Grey Mist Lifting

A Weekly Blog About Lives Changed Through Eye Care

Lynda Cherry, former Vice-President of International Programs

Community workers: the force behind change – Part 1


“Promoting sustainability” and “developing capacity” are common terms these days. But what do they mean in terms of international development?

Kashinath Bhoosnurmath can tell you. He joined Operation Eyesight in 2009 as senior director for Operation Eyesight in India, bringing many years of practical experience in community and international development. Both Kashinath and Dr. Bo Wiafe, our regional director in Africa, are strong advocates for, and practical implementers of, community-based services that will endure long after Operation Eyesight has moved to other regions. Both have a well-informed perspective on what sustainability and capacity building mean to this organization. In Part 1 of this three-part series, Kashinath zeros in on the issues facing the most humble, but perhaps the most important link in Operation Eyesight’s work in India – the community worker.

Kashinath Bhoosnurmath

Often I have wondered about the impact of the work that I am engaged in doing. I ask myself, “Does it really matter to have a well-formulated strategic plan and a good implementation plan? Do such plans make any difference in the lives of the poor?”

I have come to realize they do, provided they are delivered properly or implemented effectively. Direct implementation is not something I do – it is the community-based workers who implement the planned activities. If they are good at their work, they do make a difference in the lives of target groups.

When I joined this organization about two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that in all the Operation Eyesight-supported community eye health projects there are community workers who are not only recruited from among the target communities but are also paid salaries for the work they do.

However, several organizations that I have known over the last two decades have had community workers who are only paid very small honorariums for their voluntary work. Every time I interacted with them during my field visits, these voluntary workers invariably advocated for a move from honorariums to salaries. So I always came back from the field with some unanswered questions: “Why do they refer to their honorariums as salaries and are they really volunteering to work? What is volunteerism and is it really an option for these individuals?”

With more grey hairs showing up on my head, I have found some satisfactory answers. There was a time, not so long ago, when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were referred to as voluntary organizations. In many of these voluntary organizations, one could find well-compensated leaders and management staff along with very meagrely paid voluntary workers at the implementation level. I felt it was as if the degree of volunteerism was highest at the lowest level and tapered significantly as one went up the hierarchy in these organizations.

And who were these “voluntary” workers anyway? They were often from the same target communities or from the neighbouring towns and villages – people searching for opportunities to improve their own lot.

Return next week for Part 2, when Kashinath describes one of the major issues facing the “poor who help the poor.”

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