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On a Mission to Calcutta 27-09-16

Volunteering at the Mother Teresa Home in Calcutta made me doubt our strategy; providing welfare versus philanthropy for structural change.

One afternoon I held a severely disabled girl (probably the most neglected group of children in India) up to an open window so she could hear and see the outside world. Till then her day had been spent lying on her back, unable to move, staring at the ceiling. For those twenty minutes she wondered at these new sensory inputs, smiled and occasionally frowned, usually when a passing scooter honked. It gave me such a sense of peace and gratification that I was lucky enough to be holding her at that moment, that I asked myself whether making better the lives of those who are suffering now is what philanthropy should be about. Who knows what impact structural change will have in future generations!
Organisations like the Mother Teresa Mission provide welfare; a future for abandoned and orphan children, care for the disabled, hope for the neglected and dignity for the destitute and dying. They stand proud as institutions in the slums of Calcutta, clean and well resourced pillars within the community. I could clearly evaluate and measure the impact welfare based philanthropy like this has, plus it ‘feels good’ doing it. ‘Seva,’ service, connects you with humanity, especially when done with love, not pity.
But looking closely you can see that welfare systems alone don’t work if the structure is not there to support it. By this I mean well-functioning schools, a medical staff in attendance, food security, skilled personnel to teach about hygiene to name a few examples that weave together to create a basic safety net. The Mission homes in Calcutta fill this gap, but what about those that are not so lucky? The basic safety net must be provided for by the state, and it needs to be accessible so it serves and works for its community. This is the social contract. It requires risk takers to challenge the state when it is falling short, and through advocacy to point the finger at the weak linkages and lack of resources. The impact of this may not be seen till the next generation, nor may it easily be evaluated, and therefore the immediate, personal emotional gratification is not the same. Organisations like Savannah Wisdom need to play this role, continuing to challenge for structural and cultural change, which in the long run will be of greater benefit to the communities we wish to serve. A connection with humanity is still needed sometimes as a reminder of the end goal, for everyone everywhere to have the chance to enjoy a view out of the window.

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