First Impressions, First Week

August 1st, 2007

My first week at SEWA was a lot of things – fun, educational, influential, long. Boring, however, it was not. Whenever I had downtime at work, I would find something cool to read or talk to some of my co-workers, many of whom had interesting back-stories. I spent much of my time going through material and orienting myself to the Village Resource Center (VRC) program, of which telemedicine is a part.

[Some background (very skippable)…
The VRC program is part of the Indian government’s “Mission 2007” to “bridge the technology divide” between urban and rural India. A VRC is a center accessible to those in rural areas linked up via satellite to expert centers in urban areas such as hospitals or agricultural universities. These expert centers hold teleconference sessions on a wide variety of topics practically relevant to rural life in India. These sessions, broadcast simultaneously to all VRC’s in a region, last roughly 2 hours (at least in Gujarat). During this time, one hour is usually spent on prepared material, while the other is for questions answered live via this link. In Gujarat, SEWA has set up 5 VRC’s and another NGO has set up 5 more in the desert-like Kachh region where India meets Pakistan. According to the latest report, the VRC’s in Gujarat are the only ones deemed ‘functioning’ by the Indian government, and SEWA’s VRC’s are the only ones in this state which regularly attract a fair amount of people.]

Our office in Ahmedabad is one of SEWA’s 5 VRC’s, so, on Thursday, I had the opportunity to sit in on a tele-agriculture session by Anand Agricultural University. Overall, I found the setup and the system easily operable and surprisingly interactive. Even uneducated rural women felt comfortable asking any questions they had to these experts. This system facilitated such interaction extremely well, as these women felt like they were face to face with these experts without any sense of intimidation that they would normally feel in their villages. I also witnessed a tele-consultation session for skin diseases with the other NGO in Kachh. This is the essence of telemedicine, where the entire session consisted of a doctor treating patients, writing prescriptions, etc. During this particular session, which happened to be a follow-up from a previous consultation, I could see many cases of successful treatment which would not have been otherwise possible.

Through all of this, I have learned a lot about how NGO’s really function. This being my first experience actually working with one, I am probably over-generalizing. Nevertheless, I do find some truth to many of the things I have heard about in the past, namely much bureaucracy and high staff turnover, ultimately leading to inefficient use of time and resources. Despite all of this, I am surprised by how much SEWA has actually accomplished. I am still trying to gauge whether the people who work here do so because of some intrinsic motivation to impact change (as the money isn’t really that good), or simply because they couldn’t find anything better to do. Right now, I am leaning towards the former, or at least hoping.

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