People have several career options, some choose to become engineers, some doctors and some others become lawyers. There are few who have the passion and drive to serve other people and make the world a better place for everyone. Such are those who choose to become NGO workers. That zeal is something which is not a common trait.
In order to get a clear picture of the life of a person who chooses to serve humanity, we contacted Ankur Mahajan.
“Ankur Mahajan is a Development Economist who has worked with International Organizations and NGOs like UN, Red Cross, AIESEC, Aga Khan Foundation, VSO and CUSO with assignments in Cote d’Ivoire, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, China, Canada and Ghana. He was educated in USA, UK, France, Canada, India, and Australia, and possesses two Masters Degrees in Economics and Finance as well as Education Policy. He is fluent in English, French and Hindi and further intermediate in Dari, Mandarin- Chinese and Russian. Due to extensive travel and missions abroad he has gained a wide experience regarding challenges faced while working for International Development and Diplomacy. He is also 3rd Kyu Brown belt in Judo and an Ultra marathoner that previously competed in New York, Montreal, Stockholm, Dushanbe, Sydney, and Accra resulting in top 10% of the athletes.”
1. What all habits have you adapted to while living in an unfamiliar/dangerous environment? Please explain through any particular incident which relates to it.
Adaptability is one of the most vital characteristics necessary for successfully working in International Development. Different cultures, varied weather conditions, diverse cuisines etc. are all a part of this domain and one must learn to acknowledge these differences and perhaps enjoy them as well even though such changes can be quite challenging at times.
One has to learn to live in different conditions and at times, these situations can be dangerous as well. But eventually, it all comes down to your mindset and ability to make things work. To mention some major instances, I have had a snake enter my room in Ghana which was later killed by my security guard. Additionally, I was once mistakenly given a wrong prescription for my Malaria treatment leading to 12 paracetamols in my stomach within 8 hours.
Further, I have been caught in between a political riot in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire that led to many fatalities. And in Afghanistan, there were many incidents of attacks in areas of close proximity or those I had visited and fortunately left a few hours prior to the attack. My experiences have taught me that to be able to adapt in high threat areas, one should be flexible and friendly, keep a low profile, respect the local culture and follow the strict security protocols and be compliant.
2. Your country India being a cultural confluence where almost every religion exists, has it ever happened that someone has helped you because of your nationality? Or whether you are treated differently because you are an Indian? It may be in a positive sense or negative sense. Please elaborate with an incident.
India has been a model for many countries owing to its ethnic diversity and its peaceful movement for successfully attaining independence in 1947. The country has a major influence as a soft power owing to its long and fascinating history and hospitable culture.
For instance, Yoga is followed throughout the world and there also exists a huge fan following of our Bollywood movie industry. Our music and dances are enjoyed by many around the world. So all the countries where I have worked or studied thus far i.e. Indonesia, UAE, Uzbekistan, China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, France, UK, Australia, Canada, and the US consider India as a friendly nation and view it in a positive light.
There were many occasions in Afghanistan where I was initially confused as a Pakistani but once people realized I was an Indian I was given better treatment. Although there were a few negative instances, my experiences while working or studying in foreign countries taught me that I was not just representing myself but also my nation; therefore, I always tried to respect the local culture, religion, and language and was usually treated with respect by the local people who appreciated my efforts towards assimilation.
3. As an NGO worker, is there any particular decision that you were compelled to take even though you didn’t want to?
There are always decisions that one might have to follow that you may not always fully agree but as long as the intention behind is positive, then you have to compromise as well.
On a macro level, there are several decisions at Policy or Program level. As NGOs and INGOs work with local Governments, the agenda of the NGOs and INGOs need to have confluence with the Government’s agenda for development. So if Governments are not keen on certain development themes, then NGOs or INGOs do not have the authority to further implement their ideas.
For instance, Afghanistan being a very religious and conservative nation, the issues regarding advocacy for gender equality or family planning are very challenging as they are viewed by the local people through a religious prism. Similarly, human rights issues in China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have to be dealt in a systematic way and in accordance with local government rules.
As developmental organizations on a micro level have members from different backgrounds and nationalities, there can be different viewpoints regarding the strategy and execution of programs which are resolved through healthy debate and analysis by the members to reach a consensus decision. Since everyone has the same goal i.e. development of the local population, the members generally get along with their team members and put any personal egos aside.
4. What is the driving force behind your dedication towards working in a dangerous location where you can even lose your life?
My driving force is the feeling that I am actually creating a positive impact in the lives of others through my work. I don’t treat my work as simply a job; rather, my work is a reflection of my passion for making a positive change in the lives of others.
My passion motivates me to seek greater challenges and work diligently towards creating a positive impact in various humanitarian causes. The successful pursuit of humanitarian causes gives me a feeling of triumph which is immensely satisfying.
Although war zones are definitely risky areas, I genuinely learn the most upon stepping outside my comfort zone; moreover, such zones are where the local population is undergoing immense suffering and is in most need of help.
Therefore, my passion for helping others makes me want to pursue developmental work in dangerous zones despite the safety hazards.
5. There are enormous risks involved in this field. What according to you is the biggest risk? What risk do you fear the most to happen?
I have faced numerous risks while working in the field in underdeveloped areas or war zones. Since medical facilities in many isolated and rural parts of the world are still outdated and lack basic expertise, therefore, it can be a struggle to get good treatment if one gets into an accident or falls sick.
The deteriorating security in a war zone can have an adverse effect on productivity, morale, and mental health.
My greatest fear has been the fear of abduction and facing torture since many aid workers in the past have been abducted for several months or years.
6. What was your most challenging encounter with a dangerous situation? How did you handle it?
My most challenging encounter was during a political rally in Burkina Faso, Africa during its civil unrest. As I was passing by a public demonstration against the President, the Government troops opened fired at the protesters. It was a very chaotic situation leading to a stampede and casualties. I acted swiftly and showed a presence of mind by hiding behind a theater until the ordeal was finished.
7. Tell us about certain mindsets and cultures of any one or two places you have worked in, which will be a revelation to us laymen.
Every country has its own unique political set up, culture, and identity. We may have different opinions on it and might individually perceive it as positive or negative but it needs to be acknowledged as the reality of the place.
For instance, political debates are a part of everyday life in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, India, and Afghanistan but countries like China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan don’t have similar open public discussions. Similarly, there are open debates on religion in US, Canada, India, and Australia but in Afghanistan, such debates are generally not encouraged.
8. How does one ensure they return safely from such projects?
Life has no guarantees anywhere in the world. So you do not do something just because it’s going to be hard since adversity is your greatest teacher. In order to return safely from such projects, one should take precautions and follow the strict security guidelines, procedures, and protocols in addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
One may not be able to go for a walk or exercise outside but there are several ways you can keep yourself healthy by following a healthy diet and exercising inside your assigned residential compound. It can also be good to share your feelings with friends, colleagues, or family members about any traumatic experiences you may have faced in such areas.
It is important to assimilate yourself into the local culture and pursue hobbies that help recharge you emotionally and physically. It can also help to keep a journal of your thoughts in case one is emotionally drained.
Overall, it is important to remember that working in the International Development sector is like running marathons where you go through different challenging phases but if you stay determined and focused, you shall see the finish line.
We thank Mr. Ankur for sharing his experience of being an aid worker in such dangerous countries, and it is a testament that he would put the life and wellbeing of others over his own safety. Perhaps we can all learn from this and emulate it in our own lives… after all, even small and random acts of kindness can change the world.
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