India activist seeks Israeli ‘volunteer technology’

The best way to help people is to help them help themselves, says Joshua Victor — and that’s something Israel is very good at doing

Joshua Victor (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Joshua Victor (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel has a great deal of high-tech, agricultural technology, and environmental innovations it can help India with. But according to Joshua Victor, a social worker and activist, it has something else that can be just as important to the world’s second most populous country: A network of volunteer organizations and programs that is a model for the rest of the world.

That system of voluntarism — embodied by organizations like the Jewish Agency, which marshals volunteers for dozens of programs inside and outside Israel, or the Joint Distribution Committee, which runs many volunteer-based programs for populations in need — could be crucial to India as it struggles to lift its population out of poverty.

“Most of the initiatives between Israel and India are on the governmental level, and in India that means that only the better-connected entities will benefit,” Joshua told the Times of Israel on the sidelines of a special summit on Israel-Asia business relations. “The people who need the most help, the rural farmers, are the least likely to get it.”

It has nothing to do with corruption or preferential treatment for a certain group, said Victor. In a big country like India, there’s only so much the government can do — especially in the countryside, where communications and infrastructure are shaky at best, and poverty is rife. Corporations aren’t likely to “volunteer” to help out either, because there’s little money to be made. Meanwhile, rural farmers are left to deal with their pressing problems — lack of potable water, difficulties in fighting pests, and so on — alone.

It’s a pattern that is endemic not only to farmers, but throughout India’s large underclass, said Joshua. “For example, many kids drop out of school because they have a very hard time with math. There’s no one to give them help, and their families could use an extra working hand. Without someone to help get them over the hump, these kids will not continue with school, ensuring that they perpetuate the cycle of poverty.”

Voluntarism is the answer – and Israel has the “volunteer technology” India needs to bootstrap itself out of poverty. “What we need is people to train our workers in techniques that will help the poor, such as agricultural techniques, and help those workers to learn how to train and organize volunteers. Israel does this very well, and if India could learn how to do it well too, I think we would go a long way to solving some of our toughest problems.”

To that end, Joshua has set up the India-Israel Initiative, a group he hopes will further his vision of Israeli volunteers helping Indian activists and educators. Joshua is interested in assembling volunteer groups in a wide variety of areas — agricultural technology, informal education, micro-finance, youth at risk, geriatric care, and more — to visit India for hands-on work, but there is also a role for Israelis to help out over the Internet; for example, answering questions and giving guidance to groups in India during a weekly hour-long Skype session.

“It would be sort of an Israeli Peace Corps, with Israel sharing its advanced technology and skills with a population that really needs the help,” said Victor, a student at Tel Aviv University who is a member of a program called the Israel-Asia Fellowship, providing Asian students who are enrolled in degree programs in Israel and show potential to be leaders in their fields in the future  with an 8-month leadership program, helping them build high-level professional partnerships with Israel in their chosen fields.

Victor said he got the idea from his own experiences as a kibbutz volunteer. “I was on Kibbutz Baram for a few months, and I saw how the volunteer effort for youths and adults was organized. It was very impressive, and I felt this was what my country needed.”

Israeli volunteers training Indian volunteers to work with Indians is the way to go, said Victor. “Any technology needs to be adapted to the local environment, and the people who know that environment best are the people who live there. In this case, the technology and knowledge Israel shares would be easily adaptable to the needs of India’s poor, and they will only benefit if we can strengthen this program.”

The Initiative started at the beginning of the year, and Victor is busy building up a network of organizations in Israel that he hopes to include in the program. One organization that already helps out in India is a group called The Israel Social Model, which seeks to replicate Israeli programs in the rest of the world. The group facilitates export of those models — for example, its site lists a project promoted by the JDC of a youth village in Uganda, based on the model of an Israeli Youth village.

For Victor, a program like this is a natural. “Israel and India have much in common,” he said. “We achieved independence the same year, from the same colonial masters, and we have common problems on our borders, the implacable enemies that seek our mutual destruction. We have the same basic cultural features as well. There is every reason in the world for our countries to work together.”

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