I was 4 years old as I stood with my mother in a crowded public bus in Kandy, Sri Lanka. I heard the drop of coins across the floor of the bus as an elderly women prepared to pass her bus fare to the conductor who was squeezing through. She vocalized her frustration in Sinhala and moments later I got on my knees and started to pick the coins scattered between a proverbial sea of feet. I recall passing the coins to her just before we reached our stop and reveling in her changed expression. I remember words of praise as she patted my head and the shape of a wide smile forming across my face.
Alas I’m sure we all have childhood memories like this. I share this in wanting to express the fact that it was clear to me at a very young age that I was at my happiest when I was contributing. In fact I may go so far as to contend that this is likely a universal fact! A sense of utility, being of use and there on, a sense of purpose…is extremely powerful.
I don’t intend for this to be a self-indulgent , autobiographical account but rather a brief window into what I am finding to be the essence of contribution. My foray into Aid and Development in Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka was an emotional, moral reaction to the suffering and devastation around me. My perspective at the time was that I was one of the fortunate ones with the capacity to lend a helping hand.
I was persistent in contacting various NGOs in December 2004 and in a matter of days I was working on a range of projects across the Southern and Eastern coast of the island. Many of which involved immediate relief for refugees from both the civil war and the tsunami. Witnessing the conditions in which my own countrymen lived in made me reflect on my childhood in Southern Africa and what I was doing with my own life.
Before I knew it I had convinced myself that I wanted to live a life of contribution and help the underprivileged as best I could. A apparently noble endeavour that I would pursue in spite of societal pressures – particularly as a male from a South-Asian family and a business student at university. I was reacquainted with the deep sense of fulfillment I had felt as a little boy but had long forgotten in my angst-ridden teenage years.
My involvement with Simple Wisdom and a great deal of time spent visiting villages across Sri Lanka was enlightening on many fronts. Especially in that I was exposed to ways of life that I had previously been sheltered from. In particular I was able to better empathize, with the plight of Tamil refugees across the East Coast – caught between the Army and the LTTE. It was a time filled with purpose and I daresay… adventure. Long drives into rural hamlets, experiencing the charms of village hospitality, the frenetic rush of organizing rations in refugee camps, the comradeship between coworkers – these were all life affirming experiences.
Yet when I look back I can see that my intentions were largely centered on self. Still experiencing a great deal of personal dissatisfaction with my personal and family life, project work became a refuge. For I was needed, I was of use! Though it is easy to be harsh on oneself in retrospect, I often describe my initial foray into social work as being a endemic of a “dependence on dependency”. For my personal happiness and esteem was so largely staked on me being useful within a state of gross inequity and suffering.
It was across 2007-2009 that I really started to understand the negative impact of operating in this paradigm. This was a period of deep reflection after my father’s sudden passing and it helped me understand the roots of how I perceived myself and humanity as a whole. While the connection of all of this to social justice might seem vague and nebulous to some, I have found this process of developing self-awareness and assessing my intentions to be vital.
I started to ask myself what contribution looks like if it not an egoic pursuit or the refuge of a disenchanted individual . Moreover, I started to understand the importance of role modelling values, being authentic and powerful within my own skin. As the famous and arguably over-quoted (under-practiced?) Gandhi quote goes “Be(ing) the change….”
For who was I to speak of possibility and capacity when in actual fact, I viewed myself as deficient and unworthy on so many fronts? In many ways I was forced to confront these limiting beliefs I had about myself since childhood. In truth, they linger , I continue to challenge them as I write this blog post.
Practicing Development as Freedom
I read a great deal of books through this period of discovery – landmark texts such as Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom” and E.F. Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” being among the most influential. Yet I feel that it was the aforementioned process of self-discovery that crystallized the views that form the foundations of my thinking at present. The essence being that it is only through a genuine belief in self and ones capacity to self-determine that one is able to genuinely contribute to others. Simply put – start within and move out.
In a recent TEDx Talk that I gave at Macquarrie University, I spoke about this journey from the perspective of the principles that guide my approach to contribution. I share this with the hope that it resonates.
I recall having conversations with a close friend about there being a crisis in “esteem” and “dignity”. In many ways, typical notions of philanthropy and charity tend to address social justice issues are designed along the lines of a donor and a beneficiary, a giver and a taker, a doctor and a patient. The “dependence on dependency” I referred to earlier, in my assessment,seems to be the elephant in the room. Have we not made an industry of aid and development after all? There is so much talk of “poverty” and often strictly in financial and material terms) but so little talk of our immense human capacity to transcend it through self-determination. I am still struck by what can be the potentially debilitating impacts of labels such as “third world” and “extreme poverty”.
To me it is clear that “Empower” as an organisation is a part of a growing movement that sees its role and responsibility as being to enable human freedoms, to understand our pragmatic relationship with the earth itself. It is a role that requires fostering tremendous respect and dignity as the content of development is not ours to determine, but that of the very people we serve. It is not a role measured purely in outputs, dollars and cents or a headcount of people reached but rather in the quality of our efforts to support self-determination by working towards complete redundancy. We call this the “joy of not being needed”. To witness the accomplishments of others without a need to assign
So how has my view of purpose shifted? There is no question that I still derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from this work, much as I did before. It remains a large part of my personal dream for my life. However, my sense of worth was so deeply entrenched in being a saviour to others (though never consciously). I am now seeing the power that comes from actively journeying towards ones own dreams in life . An awkward disconnect between self and my intentions for others – is now replaced by a sense of integration and authenticity. As cliche as it sounds – I am seeing how deeply connected everything is. Right from the intersections between natural systems to the foundations of our dreams and intentions. Moreover, there is a palpable feeling that our freedoms are intertwined and that we are all on the path of understanding the nature of what chains us and what liberates us.