Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Work Trip to India (Week 1 - A tale of two cities… and feeling kinda sh*tty)

In my previous life, as an economics advisor to the Scottish Government, one of the disappointing factors of the job was that I was pretty much tied to my desk. Interaction with the outside world was rather limited and work trips took me as far as…. Leeds. Southampton once. And Cumbernauld on more occasions than I was entirely comfortable with.

But that was a previous life, one which seems a pretty distant memory now as I write this in my hotel room in Lucknow, deepest Uttar Pradesh.

Without getting too technical, this work trip has two main goals for me. Firstly, I’m meeting with an organisation that I hope to work with to design and test a new survey programme for estimating the impact we have on clients in India – are we reaching the poorest people, are we moving them out of poverty? Secondly, I’m meeting with healthcare providers here to discuss the possibility of partnering with them to improve healthcare provision for our clients in India.
It was Indian National Day on the Saturday, celebrating the creation of the constitution on the 26th of January 1950. All public buildings were decked in impressive glad rags!

And there are other benefits to the trip too. Not least that I’m getting to meet some of the people who are working in microfinance and poverty relief on the ground in India, and I’m getting to meet some of the people that we’re helping.

My colleague Stephen and I are travelling together. Stephen has a few projects of his own that he’s hoping to make progress with here. The first of these turned out to be incredibly interesting, and has given me the chance to make a contribution on something which seems valuable beyond measure when compared with the types of projects we usually get to be involved with in our working lives.

On the first day of the trip we visited the Sewa Ashram, a refuge for the destitute homeless people of Delhi. The Ashram has about 120 inhabitants who have been ‘saved’ from the streets of Delhi where they live in conditions which are unimaginable to you or I. Half the patients have TB (a horrible and deadly condition, which has been forgotten by the developed world, even though it still continues to kill a million of the poorest people in the world every year), and one in ten are HIV positive.

It was really humbling to see the work done by Nino and Kaye, the German and Canadian managers who run the Ashram. Their work is unbelievable – quite simply I couldn’t ever do it. I’m not sure many people could. We also met a large number of the patients in the Ashram, many of whom are ill and bedridden, but many others of whom have been rehabilitated and are now gaining confidence and dignity in the community atmosphere of the Ashram, and even contributing, through basic activities such as making jewellery, painting canvases and growing vegetables.

We were there to talk to the managers about an idea they have to relocate and expand the Ashram to accommodate five times as many inhabitants. The need for help is, sadly, far far greater than the supply of care…

The day was really interesting, really educational in terms of finding out just what individuals’ needs are when they have been completely abandoned by society. Stephen and I undertook to draw up a proposal for a new Ashram. The idea of the proposal is to put some detailed plans together (eg setting out resources (money, people, assistance) needed), which will help the Ashram to raise the money and assistance it needs to make their vision happen.

We spent a lot of the rest of the week drawing up a draft proposal and will meet with the Ashram again before we leave India, by which point the proposal should be pretty well advanced. After seeing the people at the Ashram, it’s hard to imagine feeling more motivated about a piece of work.

On day four we flew to Lucknow. Lucknow is the administrative capital of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. If Uttar Pradesh (ooh-tar praa-desh) were a country on its own, it would be the fourth largest country in the world by population… and one of the poorest. There is a large north-south divide in India, with the southern states experiencing the greatest benefits of India’s economics boom (but there is poverty in the south too) whereas economic activity in the north is weaker, and the poor poorer.

Left: Stephen tucks into lunch. Was this the dodgy meal...?

We visited a start-up microfinance organisation where they have just a few thousand clients now, but are hoping to expand rapidly. Stephen and I provided a bit of IT consultancy, though my contribution was restricted to “switch it off, leave it 10 seconds and then try switching it on again”. Well not quite, but I certainly didn’t feel as useful as I had at the Ashram. I also went to visit Emmanuel Hospital Association, an association of 20 mission hospitals, which provides healthcare to an amazing number of poor people (600,000+) for an amazingly small budget ($5m). Had a very interesting meeting which I hope to follow up on later.

At the end of the first week we unfortunately ran out of luck on the ‘Delhi Belly’ front. We had been quite adventurous, trying a few new Indian dishes. Stephen was more cautious than me, so it was sod’s law when he came down with stomach cramps on the Saturday morning. This lasted a good 48 hours at the last checking and we’ve had to call off our trip to Hyderabad, which is a shame, but totally understandable. I think Stephen is coping with it pretty well. I know I go pear-shaped at the slightest hint of ‘man-flu’.

Here’s hoping for better health in our second week, and another chance to make a contribution to the Ashram.

Please do visit the website of the Ashram. If you have the chance, read the document on the ‘Urban Destitute’. It contains incredible stories, that you wouldn’t imagine possible in 2008. It’s a hard read, but well worth it.

Ahhh, no. Wait a minute. I think I've spotted the dodgy meal...

... those goat brains aren't as succelent as you might think.