Abroad in Oz: How the Minerva Fellows know they’re Nott at Union anymore

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By Nikhil Kothari

Nikhil Kothari ‘10 is one of two Minerva Fellows currently working in a small rural community in Ecuador under the auspices of the Yanapuma Foundation. His projects range from installing water purification systems, to working in a government-sponsored clinic, to administering a scholarship program. With such a broad range of invested interests, he has learned a decent amount about the complicated yet rewarding aspects of development work abroad.

The contrast between service work at Union and following graduation is striking. At Union, we generally promote awareness, the gathering of a critical mass in order to support a cause or raise funds. Such endeavors leave us enlightened and rewarded, whereas that sort of contentment following graduation and during work with an actual NGO is less frequent, yet nevertheless existent. And while our work in Ecuador entails a plethora of incredible people and experiences, a broad commentary on this transition to the realm of post-graduate development work seems warranted.

Living in a tiny village of roughly 500 inhabitants, we’ve become extraordinarily comfortable with Estero’s lifestyle and surroundings. Our projects include the improvement of public health and education, promotion of gender equality, encouragement of micro-entrepreneurial activities, and much more. This is all clearly worthwhile.

However our most essential task is to establish a sense of solidarity with Estero as a whole. I couldn’t imagine my neighbor, Emerita, being comfortable with my tampering with the community water system without having at least a shred of confidence in my competence or sanity.

Although our successes have been tangible at times, this is our most important.  Still, small communities like ours often experience their fair share of do-gooders who come for a massively strenuous eight hours and then decide to leave, often departing with nothing but a trail of inane pamphlets as their principle legacy. I don’t wish to cynically project that image onto the overall aid movement in Ecuador, but to note that developmental work, in essence, is difficult to oversee. Sustainable development: difficult to accurately describe, and impossible to contradict.  This predicament is illustrated by some of the questions we get asked. “What do you actually do?  Why are you even here?”  The variety of organizations that work in all parts of the world is extensive, and as fantastic as that is, an excess of overlap and lack of project consolidation may leave a bad aftertaste in the communities in which projects are coordinated. Perhaps heightened communication on the executive level between all of these development groups could prove useful to maximize our overall efficiency. ­Thankfully, Yanapuma’s imprint has been positive thus far, and for a smaller NGO, oversight and efficiency are more manageable tasks.

One would be hard-pressed to argue against the notion that certain types of development work have recently become faddishly popular. University graduates continuously turn to temporary or potentially permanent stints with NGOs in a variety of locations, occasionally due to an infatuation with the concept of living abroad, or simply a lack of other options closer to home. This trend blends into the larger pattern of globalization, to which we´ve been observers, including greater access to international transportation, and communication. While I welcome this new wave of enthusiasm and highly recommend the decision to pursue such work, potentially misplaced zeal can promote digression. Nonprofit work represents amazing progress, undeniably so. Still, while a year of service abroad is remarkably rewarding, one consistently hopes that he contributes as much he inevitably gains.

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