Reach Out and Reach In

I first met Rinchin Gaekwad when we were 12, in the middle of a hide-and-seek game. My father was commanding a missile unit in Jodhpur (Rajasthan) back in 2005 and her father a Mig-27 squadron. Competitive, energetic and sassy, Rinchin was an excellent badminton player, with a lively interest in people’s affairs and a penchant for what the French call bon mots. At 27 today, Rinchin lives in London. She’s a Monitoring and Evaluation Manager for GSMA, a trade association which represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide. It also offers quite a few grants. For example, in 2018 it launched a fund to encourage innovative ways to promote rural connectivity in Ghana. Rinchin’s job is to provide support to development programmes that find technological solutions to global socioeconomic issues. She’s had a colourful career, going from a degree in computer science and international security to doing extensive relief work in countries in need of humanitarian aid.

In 2016, after a brief stint in Ukraine followed by a stint in Haiti, Rinchin suffered from a breakdown, which she later learned is known as burnout. We sat down last Sunday and talked about the acute PTSD she went through, her decision to switch from traditional relief work to tech-led solutions and a modern woman’s constant struggle to balance self-care with the demands of a high-pressure job.

In early 2020, she moved in with her partner to a new apartment to bunker down before the lockdown was announced in the U.K. She is safe and healthy and continues to be an active member of my women’s support group. She’s got strong views on governance, leadership and public welfare which is not surprising given her line of work. She’s also very friendly, putting people instantly at ease. When she talks about herself she does so artfully, without monopolising the conversation or making you feel inadequate which a lot of adventurers tend to do. In fact, sometimes she might even come off as self-effacing and I quickly pick up on the fact that she’s very grounded because of the way her parents brought her up.

Let’s start with what an amazing journey you’ve had so far. You’ve been to Haiti, Iraq, Turkey, Ukraine, France, Africa and now you’re in the U.K. For someone who’s never been abroad, tell me about some of the most exotic sights you’ve seen.

Hmm I think most of the locations I went to were for my job, so it wasn’t as a tourist so much. I know there was a lot that I saw but um, let me think.

There’s a picture of you watching hot-air balloons rising up into the air. It’s breathtaking. Tell me about that?

Yes! OK. One was when I was in Northern Iraq. ISIS had taken over some of the cities including Mosul and I was in a base camp 60 km away from Mosul. One day my team mates took me out fishing to the Mosul river which strictly speaking wasn’t right. I definitely remember that because I knew that at the end of the river all these crazy things were happening so it wasn’t safe for us to go but the locals used to fish there. And then there was certainly the hot-air balloons. That was in Turkey. We were living in this hotel which was in a cave, where you could see the valleys around you and it was very beautiful. We went around to see ancient underground cities where entire civilisations used to thrive. The balloons were definitely one of those moments.

Are there any interesting things that you picked up from all these cultures?

Actually, one thing I learnt was to not give away my smiles too easily. You know how we Indians are so warm and effusive and open and I noticed that when I did that, people abroad would tend to look at me suspiciously. I don’t want to generalise an entire population based on this or offend anyone but- like in France I noticed that you’d just say ‘Bonjour’ but then you’d be expected to do your own thing after that and you couldn’t connect with anyone beyond that. And when we went out and if you offered to pay they would let you and then they’d go ahead and order even more extravagant stuff. (laughs) So at some point my partner and I decided it was not working out for us and we moved to the U.K and, yeah, I mean people in London are just so nice. Everyone’s so nice.

I know right? My Dad was there for a conference and he said the same. That’s why the whole Brexit thing was really shocking.

London actually voted to remain- so yeah that tells you how diverse and multicultural and welcoming this city is.

You got a bachelor’s degree in computer science and then a masters in international security. Was that a natural leap forward or was it unexpected when you made the decision to go into relief work?

I think it was a little bit of both. What was surprising was that there was this industry of relief work that I hadn’t known about before, like a sector with proper jobs and salaries. There’s a whole science behind humanitarian work you know. I wasn’t interested in computer science at all by the way, that just happened to be the easiest college for me to get into. My parents were more keen I do computers but it was three years of a lot of stress for me as an undergrad and I struggled a lot. I felt really stifled there and I performed very poorly in academics but what was amazing was that I got a lot of support from the faculty because I was building up my profile. Everyone knew that I was interested in international affairs and journalism. So I did internships with the U.N, I did youth forums, got financial aid from my college- so even though I was at the bottom of the merit list I got an all-rounder award for it!

