Throw Mud on the Wall

Last week I asked Mahabir the following question: “Years ago when Nangi clinic first started you told me your goal was to have foreign doctors staff the clinic six months out of the year. Are you still wanting to achieve this or has the TeleMedicine program and help from Kathmandu Model Hospital changed your plan?”  He replied: “If we find a doctor to stay in the village for sometime, that will be good. The idea has not changed.” Mahabir’s solution is simple; just find someone, anyone to provide care. He does not care to discuss the difficulties associated with foreign medical volunteers as discussed in the previous post. That is because he is a throw mud on the wall and sees what sticks kind of man.

Mahabir Pun displays his Magsaysay Award 2007.

There is something to be said for this style of entrepreneurship…a sort of put your head down and plow ahead grabbing success when it’s available and disregarding failure and it’s debris. Its basis seems to be hope and a belief that you will eventually succeed if you try hard and keep throwing mud. No one can argue that Mahabir has not been successful. He has connected hundreds of villages with his wireless project. He has received many awards, the most notable being: The Ashoka Foundation, the global association of recognized social entrepreneurs, elected him Ashoka Fellow in 2002 and in 2007 he received the Magsaysay Award, which is described as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. But this method has consequences and in this business some argue it works against him.

Because I’m a planner it’s been one of the most difficult interfaces I’ve had with Mahabir…his disregard for preparation, especially when it comes to financing projects. And I am not alone in those sentiments after interviewing dozens of people who have worked with him. He is notorious for forging ahead on projects without plans or funding. He is impatient and the process of planning, fundraising and precise execution of a project is not only his weakness but also his Achilles heel. It makes it near impossible to apply for grants, especially from top-notch organizations like the Gates Foundation, when you cannot show financial transparency or organizational long term plans. Yet, somehow it works…he has touched lives and changed their trajectory.

Have you ever volunteered for an organization and discovered it wasn’t what you thought it would be? Your experience doesn’t need to have been abroad because your local school, church or scout group can test your dedication. Share your experience in the comments section and help others understand the ups and downs you faced and how you dealt with those challenges. See you next week with some fun pictures of Nepal.

2 thoughts on “Throw Mud on the Wall

  1. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts so frankly, but that sounds quite harsh to me. Perhaps my own approach to things is closer to Mahabir’s! But I think he’s been very successful with his approach, and I guess no other approach would have worked as well in the circumstances. You talk of planning, “precise execution” and “financial transparency”, as if it wasn’t Nepal we are talking about =). Not long ago, I read about toothbrushes and a local solution to dental hygiene, and I think this might be a good parallel. Even if it’s less satisfying for western minds.

    That said, there’s an inevitable clash of cultures when foreign people are involved (as they need to be, for now). There’s certainly lots to learn, for both sides. I’d like to say there’s more to learn for the Himanchal foundation, but then expecting western methods from 3rd world organizations hasn’t been very successful, has it?

    I know I’d have liked to hear more news from Nangi and Mahabir’s projects, but it seems nobody (and I have asked many others) will tell me about new developments while I’m far away. And I know I would have wanted to prepare better for what I ended up working with on my own trips. But I’ve felt very good about the support while I am in Nepal and being flexible while there. I’ve accepted this to be a part of the culture (and the circumstances, with the political instability and all). In any case that’s me speaking for myself, and I think Mahabir knows better than I do what’s necessary and productive.

  2. I have been on the board of directors of Friends of Nepal for over 10 years. FoN is a non-governmental organization comprised mostly of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Nepal. Over the past 15 years FoN has provided assistance on grass root development projects within the country. Our support comes from member donations.

    In 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, FoN selected Mahabir’s organization known as the Nepal Wireless Networking Project to partner with. From our membership FoN was able to raise $17,870 for the project. This was a small aid project for most organizations but a very big one for our small organization.

    As the sponsor of this project for FoN I worked with Mahabir throughout the year. While the FoN grant request application was no Gates Foundation equivalent, still I felt it was through in covering such areas as: project description, objectives of the project and expected outcomes, a narrative description of the project, timeline for project implementation, project budget, community involvement, and project evaluation information. I received Mahabir’s cooperation on completing all these topics.

    This project was completed on time to my satisfaction and amazement given the effort it had taken to complete.

    What I most came away with from this experience in working with Mahabir was a profound sense of his integrity and honesty. For example, FoN would send money we had raised throughout the year. Toward the end of the project we still had about $900.00 of the $17,870 to send to Mahabir for its completion. When I contacted him about what still remained to be accomplished I was quite surprised. Mahabir’s reply was that he had been able to strike some deals on equipment and work that had allowed him not to need the remaining $900.00. Now, how often does this happen anywhere in the world?

    It would be very sad for me to imagine that for whatever reason Mahabir and his organization could not qualify for a Gates Foundation type grant. From my limited experience, what Mahabir is doing seems to strike to the heart of what the Gates Foundation in particular has as its core focus. He actively engages communities that seek his help, requiring them to give money and physical effort to promote the project. He engages women as an essential component in any project. He follows up with training and support to the communities that receive assistance for as long as it takes them to become fully functional.

    Yes, I agree that Mahabir has a mud slinging mentality which has worked to his advantage in many ways thus far. I am in hopes that his approach can be augmented by a more robust effort at greater transparency and fiscal responsibility if that is what it takes to move forward.

    Debra, I applaud you for your support and efforts that may help Mahabir to refine his focus! I am looking forward to visiting with Mahabir this March in Nepal and to the opportunity of trekking through some of the village communities that FoN and his organization have been involved with.

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