Understanding community development work

In the first half of my placement, I wrote about the struggle to incorporate case work experience into social work practice in India. Now that I understand more about the nature of community development work, I can look at social work practice in terms of working with the community, at the pace of the community.

I’ve also recognised that whilst I practice from the dominant Western ideology of individualism, the NGOs I am placed with work from a collective, interdependent community development perspective. This collective view doesn’t see individuals as separate, but as part of a larger group such as an extended family, village or tribe. This larger group has shared values, experiences and needs. Shifting my focus from individual needs to community needs, has been a really critical point in my learning and it’s literally taken me the last 9 weeks to get my head around this concept!

The last NGO we were placed with works with tribal communities in India to increase their awareness of legislation and government schemes, and to empower communities to access land rights. It’s been really inspiring to see this bottom-up approach to community development work, and I have learnt so much from my task supervisor. He is an incredibly hard-working, humble man.

When I was having one of my lowest moments on placement he said ‘don’t stop your tears…we’re all human’. And he just let me sit there and have a good cry. Actually it was an ‘ugly cry’, but after many mixed interactions with Indian men here, I really cherished this moment where he validated my feelings. It also highlighted what social work is all about for me – the human connection. So much of Australian (and probably Western) social work is administrative and that it’s easy to lose focus on the human side of it all.

Over the last month, I’ve been working on a photo essay to share some of the work of this NGO and the tribal communities we’ve been visiting. But after a conversation I had this week, I’ve been rethinking this. A project officer visiting from an overseas NGO told us that we need to be careful about the information we share online when working with tribal communities in India. She told us that her NGO was named in an Indian Government Intelligence report, and as a Christian organisation, the perception is that they are engaging in missionary work or religious conversion.

Although this is not the case, our task supervisor who told us that many people within the government perceive that NGOs working with tribal communities are involved in the ‘destruction of livelihoods’. I could appreciate this concern more if the Indian government was considering the broader context of colonialism, however it’s pretty ironic when you consider the level of corruption within the government and their failure to implement legislation.

Or the way they grant mining leases to their family members in blatant disregard for the people living on the land. But that’s probably all I’ll say about that here because I don’t want to be named in an Indian Government Intelligence report!?

Despite differences in the historical, legal, sociopolitical and cultural contexts between Australia and India, there are significant parallels between the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of Australia and tribal communities of India, to exercise their human right to self-determination and access land entitlements.

Spending the last month researching and learning the policy frameworks for land rights in India has really highlighted the huge gap in my knowledge when it comes to Indigenous land rights and issues in Australia, and this is an area I want to learn more about.


My social work placement in India is being completed with the support of a grant from the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation

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