Volunteer Labor

Miss the previous update? Read it here.

"Lead with sustainability."

This is a phrase I like to use when talking about starting humanitarian projects. I think it's important to keep in mind because we can easily get easily selfishness and selflessness confused, which is not to say I have mastered the ability to know the difference in myself.

We get a hot idea, we think it's going to help somebody, we immediately implement, and we forget about sustainability. We forget about our beneficiaries who are probably not totally on our wavelength, who usually don't have the same level of inspiration we have (though who will appear very excited).

We forget to think about the relatively boring part of how this plan we've devised is going to keep itself going after we inevitably stop paying attention to it and hand it over to the beneficiary.

Sustaining Mouna

With the Mouna Garden, sustainability was my primary concern even before having the first conversation with the community's leadership about the idea.

I knew we could build it and that it would be beautiful—construction is the easy part. What happens after I leave the community though? Who is going to care for it? Take it seriously? Keep it secure? Keep it looking good?

So, my first step was to find a manager. Somebody who was willing to water the plants, keep the space clean, and otherwise maintain the garden indefinitely. It didn't take long to find this person, as the mother (Ambicabhen) of one my best students (Bhavna) in the girls afterschool program, repeatedly demonstrated interest in gardening and possessed the right set of values.

I approached Ambicabhen, asked if she would take the job (which we agreed would by volunteer work), she said yes, and so we moved forward with construction.

Now, here we are, several months after launch and, unfortunately, Ambicabhen has not been doing the kind of work I expected.

She was sending kids to the garden to do her work and visiting, herself, only intermittently. Just the other week, actually, she told me she could no longer be the manager. She said she didn't have the time and that her husband didn't like her being outside of the home.

My assumption that fell apart was that there would be no problem like this since she agreed and seemed enthusiastic about the job before we got started.

That's the thing. Things can change when things get real. Ambicabhen felt one way about the work before we had an actual garden to tend to and another when the work was ready to be done and she had the ability to see how it actually fit in among her many other duties.

As an experiment, I started paying Ambicabhen a "service stipend" of Rs. 500 or approximately $8 USD/month. So the money didn't look like it was coming from me directly, I gave six months worth of pay to the president of the community, who paid her each month.

The amount is low enough where it keeps the volunteer, from-the-heart vibe and it's enough to create incentive and accountability. Plus, her husband can no longer argue with her leaving the house, as she's now contributing in a relatively substantial way.

Update: This approach did seem to make a difference, as Ambicaben started coming to the garden every day to care for the garden and was taking the job more seriously. It's now February of 2015 and I'm not sure if she is still involved or if how much of the garden survived last year's monsoon season. I will find out in a few months.

Continue to next update about this year's work at the leprosy community.