Washington South Asia Report

Vol. XXVI, Number 2
Spring / Summer 2010

Report on Development, Diaspora and the Next Generation Workshop: Mapping, Learning and Building South Asian Community
by Anna Cohen

On 15 May 2010, with the generous support of Microsoft, the South Asia Center hosted the workshop, “Development, Diaspora and the Next Generation: Mapping, Learning and Building South Asian Community.” Representatives from over twenty organizations who do development work in South Asia or in the South Asian diaspora were in attendance at the workshop and posters of ongoing development work by area organizations were displayed. Over seventy people from the community participated in the workshop including students and faculty from the University of Washington.

The workshop was part of the broader Development and Diaspora project, a recent initiative that seeks to facilitate discussions between the Seattle South Asian development and diaspora communities and the University of Washington. The Development and Diaspora project addresses the dearth of regional forums for reflecting on and analyzing how and why development has become such a defining aspect of South Asian diasporic culture. It recognizes that Seattle is home to an amazing number of organizations and people engaged in development work in South Asia and many development institutions which are staffed by people of South Asian origin. These activities take place along multiple scales, from the vast global networks of the Gates Foundation to smaller grassroots non-profits such as Sangati.

The Development and Diaspora project was created as a way for people to systematically exchange and learn from each other’s South Asian development experiences, and to ultimately integrate academic, activist and policy development work on the subcontinent. Over the past year, a directory of organizations that are based in the Seattle area and that work in South Asia was created in order to showcase ongoing projects. This directory is available at: www.uwsouthasiadev.org.

The workshop began with a brief introduction to the project and its goals by Prof. Priti Ramamurthy, Director, South Asia Center, University of Washington. Prof. Anand Yang, Director, Jackson School of International Studies, welcomed participants and expressed his enthusiasm at the opportunity to reflect on personal stories and long histories of diasporic circulation by South Asians. First Generations panel: (from left) Shantha Benegal, Mujtaba Hamid, Rao Remala, and Pran WahiDr. Akhtar Badhshah, Senior Director of Community Affairs, Microsoft, shared the unique role of Microsoft employees in starting over 150 foundations, and his hopes that the workshop would nurture this spirit of giving back to the wider community and that exciting new ideas would emerge from the new generation and new initiatives that scale up and grow fast.

In the first of the four panels at the workshop, there was a focus on the experiences of the first generation of South Asians engaged in development work in Seattle. Panelists included Shantha Benegal, a volunteer with People for Progress in India since the 1970s, Mujtaba Hamid, a local leader with The Citizens Foundation (TCF), Rao Remala, founder of the Satya and Rao Remala Foundation, and Pran Wahi, founder of People for Progress in India. Christian Novetzke (JSIS) moderated the discussion and encouraged panelists to consider their role in the development community and how development work has shaped their identities. The main changes over the past thirty years are (i) the move from responses to calamities to long term engagements in development (ii) from funding based on a few, mostly personal connections to a huge number of professionally managed NGOs (iii) a transformation from development activities to claiming development as a right of citizens. “Giving back” and “helping” in India/Pakistan and the U.S.A were strong discourses which emerged from First Generation panelists.

The second panel consisted of faculty and student presentations showcasing the research that Seattle area universities are conducting in South Asia. Charmi Ajmera, a UW International Studies Major, presented her proposed Honors thesis research on the construction of the Bangalore Metro. Anjali Desai, also an International Studies Major, discussed her role as part of the South Asian diaspora from Zambia, and her recent work on rural health with the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (CHIRAG). Microbiology Major Vania Wang discussed her work in Uttarakhand with CHIRAG and her future aspirations to work on health in the development world after graduation. Desai and Wang both did their work while on the South Asia Center sponsored Environment and Development in the Indian Himalaya study abroad program. Pratistha Kansakar, a Nepali engineering student from Seattle Central Community College, commented on the poor state of health care and insurance in Nepal. By partnering with a Seattle-based NGO, Living Earth Institute, Pratistha is working to address this issue both in Kathmandu and in rural areas. Prof. Pradip Rathod, Professor of Chemistry and Adjunct Professor of Global Health, presented his cutting-edge research on malaria and treatment resistance and prevention initiatives in India. Finally, Prof. Vikram Prakash, Professor of Architecture and Adjunct Professor of Landscape Architecture, presented the work that he and his students did on city planning and its futures in Chandigarh as part of the program abroad that he led in 2009.