Like Miss Congeniality. But it’s not easy pursuing your degree in something so dry and somewhere out of that getting all these internships and doing so much social work.

That’s what I tell people who ask me how I got into doing what I do- which is that you have to first try. I mean, are you applying to these organisations? Are you writing on current political or social issues? Are you going out there and talking to them about what you can do? It’s all about the hustle so for anyone wanting to get into humanitarian work you’ve got to put yourself out there and at least try. When I applied for a scholarship to the Dean at my college she called me to her office and told me she’d think about it and I ended up getting 35% financial aid. So you have to ask.

You come from a military background. You spend a lot of time away from home, from your family and friends. As a woman, it’s not easy to make such bold and empowered decisions in your career. How has your family supported you in becoming so independent?

I think till I was an undergrad my parents were quite conservative. They were playing it safe and they wanted job security for me. They did see me at my lowest though, when I was struggling with my degree or when I was barely passing. I’d call them up in the middle of the night in a flood of tears. So I think they realised I was really suffering. What I did to get over that was that I put in a lot of effort into what my next step was going to be. They saw how determined I was. I did all my research and when I put forward this proposal to them they were incredibly supportive. I’d gotten admission into the Paris School Of International Affairs and when it came to taking student loans or planning my itinerary or encouraging me to travel, my parents were there for me all the way. I’d done all my homework so they took me seriously because they knew I wasn’t slacking off, I was just trying to find my own passion.

Let’s talk about the Kyrgyz Republic. I wouldn’t be able to find it on a map even if you held a gun to my head. How did you end up doing an internship there and what was it about? Did you feel that a traditional approach to relief work wasn’t all that it seemed?

So I need to give you some background here. When I started doing my Masters, I remember we had this family discussion about the places that I would be visiting. My Dad’s always been great about it and so has my Mum but I remember her telling me that first your father didn’t let me sleep because he was a fighter pilot and now you won’t let me sleep. (laughs) Having said that, they’ve never stopped me from going anywhere. So Kyrgyzstan was a summer internship for an international NGO and they were ready to provide me accommodation but everything else I’d have to do for myself. It was a child nutrition programme and I got my first glimpse into what it means to work with affected communities. I learnt how to essentially see the policy that was being rolled out and whether it was actually helping those communities at the grassroots level. So that’s how it started. After a few years of doing that, I realised that I’d found my niche of course, but I wasn’t happy with the way things were being run.

I completely get that. I’ve worked with a of NGOs as well which claim to do a lot for you know, human rights or gender equality or whatever and then you go and work with them for a while and realise first of all, they’re playing their own politics. Second, they’re getting handsome salaries for sitting in their offices and drinking cutting chai. Third, the actual activism for victims is not really happening- because that’s just on paper. You’re just saying that but you’re not really helping anyone. So is this the point when you realised you wanted to go into the private sector?

It was definitely one of the factors that went into my decision. So humanitarian work is, in its simplest form, providing relief to a community which has been struck by a temporary disaster. However, if you look at scene now, you’ll notice that the concept of humanitarianism is completely different because the nature of conflicts has changed, they’re more complex and they last longer. So for example, if you take South Sudan, for generations the natives have become so dependent on handouts that they do not know how to work to earn.

They don’t know how to be independent anymore.

Exactly, because no one is going there and teaching them to be self-sufficient and even if they were, the people would not really get that. I mean, the whole point of humanitarian agencies has become giving handouts so why would the Sudanese want anything else? So that really shook me up. I’m not blaming any of the humanitarian agencies because conflicts are kept alive for personal reasons. Too many people are getting too much out it.

So you’re out there in the field but you’re also seeing the geopolitics playing out.

True! In fact this morning I was watching an interview of Rula Ghani, the Afghan Prime Minister Ashraf Ghani’s wife? And all these French journalists were being really patronising about why Afghanistan is in such a deplorable state despite the billions of dollars they’ve gotten in aid. And she gave this perfect breakdown of how international aid works. She said out of all that money, you’re also paying these big international contractors to do the actual work, they take 10-20% to pay the staff, another 20-30% goes in hiring security for the staff, then 10-20% to give R&R to the staff, so the actual amount of dollars reaching the people is like, peanuts. The modality and the timeline of how aid is disbursed is impractical, so I started becoming disillusioned with that whole model because you’re deciding what handouts to give to the people but you don’t know what each and every person actually needs. So people have no agency in that decision. That’s when I started to drift to the private sector. Now I work with a lot of local businesses that are sustainable and actually fulfil the community quota.

