Interview: Nisha Agrawal, CEO, Oxfam India
Chitra, 26 Feb 2015

Oxfam India’s disaster team played a major role in rehabilitating flood victims in Kashmir

Oxfam first came to India in 1951 to provide relief to victims of famine in Bihar. Today, Oxfam India, which was established in 2008, focuses on development and disaster relief in their seven focus states, and beyond.  Nisha Agrawal, a seasoned professional from the development sector, and Oxfam India’s CEO since inception, talks to Merril Diniz about the organization’s impact, and what the development sector seeks in freshers, today.


Q. What kind of work does Oxfam do in India?

A. We try and support communities where they want to bring about change. It could be in the form of one leader or an NGO. We look at the quality of work they do, and if they are authentic we support them through funds, scholarships and training. In places like Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Assam, where there is conflict, we help start small NGOs and set up offices to know what is going on.


Q. Oxfam India has responded to over 10 disasters. What does it  entail?

A. We prepare communities to face disasters like floods every year. If they can store a bit of the grain, teach children to swim, have an early warning system like sending a text message to everyone,  this can save lives. When disaster strikes, we try and reach within the first 48 hours, as lives are lost in that timeframe. In the early period we focus on everything – food, livelihood and shelter. However, organizations specialize in different things, and we have chosen water and sanitation. If you don’t get clean drinking water, a lot of disease is going to spread, and same thing with sanitation. So, we build toilets, bathing toilets and clean all the water pumps.

Nisha-Agrawal"It is very important to treat the poor with respect and dignity. We don’t want professionals thinking that we are somehow better"


"We prefer freshers who have worked at the community level to gain that knowledge of what is really happening at the grassroot level'

Q. How did Oxfam help in Kashmir?

A. First, we cleaned up water filter systems of major hospitals in Srinagar, we cleaned water tanks,  and provided buckets, water cleaning tablets, food, and basic shelter like tarpaulin for people stranded on the roadside. We gave them cash to buy food and other things, which helped the local economy get going. Local Kashmiris came forward in fantastic ways. We also mobilized corporate sector support. Ultimately, a disaster knows no rich nor poor. So, Kashmir is an inspiring story of how NGOs partnered with local communities, and mobilized others to help people.


Q. Your disaster relief team must have courage! Tell us about them.

A. Disaster is a matter of life and death, and very different from the development side, which is a slow process. Disaster professionals need a special quality; they want to take the risk of going into that environment, and satisfaction for them, is pulling a drowning woman to safety. You must be disciplined and move fast, you may not be able to sleep for 48 hours at a stretch, you will eat the same food distributed to poor people, and you may not see your family for months. These professionals are amazing! At Oxfam India, we have a solid, core team of 20 for each disaster, and contract in about 100 people from the community, including experts, based on funding and the work. 


Q. Your upcoming focus areas...

A. We want to build our capacity in research,  a weakness of the sector - to document what is working, not working, and the  best practices in India and globally. We want to be able to take to policy-makers well-documented research, and share papers across states. Another goal is talking to young people.  You can have the best laws, but you have to shape attitudes for a change in behaviour.


Q. Are any of Oxfam India’s best practices used globally?

A. We transfer best practices from one state to another. For instance, in Gujarat we had counselling centres within police stations, and this reduced the pressure on judiciary and police by 90%. So, government scaled it up and made centres everywhere. Our health partner in Chhattisgarh is on the government’s universal health committee. Our campaign “We Can End All Violence Against Women”, which was successful in India, went to South Asia,  then Canada, The Netherlands and other countries.


Q. Does Oxfam have programmes to expose young people to the sector?

A. Our event Trailwalker has young people from the corporate world walk for 100 hours and raise funds for us. They walk through forests, where they see poor tribal communities, and stop every 10 kilometres where there usually is a school, and volunteer to teach the kids, paint the school, etc. Prava, a very good NGO takes young people through a year-long process to develop themselves and that element of active citizenship, making them aware of whether they should go into the social sector, or do it on the side. Active citizenship is important no matter where you are.


Q. Does the development sector need unique skills?

A. Skill sets are the same, and marketable in all sectors. But commitment to a cause makes it different. Everybody is born with the same rights, given to us by our constitution. I am only helping people realize their rights. So, it is very important to treat the poor with respect and dignity. We don’t want professionals thinking that we are somehow better.


Q. What is your advice to freshers? 

A. We prefer those who have worked at the community level to gain knowledge of what is really happening at the grassroot level. If they can combine that with academic knowledge, writing skills, advocacy skills and do a bit of research, they can just easily walk into a meeting with the government, and be in a position to communicate what’s  happening on the ground.


Q. Any stories that inspired you?

A. A young doctor from Delhi did not join a hospital and make a lot of money. He drove all the way to a remote tribal community in Chhattisgarh, noticed they had no one to help them, and set up a hospital! Hundreds of tribals come every day because there is no government service for miles . He and his wife, both doctors have been there for thirty years, and they are our health partners in Chhattisgarh. And most importantly, they work non-stop. 


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