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Development That Works

May 10, 2000

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Dakshinayan encourages both boys and girls to learn
"When Johnny Appleseed was planting those seeds, I don't think he was planning on eating the apples," says Siddharth Sanyal, smiling. He lights a cigarette and continues talking about how this folk hero's story affected him. "It makes me think about what I do now with the Dakshinayan volunteers, I only plant seeds of thought, seeds of ideas. Then I just see what happens...some of those seeds might become trees. Even the guy who wrote down the story of Johnny Appleseed planted a seed in me."


development - a step or stage in growth or advancement
catalyst - a person or thing that acts to speed a result in happening
capitalize - to use something to one's own advancement or to profit
gravely - seriously
hypocritical - the state of pretending to be something that he or she is not

Siddharth and I have been speaking for the last four and a half hours about the volunteers in his program, Dakshinayan. This program grew out of his own experiences as a development worker in a rural village in India, where he lived for six years. Dakshinayan is different from other development projects because it actively discourages funding from large development agencies. Instead, Dakshinayan volunteers donate directly to their villages and concentrate on small projects that the villagers themselves come up with. These projects vary from village to village. For example, volunteers might help in building one well or assisting one farmer with a herd of cows.

Related Works

To learn more about Dakshinayan's attitude towards development work, read the following story.

"My advice to young people who are interested in development work is this: Remember that some of the problems (the villages) face were often created over centuries, because of (historical realities) like feudalism, colonization, and political instability. Some of these problems took centuries to appear. So, it is frustrating, not to mention arrogant, to think you can change things in five to ten years, or even in your lifetime." Do you know from science class what a catalyst is? Siddharth thinks, "a development worker is a catalyst who either speeds up positive changes or delays negative influences. But they are just there, they're not part of the process."

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children at a school in one of the villages
Development work is a complicated process. In developing nations like India, there is a lot at stake. Sometimes things work, sometimes they fail miserably. In Siddharth's experience, development only works on a small scale. However, many international aid and development agencies assist projects only on a big scale. Instead of just building one well in a village that really needs it, agencies and sometimes governments build 1,000 wells in 1,000 villages. Bigger is not necessarily better, in these cases.

Your Turn!!!

Would you be willing to volunteer your time to help one of these poor villages? Do you think you could live in these conditions?

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The main part of the problem is that large development agencies can be out of touch with the real, day-to-day needs of the communities they serve. Siddharth relates a story about a cow to me that illustrates his point. The government donated many cows to a community of villagers. These villagers drank milk and decided to capitalize on this donation. They all banded together and created a small business producing milk, cheese, and butter, turning a profit for themselves and their businesses. In fact, the butter in the fridge today is AMUL butter, from the Anand Milk Producer's Union, Limited.

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AMUL butter, the front of the package
From this example, it seemed like the donation of cows was a fine idea. A decision came down from the government to donate another herd of cows to another community of villagers. However in this case, within a month, all the cows were gone! No union, no butter, no cheese, no nothing! Why is that? No one at the top levels realized that the people in this second village were indigenous, "tribals" as they are called. They don't even DRINK milk. However, they do eat meat and within the first month after the cows were donated, all the cows were slaughtered and eaten as beef.

In contrast to this kind of well-meaning, but ineffectual development, Dakshinayan brings volunteers down to the level of the village. Imagine that you are a volunteer. For a minimum of one month, you'll share in the life of the village by helping with meals, gathering firewood, and fetching water. You'll interact first-hand with the men, women, and children of the village. "I send prospective volunteers a letter that makes very clear that this is not a 'let's go help the poor' project," speaks Siddharth, gravely. "We try deliberately to scare everybody off... in this way, the volunteers who are serious are the ones that come."

Food for Thought

Siddharth's advice may be controversial to some of you; he suggests that people who are looking to "help" in countries far away from their homes should first start by changing their own lives and their own communities. For example, he finds it hypocritical that some people "cry over the destruction of Brazilian rainforests but won't stop using paper."

Dakshinayan doesn't mean to frighten you away. However, the program's goal is that as a volunteer, you see the reality of the situation. "You see the village as it is. You suffer the way the people suffer. You see how difficult it is for a student to trek three kilometers in the sun to go to school, because you yourself have difficulty walking in the heat to go teach at that same school." In this way, you actually realize what villagers may need, because you see it. If you go on with development work, having this experience, then you won't make mistakes such as giving cows to people who don't need them.

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Now that makes sense.

Dakshinayan only places two volunteers per village, and the process goes two ways. First, foreign volunteers adapt to local customs and learn about the lives of the villagers. Secondly, people in the village, who might never travel to the United States or Denmark, for example, now have the opportunity to learn about different cultures by working with the American or Danish volunteers.

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Siddharth's guru believes change most come from within
Before bidding me farewell, Siddharth tells me some of his philosophy of life. "Nothing is forever," he starts. "You don't know what will happen next." But he doesn't suggest you just be passive and not do anything. Instead, he suggested that you try not to be attached. "Live in the moment," he explains. "Follow your nature, and conditions will work in your favor. If you try and follow what other people are telling you to do, things won't work'll end up unhappy." Siddharth knows this first-hand because he was a businessman for a time and then a journalist. He was successful at those occupations, had a lot of money and material goods, but when he looked around he realized that he wasn't happy. He says, "I had to figure out what made me happy in life, and this is it. Follow your heart, follow your convictions, and conditions will arise to help you in that."

I challenge you to think about his statements and how they relate to your life. Are you doing what you are meant to be doing? Or are you doing what somebody else wants you to be doing? Are you living your own life? Or are you living someone else's?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Endangered: The Ancient Communities of the Narmada River
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Andrew - I Don't Care if that Croc is Vegetarian - I'm Still Not Swimming with Him! And Other Forms of Refreshment in Udaipur

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