Life Lessons from the Ground Up — What I’ve learnt working in the development sector

Almost over four years ago, I quit my corporate career in pursuit of something that would shake my core as a professional. Little did I know, it would become a persistent pursuit of perseverance.

In September 2018, I joined a Delhi-based non-profit to start my development sector journey and my life has never been the same.

Here is a small attempt at summarizing (if that’s even possible) some of the lessons I have leant on the way and continue to imbibe.

Lesson 1: Building Resilience, Tooth and Nail

“Dusaron ke jai se pehele khudhko jai kare” (Before attempting to conquer others, conquer ourselves first)

At the very onset of my journey, when I discovered the Civil Society Magazine, these words by the one and only Deep Joshi found me open-mouthed staring into the magazine and my inner self, “People who work in the development sector should have abundant reserves of emotional strength, perseverance and patience.”

In that instance, I knew I had my work cut out for me — both personally and professionally. A year later, my mentor even shouted it to me on my most testing day, like a war cry, “Resilience, Resilience, Resilience!”

It’s quite cliché — given the abundant overuse of the word, but this is the most honest lesson I have learnt. The process of addressing and building my emotional and physical pliancy, humbling as it is, has been the most demanding and rewarding aspect of my journey. It’s a perpetual process of perseverance.

Trust in the self, and be patient on the path.

Lesson 2: A little will go a long way

‘Money is funny!’ It always is!

A year into the journey, our NGO was struggling to maintain a steady flow of funds. Major donors pulled back, fuelling a penny-wise and pound-foolish situation. We were bracing ourselves to shut shop or massively scale down. Practising resilience in the face of failure came in handy while we braced and bruised.

Not only did we get through those sustainability challenges, but we also managed to scale up and spread operations in a state like UP during the raging pandemic between 2020 and 2021. Living with this knowledge and experience alone has taught me to always persevere in the face of uncertainties, especially financial uncertainties. Just do, do, do! Save, save, save! And multiply what and wherever you can.

I have borne witness to running major programs on stringent budgets. I have borne witness to how one can make money last. Not by sitting on it, but by spending it — rupee by rupee. It’s been surrealistic to learn, hands-on, how much can one do with so little. It still takes a village but how little one needs to keep the intent alive.

Expect the best but prepare for the worst and do not lose hope in the process.

Lesson 3: As long as your heart’s in the right place, you can survive it.

I used to think being sentimental in a professional set-up was the biggest curse ever.

At least I was always made to believe that. Till, of course, I started working on-ground. The initial weeks and months saw a lot of tearful outbursts and ‘regrettable’ feelings seeping in. I questioned everything. Did I make a mistake? Will I survive this? How long can I even last?

Not only did I survive, but I would also say it has made me thrive in my career. My time here not only helped me realize that emotional investment within a work-set up can be appreciated, but it also made me channel my emotions so strategically that the process has healed me as a person, as a woman, and as a worker.

My eventual connection with the communities and my pursuit of seeing through these experiences made up for my lack of conventional experience in the sector.

So as long as your heart’s in the right place, intent clean; mistakes are merely mirrors.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty

‘No job is big or small only thinking makes it so.’

When one is at war, all battles need to be fought. Not that the sector is a battlefield, but some days it mirrors one. The dynamically changing realities, the misery, the MHA pushbacks, the shut-downs, the FCRA conundrums, the donor demands, the budget brawls.

There is indeed no task big or small, above or beyond a person. But my conditioning would always make me question the tiny tasks — the grocery errands, the cheque deposit trips, the scanning-printing, the operational hassles, the accounts logging, the receipt filing; till I realized, it’s what the captain of the ship does.

But honestly, I am so grateful for every task I have performed; the small ones worked my appetite for the more, herculean ones.

Lesson 5: It does take a village, always!

“I never fathomed the power of community till I started my fieldwork.”

Lingering, lurking and lobbying in public offices, departments and Panchayats, I have come to realise the power of participatory action. Dialogue, along with the positive exchange of stories, is what paves way for action; development or otherwise. Community consultations and collaborations are at the heart of everything we do. Ask questions, then ask difficult questions, then keep asking questions.

From walking into people’s houses uninvited to walking back with shared memories, connections and a history of their existence, it’s been a privilege, to say the least. More than that, never have I witnessed the spirit of collaboration as strong as during my time in the sector.

Under its ambit, are many limitations, but causes that connect will always outlive the ones that divide, and that is the essence of it all.

Lesson 6: Don’t be afraid of standing alone

“Perceptions are hard to change, and so are principles”

On more than one occasion, I have had individuals walk up to me with propositions of, “Please convert our black money to white” with incentives for me of course; offering me amounts I would not be able to earn with a modest living in years. I wouldn’t say it’s the norm but it has happened, multiple times, with strangers and friends. It used to make me question my own identity till I realized it’s reflective of their values and not mine.

Don’t take it personally and stand your ground.

Lessons are the true reward I have earned. In the small stint that I have had, I am convinced there is no other place I would rather be than the development sector. We often misjudge the strength and skills of social workers or development professionals. But time and again, I have been awe-struck by the kind of commitment, passion and resolve people have towards their work.

In my limited time, I have had the good fortune of engaging and working closely with some of the most amazing and humble humans and that is what keeps me going. Empathy is not just a word, it’s a practice.

This room is chaotic, but it’s beautiful. Just like life!

Here’s to the rest of my time and all the lessons I’m yet to learn.

Originally Published on LinkedIn

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Sharan Ahluwalia

Sharan Ahluwalia

Poet | Writer I Researcher| IR Scholar |Senior Manager & Dev Professional // Stealing moments to be w kids on field https://thebigfatpoet.com/ @thebigfatpoet