The third panel incorporated people from the Next Generation of the South Asian development community. Moderator Amy Bhatt (Women Studies) brought together panelists from diverse backgrounds in order to discuss how working in development has shaped their identities as South Asian Americans and what they view as their roles in the future of development work. Panelist Aseem Badshah, a Business Administration Major who has volunteered in India since the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, reflected on how he has come to combine his interests with community work: he runs a self-supporting web site which connects students in India and the U.S. Aseem pointed out that his role in development work is guided by a sense of opportunity and mutual responsibility to his fellow South Asians. Semonti Hossain, a UW Neurobiology Major, reflected upon her recent experiences volunteering with Family Health International in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Though Semonti is Bangladeshi-American, her work with the gay community in Dhaka was a new experience for her and brought up conflicting issues with her family and the broader norms of Bangladeshi society. Sarah Rizvi, a Chaya Community Advocate, and Sahar Romani, founder of creative writing NGO Kalam and Co-Director of the Seattle Young People’s Project, discussed how their South Asian American families have encouraged a strong sense of responsibility but have only recently begun to accept their hands-on activist development work. Sahar highlighted how founding Kalam: Margins Write, a creative writing program for Kolkata youth has helped her family to understand how creativity is important for everyone and not just for the impoverished. First Generation parents expectations of what careers their children should pursue was one issue voiced. The Next Generation also were motivated by opportunity and responsibility as South Asian Americans more than philanthropy.

The final panel, Future Directions in South Asian Development, included some of the leading members of the South Asian community who are working at multiple scales of development in South Asia. Moderator Sunila Kale (JSIS) asked panelists to discuss the lessons they have learned through their projects and what they view as the future of development work in South Asia. Digvijay Chauhan, Co-Founder of SeeYourImpact, a micro-loan organization, maintained that donors want to see the direct impacts of their financial contributions. As a donor himself, Mr. Chauhan sympathizes with this view and now advocates the power of one through online donations and micro-loan nonprofits such as SeeYourImpact. Moreover, he views transparency and the ability to directly observe the results of donations to be the future of South Asian development. Raghav Kaushik, Co-Founder of the grassroots non-profit, Sangati, explained how he seeks to deepen engagement on an issue before funding a project. As an activist with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, Dr. Kaushik also maintained that it is important to be clear on your politics before you engage in any sort of development work. Speaking from experience on a broader scale of development work, Dr. Prabhu Pingali, Deputy Director of Agricultural Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, highlighted India’s importance in the goals of his foundation. While recent focus has concerned health education programs, the Gates Foundation has also increased its work in the agricultural realm and is working to improve women’s landholder rights. Dr. Pingali views women’s rights, malnutrition and smallholder access to burgeoning markets as the major issues in Indian development today.

The workshop concluded by asking participants what they would like to see in future dialogues the development and diaspora community and with the University of Washington. Everyone agreed that the workshop was a productive and positive experience and that the community and South Asia Center should continue to work together on the Development and Diaspora project. There was discussion of establishing an exchange between UW students and organizations so that students can study and volunteer on the subcontinent. Jolkona, an organization that partners with South Asian NGOs, was particularly interested to implement a regular exchange program with the Jackson School. Another suggestion concerned sharing the ongoing research of faculty members at the university so development organizations could use the research to further their causes. This led to a discussion of research funding for students and how financial contributions from the community can facilitate such a collaborative process. Participants also expressed interest in new communications venues, such as online discussion boards for this entire group of smaller subsets of these organizations. Participants indicated that they had made new connections which will be of great use to them in future work, and expressed a desire to expand these connections through similar activities in the future. Overall, there was hope that the Development and Diaspora project will continue to bring together South Asians from multiple generations and that it will continue to enable dialogues for sharing expertise on development both in South Asia and within the diaspora.

Anna Cohen is a PhD student in Anthropology. She can be reached at cohenas@uw.edu.

Return to South Asia Report Spring 2010

South Asia Center
University of Washington
303 Thomson Hall
Box 353650
Seattle, WA 98195
(206) 543-4800 phone
(206) 685-0668 fax

Anand Yang, Director

Keith Snodgrass, Associate Director

Molly Wilskie-Kala, Program Coordinator

Nick Gottschall, Graduate Student Assistant

Robyn Davis, FLAS Coordinator

Sunila Kale, Graduate Program Coordinator