At the risk of sounding trite, the fellowship seems almost incomplete if you do not bring up Swades, the movie, at least once. From a third person’s viewpoint, a fellow’s transition from a city to an idyllic rural setup sufficiently resembles the plot of the movie with Mohan (the lead character played by Shah Rukh Khan) moving from Washington DC to Charanpur, a village in India. But more importantly, it is the emotional undertone that resembles that of the movie, or so I thought.
Like many other cinema lovers, I, too, am dependent on movies and TV shows (of many other genres) for giving me a lens to view the world around me. As someone raised in a city with no prior exposure to rural development, it was natural for me to look at Mohan as an altruistic saviour who was helping people in need. Thus, before I joined India Fellow, I subconsciously (rather, naively) believed that an altruistic saviour is a key component for making any lasting change at the grassroots.
In my experience of being on the field for the past few months, I have had the opportunity to take a closer look at the saviour’s complex and understand that working in social development is not always as romantic as one sees a saviour touching lives.
For a viewer, Swades induced all the feelings of wanting to “help” the people in need and a ton of heart-wrenching pity towards the less fortunate people Mohan meets during his visit. Though the point of the movie was probably not this, a few of the scenes portrayed the villagers as distressed people and Mohan as their sympathiser if not saviour (can perhaps also be because of the ‘hero’ value attached with Shah Rukh Khan).
While experiencing these emotions is essential in catalysing action or change, I have realized that the mere presence of strong emotions may not necessarily translate into action and sustainable change. Moreover, the attitude of a saviour trying to help others in need, in my opinion, creates a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ with an implicit belief that ‘they’ do not possess the capacity to solve their own problems.
Over the past few months that I have spent with my organization, WISE, I learnt that the key to making any lasting impact, is to create a system that is self-sustainable. For WISE, it means that the SHG (self-help group) meetings are conducted by the members themselves without having to rely on a staff (like me or my teammates) who reminds them about it. Self-sustainability, therefore, is the foundation of all our initiatives and is even engrained into the model designed for empowering women collectives.
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The idea of self-sustainability, however, lies at the opposite end of the spectrum, far away from the Saviour Complex. The saviour (let’s call it that for the sake of convenience) is necessarily the doer of the action that brings about relief or change. However, if anyone has to constantly rely on that person for the motivation needed to improve the situation, then that system will last only as long as the saviour does. As gratifying as it feels to know that you are the reason why someone showed up for their monthly meetings, it only gives you an impression of having made a difference.
To bring a lasting change entails being a facilitator which means that you leave rescuing to the person you thought you were trying to rescue and rather act as an enabler. This naturally, is a lot less romantic than feeling like you saved the day for someone.
Our attempts at WISE are designed in a way so that women groups are motivated to take all decisions pertaining to themselves while the staff only facilitates the discussions. This means that we have an exit plan in mind for ourselves, when the groups we visit monthly, start meeting regularly themselves and manage the activities on their own. Ample opportunity for independent action is present at every level, be it the SHG, a group of 10-20 women, or cluster, a group of 10-20 SHGs or federation, a group of 10-20 clusters. This collective model becomes successful if the SHG members begin to feel like owners and not merely participants.
Another case against the saviour complex is that, given how frequently one gets the chance to experience it, it can stop being a motivating factor after a point, thereby, being unsustainable. Since development problems can be grave and complex, to feel the need of saving the other, can take a significant emotional toll. Working with this pressure on a daily basis can make one either burnt out or completely numb. Realizing that people are not waiting around for a saviour, can take a lot of pressure off (something that was not needed in the first place).
That said, building sustainable systems is still challenging. But viewing it as a complex problem to be solved and approaching it accordingly is a lot more scalable than creating people-dependent systems that have a flip-side to it. In people-dependent systems, it is indeed romantic to think that the relationship between the saviour and help-receiver (for lack of a better word) is an amicable one, where the latter is in awe of the former and, therefore, complies with all of the saviour’s initiatives.
However, my limited experience in the field tells me that this is not always the case. Creating a system often means that you are not the most favourite choice of the people you work with. It may help to think of this as school students waking up each morning going to school reluctantly. In this case, women who have a long to-do list and a series of other constraints, do not prioritise the SHG meetings, at least in the initial stages where the benefits are not that palpable, much like the student who does not see the point of going to school.
This means that some women can view this activity as an inconvenience and the staff as perpetrators of the same. In such cases, building a lasting systems often means going against the popular sentiment. The women in this case, are clearly not waiting for anyone to come and help them, making the existence of the saviour redundant. These situations make working harder especially when one expects that there will be no resistance.
Needless to say, bringing about change in social development is not a piece of cake, but a perception shift from expecting to be the saviour to simply being in love with daily obstacles that will inevitably come your way. That can make all the difference.
Revisiting Swades after coming to the fellowship made me realise that though my love for the movie had not changed, I was also not viewing Mohan as this altruistic saviour in the pursuit of a selfless deed, but as someone simply following his heart. My experiences as a fellow has given me the chance to shift from a third-person watching the movie to actually experiencing a glimpse of the development world.
Towards the end, when Vinod (Mohan’s colleague in NASA) tries to understand why Mohan wants to take such a drastic step of moving to his village in India, Mohan says, “Yeh tumhe khud wahan jaa kar dekhna hoga“, a line that is perhaps the best articulation of how I feel about my experiences so far. This time around, what also stood out was Mohan’s own evolution from having his initial perception moulded by the reality he experienced in his village, much like my own.