That’s really fascinating that the international press is asking those questions about Afghanistan, As if they don’t know that the United States was fighting this cold war/proxy war there. As if the Taliban is just folklore. It was all about USA’s agenda not Afghanistan’s agenda so no wonder they’re in that condition. So tell me about Ukraine. You were on a 6 month mission there. A lot happened there which took a tremendous toll on you. Why were you sent there and what was it like?

I went to Eastern Ukraine after Iraq. I was sent there to spearhead two major evaluations. One was a huge survey for about 2000 people for an inter-agency vulnerability assessment. I’m going to give you some context here: for every country that is getting humanitarian assistance, the UN will collaborate with international NGOs and UN agencies in that country to assess their needs and come up with a humanitarian needs overview and a humanitarian response plan- two very important documents. This is then sent to the sponsors so they can send the X amount that is needed to fund them. I was sent there to work with about 22 different partners and report on this assessment. There is also a part of Eastern Ukraine which was under the control of pro-Russia rebel groups and they were hoping to be annexed by Russia but that didn’t happen so now it had become no man’s land. It used to be the wealthiest area but their economy had fallen apart so I was remotely assessing that area as well. I had two bosses in six months and the workload would often fall on me. I would work sometimes 22 hours in a day and I wouldn’t keep track of my meals. I was basically the one who set up the base and kick-started the operation, found a place to stay at Sloviansk and travel constantly to our hubs of research. It was very strange because I could see the bullet holes from my apartment from when they’d had the war. I’d get lonely very often so most of the time I spent there would be with the locals.

So when did it all start to go crazy, because I know you ended up going to see a Doctor right?

(Takes a deep breath) Yeah, so I noticed that I was having some stomach issues um, as in I was bleeding. I went to Kiev and the Doctor told me that there’s some slight swelling and I should eat more fruits and vegetables and avoid meat. Then I had to get some routine tests done and I remember it was a sonogram and that’s when I noticed that the Doctor’s face had suddenly gone ashen. So I asked him what was wrong and he told me that my stomach was completely deformed.

What?!

Yeah, he said that my stomach, my pancreas and my liver were all deformed and that it was getting worse. I thought he’d say it’s probably because of malnutrition so I was ready to you know, take control of my diet if he said that. But what he actually said was that all my organs were showing extreme effects of stress.

This was all because of stress?

Yeah. Then he asked me what work do you do? (laughs) And when I told him he said to me “You have to consider a change of career”

Wow. That’s coming straight from a Doctor. I mean your job was technically a hazard now.

And he didn’t mean it lightly because for the next two years whenever I ate meat or cheese, I’d bleed a lot so it was a constant reminder that I might look fine and feel fine-

But your body was telling you you’re not fine.

Yeah, so I went back to work after that and I thought I’d be OK. By the end of the assignment, however, I was like, dead. I knew I was approaching burnout and my health had started to fail. In fact I had to undergo surgery for my wisdom tooth and my partner flew down to be with me during the whole time and that’s when I found out that there had been a hurricane in Haiti and my agency was sending a response team there and they needed someone who spoke basic French to head it. So that was really surreal. They asked me if I wanted to go and I was like, yeah, no thanks I’m good. I called up my Mum to tell her about it and I thought she’d agree but she wanted me to go and she said it was a great opportunity to do something really good. Luckily, I’d had some time with my partner and he and I had rested up a bit so finally I decided that I was going to go and Haiti turned out to be probably the most challenging experience of my life.

Was Haiti tough because of the magnitude of the devastation you saw and you hadn’t imagined what it was going to be like?

I think it was tough because- I felt I was up to it but my body clearly wasn’t. It was very perplexing because I didn’t feel traumatised but my body was. And just to give you an idea of what had really happened- in southeast Haiti, 99% of all shelters had been destroyed except for this one house which was half-standing that became our office.

Oh God. So you’re in for it the moment you get there.

