave behind will put a human face on the agricultural development programs, giving color and emotion to the black and white numbers that fill their annual reports. Perhaps it will encourage future, deeper conversations with the farmers who are the beneficiaries of these development programs.

In the end, my frustration with the privilege of development work in India was only exacerbated by the knowledge that I cannot do anything to change that in the course of my 6-month internship. But it is possible that I have started to help it. And maybe after repeated encounters with FSD interns, KVK will begin to alter the way they go about development work. For my part, if nothing else, my internship has shown me first hand the potential, the limitations, and overall the harsh reality of development in the third world. And for that it has all been worth it.