Finding a Niche as a Foreigner

August 8, 2017 | By Luke Butcher

Towards the end of June, after spending every day in the office, I was ready for my first day in the field. After a string of grant proposals and reports, I had finally settled on my long-term project and I jumped at the opportunity to structure my deliverable around a series of interviews. Attending an open financial literacy session would provide me the opportunity to ask women in the most rural areas what they wanted to learn from a digital financial literacy curriculum.

My expectations for how enriching that day would be were greatly exceeded.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing it in hindsight, but what I witnessed there was something that numbers and nitty-gritty strategy questions — what I usually see in the office — simply can’t capture. I saw community and joy. I had pictured the financial literacy sessions as more instructional, essentially a lecture, but what I saw was informal and natural in all the best ways. Put simply, everyone just seemed like they were having the best time. All the women from the village in attendance alternated between having conversations with each other and the trainer to laughing and smiling, again and again. They were genuinely engaged. To report solely on the concrete metrics of such a session would fail to capture the true effect of Mann Deshi’s work in bringing women together.

The session reached another level when a car arrived with Chetna, Mann Deshi’s founder. Chetna has a certain aura of wisdom and kindness that is very hard to describe, but you can tell when it’s in full force like it was in the village that day. It’s amazing what you can understand without words because I could clearly tell that Chetna was reaching everyone in that space. Smiling as they looked up to her intently, she really appeared to be the role model that I had read about online. Educated and well-connected, Chetna has the know-how and know-who to make tremendous change, but she also has this incredible ability to connect with people in order to understand their needs and instill confidence.

Why do I keep going on about Chetna? On the one hand, it was an extremely special moment. I got to see Mann Deshi’s impact in action and in a qualitative way. On the other hand, it was a moment that caused me to think deeply about my role as a foreigner working here and how I should deal with the corresponding limitations.

The barriers in that moment, just like the barriers I’ve sensed over the whole summer, were very strong. I don’t speak Marathi. I’m not a woman. I’m not Indian. I’ve never been poor. I don’t understand the caste system. I don’t know the complexities of income shocks. I don’t know anyone that’s been married at 15. I didn’t start an organization that’s worked on a set of issues for 20 years. I could go on, but the point is that there are some things that we’re just not meant to do. I could never engage that group of women like Chetna did. I felt inspired, humbled, and powerless all at the same time, and I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way before.

But that’s okay. That feeling made me think very carefully about how I hope to make my work impactful, both before and after I leave Mann Deshi.

What’s most important is finding ways to work around limitations and capitalize on strengths. I may not understand the nuances of education here, but I can speak with someone who does. I may not speak the language, but I can write a grant proposal. I may not know the first-hand anxieties surrounding digital payments, but I can conduct interviews and structure a curriculum. Mann Deshi wouldn’t allow interns from abroad if they didn’t see the same value that I now see in my work.

Does this mean I’m satisfied with less fieldwork? Does this mean I don’t question whether I’d be better suited to work in the US? No, and no. I really wish I could leave the office more, and I think it would be premature to commit to an internationally-focused career, especially if I feel drawn to a more direct connection with beneficiaries. I’m still grappling with these questions. However, if barriers will always be a part of my career — as I think they will be, regardless of where I am — then I’m glad I know it now. I was aware of their existence before I got to Mann Deshi, but there’s something distinct about confronting them head-on that makes them that much more important to address.

Developing new solutions to old problems.

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