We had literally rubble in the next room, and then one room where we set up our operations and the other room where we put down our mattresses and were living like refugees. To add to that, the scale of the operation itself was immense. People there had gone from having 2-3 meals per day to 0. There was nothing to eat. That hurricane was so monstrous that it had destroyed 100% of all their agriculture. Their granaries were flooded so they had nothing stocked up. There was no relief going to people. You couldn’t fish anymore because cholera was going around. And, all you had was some poultry so you could eat chicken but I’d already had this problem with meat so I basically ate nothing there. I survived on chocolates or nuts or bits like that. Eight of us were sharing one bathroom with hardly any rations. I’d do aerial surveys in the UN choppers with international donors from different nations who would report back to their governments. And they told me that this is all very sad but no one really gives a shit.

Oh lovely. I have to admire their honesty.

Yeah! They told me that point blank. It was heartbreaking to see these starving children running around in the streets. So we would go around handing out tins of tomato sauce and pasta. I remember once we went to this really remote location which was very desolate and suddenly people started peeking out from here and there and coming up to us and they were so thrilled to see us because we were the first team they’d met. So for three bloody weeks the Haitians hadn’t gotten any relief at all. I think they were eating grass to be honest.

After Haiti you realised you were suffering from a form of PTSD, basically burnout. Arianna Huffington described burnout as ‘collapsing from sleep deprivation and exhaustion into a bloody mess’. How did you first realise that something was off?

So when I came back from Haiti, I went home which was France at the time. And I started going through what I now know was a huge existential crisis. Because I’d gone from working on these really important missions to everyday life. From 20 hours a day at work to no job at all. I would go out and my brain would be so fuzzy and I couldn’t cope with how everyone was so normal. Like I’d step out of my house and see all these people having a good time and I’d think don’t they all know what’s happening out there in the world? I couldn’t adjust to my old life. Everything was just upside down.

Did you have to learn how to do self-care after going through all that?

Yeah, I mean I started with a very honest and open conversation with my partner about everything that had happened. To have a loved one with you who listens to you and understands you is just so amazing. I started focusing on nutrition and working out and I decided to take a break for the next three months because I had this long list of things that I wanted to do but had never gotten around to doing. So I started sleeping in a bit and my partner was always with me and I could stay in touch with my work and be updated and I could take walks whenever I wanted. I caught up with my family and friends. And being in the comfort of my home and getting the time to reflect on the last few months was such a blessing. It took a while, but I started to go back to normal. I did some consultation work for the next two years and got a lot of interesting assignments but even there I started to go a little nuts because I’d still somehow, get overworked.

Is it fair to say that you are a workaholic?

(Pauses) Um. Yes. (Chuckles) I love what I do.

Tell me about the work you do with GSMA.

The GSMA has a foundation wing under which there is a department called mobile for development. It was started about a decade ago and it aims to leverage the power of mobile to bring socioeconomic benefits to people and economies in the emerging markets. So from using mobile as a medium to using mobile money for integration. Whatever it takes to use mobiles as a way of achieving the sustainable development goals of the UN. It can even mean using assets of mobile operators like towers and sensors to derive benefits for communities. So I support six or seven programmes which are for tech-led development but with a focus on gender. I support teams that work with mobile operators that roll out strategies to include more women in their user base to reduce the gender-gap. Another one is to provide access to mobile connectivity in last mile communities. What I’m very passionate about is giving grants and funds to innovators who are working for development. Recently I worked with two grantees, they’re a group of Doctors in West Africa that are working on creating a health ID for citizens to store all their medical records so that health practitioners can access them in life or death situations. And the patients have agency to choose if a Doctor can see your HIV status or your mental health history. I work a lot with innovators to help them map out not only their programmes but also how the target demographic is going to respond to that. How easy do the people find it to use that technology and does it really help them. Then there’s one programme for environment-friendly or clean tech. And one for assistance tech which is for people with disability. So now I’m quite happy with my job because I’m being exposed to these cutting-edge techniques that actually benefit people.

You just came back from a trip to Benin. What is your happy place?

My happy place is being on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, with my partner, sunbathing, getting my meals and just jumping into the Sea whenever I fancy. I’ve done this once and I think it’s going to become my annual retreat.

[NOTE:If you liked Rinchin’s story, take a moment to visit Goonj, a Non-Profit Organisation that is doing relief work in India during the COVID-19 pandemic and donate if you can.]